Gaming Empathy: The Spiritual Community of Journey by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergThis past weekend I went to the annual meeting of the College Theological Society with my friends and colleagues from Mount Saint Mary’s College.   I gave a paper on the kind of spiritual community that is created within thatgamecompany’s 2012 video game release, Journey. Actually, I have mentioned the game before on this blog—but only in comments, usually when trying to defend particular genres. Today, I would like to correct this. Journey is not an apologetic; as I argued this weekend: it is an opportunity to form a kind of spiritual community within a unique and beautiful cyber-digital world.

Journey is exactly what its title suggests: a game based in travel towards a destination, a bright light visible shooting out from the crest of a far away mountaintop. Travel, however, is a secondary goal. Exploration and discovery of the place, creatures, other player characters (PCs) and even, of oneself is the primary experience. You have to figure out what to do when playing Journey; and the only communication available to you takes the form of musical notes and symbols, or pictographs that tell the gamer-player (who is also a gamer-avatar) about his, her or their ancestors. Solving puzzles, finding pieces of a magical scarf that helps the avatar to fly and eventually traveling to and through one’s death, the PC comes face to face with his, her or their self.

So, who am I when I play Journey and what kind of body do I have?

First, I have an in-between and relational body (kind of like my human body). The gamer’s body within a video game is also like the cyborg that Donna Harraway describes, though its cyber-composition makes it unique in significant ways. I spoke about the radical potential of this kind of embodiment here. Most importantly when playing a video game, my body (or that of any other human player) is not the only meaning-making agent on the screen or within this place.

"Journey wallpaper," image retrieved from:, accessed on June 2, 2014

“Journey wallpaper,” click for source.

[Journey Song], Retrieved from:, accessed on June 2, 2014

When one character sings a ‘song’ to another in Journey. Click for source.

Microethnographer, Seth Giddings argues that we tend to study video games and their significance assuming that humanness is the center of the universe. This is problematic because it denies the impact of other “part(cipiants),” and relationships.[1] Human players both effect and are affected by game components, which can include programing, non-player characters (NPCs), environment, etc. He suggests that just because one is related to a ‘construct,’ doesn’t mean that the relationship is invalid or less real. So, when being a ‘gamer-player/gamer-avatar,’ we play amidst (new) relationships that we don’t always understand, but which can powerfully affect us.[2]

Secondly, my particular body in Journey is supposed to be a universal body—which art director Matthew Nava explains as an avatar that would allow players to, “easily project themselves onto the character and become totally immersed in the game world.”[3]   When video games rely upon one or a very limited pool of characters, they often default to kyriarchal topes: overly sexualized and Eurocentric female bodies, or militarized, hyper-masculine bodies. Journey does neither.

Retrieved from:, accessed on June 3, 2014

Click for image source

The body is largely ambiguous and somewhat otherworldly; humanoid rather than human.[4] The avatar is masked with glowing lights for eyes, wearing a long red cloak and walking on tiny little legs. He/she/they flies with a scarf, but has no mouth with which to speak and no arms with which to swing a sword. The character design itself tells you that this game is trying to accomplish something different than many other games.[5]

It is important to say here that relying on universality when working to create transformative community can be extremely problematic. As many feminist theorists and theo/alogians tell us, supposedly universal categories usually hide and then normalize the experience of a few (usually women and men of privilege) to the exclusion and further marginalization of many people. But I read Journey’s avatar as more of a “strategically essential”[6] category: a temporary agreement that we choose to enter into, in order accomplish a certain goal, which is based on some agreed upon ideals, shared symbols and commitments. The Journey avatar is not absolutely universal: it is a temporary language with which one may facilitate a particular kind of connection.

Journey is about making connections. I first create a relationship to the environments when playing the game, as well as myself in the environment. A falling star speeds across the landscape in the first scenes of the game and—stop—the screen shows the face of the gamer-avatar. Player-characters come face to face with themselves (as the gamer-avatar) in the midst of a vast and beautiful dessert. The whole place is fluid, but I am the most fluid character within it—my own ephemeral form is small, vulnerable and yet, graceful and special in this back drop of erosion and time.

I then meet other cloth creatures (NPCs) and often, a journeying PC. These relationships are actually necessary to move through the game, as touch activates the flying abilities of my growing magic scarf. All active part(icipants) actually light up when they touch one another physically or through music; and the touch is gentle and non-violent. I often bring life to inert NPCs when touching them, waking dormant structure-be-ings and even freeing cloth-creatures from cages. Our touch is playful, lively and mutually empowering. When PCs touch the effect is similar, though a shared emotional journey enhances the PC to PC relationality.

Game designers worked to evoke particular emotions from the player: joy, excitement, surprise, loneliness, sorrow, fear, etc.—but significantly, the PC is not meant to experience these emotions alone, but rather, with an unknown stranger who you can only identify by a unique symbol he/she/they sings to you and this independent agent’s actions within the game. Yet, playing together, these be-ings ‘game empathy.’ Game score composer, Austin Wintory, describes the resultant relationship as “almost soul to soul contact.”[7] Journey received a tremendous outpouring from fans who were deeply impacted by the game. I cried playing this game. My sister cried, my husband cried, three of twenty-five game testers cried when completing the game. [8]

Amaterasu, "Traveler," image retrieved from:, accessed on June 2, 2014

Amaterasu, “Traveler,” click for image source

I think Forbes reviewer Eric Kain describes this relationship best when he writes:

I found myself and this other person clinging to one another… When I was tossed aside…the other traveler ran back for me. We climbed together… In a way that no other multiplayer game has done, I felt the necessity of companionship in Journey… The whole game is moving in a way I don’t yet fully understand.[9]

He concludes, “Journey is a game that you begin on your own…but at least in my experience, it is not a game you will finish alone.”[10]

What I wish I had space to speak about here is the powerful non-verbal narrative in the game, a re-visiting and transformation of ancestral violence, re-birth, the movement from warm sand to paralyzing snow and the way in which purposeful colors and notes in the game actually help to facilitate a particular kind of relationship. At the end of the game, the gamer-player can choose to repeat this journey and connectedness. A kind of ritual practice, Journey and all the part(icipants) within the game, human, non-human and trans-human alike, co-create a spiritual community.

I sometimes think that fear or hatred of video gaming is more about our fear and hatred of ourselves, rather than the video games themselves. Humankind creates and re-creates many horrors. We are afraid of what we are and will become. But what Journey does is remind us of the fact human beings make and play video games and we can tell, both when they are used to reinforce our alienating beliefs and as they capture our divinity, our relational power and our ability to love even strangers, seeing ourselves in the face of ‘an-other.’

Image retrieved from:, accessed on June 2, 2014

Click for image source

 Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

[1] Giddings, Seth, “Events and Collusions: A Glossary for the Microethnography of Video Game Play,” Games and Culture 4 (2009): 150.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nava, Mattew, The Art of Journey, (Los Angeles: Bluecanvas, Inc., 2012), 12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Art director, Matthew Nava and soundtrack composer, Austin Wintery discuss the very intentional message built into Journey in many interviews often contrasting Journey and other video games. Nava in particular, emphasizes how constructed character abilities relate to the message and meaning of the game throughout his book, The Art of Journey.

Nava, Matthew, The Art of Journey, (Los Angeles: Bluecanvas, Inc., 2012).

[6] Discussing the difference between constructivist and essentialist identify formation in feminist theory, theologian Serena Joes advocates for a middle ground, “strategic essentialism,” to correct the problems both theories present.

Jones, Serena, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 48.

[7] Alexander, Leigh, “Journey’s composer finds a game’s soul through his music,” Gamasutra (December 7, 2012),

[8] Hillier, Brenna, “Journey dev went bankrupt during adventure’s creation,” VG 24/7 (February 8, 2013),

[9] Kain, Erik, “’Journey’ Review: Making Video Games Beautiful,” Forbes (December 4, 2012),

[10] Ibid.

List of Works Cited

Alexander, Leigh. “Journey’s composer finds a game’s soul through his music,” in Gamasutra (December 7, 2012),

Giddings, Seth. “Events and Collusions: A Glossary for the Microethnography of VideoGame Play.” Games and Culture 4 (2009).

Hillier, Brenna. “Journey dev went bankrupt during adventure’s creation,” in VG 24/7 (February 8, 2013).

Jones, Serena. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Kain, Erik. “’Journey’ Review: Making Video Games Beautiful,” in Forbes (December4, 2012).

Nava, Matthew. The Art of Journey. Los Angeles: Bluecanvas, Inc., 2012.

Categories: Community, General

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9 replies

  1. As someone who barely manages social media, games like this one are a strange new world. Thanks for describing your experience so vividly. Stirs my novelist’s imagination.


    • Hi Elizabeth,
      I love that it speaks to the artist in you. As I told Nancy below– I also connect my experience playing this game to a book I have read that deeply impacted me (“A Memory of Light,” book 14 of the The Wheel of Time.)
      I love when different experiences of art speak to one another.


  2. Sara, this looks fascinating! Being a total dweeb on PlayStation stuff, I did a bit of research. It appears that I would need to purchase (or have access to) PS3 (cost $269) in order to play this game. Am I reading this right? I put out a call to my meditation group and my women’s group to see if any of them have PS3, but given the history of “games”, I doubt that they do. I hope developers create a sufficient bulk of games like this to encourage a different kind of player (like us)!


    • Hi Mary Ann,
      Unfortunately, yes. The system required to play the game is expensive. The game itself it relatively cheap; but the platform…. not so much.
      Thatgamecompany also has two other games, that while different, are still really interesting, very unique games. I feel that there are more and more games that are trying to create different kinds of feelings/ experiences– though Journey is still quite unique.


  3. ooo I totally want to play now. This sounds like a video game unlike any other.


  4. For someone who has never played a video game, the description of this game sounds totally fantastical. I guess what I’d like to know is how playing the game changed you and your sister and husband. Did it change your relationships with each other? Did the game prepare you for similar experiences? Not that any of this is necessary. It’s a game, but it it only a game?


    • Hi Nancy,
      Great questions here. I don’t think its ‘only a game,’ so to speak. For me and my hubby, I think the greatest impact was sharing this experience. He is not a ‘spiritual person,’ (his own assertion) while I am– yet after playing this game we were able to connect over the emotional experience of the game in a powerful way.
      I’m not sure how to describe it; as the reviewer, Kain, noted: ‘its an experience I don’t yet fully understand.’ I do know that my husband and I found ourselves talking about the experience and the meaning of it quite a bit— we also bought the soundtrack, and for months we both cried together when reaching a certain point (the culmination of the ‘rebirth’ moment) in the music. (Actually, we still sometimes cry at this moment.) It brought us a feeling of connection through sharing the experience. The crying felt like release and a wondering at an experience of beauty.
      When we have played ‘together’ (which is to say, when we watch one another play– because you cannot plan to play with any particular person, only strangers), I definitely feel like we have shared intimacy with one another as well as a special connectedness to the characters we played with.
      Again, we both had difficulty describing the experience (even to each other) — but if I had to put words to it, I’d say the experience was of joy and meaning. The journey– our journey– felt important. It felt like connecting with a part of life that you can’t really put into words.
      I think ritual is a good way to describe it– sharing meaning in the space and having that sense of meaning carry with you; being able to go back to the ritual and find something new. Actually, there are some mysteries you do not learn unless you play the game again. I also can revisit the profound sense of beauty and awe when viewing some of the art from the game.

      The game is like profound art– except that you get to ‘live’ (and die) the art. I have also connected this game’s message and imagery to other art that has deeply impacted me– specifically one moment in the last book of the Wheel of Time (book 14).

      I know that my sister also experienced this game deeply; so much so that she insisted on sharing it with me (and my hubby, and other friends). She wanted to watch other people go through the experience and share it with them/ encourage them while they did.

      Thank you for your deep questions here!


      • Hi again Nancy–
        As far as your question on ‘how it has changed me,’ I am also not sure to answer this, but I will try. It has changed me in the way that a unique experience of beauty changes you. Its like you met and experienced something that is a part of you; and a part of other human beings… and this has impacted me in subtle ways– Playing this game– the first time in particular– was a profound experience for me; and I keep revisiting the experience, in game play, in relationships with people around me and even academically, sharing about it in places like this. :)


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