Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Getting Off Time's Big Ride

Time is the big ride that nobody gets off.

But wouldn't be cool if we could?

In the recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who suddenly gets the ability to reset the day. Think Groundhog Day, but with violence instead romance driving the plot. With each recurring day the soldier uses his increasing knowledge of what's happens next to plan his moves, enabling him to accomplish the otherwise impossible.


The film was inspired by video game storytelling, specifically the way games allow you to make mistakes that are fatal to your in-game character then bring your character back to life at an earlier point in the game and, hopefully having learned from your mistakes, try again.

This game mechanic allows video gamers to simulate what theologians call foreknowledge. Within the closed system of the game time moves in one direction, but with the ability to get off that ride and try again as often as necessary the gamer is able to gain what to her in-game character would be knowledge of what will happen before it happens. That's foreknowledge, and it is generally considered, though theologians debate exactly how it works, to be one of the attributes of God.

Godlike power is part of our attraction to video games and time travel flicks. Getting off time's ride through unlimited death and resurrection while everyone else is forced to remain means you can get a look at the destination and control how we get there. That's intoxicating because in real life we worry that our destiny is largely outside our control.

Video game storytelling speaks to our spiritual need to believe our lives are part of a greater story that calls for us to invest ourselves in a struggle for the good. But video games also exploit that need by addicting us to the sensation of wielding unstoppable power, thereby tempting us to see ourselves as a timeless beings among lesser mortals, justified in manipulating their actions to serve our goals. (The video game, Braid, explores this conceit.)

But after we've turned off the console and are laying in bed, the fact remains that our real life failures are permanent. While we may claim we regret nothing, it's hard to know what our lives are going to mean when our part in time's ride is over.

New Year's is almost here. No one's getting a do-over of 2014; no one gets to skip what happens in 2015; and no one knows what the price of oil will be by the time 2016 rolls around.

What you can do is choose where you'll look for direction on the journey. The way I see it that boils down to two options.

You can choose the video game option and leverage what power you have toward the outcome you want. Or you choose to believe there is an Author of our story who loves the characters in it and is bringing it to a conclusion that will end well for those who come to trust that love.

As they say in video games, "Choose wisely."

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (December 26, 2014).

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