Spaceteam and the Tower of Babel: What video games can teach us about human interaction
We recognise the benefit of theological themes played out in movies. They can uncover new facets and perspectives of familiar biblical themes. However, that video games can offer a similarly rich fabric is still a new, and slightly incongruous, idea.
But spend time reflecting on the experience and interactions video games create and you'll find there is often a surprisingly deep pool of theological reflection. This is sometimes intentional. At other times it results from unintended divine fingerprints in this creative art and the people that play it.
Spaceteam is an excellent example, apparently a simple entertaining game for smartphones that soon calls to mind The Tower of Babel narrative of retributive confused speech.
Upon seeing the pride of man in his creation God said "let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." (Genesis 11:7) We know how the story goes, but moving from Sunday School caricature to mature understanding requires deeper thinking and rigour. Spaceteam comes to our aid.
Like Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2006 film Babel, Spaceteam weaves an intertwining narrative about the failure of speech. Of course there are big differences between the two, chiefly Spaceteam is a collaborative game about "first person shouting". This sounds like a cheap joke I know, but scratch beneath the entertaining veneer and Spaceteam is profound.
It's free to play on iOS and Android devices. By connecting smartphones, up to four players hold a touch-screen displaying a range of futuristic spaceship controls – buttons, sliders, dials and the like.
The challenge is to quickly press, turn or pull these elements in line with pop-up instructions. The twist is that instructions appear on one player's screen for another player's buttons. Players have to tell each other which buttons need to be pressed while also listening out for other's instructions for them. This quickly takes us into the linguistic territory of Babel.
Act quickly on each instruction and you progress to more advanced levels. Failure to fulfil one results in the control panel falling apart and points being lost. Other conditions turn the screw on the players' already frayed faculties: electrical storms, wormholes, and asteroid collisions.
What starts as polite communication quickly deteriorates into frantic shouted commands. This is amusing for both players and onlookers as listening and speaking compete for attention and are stretched to the limit.
Humour is further injected by the technobabble names of each spaceship control. Instructions celebrate a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy version of future technology; "Set Finite Plexus to 3". "Baste the Emergency Whittler". "Set Capacity Omegasphere to 2".
Developer Henry Smith describes the chaos: "People start shouting because it's the only way to getting someone to hear your instruction. In harder levels, you basically have to talk over each other otherwise the timer runs out too quickly. It's just what you do in that situation – all hell's breaking loose – and you're trying to get people to hear your instructions."
When eventual failure comes, the reaction from most players is a desire to try again with a premeditated team strategy. Some plan to take turns to speak, others suggest everyone avoids raising their voice. Some people have tried passing a cushion around to control the flow of information. Younger players often just shout ever louder – finding the excuse for verbal exuberance both entertaining and liberating.
Playing Spaceteam is an all encompassing experience with little time to reflect. Afterwards however it becomes clear what has been happening. As with the best narratives, a trick has been played. What appeared to be mere entertainment turns out to reveal something unexpected about human speech: it is limited and not in our control.
While God decided to confuse the people building towers in Shinar, Smith's video game uncovers the confusion already in us given the right level of panic and pressure.
"Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.'" (Genesis 11:4) Whether building a city or steering a Spaceship through the stars, the human instinct to succeed is the same.
"But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them'." (Genesis 11:5-6) Reading this fresh from the spoken-word car-crash of trying to tell your Spaceteam comrades which button to press and it seems the default success of human collaboration and communication is anything but guaranteed.
In this light the Babel narrative seems to be one of explanation rather than cause of human inability to communicate clearly. With inherent human limits on hearing and speaking is there a touch of irony in God's concern that "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them" (Genesis 11:6).
While Spaceteam encourages a more conservative estimation of the reality of human communication and construction than concerns God in Genesis 11, it also encourages players to repeatedly try, to improve together. It echoes other biblical texts of hope beyond misunderstanding and another city in our future. "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." (2 Corinthians 5:1)
This is not new information, but Spaceteam's participatory experience uncovers it in new ways. Chiefly this is because video games are not something we observe from the outside. Players are unwittingly actors in their own confusion-narrative and experience first-hand the limits of language.
While a film like Babel eloquently invites you to see an idea from Iñárritu's mind's eye, a video game like Spaceteam invites you to step inside a world that will trigger your own fresh interpretation of old ideas.
One does not eclipse the other. Bible text and film and video game interplay and encourage interpretation so that we may hear and heed again the pain of being "scattered them over the face of the whole earth".
Andy Robertson is a freelance family technology expert for The Guardian and the BBC. He runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel and contributes to a range of national media on the topic of video-games and family. Follow Andy on Twitter @GeekDadGamer.