How To Create Spirituality in a Video Game

PHOTO: Screenshot of Journey, winner of Game of the Year.

When I asked Jenova Chen how it felt to win Game of the Year at the D.I.C.E. Awards in Las Vegas last week, he reflected a bit before answering.

"Overwhelmed," he said in the press area right after his win. "I feel so many emotions. I'm trying to process so much all at once and I just can't compute."

Already, his techno-infused response is revealing of how the former programmer uses the lens of technology to interpret the emotional.

Chen, 31, is creator of Journey, a cinematic online multiplayer video game with spiritual themes engineered specifically to elicit emotion. Journey is a unique game in that it does not feature guns or violence. The only way for players to communicate with each other is through beeps.

After graduating from University of Southern California's Interactive Media master's program, in 2006 Chen founded thatgamecompany with fellow graduate Kellee Santiago. Journey is one of the Santa Monica-based company's most popular games.

Using the immersive interactive medium, Journey was designed to elicit strong emotional catharsis, according to Chen. He tested and tweaked early versions to maximize this effect. Players agree it's a powerful, sometimes tear-jerking experience. Chen says he still cries every time he plays the game.

Players are paired online anonymously to complete a filmic two-hour journey. Players travel through barren landscapes towards a mountain where light beams from the top. The androgynous mythical character evolves throughout game play. Chen describes the game as a pilgrimage representing life.

The cathartic experience becomes spiritual for players. Chen has received messages thousands of fans who share how the game has changed their life for the better. Many express coping with loss in the family or Post-Taumatic Stress Disorder, through game play that often leaves players in tears.

The Shanghai-born Chen, who describes himself as deeply spiritual, admits it's intentional.

"Among my founding team members we were like, 'We are making a church experience,'" he said. "[Everyone craves] felling connected and a sense of awe. That's kind what Journey is. We all have a craving for those emotions. It's just a different era, we have to provide the same feeling, but through the medium that people are accustomed too."

In one letter Chen shared during a panel at D.I.C.E. earlier last week, a 15-year-old says that following the death of her father, the game changed her life. She described Journey as "the game whose beauty brings tears to my eyes."

For Journey, Chen was inspired ideas articulated by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. The book surveys religions worldwide and argues that all religions share a common narrative myth, called the monomyth.

"I think that our language, culture, age, fortune, property and our fame is all a façade. In the end, we're all the same," says Chen.

Building on Campbell's work, Chen believes all humans are equal and seeks to share that through video games.

"I always thought if I was born 2000 years earlier, I would be a monk, probably carving a monastery or some giant pantheon buildings. I'd be trying to communicate the same feeling but using different technology."

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