Video Games, Virtual Reality, and Spiritual Reality

Palestinian children playing computer games

Palestinian children playing computer games

Video games are in the news again in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. As explored in a recent piece on WBUR radio titled, “My Son, The Dragon Slayer: The Risks And Rewards Of Growing Up Gaming,” the debate over positive vs. negative effects of video games on children and adults rages on.

As I said in my previous two-part article, “What Does the Bible Say about Video Games? Part 1 and Part 2,  I believe there is more depth to video gaming than meets the eye.

In fact, I’m going to put it right out there:

I believe that video games are a reflection of spiritual reality.

Virtual reality defies physical reality

No, video games are not exactly what we will experience after we die. But they are a product of the human mind. And as I said in my recent article, “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?” the human mind, with all of its loves, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and motives, exists on the spiritual level of reality.

Of course, everything we humans make is a product of the human mind. However, when we make material objects such as cars, buildings, books, and clothing, they are subject to the material universe’s laws of physics.

The human mind itself is not bound by the laws of physics. We can imagine and contemplate things that we can’t reproduce physically. The laws of the material universe simply wouldn’t allow it. For example, we can easily imagine a whole forest of trees floating in the clouds. But if we tried to reproduce it in real life, they would all come crashing to the earth.

Video games and other virtual realities free us from the limitations of physical matter. They allow our minds to create almost any reality we can imagine. We can then immerse ourselves in that reality and experience it, subject only to the limitations of our current electronics technology.

Future video games may offer us a fully lifelike immersion in virtual realities, similar to the holodeck in the popular Star Trek science fiction series. But with a little help from our imagination, even today’s gaming technology can give us quite a realistic experience.

In other words, video games are a highly popular example of worlds of pure thought projected for our minds to enjoy, free from most of the limitations that the physical world imposes.

That’s why video games and other virtual realities are more like spiritual reality than they are like physical reality.

Physical death, virtual death, spiritual death . . . and rebirth

I mentioned forests of trees in the sky. That’s something virtual reality can do with no problems—but physical reality . . . not so much!

Let’s take another much more common example from video games.

When your character dies in a video game, it’s not necessarily “game over.” Yes, sometimes you get only one life per game. But then you just start a new game with a new life. Many games give you several lives before you actually “die” and have to start over. And in other games, you can die as many times as you want and just pick up where you left off, often with only minor penalties.

That’s nothing like physical reality. If you die in physical reality, you’re dead. You don’t get any do-overs.

But it’s a lot like spiritual reality.

In our spiritual life, we go through cycles of life and death all the time. When one phase of our life ends, another one begins. When one relationship dies, other relationships take its place. When our old ways of thinking and feeling stop working, we adopt new ways of thinking and feeling, and move on with our lives.

This is the cycle of spiritual death and rebirth that is presented in the world’s most ancient and revered spiritual texts, such as the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Rigveda. These ancient texts speak of people going through many cycles of death and rebirth. I believe they are speaking, not of physical reincarnation, but of the many cycles of spiritual death and rebirth that we go through during our lifelong journey of spiritual growth and development here on earth. (For more on this, see “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation“)

As we grow and mature physically and emotionally, we continually experience the death of old versions of ourselves that we have outgrown, and the birth of new versions of ourselves that take their place. Yes, there is always some continuity from one to the next. We’re still the same person. And yet, we can become a whole new person even while we carry the memories of our old self with us.

Getting a new life every time we die in a video game completely violates the physical laws of biology. But it is in perfect harmony with spiritual laws that provide for repeated cycles of the death of our old self and the rebirth of our new self.

This is one of the many ways that video games are more like spiritual reality than they are like material reality.

The many realms of video games

The various religions of the world commonly view the spiritual world as consisting of realms of light and realms of darkness. Christianity speaks of heaven and hell, often adding an intermediate state where the two meet and mix.

Classic fictional literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in three parts, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, depict these spiritual realms and their interaction with human society on earth.

Heaven and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), contains the most detailed non-fiction account of heaven, hell, and the intermediate mixed realm that he calls “the world of spirits.” This intermediate realm is where people first arrive after they die, and live temporarily until they are prepared and ready to move on to their final home either in heaven or in hell.

What does this have to do with video games?

Not surprisingly, as products of the human mind and spirit, video games cover the same broad range of human spiritual experience. Those who have experienced the spiritual world often report that reality there is not fixed and static as it is in the material world, but that the spiritual environments we find ourselves in dynamically reflect our particular character and state of mind. Video games have this same quality of immersing us in environments that fit with our character, interests, and mood, and dynamically adapting themselves to our changing interests and inclinations.

Man and woman playing video games together

A couple enjoys video gaming together

Some video games are quite heavenly. They offer good, clean fun, with little or nothing to object to. Examples are the Sims series and all of its variations, Animal Crossing, and the many popular sports and racing games—not to mention a whole host of educational and puzzle type games. The hugely popular Minecraft dwells largely in realms of light, with only a few relatively minor tinges of the dark and scary.

Some video games are a mix of good and evil. Various massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs), such as Runescape, World of Warcraft, and Maplestory, as well as single-player games such as Skyrim, fit into this category. These games offer both peaceful and constructive activities such as mining, farming, fishing, and cooking, and opportunities for violent combat with other players or with increasingly evil and demonic creatures. Games of this type cover the whole gamut from good to evil, mixing the two together in the same game.

Then there are games that plunge their players into dark, dangerous, and often very scary scenes of war, carnage, and horror. Sometimes these games require players to engage in highly immoral virtual behavior. To excel at Grand Theft Auto, for example, players must check their morals and ethics at the door, and become violent, thieving hoodlums. There are many graphic combat and shooter games such as Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty, and Halo. And in the realms of demons and horror there are such games as Resident Evil, Dead Space, and Slender.

Media attention often focuses on the more dark and violent video games. But the reality is that the virtual realms of video games reflect the full spectrum of the human spirit and the spiritual realms, from the light and warmth of heaven through the mixed bag of the intermediate spiritual realm to the darkness, evil, and horror of the hellish underworld.

Yes, the realms of light and darkness, love and violence are also reflected in the physical world of nature and of human society. However, the virtual universe of video games offers an especially vivid and varied representation of the many spiritual realms and atmospheres that we humans inhabit in our minds and hearts. These video games are often close approximations of the pictures of the afterlife painted for us by the many religions of the world, and by those who have experienced the spiritual world first-hand.

The reality of virtual reality

A common charge made against video games and video gamers is that it is all a fantasy world . . . that people who play video games are running away from reality.

But from a spiritual perspective, in some ways video games are actually more real than this physical world in which we live. As the classic rock group The Police said in their song of the same title, “We are spirits in the material world.”

Though we do live in the material world, we experience that world not directly, but in our minds and spirits. Video games bypass the material world almost entirely, and exist in realms of pure thinking, feeling, and acting. They inhabit the inner mental and spiritual realms where we actually experience the reality of our lives.

Does this mean that we’d be better off ignoring the material world altogether and spending our entire lives embedded in virtual reality?

Not at all. God gave us physical bodies and put us in this material world for a reason. We have work to do here. We must engage in the physical, practical levels of reality as long as we are living here on earth. What we do in the material world lays the foundation for our eternal, spiritual life.

Meanwhile, video games offer us a rich and lively taste of many inner realms—good, evil, and mixed—while we are still living in the physical world.

Kathleen "Kit" Connell playing Nintendo at age 100 to keep her mind active

Kathleen “Kit” Connell playing Nintendo at age 100

When we have finished our daily work and completed our physical tasks, the universe of video games awaits us. Through these human-created virtual realms, we can enter both the higher and the lower levels of the human mind and spirit. We can immerse ourselves in many different virtual environments that both reflect and help to prepare us for the many and varied spiritual environments where, once our life’s labors on earth are complete, we will live to eternity.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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6 comments on “Video Games, Virtual Reality, and Spiritual Reality
  1. Brian says:

    Thank you for your insights on this subject. I am 41 years old and still an avid gamer. I enjoy a wide spectrum of titles, both family friendly (and some not so much). Many religious and media outlets do try to demonize games. I appreciate the sound perspective you give here.

    I just stumbled upon your site and have already enjoyed many of your blogs. I was baptized in a Swedenborgian church as a child and have recently found a stronger interest in spiritual things as of late. I’ve subscribed and look forward to more in the future.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad the article is helpful to you!

      As I say in this and my other two-part article on video games, like other recreational activities, I see nothing wrong with enjoying video games as long as it’s kept in balance with our daily responsibilities and the rest of our life. Relaxation and recreation is good for the mind and body! As the old saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

      Thanks for following the blog. I hope you’ll find it helpful as you re-enter the spiritual arena.

  2. Mike says:

    Doesn’t the bible say stay away from all forms of evil or something? Would doing magic or murdering some one in a game count as a form of evil?(Or was it appearances of evil)

    • Lee says:

      Hi Mike,

      The Bible is a complex book. It does say we should avoid doing, or even intending to do, evil things. And in general, yes, it says we should avoid evil. But that’s clearly not meant to be taken too literally and mechanically, since, as you pointed out in a comment on a different post, the Bible itself contains many evil things, such as rape, murder, and even genocide. Does that mean we should avoid reading the Bible? I don’t think so!

      Our life here on earth is a mixture of good and evil. We have to deal with both, and the Bible deals with both. The Bible is actually much more pragmatic about dealing with evil than many Christians are. Many Christians have unrealistic notions about how we can become instantly pure and clean, and never sin again, if we just believe in Jesus. But there’s no real support for that idea in the Bible. The Bible recognizes that we are all fallen and flawed human beings, that none of us is perfect, and that we will be dealing with evil, both within ourselves and in the word around us, as long as we continue living here on this earth.

      So basically, yes, we are to avoid and move away from all forms of evil. But that is a lifelong process, and it involves confronting and dealing with evil along the way. And as I say in this and the other two articles here about video games, facing and battling evil in the virtual reality of video games is one of the ways we do that.

      • Mike says:

        I personally think its fine unless you’re actually intending for a real person to die. It doesn’t really matter if its a fake person, because no actual evil is intended. Like you may intend to do a magic spell in a game, but you know it isn’t real, and that it’s not going to do anything in real life. I think when the bible said avoid all evil or whatever the exact quote was, it was talking about doing real life evil, not doing it in a video game, because when you do it in a game it isn’t actually harming any one.

        • Lee says:

          I agree. As I said in one of the articles about video games here, the human mind is quite capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Though there are a few sociopaths who will then go out and kill people in real life, that’s not caused by the video game, but by their own sociopathic tendencies. The overwhelming bulk of people playing video games have a great time shooting ’em up in the video game, and then go out and live generally decent and thoughtful lives in the real world. Video games are fantasy, not reality.

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