There are biblical stories that resonate with clarity and urgency, that guide and inspire us, that lay in the sod of our souls the foundations of morality and lovingkindness. This week’s parasha is not one of them.
Reading the Torah this week, we get little but the rules of ritual. God commands Moses to install Aaron and his sons as priests, and he then embarks on a long and exacting speech concerning the various sorts of offerings, the veins of fat and the feeding times, all the other strictures of sacrifice. We, a millennium removed from ritualistic slaughter, are left to wonder what might be relevant about this cornucopia of commandments and prohibitions; the closest most of us come to animal sacrifice, after all, is playing Angry Birds.
The idea of ritual, however, has never disappeared. Instead of governing the sanctified destruction of beasts, it now subtly, sometimes invisibly, regulates various other aspects of our modern lives. Nowhere is this prevalence of prescribed motions more evident than in video games: Although we seldom associate video games with the sacred, I suspect Aaron and his sons would have known just what to do had God graced them with a Playstation 3 to pass away those long days spent secluded in the Sanctuary.
This bond between video games and ritual first occurred to me while completing my doctoral studies in communications. As a video games scholar, I had spent many tedious evenings defending my beloved medium against accusations of devilry and rejecting the popular misconception that picking up a joystick makes one that much more likely to someday pick up a semi-automatic, put on a trench coat, and shoot up a school. These allegations seemed absurd to me, not only because I’ve read enough scientific papers refuting any correlation between video games and violence, but also because I realized what the pundits gasping about the lurid storylines often depicted in games—all those dead prostitutes and massacred civilians!—did not, namely that video games are played not so much with the mind as with the thumbs. In other words, they are a ritual.
To prove my point, I set up a little experiment. With the help of several research assistants, I spent long stretches of time playing a favorite game. The assistants were instructed to interrupt me at various intervals, sometimes when gameplay was at a peak—in the middle of a critical battle, say, or halfway through a complex and demanding puzzle—and others at moments when my avatar was doing little but wandering around the game’s world aimlessly. Then, applying a simple set of metrics, the assistants would evaluate how long it took me to immerse myself anew in the game. The results were overwhelming: Time after time, the only factor that had any influence on my ability to effortlessly resume playing had nothing to do with the game’s narrative and everything to do with how long I’d been playing before having been interrupted. If, say, I was disturbed 20 minutes into my gaming session, at the peak of an adrenaline-flushed battle against some pixilated baddie, I was able to resume my concentration and immersion in the game almost immediately. But if I was interrupted after three hours of gaming and in the midst of nothing important at all, regaining my focus was infinitely harder. I repeated the same experiment with other players and received the same results. While far from conclusive, the experiment suggested that the key factor determining a player’s connection to the game wasn’t the engagement with a particular storyline but the immersion that comes only with a lengthy duration of play.
Which, of course, is the very nature of ritual. This is why God, at the closing of this week’s parasha, orders Aaron and his sons to “stay day and night for seven days at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” However pure the priests’ hearts, the sensation of sacredness cannot come unless practiced, mindlessly, repeatedly, for long periods of time. Whirl like a dervish, chant like the Hindus, self-flagellate like a Shia on Ashura, do any one thing for long enough and with intense concentration and the critical faculties will eventually give way to a higher order of knowing, that of wild faith. That’s the idea behind this week’s parasha, and that’s the idea behind video games.
It is not an easy idea for us to process. We are raised to see the Enlightenment as our worthy inheritance. We are taught that facts are the keys that open the doors of knowledge. And we value our media for allowing us access to new and vast valleys of information. The logic of ritual abhors all that. For the priest alone in his sanctuary or the gamer alone on her couch, for anyone whose life consists largely of mechanized movements repeated ad infinitum, subjectivity eventually dissolves. Instead of looking at the world from the outside in, instead of being analytical and detached, the person in the throes of ritual quite literally loses him- or herself and becomes one with the practice. This is how secrets are unlocked, and how seemingly ungraspable actions, like communing with God, are delivered to earth and into the hands of human beings.
And this is why video games are, arguably, the defining medium of our generation. Elsewhere in the domain of digital media, we find new technologies making new demands that defy the boundaries of our consciousness. Facebook, for example, demands that we befriend scores of strangers when most of us can barely keep track of the four or five loved ones we hold dearest. Twitter seeks to reduce human speech, that mighty flow of thoughts and words, to 140-character bursts. The web allows us to neglect our memory and rely instead on its endless silos of data and bunk. But video games ask us to continue and do what men and women have done since the dawn of history, namely let our hands take over and succumb to ritual. Think of that the next time you want to spend the afternoon with your Nintendo.