[Christian pop culture writer Richard Clark examines the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality -- and why video games can't, and shouldn't, avoid dealing with the subject of religion.]
As I play through Left 4 Dead and its sequel, I'm often in awe of just how well-realized the characters are, but I'm also a little frustrated that they seem to be psychologically super-human. Even when cramped together in safe rooms, they choose to tell funny stories and banter back and forth. As a result, we never really get to know them as characters because they are always relating on a surface level.
What struck me, though, was that the graffiti on the wall dealt more significantly with the real existential crisis that results from something like a zombie apocalypse. One anonymous writer becomes aware of man's depravity: “We are the real monsters.” Another simply writes “Exodus 9:15”, pointing out the possibility that God may be judging them. These writings reflect a group of people in true crisis.
As I read all of these messages, I found myself wishing I could play as them, rather than these overly confident superheroes. Apparently, it's those poets and thinkers that are truly wrestling with the implications of a zombie apocalypse. – something that's a fairly new and controversial thing for a character to do in this medium.
Coming to Terms with Meaning Making
The eighties were simpler times for the video game industry. Not only were games simpler to conceive of and design, but the stories, settings and characters within those games were just as simple, if they existed at all. While we may jokingly speak of Pac-Man these days as a pill-obsessed druggie, in those days the thought of what Pac-Man's motivations or desires were simply didn't cross anyone's mind. The idea of video games producing meaning was far-fetched to say the least.
Twenty years later things are different. The most popular games take months and years for large development teams to conceive of, design, and produce. Even as the television industry begins to rely less and less on writers and more on reality television, the video game industry uses writers to conceive not only of a singular story, but of a series of alternate stories and conversations that may or may not take place in the course of a game's playing out. While other mediums may have stagnated, video games continue to mature and develop.
Make no mistake, creating a modern video game is a thoroughly complicated affair. Whether those making or playing the games might realize it or not, any games that intend to cause a player feel a certain way, experience an event, or invest in a character is inherently infused with meaning. Because of this, the decisions and dilemmas faced by game developers are more than mere technological or literary diversions. They are, quite often, questions of morality and worldview.
Consider the questions that must be faced by the developers of Modern Warfare 2. Should the player be encouraged to consider the cost of war? If so, how should this be done? What happens if the player shoots a civilian? Even the creative choice to make the game come across as a purely mechanical and pragmatic exercise speaks volumes about the nature of war, whether or not these interpretations are true or even intended by the developers.
To the thoughtful gamer, Modern Warfare 2 could have have been a lot more interesting, arresting, entertaining, influential, and yes, a lot better, if only it would have included a more intentional exploration of unavoidable personal, emotional, ethical, and religious issues that had to do with war and those who fight it.
Religion's Proper Place
This flies in the face of an oft-used argument against the inclusion of religious or philosophical concepts in video games, that video games are a medium solely devoted to entertainment, escapism and competitive play. It is, of course, a valid argument that more involved life concepts don't really have much of a place transposed onto the surface of a game whose basic focus is gameplay.
In other words, there is no inherent benefit to turning a simple puzzle, twitch or arcade game into something deeper. In fact, such forms are often the worst places to bring religious or philosophical issues to light, trivializing and oversimplifying the issues rather than engaging them in any real way. iPhone games such as Pocket God and Babel Rising are the more recent culprits of this mishandling, but one could also point to the early unlicensed religious NES games such as Bible Adventures and Exodus.
The main reason these games fail to enlighten or challenge the player is because they lack one aspect that is absolutely crucial when it comes to a fair handling of religion or any other substantial life issues: nuance. Obviously, when a game's primary objective is to entertain the player by way of an engrossing gameplay mechanic, the story exists only to serve that gameplay mechanic. To expect nuance in those cases is foolish.
Yet, as developers spend bigger budgets and invest more thought into the games they release, the issue of narrative, story, and their relationship to gameplay elements have come to the forefront of game discussions and games are often seen as serious (though inevitably entertaining) attempts to relate and explain the world around us in a way that is reflective and beneficial. This is what it means for a work of art or a pop culture artifact to “resonate” with us.
Still, some find it hard to move past the assumption that games should focus primarily on gameplay and competitive factors at the expense of all else. During its “religion week” Kotaku published an article by Owen Good examining the history of religion in video games. The article rightly points out that video games have a less than stellar track record of treating the subject with any real depth or responsibility. In his conclusion, though, he assumes too much:
“Games and religion are unsuitable for one another because of that value: Entertainment. It's not to say games can never have a redeeming message. It's not to say a faith has no thrilling tales to tell. But one's purpose is supposed to make you live better, while the other's purpose is to make life better, without putting too fine a point on it.
There is then, perhaps, a natural and necessary separation of church and games. And I would say "Render into games the things which are of games," And unto God, well, it's best to let Him render those things.”
What Good fails to see is that the video game – like film, literature, television, and comic books – is a diverse and flexible medium. Just like one could easily write a romance novel that does little to stretch or challenge the reader, one could also write a great work of literature that defies expectations and fulfills the reader in a way that is unforeseen.
Even more importantly than misunderstanding the nature of video games, Good misunderstands the nature of true religion. While Good is speaking of a casual and compartmentalized belief in a God or gods, he ignores the inevitability that any truly held beliefs become part of a worldview that encompasses all of life. One doesn't need to actually believe in any of this stuff to recognize that one's personal beliefs about spirituality, morality and the origin of the universe will have an impact on aspects of life that are often depicted within games.
The Inevitability of Belief
Because of this, the question is not whether games should address religion, but how. Issues of worldview, philosophy and ethics are being addressed whether developers intend to or not. Narratives, characters, settings and even complex sets of rules that govern one's existence within a game world are inherently loaded with meaning and interpretation of that meaning. Acknowledging this truth in a way that is both responsible and thoughtful does not mean creating a game that is needlessly preachy or offensive. In fact, if thoughtfulness is in fact a part of the process, preachiness and offensiveness is generally avoided and the game is even more interesting as a result.
While recent treatments of religion in video games aren't perfect by any means, they do demonstrate the possibility of treating the subject with care and nuance. In BioShock, religious people are inevitably suppressed because their ideologies conflict directly with that of Rapture. While Assassin's Creed II's religious leaders are often cartoonishly villainous, the lesser leaders are often portrayed as men with families and consciences. Fallout 3 encourages us to see both the dangers and benefits of adhering to what seems to be a foolish religion.
Am I satisfied with these games' treatment of religion? For the most part, no, and that's something I'll explore in future columns. But I do think they make great strides toward treating a serious subject with a seriousness it deserves. In the days of Pac-Man, Pong and Space Invaders, this may have been too much to ask.
But when the most popular games of our decade deal at least half-seriously with issues like war, human relationships, murder, oppression, family, and the possible extinction of the human race, ignoring the issues within and surrounding religion won't do anything to keep video games fun or entertaining. That would be like telling a funny story while ignoring the writing on the safe room wall.
[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).]