Reaching Out

The other day I experienced something quite profound in human nature. I was at a football match with my 15 year old son Dom to see his team who were playing really badly and were looking like they were going to get beaten by a far better team.

As my son got more and more tense at the prospect of the pasting we were witnessing I had tried and failed to console him. During the match I noticed a young toddler with a dummy in his mouth who probably hasn’t even started speaking in the row in front of us. He had no interest in the game but instead was facing Dom who was upset and visibly (and vocally) stressed at what was happening on the pitch.
I continued to try to calm him down and try to put things into perspective as his dad – I just made it worse (isn’t that what dad’s of teenagers are for ?). As the game went on I saw Dom motioning to the boy in front as he tried to move the toddlers hand which was reaching out and touching his leg and Dom complained that he kept doing it. I realised then what was going on. As he looked into Dom’s eyes I could see that he recognised his emotions and that he was going through something painful. So without even realising it he empathetically was trying to reassure Dom. He didn’t have words to say but he knew someone was upset and rather than be bound by social conventions he reached out to try and reassure my son that everything was going to be OK.
About a year ago my wife and I laughed at the bizarrely inappropriate language when trying to get a running watch fixed and all the emails from the customer service thanked her for “reaching out to them” when actually all she wanted was for a broken watch to be fixed. During that match a toddler with a dummy in his mouth and an inbuilt sensitivity to human emotions helped me experience what reaching out can really look like. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Let’s not forget that children are just as much a part of our village (or cities). Maybe we should watch and learn more from children if we are all to be raised.

A Middle Aged Dad in Limbo

Boys Will Be Boys?

It is a bit of a cliché but it is not unusual to talk about small boys pulling legs off spiders. However, for a young boy to do it in an 18 rated video game as he relentlessly searches through the underworld of Limbo for his lost sister, isn’t a stereotype. Being killed by a monster sized spider among many other manner of gruesome ways and resurrected countless times, now that is something that is less familiar… certainly to me anyway.

Neither of my two boys like to kill spiders. We are a “glass on paper and out the back door” type of family. So it would be fair to say that as I progressed through the dark world of Limbo I have jumped out of my seat several times as something lurking comes out of the gloom to end the Limbo Boy’s life in a dreadful way. It was hard as a dad of two boys to play this game and my feelings went from slight tension to nerve wracking responsibility as I guiding him safely past deadly puzzles. I have literally seen the whole world turn upside down during the game, made worse by the looming revving saw blades and a combination of gravity and inertia making deadly close encounters inevitable.

So why did I put myself through this whole experience if I found it such a challenge to negotiate? It started with a conversation about the nature of spiritually in computer and console gaming and after meeting Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer). I was very excited about the possibility of exploring the nature of this and especially how young people can have an awareness of God’s spirit within gaming rather than take everything on a superficial level. I wanted to explore the meaning within gaming and so I was challenged to enter that world on my own without a safety net and my experience was very profound.

As a relative rookie to gaming, I haven’t played a lot of console games other than when participating in a youth work session. As a family we have mainly played multiplayer games like Guitar Hero and Mario Karts. However apart from the odd app on my phone as a single player I have a definite experience deficiency and distinct lack of ability.

Limbo Swing

Limbo: Playdead, Microsoft Game Studios (XBLA)

Playing something that is such a different paradigm from Angry Birds or Solitaire has been monumental for me. Aside from how many stars I got in a level didn’t really care about the pigs or birds however angry they were but the impact of my time in Limbo was immersive for me. The outcome of this game has led to me being emotionally entwined with the main character boy’s quest. The result is that after several hours of navigating Limbo, I almost feel in loco parentis of this small virtual person. With his piercing refulgent, shining eyes that stare hauntingly into the darkness, I cared about the outcome of the game – this thing I was involved mattered to me way more than any throwaway app.

There were times during the game that I simply had to take a break as I didn’t want to keep putting him (or me) through the pain of playing. My empathy of feeling his pain reminds me that I got laughed off the sofa as I started to cry at the end of the film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) My emotional attachment was as real for a robot boy at the end of that film as it would have been for a human boy. The game connected me with the fatherhood of God and I couldn’t suppress the compassion that I believe is integral to who we are as created human beings.

Limbo has taught me patience and a relentless perseverance as the boy continues to seek his sister lost in the midst of a dark world. His redemption relies on her salvation and until she is free neither could he be free. I am not by nature a patient person and the process of going back into a puzzle again and again to progress has been refining for me. This relentless seeking is something I need to develop myself as the alternative of accepting easy answers and not tackling the real issues is a real temptation for my faith. In the game Limbo not seeking an answer or continuing to journey however hard would result in staying trapped in the same place for ever. I hope the process has left me more patient and tenacious as when I finally did work out how to get past those difficult parts, especially the end of the game, I felt so elated at the breakthrough, something perhaps I can best relate to my worship in my outside life after reaching the top of a particularly hard climb on my bike or when I have completed a Marathon. Not things I can do in church but experiences when I have felt God near.

Without spoiling the final sequence, as I reached the end of the game Limbo, I was reminded of my own baptism and sense of cleansing followed by a peace that was reminiscent of Psalm 23 and lying down in green pastures. For me this echoes the thought that after the struggle comes rest, while also the journey is significant and the process of reaching a destination can be more important than actually reaching it. Something I can relate to in my own spiritual journey as I have continued to seek community within relationships of meaning.

For a number of years I have pursued the mission of going into the world of culture to look for and to point out things that look like the Kingdom of God or reflect the teachings of Jesus. Even in the darkest of places I believe that as we have been created to have a spiritual connection in community and with others there are surprises all around us if we only but look.

I have grown in my faith during this process as I feel this has been an exercise in reclaiming a ritual to have a spiritual meaning that in some schools of thought is a way of connecting the ordinary to the remarkable, the superficial to the significant.
I have found this process quite a refining, if difficult, exercise but now I have to be brave and take the next step. I can’t but help wonder where playing this game will take me to. How do I facilitate others to explore a game that has meaning as well as gameplay that could be a mutual learning and developing exercise? If this game really meant something to me, how can I help others to go deeper than just the superficial level where most remain?

Alastair Jones
@A_B_Jones