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Spirituality in Computer Games

Although the first cathode ray tube entertainment device was patented in 1947, the first commercially available video games appeared in 1971. The first video game system widely available for home use was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972. In the same year, Pong was released, which created record sales for the new video game industry. During this era, computer games were only available on mainframe computers such as Plato on university campuses. In 1975, several computer role playing games were developed on mainframes including Moria and Dungeon. Moria was a single player game in which a character with multiple statistics, such as cunning, piety, wizardry, and vitality, explored multiple mazes, fought enemies, and collected treasure, with the goal of reaching the highest score possible. Graphics were simple first-person three dimensional drawings of the game world. Moria inspired a more popular and commercially successful computer game in 1981, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, released on Apple and IBM home computers. Rogue was released in 1980 with similar game mechanics, but top-down graphics displaying an overhead view of the game world utilizing ASCII characters. Rogue inspired the more popular and commercially successful Ultima, which replaced ASCII characters with graphic tiles placed side by side to represent an entire fantasy world comprised of continents, cities, villages, oceans, rivers, and dungeons.

Throughout the 1980s, Wizardry and Ultima sequels dominated the computer role playing game genre with hack and slash action, with almost no emphasis on narrative storytelling or ethical decision making. One exception was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, a computer role playing game which started with a series of moral questions, which determined the baseline statistics of the character. Game decisions actually determined progression or regression of these statistics. The quest of the character to become an avatar actually represented a spiritual journey mimicking real life in a very basic way. Multitudes of computer games were produced using the hack and slash model through the late 1980s until the late 1990s. In 1995, two Canadian physicians formed a software company, Bioware, which published Baldur's Gate in 1998 through Interplay. Baldur's Gate revolutionized the genre by introducing a narrative story with ethical decision making with real consequences to gameplay, expanding the spiritual journey aspect of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, and improving the top-down graphics with isometric third-person perspective in pre-rendered environments. Baldur's Gate spawned multiple expansions and sequels, and inspired development of the Dragon Age series, also published by Bioware through Electronics Arts. Dragon Age expanded on the ethical decision making and narrative storytelling elements of Baldur's Gate, and linked the main character's journey with the overall outcome of the game world. While computer role playing games depend upon the epinephrine-stimulating thrills of high resolution graphics, and the dopamine-stimulating rewards of quest accomplishment, the potential for a temporary suspension of disbelief from a masterfully crafted story may momentarily touch the spirit, yet leave its ultimate journey unaffected.

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