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Longing for Transcendence in Virtual Worlds

The following article was originally published at Bit Creature.

The Chauvet Cave in France is the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and home to some of the world’s oldest known cave paintings. While other cave paintings have been found from the same era, Chauvet’s stand out due to their immaculate preservation. Chauvet also contains paintings of predatory animals like cave bears and lions that are not featured in any other known paintings from the same era. In Chauvet, animals run and interact with each other giving us a view into a long lost world. Chauvet also contains spiritual relics—a painting of a woman’s body with the head of a bison, pictures of butterflies and numerous symbolic markings that archaeologists believe to be ritualistic in nature. Most notably, the paintings in Chauvet are exquisite—the work of masterful artists.

… when I explore someone else’s Minecraft server, I can’t help but envision a strange meeting of the sacred and the secular…

As I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I could not help but let go of my modern biases about Paleolithic man. As the camera pans across each painting in succession we see horses galloping, rhinoceroses engaging in mating ritual, and lions prowling as if preparing to pounce on their prey. My favorite is a series of three horses that overlap one another, each distinct enough that it gives not only the illusion of motion but of transformation, perhaps illustrating growth and decline. Chauvet is a symphony of life and death. The work people who not only sought to survive but to also to observe, process, and understand the world. It is the work of people with thoughts and hopes and dreams.

The rhinos of Chauvet Cave

One Archeologist referred to the people who left these paintings behind as “homo-spiritualis.” This scientist recognized that whoever left these paintings behind did not enter the cave merely for food or shelter—they entered to create. To express. To worship.

Perhaps I play video games too much but this view into the mysteries of Chauvet reminded me of Minecraft. One of the single most interesting video game experiences is to explore an abandoned Minecraft server. It is fascinating not only to walk through someone else’s creation but to observe another person’s impact upon and impression of a digital world that mimics our own. The best servers to explore are those that belong to people I don’t know well. Exploring these spaces poses questions about the creators—who they were and why they chose to build what they built. It is strange to think about in our information age but as I explore, I wonder: What would these worlds say about us and what we value? What, if anything, would they say about our hopes and dreams and fears? Will they demonstrate that we were mindful of the world around us?

I no longer have the time to build things in Minecraft. So exploring servers has become something of a hobby of mine. In all my time in other peoples’ worlds, there is a common theme in almost all them. No matter what server I traverse—there are churches, altars, monuments, and temples. If Minecraft servers are still around 30,000 years from now, I think our descendants may call us homo-spiritualis.

When I start a new game of Minecraft I can’t help but think about the Big Bang Theory (the theory not the show). I traverse a world whose seas and caverns, mountains, flowers, and monsters were randomly generated shortly after I click “start a new game”. Starting afresh is a wholly different experience from exploring an abandoned server. No matter how far I traverse, I will not find torches or shelters or tools—only the “natural” products of a closed system. It is a world governed by codes that set limits to how high I can climb and how low I can dig. No matter how far I walk there are no altars or monuments or steeples. It is the sort of experience that makes the religious imagery in Chauvet seem naïve.

Some people who share my Christian faith fastidiously cling to the idea that the world is only 6,000-10,000 years old, an idea that the very radio carbon dates of the paintings in Chauvet contradict. So when I look at the paintings much like when I explore someone else’s Minecraft server, I can’t help but envision a strange meeting of the sacred and the secular, the natural and the spiritual.

I played Proteus for the first time this week, a one of the original exploration games that helped spark the genre. I immediately got that feeling of exploring a new Minecraft server. I did what most people do in Proteus. I chased frogs, listened to birds sing, followed crabs up and down the beach, and marveled at the changing of the seasons. My first indication that I was not the first person to explore the island came early on when I saw various trails etched across the landscape. However, after following most of these to their ends, I could not be sure that they were not a product of the natural order. Eventually, however, I came across a cabin which led to the discovery of a mountain adorned with idols. Once again, exploring and investigating natural phenomena brought me face to face with evidence of people searching for transcendent meaning in a natural world.

I suppose it is possible to view Chauvet merely as a natural history museum. I will admit to being a biased voice on spiritual matters, but I am struck by the divine terms with which women and men of science describe the paintings of Chauvet. Whatever the origin of the universe and the life that inhabits it, it is clear both from Chauvet and even games like Minecraft and Proteus that people have a long history of discontent with the idea of a truly natural world. Science gives us a rough estimate of when the artists of Chauvet lived but it doesn’t give us what we really want: to understand the spirit embodied in them.

Originally published at Bit Creature.

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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