The stories we play: Interactivity and religious narrative
We might be tempted to think that “playing” stories is something new, but interactivity has long played a pervasive role in religious storytelling. Every religious tradition has stories of its founders, its practitioners or its legendary ﬁgures, and many of these stories have “interactive” forms, what we might call the “stories we play.” The Exodus is remembered in Jewish tradition in the seder meal with symbolic associations for the food that is eaten alongside a retelling of the story. The Quran (and the stories in it) is recited in full by Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Christians regularly retell the story of Jesus, through a re-enactment of the Nativity story or in the dozens of Hollywood ﬁlms that focus on his life and death. Buddhists remember stories about Gautama Siddhartha: the four noble truths are taught within the context of the story of his enlightenment. Hindus have a rich panoply of narratives about the gods and goddesses who once walked the earth, with associated television shows ritually enjoyed by viewers and local re-enactments of their stories as well. Even Taoists tell the story of Lao Tzu’s leaving behind of all he had known to go into the wild and experience nature directly and see this as a model for the good life. There is a long-standing and deep connection between stories and interactivity in religious life. Today, interactivity with sacred texts is taking on new hues, as we are given the
immediate and easy power to treat sacred texts as streaming bits of information rather than as physical objects endowed with singular meaning. The ﬂuidity of digital texts creates a cascade of possible uses, interpretations, and alterations that frustrate the assumption that the text can be used as a sort of singular portal into divine will. The exploration of wired textuality invites us to consider texts as texts, and thus also as material objects transformed into information streams, with profound impacts for how they are used and treated. In the transformation of material books into downloadable information streams, we are witnessing also the transformation of sacred texts from a ﬁxed series of words on a page – God’s will typeset and printed – into ﬂuid, shapable and playable streams. The ﬁrst section of this chapter is devoted to an examination of the implications of these changes. But it is not enough to just consider the problem of ﬂuid textuality and
sacred writ; the transformation of sacred texts into new formats also
profoundly aﬀects the stories within those texts. In the second section of this chapter, I look at how our fascination with ﬂuidity results in a transformation from stories as ﬁxed texts to stories as ﬁctional worlds, pools of possibility that invite transformation in the form of games, personal retellings, and other forms of “play.” Indeed, the emerging recognition of kinship between games and stories gestures toward a fundamental shared enterprise of these media as diﬀerent modes of world-building – an activity that has traditionally been ascribed to God. Today, we are all creators. And as might be expected, the degree of interactivity in religious storytelling and story-hearing varies tremendously in diﬀerent virtual contexts. As we look at sacred stories in their contexts as video games, instant messages,
web pages, or blends of cut and pasting in email tags, we might ask with Foucault, “What is a work? What is this curious unity which we designate as a work? Of what elements is it composed?” The impossibility of answering this question leads Foucault to conclude that “the word work and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality” (1998, 207-8). Nowhere are these remarks as true as they are in today’s virtual contexts, where stories are frequently composed by multiple individuals, designed by a team of game designers, cribbed and copied from other media objects, and enacted through the emergent storytelling of the player. They might even have a second life as parts of mash-ups, mods, user-created sequels, or other blended digital creations. If these stories happen to be religious ones, the evocative nature of interactive storytelling invites a host of intriguing questions about the relationship between play and sacred writ.