Internet fora have been burning hot processing posts expressing shock and anger at a seemingly absurd ending to the third instalment of the popular Mass Effect gaming franchise. The trio of Mass Effect games works on and extends a principle similar to the Choose-your-own-adventure genre of the 1980s, where a player’s choices shape and determine the game’s story line and process of world-building. Players of Mass Effect 3 have spilt many litres of bile over the game’s ending, accusing the games makers of rendering that whole process of choosing one’s own story and destiny null and void through the funneling of all gamers’ choices into the same ending.
The many discussion threads (which you can find in forums like bioware.com) that have appeared in the wake of this apparent gaming disaster will generate in turn many other, more academic, discussions concerning the relationship gamers have with their games. One thread of particular interest highlighted the despair and revulsion felt by many gamers not only in relation to the specific game, but to gaming itself. The overall mood of such a thread indicated that gamers seemed to want to commit a form of cybernetic suicide to their gaming persona by not playing any game whatsoever from now on.
There is a question concerning what such a mood is indicative of in the culture of gaming, and just where the culture of gaming in and of itself is leading the rest of secular culture, given its dominance as a form of social interaction.
A strangely insightful angle can be gleaned from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, arguably was one of the most famous modern portrayals of the philosophical theme of absurdity, where the ships of expectations of order and meaning often splinter upon their crashing into the rocks of a meaningless reality. The book traces a journey that can be summarised (and perhaps oversimplified) by the following: upon realising this absurdity, there is the temptation to commit suicide, a temptation that Camus’ says must be resisted. Instead, the proper imperative is to live and embrace such absurdity.
Parallels can be drawn between the narrative thread that The Myth of Sisyphus draws and that drawn by the discussion threads expressing a desire never to play games again, only with one major difference. As earlier mentioned, at the realisation of the absurdity brought about by the Mass Effect 3 ending, many gamers expressed the desire to essentially end the lives of their gaming avatars or digital selves expressed through their gaming characters, and this finds some similarity with the overall trajectory of The Myth of Sisyphus. However, where the discussion thread does not parallel Sisyphus is in the level of moving onto deciding to live and embrace the absurdity, for the trend of much of this discussion thread seems to betray a refusal to move on, and simply commit that act of cybernetic suicide.
This is indicative of something highly significant concerning the implosion of hope in postmodernity. Within the seemingly emaciated storyline of Sisyphus, there is at least a semblance (however slight) of a happy ending when despair gives way to commitment. The aforementioned post-Mass Effect discussion thread indicates, however, that there seems to be a satisfaction with merely remaining at the stage of suiciding. Postmodernity seems to be taking one cultural step back even from the anemic hope offered by committing to embrace the absurd.
A question many, including many Christian gamers, do not seem to be asking is whether the Church can offer anything to those grieving in the wake of a disastrous end to the Mass Effect franchise. While a full blown answer still requires further reflection, a few elements do present themselves. First, as Kathleen Norris argued in her The Cloister Walk, the psalms offer a far more articulate way to express frustration than any internet forum (which seems to be invaded by the emergence of “Trolling”). Indeed, a number of passages including the beginning of Ecclesiastes, chapter 10 of the book of Job and psalm 89 provide poetic and heart rendering articulation to those experiencing despair in the face of absurdities far greater than that posed by a game’s ending cinematic.
Second, the Church can offer the sacrifice of the Mass as a way to raise the gamer’s horizons beyond the spectre of death. At one level, it goes beyond the sterility of mere textual venting, by making the word become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The execution of a just man is the height of the absurd, and yet the person of Jesus Christ embodies a hope of not only committing to embrace that absurdity, but also overcoming it by overcoming death. Death no longer has the last say and experiences a bitter and decisive defeat, as John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon reminds us. Thus in abiding in he that embraced the absurd and won, grieving gamers, and indeed all who rail against the absurdities of life, can find not only a vague “meaning”, but a decisive end in the form of a joyous wedding feast portrayed in the Book of Revelation, where every tear is wiped away, and death and mourning is no more.