Veni Sancte Spiritus

Originally published in Exeposé

Making history in Exeter Cathedral as Marcus Beard, Games Editor, reports on Flower being used as part of Holy Worship

“History is being made in Exeter Cathedral today” says Canon Missioner of Exeter Cathedral , Anna Norman-Walker. The ambient orchestral score of thatgamecompany’s flower fills the knave as people have gathered to celebrate the Eucharist on a Sunday evening in mid-May.

“For the first time, we are going to be using a videogame as part of Holy Worship.” There’s some squirming from the mostly over-40 congregation, as we watch a single a single yellow flower blow in the wind on the 6 foot screen. Andy Robertson, editor of gamepeople.co.uk, takes hold of a controller, and as the petal on screen opens up to start our communal game of Flower, a collective gasp can be heard. History has been made.

In late August, Andy gave a talk at the TEDx conference in Exeter. Speaking on sustainable perspectives on videogames, Robertson commented on the ethical, social, psychological and spiritual contribution to human life that games can make. He spoke of creating a new ‘priesthood’ of videogame players and writers to appreciate games in a broader sense that just entertainment value. This was when he was approached by Anna, and the idea of using videogame as part of a service at Exeter cathedral took hold.

Holy Ground is Exeter Cathedral’s bi-weekly service that gathers people in the act of contemplative and creative worship. It seems a fitting place to employ such digital media. Speaking to Robertson, he said he had initially planned to use Jason Rohrer’s critically acclaimed pixelated PC title Passage, a side scroller that takes the player from birth to death in five minutes. “When the theme of environment and conservation came up, Flower seemed an obvious choice” Robertson explains.

As the service continued, the controller is passed to the first member of the congregation to partake in the journey of our petal. Almost immediately the controller has made its way to the end of the first row, the majority of people passing up the opportunity to take control of the game. As the Liturgy of the Word gets underway, the whole congregation seem to relax, and appreciate Flower’s visuals as a compliment to the gospel readings.

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” the reading from Luke concludes. By now, we have a collection of brightly coloured petals moving across the landscape.

Flower is game that requires almost no explanation to play. Pressing any button moves you forward, and your direction is controlled by tilting the controller. The goal of the game (while not explicitly explained by Andy) is to collect other petals, and bring colour and life back to a barren landscape. As the service continues, the congregation reminded of the harm caused to our world and prompted to respond with “O God, open our eyes to see.”

As Holy Communion is distributed, the service draws to a close. Yet, we’re nowhere near finishing the first level of flower. Andy takes up the control a gives us a little debrief of what we’ve accomplished. What started a single yellow bud has grown into a flurry of multi-coloured petals, and grass which used to be brown and scorched is now green and lively. If players were experienced, we would have reached across a hill, and used our petals to rejuvenate a bare tree. “I think Andy’s trying to tell us, in the nicest possible way, that we can’t even get past the first level” Anna adds, before inviting us to tea and coffee in the chapter house.

People in crowd after the service seemed to appreciate the inclusion of flower in the service. “I thought it might be distracting, or take the focus away from the service, but it didn’t at all” says Chris, regular Holy Ground attendee and Exeter University alumnus. “Even the older guys were getting in to it” adds Phoebe, another former student.

While the some people were left out of the experience, as the controller didn’t make its way round everyone, Andy was thrilled by people’s reaction to it. “I think it went really well” he says, before commenting on how most of press have somewhat misunderstood what he was trying to achieve. “All the headlines will say ‘Playstation 3 played in Cathedral’. I tend to think to myself that they’re missing the point. I think this is more of a victory for videogames, to show that they can appreciate in such a way.” He clarifies “The idea is to get the older people, and people who don’t play games to appreciate them in a different way, not to get a bunch of gamers in church.”

Andy is taking this service to Greenbelt Christian music festival in Cheltenham this August. Just as the organ was introduced to services hundreds of years ago, videogames have made the first step into being used a widely accepted form of worship. Like hymns, instrumentals or artwork decorating the interior of the Cathedral, videogames are just another art form that can remind beleivers of their God’s teaching.

When will we see a Portal playthrough replace a rousing rendition of Jerusalem?

Watch this space.

PHOTO CREDIT: TOBIT EMMENS

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