11/11/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Religious Ritual of Call of Duty

The story is not new--an alternative timeline where the U.S. is at war with a militarily sophisticated enemy. But Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts, released this week, have been two of the most hotly anticipated video game titles of the year.

These games are just latest first-person shooters in a long historical line of games that began with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and Doom in 1993. The genre has been hot ever since those two games were released and as a video game genre, first-person shooters have shown remarkable staying power. Fighting games boomed in the early 1990s, then fizzled. Turn-based role-playing games boomed in the late 1990s and then fizzled. Other genres have almost disappeared . Galaga-esque "fixed shooter" games have largely been exiled to mobile phones. That's not to say that fighting games and turn-based role-playing games aren't still released (and individual games can still attract a lot of attention) but the genre's don't rule the marketplace like they once did. Not like first-person shooters still do.

What's the attraction?

Rachel Wagner, associate professor of religion at Ithaca College, has a theory. She argues the first-person shooter works like a religious ritual:

The first-person shooter is more like a ritual than a film is, since in the latter, the player moves through a pre-scripted experience with an intense feeling of agency and performance. This kind of control is very fulfilling, especially for those people who might feel powerless in their everyday lives.

The first-person shooter excels at pushing players into chaotic environments and then imposing order. The order is clear: there are allies and there are enemies. The enemies (mostly) have to be killed. While the buildings around the player are collapsing, gunshots are ringing and bombs are exploding, the player knows what to do. The player does whatever the voice on the military radio tells them to do. The voice on the radio tells them to secure the bridge, and they secure the bridge.

It can be comforting in the midst of a chaotic world, to have a clear sense purpose and order. To be given very clear cut guidelines of good and evil, right and wrong. It can be comforting to have a voice you trust on your radio.

Some religious traditions thrive off providing that very thing -- order in the midst of a chaotic world. A world painted in broad strokes of black and white.

That said, I've always argued that video games serve as a critical medium -- they're a useful vehicle for challenging authority. The original Bioshock made waves when it threw the norms of first-person shooters on its head. After following the voice on the radio for much of the game, the player is led to realize that the authoritative voice is a pretty nefarious fellow himself. And the player asks him or herself, "Why did I just do what I was told?"

The answer is provided by one of Bioshock's antagonists, the libertarian ideologue Andrew Ryan: "A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys." (The video from this encounter is here -- fair warning, it gets violent). Ryan's wording is a bit extreme when applied to religion, but the temptation to take instruction at face value does not just happen in games: the temptation exists in every aspect of our lives.

Bioshock's plot twist was genius and it forces the player to listen with a bit more skepticism to the voice on the radio.

Top Image: Cover image from Call of Duty: Ghosts. Courtesy of Activision.

Bottom Image: Screenshot from Bioshock. Courtesy of the Bioshock Wikia.