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Analysis: Not Beyond Belief - How Religion And Gaming Interact
Analysis: Not Beyond Belief - How Religion And Gaming Interact Exclusive
May 10, 2010 | By Richard Clark




[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).]


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Comments


Steve Mallory
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I posted an article about religion and games previously in my own blog, but trying to tackle it from a different perspective (the malleability of narrative to suit interactive needs, which, in my opinion, strikes at the heart of game story).



An under served aspect of games when it comes to using religion or religious themes is allegory. Part of this, I'm afraid, is that allegory is subtle and that it can be missed by a more casual user Another part is that allegory is, well, hard to do and do well. Finally, because allegory is an indirect method of teaching, a user may completely miss the message in the allegory - and if the religious message is missed in the content of the game. I think this fear of the message being lost in allegory - and thereby leaving it open to interpretation is one of the reasons (along with changing the narrative to meet the needs of gameplay; if a literal message from the Bible is used, can scripture be altered or changed to reflect the needs of interactivity) why fewer and fewer games tackle intentionally and explicitly Christian themes.



Don't get me wrong, I think a game that uses Allegory to couch a religious theme (such as a Christian game in the US) in allegory could bridge the gap between mainstream audiences and christian gamers, but, would the allegory resonate with the Christian gamers?



That seems to be a very careful line to tread, and few developers or publishers of any stripe (Christian or otherwise) seem willing to try and tread it. If current Christian games are any indication, they must be explicitly Christian or they don't get much play from the Christian community.



It is a difficult premise to address :|

Kevin Reese
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I think, on this topic, it would be really interesting to look at the Civilization series. Especially Civilization IV, where religion was implemented (very well, IMHO) as an important game mechanic. For the subject matter of the game, religion of course is a huge factor -- which is why it was somewhat disappointing to hear that Fraxis apparently doesn't plan to make religion a part of Civ 5. I hope this wasn't done just because of the controversy that almost always comes when making any mention of religion in games.

Steve Mallory
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@Kevin



Interesting point. I think one of the biggest problems (at least, based on some of my families reaction) is that no one religion in Civ IV has any level of primacy, which tends to irk those that believe their specific brand of religion is the first, best religion.

William Olive
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Although religion is generally something I'm very antagonistic towards, I do have to agree. Religion is such a ripe subject for video games. The key to elevating games beyond the simple aspect of entertainment is taking serious subject matter... well, seriously.



Movies, books, and comics are entertainment mediums as well, but that doesn't stop them from handling real issues. Deus Ex is my all time favorite game and it deals with pretty complicated issues. It makes you think about all of your enemies and allies in different lights. It wasn't perfect, but I feel it was damn near close.



The problem I see facing the industry is the fact that a game is inherently malleable. For example, the player can choose to react in several ways to a situation. A lot of games don't makes these options possible, but a game dealing with religion on some level would be perfect for various plot lines and twists.



As a Deistic Pagan at best and an adamant Agnostic at worst, I understand the significance of making sure the religious elements aren't preachy. The best way of handling that would be to give the player choice to decide their alliance. Moreover, it's a matter of making sure the characters representing their religions are balanced with their own vices and virtues.



I'm glad to know that other people are genuinely interested in the concept, as I've actually been working on a design document for a game that handles such concepts. It originally started as a book with unintentionally-pagan overtones, but I realized the potential for players to explore the universe would be perfect for a game. But there's no way to design such a game for a large audience without dealing with their personal faith. Especially in the face of Armageddon.

Chad Metrick
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Just to add on to that, Kevin, the Total War series utilized religion rather nicely I believe.



But as I was reading this, I began to recall some of the chapters in Eternal Darkness. In my opinion, that game had incredibly successful player immersion, oftentimes through utilizing religion (Christian and otherwise).

Aaron Truehitt
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I think an allegory is the best way to connect instead of just blantantly coming out and saying it. Otherwise, people would consider it "Preachy" automatically without though, or call it that Christian game.



The Chronicles of Narnia book was an allegory for Christianity. The Golden Compass was an allegory for atheists (I believe..Could be totally wrong).



It's true it might be missed by some, but it usually clicks with deep thinkers. Though a lot of people aren't, haha.

Christian Nutt
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Not sure I'd say Devil May Cry does a good job of using religion -- Japanese developers seem to see Christian art and tradition as a mythological and aesthetic backdrop to base game settings on the way Western creators look at Ancient Greece or Norse mythology. It would be hard to be offended by DMC because it's so patently unserious, but I say that as a non-Christian.



I see the discussion of the depiction of religion in games is part of a larger discussion of the need for nuance in games, which the author touches on. And speaking as someone who is not religious but who is intellectually curious, I don't see why game creators would avoid the topic except either out of a lack of interest in the inner workings of people and/or the workings of society.



Of course, it's also out of a drive toward political correctness. Game content usually only pushes buttons the creators (and publishers) think it's safe to push.

Richard Clark
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Really great thoughts in the comments here, guys. Looks like I'm past due for a Gamasutra account. ;-)



@Steve - Allegory would be a fine way to address religious issues, though I think more than that, I'd simply like to see it addressed "head-on" as a realistic and typical part of life. You're right, though, addressing religious issues of any sort is a careful line to tread, particularly because it's hard not to want to put one's opinions right out there in the open for everyone to easily comprehend rather than trusting the player to decide on their own. This is an area in which in my opinion Bioshock was a resounding success and Assassin's Creed 2 fails miserably, particularly in the end-game. Really, it's less of a religious issue than it is an issue of simply crafting good art (or entertainment, or whatever the heck you want to call it).



As far as the question of the Christian community goes, let's lump video games in with all media, and I'll say that Christians (at least in my own circles) are becoming more and more accepting of the idea that "non-Christian" media can have something helpful to add to the Christian discussion. Theologically, it's an acceptance of the concept of common grace and its' implications for artistic appreciation. To sum it up, when it comes to a well-crafted narrative and a well-executed exploration of these issues, if you build it, they will come.



@Kevin - it looks like maybe I need to give Civilization a try. I never was much into those sort of games, but the more I talk with people about this subject, the more it comes up. I'll add it to my list.



@William - your ideas for making religion not preachy are good, but if I'm given a choice of alliances, it's much more important to me that those alliances are fairly represented. If there's an alliance of atheists, are they all grumpy and nihilistic? If there's an alliance of Christians, are they unintelligent and naive? Neither of those groups are something I want to be associated with, even in a video game. It's just not interesting or all that helpful.



I mean, really there's no shortcut to this. It's going to take some thoughtful consideration of what religion really is and what religious people are really like. You said as much I guess when you said: "But there's no way to design such a game for a large audience without dealing with their personal faith. Especially in the face of Armageddon." I think it's that concept of being faced with Armageddon that brings the implications of our religion to the forefront, and that could be incredibly interesting within the concept of a video game.



@Aaron - I think it could be done without allegory, and most of my reasoning is above in my answer to Steve. Frankly I find Narnia to be kind of generic and boring, because it's such a 1:1 allegory to a static Christian belief. It's a static Christian belief I hold to, yes, but if I want to read about it, well.. there's a Book for that. Of course, Pullman has a bit more room to work with, and if there's one thing I can say about Pullman's books, well... they're interesting. Though, and this is ironic, I found them to be pretty darn preachy myself. Have you seen the film? Metaphor didn't save that thing from preachiness, that's for sure.



@Andre - Yeah, me too.



@Christian - You're absolutely right about the nuance issue. And I've long been curious just how much of it was political correctness. Not to mention the geographic location of most western developers and the inherent social makeup thereof.

Bart Stewart
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I agree generally with the author's sentiments. Religion, however any of us may feel about it, has not only been a crucial element in human history (hence its representation in Civilization games), on a less grand scale it's an important part of the daily life of billions of people. And yet it's almost entirely ignored in games, many of which happily address head-on other aspects of the human condition.



The argument that these are supposed to be entertainment products, and that religion (either its embrace or its rejection) is actually so close to the bone for many people that it couldn't help but offend many of them, is not unreasonable. But surely there's room for it in some games, as long as they're clearly making a good-faith (sorry!) effort to represent it fairly? William Olive was exactly right that the touchy political question of liberty in a technologically advanced state was handled the great fairness by Deus Ex... so why not religion?



I'll be honest: I suspect part of the reason is because most game developers today are either not religious or are actively opposed (if not hostile) to religion in any form. Just as conservative viewpoints are rarely treated respectfully (if at all) in games that otherwise take on "heavy" subjects because (as I suppose) there aren't many developers who hold or understand that perspective, perhaps developers simply aren't interested in trying to render characters in games for whom their religion is an important influence without turning them into raving fanatics.



Is it possible that this is mostly a matter of developers themselves being unfamiliar and uncomfortable personally with the religious experience? If so, what practical assistance could be given to developers to make it easier for them to include characters that have religious beliefs in addition to their other attributes and qualities?



Finally, it's late in the day and I just can't resist:



@Christian: "...I say that as a non-Christian."



Sorry to hear you're not yourself today....



/hide

R G
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I am Christian. I don't like the current Chrisitan games because they are:



Not fun (way too many quiz games)

Something I already know or can look up.



I believe that in order to make a successful Christian game, you would have to represent choice. Don't have any meters. No "Light Side/Dark Side" paradigms. Just show how people around you and your own character reacts to those choices.

Robert Schmidt
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I think the biggest obstacle to including religion in games is religion itself. Religious organizations tend to get very upset if they aren't depicted in the most flattering of terms. The recent issues with South Park are only a small example. The movie the Last Temptation of Christ received a great deal of criticism even though the story itself was consistent with Christian teachings. Of course overseas we have the Dutch filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh being killed because of his film critical of Islam's treatment of women. Because of this intimidation and because of special protections religion often has within society a balanced view is impossible. So if only religious propaganda can be made, I would rather there be no religion in games at all. I have two games in development in which I try to show the significance of religion within a socio-political context but have abstracted the concept as "culture" to avoid directly offending anyone, though I am sure I will still indirectly offend a great number of people (I hope that I at least get the opportunity to). Until we can deal with religion the same way we deal with politics we will likely only see it in indie and special interest games.

Kevin Reese
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@Steve

I'm not sure if your family members are correct in their appraisal of the levels of primacy in Civilization Iv. Well, I'd respectfully disagree with them anyways.



In Civ IV, the 7 or 8 major religions of the world appear in game in roughly the same order they appeared on Earth, with Buddhism up first, then Hinduism , then Judaism , etc, if I remember correctly.



If you are referring to primacy of import, on civilizations, well this actually effectively dealt with in game terms, in Civ IV: with each new game you play, depending on mostly random chance (derived from placement and success of the game civilizations involved) , different religions will be become dominant on the world stage, depending a great number of factors. This is arguably how it has happened in the real world as well: the spread of religions [I think many impartial analysts of the situation would concur] had actually more to do with social and governmental politics then it did with the specifics of any particular religion. I could give a litany of examples of this, but Confucianism overtaking of Taoism in China comes to mind, or the legion of overtly political struggles between medieval Europe factions that resulted in sub-sects battling it out under the ostensible rally cry of religious struggle, such as the Protestants versus the Jesuits versus the Lutherans (etc etc) , or elimination of even smaller splinter sects within Catholicism, such as the massacre of the Cathars, out of fear new ideas disrupting the dominant power structures in society.



@Chad

I never played Total War -- which is probably my loss. :(



@Aaron



For a lighter side look at the 'preachy' topic , does any one remember that end of days, kill the non-believers rts game? :)



Referring to Google now... ah yes, Left Behind:Eternal Forces



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_forces



I'm all for companies with certain inclinations of faith making a game however they seem fit -- it just seems the obvious outcome however is that you will be limiting your market, no matter how tactfully you deal with the concept of religion. Being a matter of faith (for most people anyways), you can't really easily deal with religion as game concept because it is not based on logic, but belief. Thus, the concept does not translate well into the greater, most general notions of gaming, which are generally all founded on rational systems of rules arranged to determine winners and losers.



Edit in hindsight: actually, judging from the success of Christian rock groups and similar ventures, maybe just focusing on one religious organization could turn out to be a beneficial thing.

Shava Nerad
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Actually, I think a number of games deal well with religious themes. Recently, Dragon Age comes to mind -- there is an entire cosmology; the ethics and morals of sacrifice are dealt with; the inner and outer church as it were of the prevalent religion are portrayed; there is a mystic bard and an anthropological scholar of religion; there are archetypical direct experiences of powers and principalities involved in the cosmology.



On the other side, Christianity is allegorically couched (regardless of the author's demurring it) in Tolkien's LOTR series (although, because LOTRO skirts the main storyline, much of that allegory is far in the background), and many other games strongly reflect the Christian worldview implicitly if not overtly.



As a liberal Christian *and* a Buddhist, I see a lot of RPG and MMORPGs as passion plays of a sort, these days often with a sense of free will (jedi/sith,...). The games deal frequently with ethical and philosophical, sometimes even spiritual issues, without smacking the player over the head with a framework of dogma.



Do you really mean that there's not much *religion* in games, or not much of *your religion* in games?

Amir Sharar
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Robert Schmidt said: "Because of this intimidation and because of special protections religion often has within society a balanced view is impossible."



Neither of those cases were balanced views either. Theo Van Gogh was considered a bigot and referred to the very people he criticized as "camel fuckers".



What he represents, to me, is an uneducated perspective. Any uneducated perspective that ventures into making extreme comments is typically met with an extreme reaction.



Secondly he refused to debate his perspective on an intellectual level which leads me to my other point that ties into a quote from Mr. Schmidt, "So if only religious propaganda can be made, I would rather there be no religion in games at all."



In the end it would all be propaganda, no matter what position is taken (whether "religious" or "non-religious") and it is the nature of the medium because the message is one-way. There is no dialogue, debate, or two-way engagement with the user. In the end, it's preaching to the user (again, whether is based on religion or even say, criticizing religion).



So we can see that being educated on the topic is critical, and that the user has to be engaged otherwise we are just preaching.



Based on these, my perspective (not saying I have the right one, or anything like that) is that if we are to tackle religion in games it would have to start at a meta level, like "what is the meaning of life?" and work its way from there. And while I have my own beliefs (or lack of?), I think it would be ridiculous to impress them onto the user but rather have them come to their own conclusions in the game. When posing philosophical questions we can start with something very specific, but I fear that it would be "leading" like a leading question. A question like "Do you want someone who lived thousands of years ago to become your god and restrict your way of life?" would be such a question, for example.



"What is the meaning of life?"

"Why do we exist?"

"What is death?"

"How do we know what is good and what is bad?"



These are larger philosophical questions that can themselves narrow down to the more specific questions, including questions like "Do you think another human being knows what's best for you?" because at that point it won't be as leading as the user will have formed a broader perspective of the issue.



This also applies to issues like politics. I can make a game that someone could interpret to be a preachy anti-socialist (or socialist) game. Or, I can make a game that brings up questions like, "Should you share your hard earned money with others?" and the user can come up with their own answers.



Maybe it's just me, and my distaste for being preached to in any sense, but I think this would be the best way to tackle religion (and like I said, politics) in games. I have seen movies and read books that bothered my enjoyment of them to a small degree because of some of the preaching. The greater and more pronounced the preaching the more annoyed I was.



Shava Nerad: I agree. Games are indeed touching upon issues like death, morality, purpose. I don't think they are yet asking the user to define these or form any perspective on them yet, but these are indeed heavy religious themes.

Bart Stewart
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I wonder if there'd be any advantage in pointing out that there are two obvious ways religion could be addressed in a game.



One approach is go straight at it as Amir suggests, to directly address religion as a core element of the game. That could be interesting if handled well.



But what about the much simpler idea of simply having a character who professes a religious faith as one facet of their nature among many others? Such a character could have other "good" traits or express "bad" behaviors that are either separate from or driven by their religious beliefs. Why don't more games feature well-rounded characters like that, where no comment on religion in general is intended?



In fact, I recall exactly that being the case with Ashley Williams in Mass Effect. In one of the conversations you can have with her in the Normandy, she mentions that she believes in God and asks if that's a problem for your character. You can then reply yes, no, or something in between, and that becomes one more moment of humanization you can experience in a mere computer game. I thought BioWare handled it very well... but why are they pretty much the only ones to do so?

Jasper W
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A question that should be adressed first is on what level religion or morality can or should be embodied in the experience. Personally I am not interested in playing a character struggeling with its beliefs, just as I would not want to see a movie with that message at its core. What would be interesting (to me at least) however is if I myself start struggling with my beliefs through the videogame experience. Because the videogame provides a moral choice that is not as simple as good versus evil. This binary morality as seen in almost all videogame mechanics keeps them from mediating more meaningfull experiences.

Muhammad Saber
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interesting analisys, Richard Clark says

"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. "



I completely agree with you on this point as a game primary goal is entertainning.

Even though game designers could write an interesting plot containg religous toughts, one thing must be kept in mind a game primary goal is entertainment as a medium or a product that meets people demand, so players should have fun playing, most people get frustrated when a game becomes too tedious, hard and long adding fun and action is most important, and one thing for sure a game should not contain racism of any kind, it should be suitable for all people around the world even if the enemies of the game are those group of people who belongs to a specific religion or ethic group a game should express a point of view without excessive intolerance, it should be fun for all.

Benjamin Marchand
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Any religion may be used in games, with just one absolute condition : not being educational.

Richard Clark
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These are a lot of comments to keep up with, so for now let me just offer a few clarifications:



1. This is, in no way, an argument for "Christian" games. In fact, I think Christians are becoming less and less interested in their own version of various media. So, to answer Kevin, I remember the Left Behind game all too well, and it was a horrid idea from the start. Even Christian rock and what we call "CCM" (Contemporary Christian Music) is enjoyed less and less by the younger demographic. After a while I figure it will probably be left in the dust in exchange for musical artists like Sufjan Stevens, who happen to be Christians but basically just write good music. It would be best for the videogame industry to just skip to the later stage, both economically and artistically.



2. To address Robert's suggestion that religious groups would dislike religion's existence in video games: not that this would have to be the case, depending on your purpose, but it's possible to explore religious beliefs without deconstructing or denigrating them. As has been pointed out here by many, games have dealt with religion respectfully in the past. Jeffrey's right, it wasn't the meditation on how hard the crucifixion must have been to go through with that was the problem with Last Temptation, it was the (wholly unnecessary) tangent of Christ's having sex with a prostitute, and like scenarios that ruffled people's feathers. I loved the idea of that movie, but yeah, that part turned me off a bit (irony!). Apply the same principle to games: I was LOVING Assassin's Creed 2 and its treatment of religion and the various motivations of religious leaders, but (Spoilers? Kindof?) guess how I felt about it toward the end when it started making blanket statements about all religion?



I'm not saying games like that shouldn't be made, just that it's possible to make games that including religious ideas without going there. In other words, it doesn't have to be an inherently controversial choice to include religion in your game.



3. Yeah, religion has been included in games. There are really two trends I'm responding to in my article: The surface level way in which it's been treated, and the assumption that games are for entertainment only and therefore religion has no place within them. The bottom line is, if games can talk about war, or the end of humanity, they NEED to address religious issues. They don't have to call them that, and they probably shouldn't, but it seems wrong to have a game about war and not address the question of what about mankind's nature drives him to such a thing, not to mention where God is in the midst of it. I think Amir may be on to something when he says addressing of religion should be done on the meta level, though that may be a bit too limiting. Still, I would LOVE to play a game that addresses those questions head on in a thoughtful way.

Robert Schmidt
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@Jeffrey Parsons, if you had actually paid attention during the movie the bit you referred to was Satan's temptation of Jesus. It wasn't depicting it as an actual event.

Robert Schmidt
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@Amir Sharar, "Neither of those cases were balanced views either" which is fine, as long as the full spectrum of opinion can be expressed. Currently it can't.



"In the end it would all be propaganda, no matter what position is taken (whether "religious" or "non-religious") and it is the nature of the medium because the message is one-way." I don't buy that. I think it is possible to present an unbiased opinion based solely on the facts. That some may disagree with the facts or find them inconvenient does not therefore define it as propaganda. I also think it is possible to make games that ask questions and allow the player to answer rather than preaching. But, I don't believe that any opinion about religion that is anything but flattering would be permitted in mainstream games.



Recently Sony removed a song from LittleBigPlanet that contained two phrases from the Koran. That is the level of intolerance we are dealing with. If we can't even say the words from some faith's bible, how can we hope to ever objectively discuss the issues?

Richard Clark
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@Robert - "I also think it is possible to make games that ask questions and allow the player to answer rather than preaching." Absolutely, spot on.



"But, I don't believe that any opinion about religion that is anything but flattering would be permitted in mainstream games." Wait, have you played Assassin's Creed 2?



And it seems obvious to me that some faiths are more open to representation in games than others.

Patrick Dugan
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I just think it's awesome that a guy named Christian Nutt is not himself a practitioner of a Christian faith, to any degree of ardor.

Matt Marquez
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@Richard: You remember the "Church guy" in Left 4 Dead 1, right? I've always thought it was interesting how his character was portrayed, but it didn't matter seeing how he ended up.

Amir Sharar
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Robert Schmidt said: "Recently Sony removed a song from LittleBigPlanet that contained two phrases from the Koran. That is the level of intolerance we are dealing with. If we can't even say the words from some faith's bible, how can we hope to ever objectively discuss the issues?"



Intolerance on who's part? There were many different views on that issue from Muslim groups and at the end of the day no Muslim group formally complained about it.



There is no evidence to suggest that Sony engaged any Muslim group either, when they came to their conclusion to remove the song (which is from a Muslim and those sorts of song are extremely common in the Muslim world).



This ties into my earlier point, education. If we are going to deal with religion in any manner, it starts with an educated perspective.



Perhaps if Sony took some time to educate themselves, they could have saved themselves a costly and unnecessary recall.



"I also think it is possible to make games that ask questions and allow the player to answer rather than preaching."



That is what the rest of my post is about. But you do have to realize that you can preach through questions that lead, so the questions themselves have to be carefully picked and put into a relevant context.

Sam Galstien
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There is a game called Battle of the Gods on wikipedia that deals with this in depth.

Josh Foreman
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Bart Stewart: "I'll be honest: I suspect part of the reason is because most game developers today are either not religious or are actively opposed (if not hostile) to religion in any form. "



Case in point:



Kevin Reese: "Being a matter of faith (for most people anyways), you can't really easily deal with religion as game concept because it is not based on logic, but belief."



I've noted that the prevailing philosophical viewpoint in our industry is Western Post-Enlightenment Rationalism with a hearty dose of Relativism. But not just our industry, but the rest of western entertainment producers who have influenced us so heavily. The fire-and-brimstone, hypocritical crazy religious fanatic trope was born in literature long ago, and embraced by Hollywood several decades ago.





Jeffrey Parsons: "In the end the fiction reflects the beliefs of the creative people behind it, and frankly I find that 'progressive' types are far more dogmatic in pushing their beliefs on people. "



I don't agree with this. I'm a Christian and I have noticed that it's not a matter of the religious viewpoint vs. the secular. It's the fundamentalist world-view vs. an explorative world-view. There are fundamentalist religious, atheist, agnostic, political, cultural, etc. Anyone who insists that they are an adequate arbiter of the truth of things and therefore feel they are compelled to instill their beliefs in everyone else. (for their own good) I think everyone has a streak of this running through them to some extent. But when it comes to communicating belief through art I think the best ones are those who try their hardest to explore an issue from as many perspectives as possible without leading to an inevitable conclusion. (I think that Battlestar Galactica did an excellent job at this, and Full Metal Jacket did a poor job at it.) Not that morality tales are never good art, but they typically work best when their point is near-universal. (like teaching that it's better to be selfless than selfish.)



Anyway, I agree for the most part with the thrust of the article, and hope that some day the entertainment industry will become more inclusive of other philosophical viewpoints. This may be happening as the Christian ghetto of shadow industries (Christian music, movies and books) dissipates into the larger culture.

John Petersen
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I see all types of religion in games. Good vs evil scenario's, games speak of god's and hell. factions and religious oranizations, demons, ghosts. It's there even though it doesn't depict some dude getting nailed to a cross.

Robert Green
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I think the main reason you don't see more religion in games is that the major influence a religion has in the world is in the minds of the people who follow it. Most game genres don't even cater to character motivation, and those that do often focus on universal themes like heroics, revenge, glory, etc.

As others have noted, in a game where I play an avatar, it can ask me a question where my answer may depend on my beliefs, but you'd generally have to design the game such that there is no inherently wrong answer, or else you're crossing over into preaching.

In a game where I'm playing as a defined character, that character may express his/her beliefs as a motivation for what they hope to achieve, but my attachment to that character may be lessened if I don't share those beliefs. If all the character wants to do is defend his village from an approaching army, that's something everyone can get behind. Same reason why it's so rare to see shooters where one side isn't implicitly 'the bad guys'*, even if you get to play that faction in the multi-player. In a game, my character's motivation is, to some extent, my motivation, and if I disagree with their reasons for taking action then my enjoyment may suffer.

For a non-religious example of this, check the end of 2008's Prince of Persia. That tasked me with doing something I inherently disagreed with, and so I looked in vain for another option and, upon concluding there wasn't one, proceeded with remorse. The game actually made me feel guilty about taking the actions I did, specifically because I disagreed with the goal of the character.

Ask yourself this: would you be happy to play as a character whose motives were explicitly based on religious beliefs you didn't share? Probably not. Would you want to make a game that forced players into this situation? Probably not either. In the individual-contract movie world that's not really a problem - I doubt anyone was forced to work on the Passion of the Christ - but in the team-based gaming world, it presents an employment issue as well. Is it fair to force your employees to make a game that explicitly promoted a certain religion, unless they knew that was a goal of the company when they joined?







*Nazi's, zombies, demons, etc. Other games, like TF2, have two near-identical sides with no stated motivation. I don't know of many games where you change sides, but it's not usually presented as a choice, unless all sides are treated as generic.


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