In about a month, my wonderful (and very patent) supervisor and myself will be presenting a lab at the Association of Social Anthropologists conference, in which a room full of anthropologists will collectively play the game Journey in order to experience and discuss virtual pilgrimage in a video game. But I feel the need to delve into this concept a bit farther: what about this video game can be comparable to religious pilgrimages?
In the professional need for anthropological reflexivity, I must first admit something: I have a deep seeded love for the game Journey. First released on the PlayStation 3, thatgamecompany’s Journey is an interactive art piece about a pilgrim on a spiritual and physical journey. If you can and haven’t, you should play it (it’s available for both PS3 and the PS4).
When we examine experience stories about video games, it’s hard to bypass Journey. Conversations about the game contain very few – if any – negative commentary (although there are quite a few begging for it to be available on more platforms). I’ve seen countless explaining the emotional connection to their mysterious co-op partner, with whom you can only communicate through symbols and chirp-like sounds, while others recount the intense joy of finally ascending the mountain at the end. But why would a game which takes only about an hour and a half to complete fill the player with such a sense of emotional investment, especially when compared to contemporary open-world role-playing games such as Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 which require over 60 hours (and sometimes over 100 hours) to complete? Why would time investment not always equal emotional investment?
One particular quote I found on a reddit thread stood out to me:
“Perhaps more than any other game, Journey installed a sense of faith in the player. I'm pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”
This comment, and similar statements, are powerful and the emotions behind them are even stronger. But how can a game cause such powerful sentiments? We are often taught to understand fiction as fake and entirely separate from reality. Even some scholars in game studies see games as entirely separate, functioning as Huizinga’s magic circle, such as Espen J. Aarseth. The magic circle understands the game as an island, away from the society and culture which both create it and play it: “Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material activity it has no moral function. The valuations of vice and virtue do not apply here” (Huizinga 1955: 6).
But the comment of our moved reddit user, as well as many of the other player responses to Journey and other games, demonstrates this not to be the case. The games we play can greatly affect us outside of the so-called magic circle of play.
To attempt a better answer, let’s try a different approach – that of Victor Turner. When we look at Journey specifically, we see a game about a pilgrim – sometimes encountering other pilgrims on their own journeys. Pilgrimage and video games have both been described as a liminal place (Turner 1974; Dovey and Kennedy 2006: 35). Turner’s concept of play is also often tied to his concepts of liminal and liminoid. So in lieu of enrolling you in a Vic Turner’s Concepts 101 course, I’ll break it down for you in a brief synopsis.
The liminal type of play or ritual is often seen as compulsory, such as community gatherings or socially essential “rites of passage”. And while the actual process of these events may involve a shifting of power status or social roles, they are seen as securing the status quo. After the event, the participant comes out of the liminal ritual space with a renewed sense of his or her place in the social order. In contrast, the liminoid type is more individualized. These are developed and experienced in the margins of mainstream society and thus don’t reflect the typical social order. They’re more pluralized, fragmentary, and experimental in character.
While both liminal and liminoid types of play are the “seed beds of cultural creativity,” (Turner 1982: 58) the liminoid is the one which has the power to transform mainstream societies and “traditional” beliefs through radical ‘manifestos’ and critiques. The liminoid is the source of creativity and can generate alternative social orders, political interventions, or even conjure images of a different utopia.
So let’s turn our attention back to video games. A video game can be seen as a liminoid space in which players actively play within prescribed roles, which have a generative, creative, and playful relationship to the offline non-virtual world (Dovey and Kennedy 2006: 35). So when we sit down, alone on a couch, to play Journey, we are entering a liminal space in which we are not quite as separated from the social and power relations of the non-virtual as we may think.
These liminal spaces are marked by something familiar to both video games, and more specifically Journey. Entities in liminal spaces are marked by their sexlessness and anonymity, comparable to how the pilgrims in Journey all look similar, and no gender or other distinctions between them can be easily drawn. The players behind them are also kept hidden and anonymous. If you encounter another player, their only differentiation is the symbol which appears above their head when they sound off a “chirp”. It is not until you finish the game, beginning to re-emerge into the structured world, and away from the liminal experience of the game, that the players encountered are identified by their PlayStation account names.
This experience bonds the players together by strong social bonds which Victor Turner calls communitas. Communitas is seen as a communal bond which transcends the structured society with its class, gender, and racial hierarchies. It’s almost like a utopian social connection. This connection is revealed only in liminal processes, as these rites are both “in and out of time” (Turner 1995: 96). But these bonds and liminal spaces must be temporary. If they persist, then social hierarchies begin to form within the group, and the communitas then ceases to exist.
So now we can begin to grasp some understanding, however small, on why Journey is so special. Its short playtime of only about an hour and a half, or two hours, is the perfect liminal stage in which social bonds of communitas can form with other players who are just as anonymous as you.
But this is just a theory, primarily one based on my own personal experiences with a game I love. Theories need practical knowledge, solidified by how actual people interacting with a game. This is where the stories of those who play the game become of the utmost importance, such as our reddit user.
The only way to create more stable insight would be to look into actual experiences, and the stories the people who played it share. And after the ASA lab, there will be more voices added to the player stories of Journey, some voices which may never have even picked up a controller before. I’m excited to hear these stories.
See you in July!
Dovey, Jon and Helen Kennedy (2006), Game Cultures: computer games as new media. New York: Open University Press.
Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. London: Routledge.
Turner, Victor (1974) "Pilgrimages as Social Processes," in Dramas, Field, and Metaphors: symbolic action in human society. London: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Turner, Victor (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: the human seriousness and play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.
Turner, Victor (1995) The Ritual Process: structure and anti-structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.