Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spiritual Experience, Kali, Yin-Yang and Morality

Kali, the Hindu deity simultaneously destroys and creates; embodying chaos and order in one being. This inseparability between creation and destruction makes no distinction between a positive and negative act, considering them both as one. Kali and the Chinese diagram Yin-Yang represent the paradox of antagonistic principles co-existing in the same divinity. In Western thinking, there is a tendency to see the two as separable and distinguishable. In simple terms, the creative act is essentially good and the destructive act, evil. They stand in opposition and do not belong to one another. An act which gives life and one that takes it away cannot be given equal value. But this dualist alternative to co-incidentia oppositorum has not always been the dominant Western approach, nor need it be. In ancient Celtic times, it was customary for couples to make love outside the home of the recently deceased thus performing a life-giving act in defiance of death. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ fulfilled a divine plan for the salvation of the world even though it was an abhorrent act. In terms of spirituality, taking and giving life are both potentially as spiritual as one another. Meditative prayer can lead to consolation, peace and tranquillity but it can also prompt horrific, dark visions. St Jerome of the Desert and Padre Pio were frequented by grotesque demonic creatures during their prayers. If it be possible to adapt the Eastern notion that destruction and creation, chaos and order co-exist paradoxically in the same divinity to the Western concept of good and evil, then the two become in essence the same. The act of killing another human being is potentially as spiritual as saving one (serving as an instrument of grace in the salvation of another). Perhaps this is why a killer often craves the next kill and the experience of stillness is craved by the monk. Both are being ‘fed’ by the experience of taking life.
Turning to digital games, where the first-person shooter variety simulates reality in an eerily convincing manner. The experience of killing (albeit simulated) is potentially as spiritual as having encountered a religious experience in a virtual environment. Once the psycho-conceptual gap is closed between the artificial simulation of reality and the player’s sense of being present in real space, the game becomes real. This moment may only last for a few seconds or minutes and only after prolonged play; not too different from the experience of consolation during prayer – rarely does it last for more than a couple of minutes. The impact of the experience however, may last for a lifetime. When the player is convinced that the virtual environment is real, all subsequent emotional, psychological, physiological and spiritual responses are perceived as genuine and authentic. Prior to a shift from simulation to reality, all responses are judged in relationship to the real. Killing in a computer game only becomes real when the simulation convinces the player of being present in real space. This entry into the world of the game is not too unlike the meditative entry into ‘paradisic’ space. Afterall, focused prayer can lead to a convincing sense that one occupies a space far from that which one might physically occupy. In this sense it is likely and possible that the experience of simulated killing, under the right circumstances and after prolonged or frequent use, the player becomes so entranced by the game, that there is little perceived difference between the simulation and reality. Therefore, the player experiences the same cravings for the next kill (spiritual experience) as any serial killer might. Of course it would take a substantial conceptual leap for the player to actually plan and go about killing in real terms and at some level, there remains an acknowledgement and acceptance that what happens in the virtual world of the game, remains there.

The graphics in a game do not necessarily determine the potential for the experience of playing to convince the player that the experience is real. A sense of presence can be induced and evoked by simple suggestion and through the use of appropriate signifiers. A game like Wolfenstein 3D, with its primitive graphics, can potentially have the same effect on the player’s sense of reality within the game as a far more advanced game like Far Cry. Comparing the playing of digital games with meditative contemplation is however problematic. In some sense, the only thing the two have in common is that they both require prolonged or frequent use in order to have the desired effect. A player with a predisposition for spiritual experience may be more likely to find themselves absorbed in the game. The player is ‘lost in a game’ to the extent that all sense of being present in the physical environment is exchanged for the sense of being present in the simulated space of the game.