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How to Handle Christianity in Video Games

by Gregory Campbell on 04/26/18 09:20:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

How to Handle Christianity in Video Games

It's dangerous to go alone!  Take this Bible.

Image Source: Pinterest.com

 

Preamble: Necessary Clarifications

While this article emphasizes Christianity, at least many of its principles can apply to handling any religion in video games, and to some extent, other fictional/tribute media such as literature and movies.  I chose Christianity as the primary subject of this article because that is the spiritual belief system with which I am most familiar (and the grace of Christ - or Christianity - is what I consider my primarily belief system) and I knew of many examples of Christianity offhand in video games.

I chose to write and publish this article now since I have noticed Christian iconography and themes in video games but have not yet noticed others writing about this topic.  May this be useful to you.

If you are commenting on this article or its contents, I urge you to be respectful since this is likely a sensitive topic! 

 

Part I:  Considering Prior Depictions

There have been plenty of examples of spiritual and religious beliefs and their practitioners from fictional systems and real world systems portrayed negatively in video games and popular culture in general.  Depending on your familiarity level, some may immediately spring to mind.  Far Cry 5 is a recent big-budget, major-release example of this 'religion is bad' phenomenon in video gaming (and also rated M for Mature), though, with ample research, you can find many, many other examples of this.  Sometimes it manifests as a dangerous cult a la Cthulu.  Sometimes instead it's a dangerous theocracy.  Sometimes it's religious extremism, often mixed with terrorism, driving the plot a la the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games and decried here.  Sometimes, it's an alien or otherworldly force bent on human domination or destruction a la the Reapers from the original Mass Effect trilogy.  Sometimes, it's using a belief system's aesthetic elements without understanding its substance like with the Bayonetta series and Christianity.  Regardless, vilifying religion and its practitioners is often done for the emotional impact of corrupting something many people hold dear, and, more subtly, mocking those with strong religious or spiritual beliefs even if such are notably different than the beliefs presented in this game.

Additionally, as a plot device or a framing device, 'religion is bad' is a simple way to get audience attention and sometimes touch on points otherwise difficult to convey.  In terms of video games, battling an enemy cult is an easy way for designers to show what that cult and its clerics can do and sometimes how supernatural that belief system truly is.

Still, why emphasize the negative?  There's something about human nature that has tended to dwell on the negative.  For example, the amount of time spent working and investing to gain a certain amount of money is often much less than the time needed to spend or lose said money.  Human nature says of loss aversion that, because something is valuable and gaining it is often a slow or difficult process, losing this valuable or precious thing hurts and is preferably to avoided:  The threat of losing something valuable can be twice as impactful as the thrill of gaining something equally valuable.

While some would simply dismiss the 'religion is bad' trope as standard, it need not be.  (TVTropes.org has an extensive list of religion tropes.)  This phenomenon is more likely due to popular media emphasizing the negative, or, in the words of Jon Stewart during a Daily Show broadcast, "You never hear about the cars that don't blow up."  Therefore, where are some positive examples of religion in popular media and why do we audience members tend not to notice them?

The first example is a prominent one from fiction.  If you haven't already scrolled down and seen it, check now.

 

Image Source: The Daily Mirror (mirror.co.uk)

 

This image depicts Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars multimedia franchise and is perhaps the most famous example in recent times of religion (The Force) depicted in a positive way.  (I acknowledge that Star Wars talks about the Light Side and the Dark Side of The Force and that The Force is not inherently negative nor positive, but how people use it is based, at least largely, on their training and their personal choices.)  Why?  A significant and well-discussed point of Star Wars Cinematic Universe (in this case meaning only the official movies and not the TV shows, comics, games, etc.) is that The Force exists and it can be use destructively via the Dark Side or constructively and protectively via the Light Side.  Prolonged use of Dark Side abilities is associated with personal corruption, whereas prolonged use of Light Side abilities is associated with personal heroism.  In short, the Star Wars Cinematic Universe (SWCU) shows a fuller perspective about what The Force and its practitioners are and can do, and instead of relegating it to an awkward or an undesirable 'otherness' status like many other works of fiction, presents The Force initially in a positive way via the original Star Wars (now often called Episode IV or A New Hope) and its heroic protagonist and Light Side Force User, Luke Skywalker.  The SWCU was generally quiet on Jediism being a religion until Rogue One where a character mentions a Force Temple and The Last Jedi where a different character explicitly calls Jediism a "religion."  (I am aware of Jediism being treated more explicitly like a religion in other Star Wars media, but for the sake of this argument and for avoiding spoilers, I did not mention more.)

Another major reason for this positive depiction of religion in the SWCU is that religion (The Force), its learning, and its use are not generally seen as burdensome by its users.  The Force exists and learning to use it may have some biological disposition (depending on how valid you consider the explanation of midi-chlorians in relation to Force ability), though proper training is expected for a student to be able to harness this ability well.  The SWCU treats this somewhat like one of many other professions, such as a pilot or a business owner, though being a Jedi has negatives and positives inherently associated with it.  This is similar to real life where being a Christian pastor or minister is often considered one of many honorable professions with its own set of inherent negatives and positives.

George Lucas explicitly mentioned borrowing aspects from various real world belief systems and mythologies when making the Jedi.  (Source)  For example, if you wanted to find parallels between Christianity and The Force, you could Google the subject and get this list of results, likely including this discussion regarding the accuracy of the comparison between The Force from Star Wars and The Holy Spirit from Christianity.

Overall, the effect of the SWCU positively depicting religion was convincing to me because it drew from a variety of real world sources; it initially depicted main character Luke Skywalker and Jediism positively; and because the SWCU did not attract undue attention on the fact that Jediism was a religion.  In short, a positive religious depiction happened in this case in large part due to it being a subtle, well-done piece of a compelling much larger whole.


Part 2:  Christianity - Nintendo of America Approved

For awhile, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, Nintendo of America (NOA) actively censored its games. (Source)  Religious iconography was one topic of said censorship, though it was inconsistent.  Certain famous things on the NES were allowed through this policy due to them predating this censorship, or, possibly, since whoever was in charge of this censoring at NOA happened to like them.  (I am aware that there were other games released on other systems by other companies that had different policies on censored material.)

The first - and perhaps most famous - example is the early Legend of Zelda games.  For an extensive in-depth look on the subject, Gaijin Goombah's video explains things thoroughly; however, a very brief version follows.  The Zelda franchise included Christian crosses in its first two games.  Below are some of the depictions from those games.

 

Image Source: Zeldapedia.com

Zelda 1's main character of Link shows the cross on his small shield.  To me, this shield looked like a Bible or other book with a cross on the cover.

 

Image Source: DecalNinja.com

This is a picture of main character Link holding his larger Magic Shield.  Notice the cross on the shield's front.  (Certain other games of the NES and SNES eras also had crosses on shields, such as the armor shop from Crystalis and the shield icons from Final Fantasy II US and Final Fantasy III US.)

 

Image Source: WikiHow.com

This is a picture of one of Zelda 1's graveyard screens.  Each grave shows a cross.  (Many games outside the Zelda series regardless of platform have, however wittingly, used crosses to represent grave sites.)

Image Source: LPArchive.org

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link has a cross as an obtainable item which reveals invisible creatures.

 

Image Source: Zeldapedia.com

While this above image of Link kneeling before the cross of Christ (more specifically a crucifix) is not from any game, it was from the Japanese guidebook for Link to the Past, heavily implying that Christianity was a very intentional part of the Zelda universe, at least in its first three games.  While NOA seemingly never approved of this image, this serves as evidence that NOA was aware of Christianity's place in the Zelda universe.

 

Another notable example is the Castlevania game series.  The NES entries had someone with a last name of Belmont fighting the vampire Dracula and Dracula's horror movie minions.  While other third party games like the original Final Fantasy had their Christian crosses censored in American releases, Castlevania, perhaps due to its inherent nature of using crosses to defeat Dracula, got around it.

 

Image Source: DKOldies.com

This is a set of background images from the original NES games DuckTales (top) and Castlevania 1 (bottom).  Perhaps the background crosses on Castlevania were deemed too indistinct or thematic to be objectionable.

 

Image Source: Castlevania.wikia.com

The first NES Castlevania was the first game in the series to have the cross as a boomerang-like weapon.  The official American manual renamed some of the items, such as from cross to boomerang and holy water to fire bomb, but these names were eventually replaced in later games by their true names, such as cross and holy water.

 

Image Source: Movie-Censorship.com

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse has this image - cross included - prominently displayed as one of the first things visible after starting a new game.  The main difference from its Japanese counterpart is that in this American version, there is no blue/teal glow around the cross.

There were subtler Bible references in other NOA-approved games.  Final Fantasy IV (or Final Fantasy II US) and Illusion of Gaia explicitly mention the Tower of Babel (or, for FFIV, Tower of Babil or Bab-il or similar, depending on localization).  Pictures for these are purposely omitted for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s while being heavily involved in the video game industry climate by playing the games, reading magazines, and watching TV, I don't recall any notable controversy over Christian or religious iconography or references in video games.  This was in stark contrast to what were considered very violent video games (like how Mortal Kombat directly led to the creation of the Electronic Software Ratings Board or ESRB - source) or sexual video games (like how senators called Night Trap for the Sega CD "disgusting" - source).  Maybe the people of the day were too busy enjoying the games to consider the Christian iconography to be controversial.

In more recent times, there have been more controversial video games to sport Christian aesthetics.  The Bayonetta series is or was seemingly Japanese developer's understanding of Christianity, the game series Devil May Cry, and Dante's Divine Comedy mixed into a Rated M for Mature game series that does not want to take itself very seriously, yet its purposely artistically licensed treatment of its aesthetic elements (Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, humans, and the overall universe of Bayonetta) caused much less of a controversy than its depiction of violence and female characters (most notably Bayonetta for her sexualized portrayal).  Even Bayonetta's inclusion in Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. 4 as downloadable content seemed more controversial than the handling of the Christian aesthetic in her games.

Overall, Christianity and religious iconography have been part of video gaming for over 30 years in North America, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere.  When it is done well, it helps that creative work, usually through being subtle.  When it is done poorly, its inclusion seems questionable with its overt flaws amplified.  Regardless, Christianity's depiction in video games over the past few decades has been much less controversial than sex and violence.

 

Part 3: Christian Video Games

On one level, I understand why major studios would be hesitant to include overtly Christian elements in their games when these elements haven't been mainstream in decades if ever.  (Consider the cost of a typical AAA game as strong evidence on why these major releases tend to be formulaic.)  I also understand that Christian video games have generally had a mixed-to-poor reception with games like Super 3D Noah's Ark for SNES and PC, Bible Adventures for NES, and Captain Bible for PC due primarily to these games being games not worth playing instead of their reference to their Biblical source material.

However, the notion that Christian games are or should be automatically bad games need not be this way!

First, the game must be interesting enough on its own.  A Christian aesthetic alone can't save it.  For example, why was the SNES version of Super 3D Noah's Ark considered such a bad game?  It wasn't primarily (or at all) for its Biblical aesthetic, but instead for its awkward controls, repetitive levels, mind-grating collection sound effects, and generally unengaging gameplay.  Games from a similar era - Doom and Wolfenstein 3D - had fewer such complaints due to them being more interesting as games.

Since this seems like a common phenomenon in Christian video games, let us consider gameplay-wise what many makers of Christian video games have seemingly done.  The answer is to start with a heavy primary emphasis on the Biblical source material and shove something that seemed Biblical or Christian enough into a game.  Often these games are parodies or clones of other, better-known games such as how Guitar Praise (YouTube Footage, Amazon Page), was a remix of Guitar Hero.  The teams in charge of developing these games are usually small with small budgets and similarly small sales, but notable passion for their work and for proclaiming their Christian beliefs.

Second, games must be intentional in the Christian elements they include and how these are handled.  Let us consider how other media (most notably literature with film adaptations) handled this phenomenon.  C.S. Lewis wrote the seven-book Bible allegorical series The Chronicles of Narnia; J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the 16-book series Left Behind.  Each of these deals with Christianity via its Christian themes, such as Narnia's Aslan representing Jesus Christ and the White Witch representing Satan (source) and LotR's Frodo, Samwise, and Gandalf representing three aspects of Christ (source).  Left Behind's plot handled things differently by avoiding a fantasy world altogether and, instead, presenting a plausible account of certain characters who lived on Earth through the rapture (since they weren't Christian at the time of the rapture) and the end times as described in the Bible, especially in the Book of Revelation, which is the last of the 66 books in the Bible (source).  Each of these stories drew upon the Bible for inspiration with Christian themes and symbolism and presented in various ways throughout its tribute fiction.  Each of these stories was engaging and profitable enough to warrant a book series (though Lord of the Rings was the only book series of these three that had all its books adapted in modern times to big-budget Hollywood films).  In short, each of these stories was meant to be engaging first and foremost with proper integration of its Christian elements instead of figuring that, because Christianity was involved seemingly obviously, this alone was good enough.

As mentioned by Tycho Brahe (also known as Jerry Holkins) in his January 17, 2014 Penny Arcade blog post regarding Bible Adventures: Call of Abraham,, a cancelled Christian video game, there are two main audiences for a Christian game (and, by extension, Christian entertainment media) - those who already understand the Christian elements and those that do not yet.  This is a surmountable difficulty, and is best handled by considering the attachment to Christianity either as an extension of the original work (the Bible in this case) as a sort of internally consistent fan fiction a la Left Behind or as something original but notably inspired by the original work a la Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia.  This works similarly for video games.

In terms of narrative and gameplay structure, certain game types more immediately come to mind as viable.  (For example, a Christian cooking or a dating simulator likely requires more considerations regarding its theme than a puzzle game or a trivia game, though Tycho Brahe offers his insights on Biblical games by topic and genre and why using the Bible's intellectual property for brand-name recognition would immediately garner attention and sales.)  The hero's journey is one such structure, is common amongst video games (especially RPGs), and is a structure in some Bible stories such as Joseph from Genesis.  Joseph was envied by his brothers; sold into slavery from Canaan to Egypt; bought by the household of Potiphar, Egyptian Captain of the Guard; prospered in all he did because he believed The Lord was with him and to such a degree that Potiphar's unbelieving house realized that The Lord was with Joseph; was tempted by Potiphar's wife; was falsely accused of an affair with her which put him in prison; while in prison, interpreted Pharaoh's prophetic dreams about Egypt and how to save it and the surrounding nations from starvation over the next 14 years; was promoted to second-in-command of Egypt; was reunited with his family; messed with his brothers who did not know he was viceroy of Egypt; eventually forgave his brothers; and, with the Pharaoh's permission, had his family (including his father who thought he was dead) move to Egypt where they were well-supplied.  If that sounds like the plot of a commercial RPG or a big-budget film, it could be, but predates the media of movies and video games by millennia.  This story was, however, adapted into the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which was later adapted into film versions like this one.

What, then, are some more specific ideas for Christian video games?  First, consider a point-and-click adventure game where the main character is generally unfamiliar with or struggling with his Christian faith.  Perhaps something mind-blowing has just happened to him due to losing a loved one, suddenly becoming unemployed, or moving to a new region (a new country, a significantly new area of his old country, or perhaps a new planet).  Using the example of a lost loved one, what were the main reasons the main character cared so much about this loved one, and what was it about this loved one that inspired the main character to believe in Christ or otherwise be interested in Christianity?

Second, for a more direct tie into the Bible, consider a strategy game (real-time or turn-based) inspired by King David and his army as mentioned in the books of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.  Perhaps a better war game fit involves David's Mighty Men from 2 Samuel 2:23 as an RPG (action RPG or turn-based RPG) against the Philistines and the enemies of Israel.  (Gamasutra user Adalberto Ferro mentioned in the comments of this article the Steam game FIVE: Guardians of David, a Diablo-style action RPG with a Biblical aesthetic, meaning such a game exists.)  Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a commercially-released real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind book series, meaning there is precedent, but it was likely rushed due to it being a licensed game based on the popular book series of the time.

Third, for something more supernatural, consider what angels and demons are doing.  LucasArts released the PC game Afterlife in 1996, meaning that there is precedent for a SimCity-style management game acting somewhat simultaneously as Sim Heaven and Sim Hell.  (C. S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters as a way to better understand the inner workings of Hell and the mindset of demons, meaning there is further literary precedent for pondering the works of Christian supernatural beings.)  While there are plenty of games where the main characters meet or fight against angels and demons - like the Diablo and Disgaea series - I know of close to none where the main character is an angel.  (Chubby Cherub for NES is a game with an angel main character and NyxQuest for PC has Nyx, an angel-like being, for its main character.)  Similarly, I know of few games offhand with fiendish main characters, like Laharl from Disgaea and Dante from Devil May Cry.

On another topic, aside from the aforementioned examples of Christian elements in video games, there are some positive examples of Christianity included in critically- and commercially-acclaimed video games.  While I wish this list were longer, there is still the potential for other game developers to make games with Christian elements.

The Mass Effect series for Microsoft consoles, Sony consoles, and PC is a recent big-budget video game series with explicit Bible references (spoilers!  - source 1, source 2, source 3).  Mass Effect 1 begins with a mission on the planet Eden Prime, an obvious reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden.  Mass Effect 2 & 3 have the robotic gestalt entity character Legion, a direct reference to Mark 5 and Luke 8 when Jesus asked a man his name and he replied "Legion," due to him being simultaneously possessed by hundreds of evil spirits.  Mass Effect 2's early game mentions the "Lazarus Project" where a prominent figure in-universe is revived from the dead and is a reference to John 11 where Jesus miraculously raises a man named Lazarus from the dead.  There are other Biblical references in the Mass Effect series, but I omitted them here for the sake of avoiding blatant spoilers.

In previous decades, the first two Baldur's Gate RPGs for PC had Christian iconography in a variety of places.  Christian-like crosses (traditional and French) are prominently displayed from early in the first game in relation to the Temple of Oghma.

Image Source: https://youtu.be/7IHGRT7zhGI?t=24m25s

 

There are many other examples in Baldur's Gate's spell icons.  The Mage spells Armor and Ghost Armor have a traditional Christian cross on a breastplate and Polymorph Other and Polymorph Self look similar to someone being stretched out on a cross.  The Priest spell icons for Aid, Bless, Cure X Wounds, and Glyph of Warding each look like a plus or a French cross while the spell icons for Chant, Raise Dead, Resurrection, and Spiritual Hammer each contain a traditional cross.  The spell icons for Protection from Evil and Protection from Evil, 10' Radius each contain a serpent or a snake (which are symbols of Satan in the Bible - source, source 2) with a blue circle around this snake icon which is game terminology for protection.  Curses in the game have an associated spell icon of this snake, and Genesis 3 is where God cursed Adam and Eve, but cursed Satan the most, causing snakes to be associated with the curse.  (The Baldur's Gate series has icons for other spells that use the crucified human-looking icon or the snake icon making this list non-exhaustive, but the points still stand.)

Adding to the list of Christian crosses on shields is Diablo II's Paladin's Holy Shield ability.  The icon and the shield it affects plainly have a cross on them.


Image Source: classic.battle.net

Also from Blizzard but from Warcraft II this time is the sound effect played when clicking on the Church structure for the Human Alliance, wherein a voice or set of voices chants, "Deo gratias," meaning in English, "thanks be to God" (source).  This phrase refers to 1 Corinthians 15:57 which reads, "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."  In context, this verse refers to the new resurrection body each Christian believer receives, but in Warcraft II's context, it can also mean the 'new body' of the permanent conversion of all current and future Knight units for a player to Paladins, complete with a new unit portrait and voice-altered unit responses.

Finally for now, Halo's Master Chief is a subtle reference to the Bible since John-117 is a reference to John 1:17 which talks about the distinction between the Old Covenant of the Law of Moses and the New Covenant of Grace and Truth (which are mentioned in the singular form in the original language) of the grace of Christ.  Considering Master Chief's role in protecting humanity in the Halo franchise and acting repeatedly as a savior, his name makes sense for him to be a Christ-like figure.  Certain other more spoilery aspects of the Halo franchise (like the groups known as The Covenant and The Flood) are also Bible references.

 


Image Source: Halo.wikia.com

Just like with the Christian iconography from previously-mentioned games, these Christian references stirred no notable amount of controversy of which I knew.  They were simply part of the games.  Whether their inclusion as-is improved their respective games is subject to personal opinion, but I believe so, if only to acknowledge that Christian game developers existed and were willing and able to put these small touches in their games.

 

Conclusion

Christian video games represent a generally underserved market due to a variety of factors, such as underemphasizing the importance of making engaging original content and a general lack of well-done, well-publicized examples.  Literature and movies have solid examples of tribute fiction from the allegorical Chronicles of Narnia series to the original myth of the Lord of the Rings series to the more Biblical tie-in Left Behind series.  Certain game genres, Christian themes, and topics of the Bible lend themselves more naturally to engaging games.  Finally, if the past examples of Christianity used in video games are accurate measure of how future audiences will receive new Christian games, then the Christian elements in these games - if done well - are unlikely to incite any serious controversy over their inclusion.

Overall, this is a time of pioneering opportunity for Christian video game creators willing and able to carefully construct experiences that are first and foremost engaging games, but which also wisely and intentionally incorporate Christian elements.  With so many available options, what will you do?

 

About the Author

Gregory Campbell has a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Chapman University and a Game Design Master of Science degree from Full Sail University.  He has worked at Blizzard Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, and elsewhere.  He is amidst making a video game with Christian themes as one of his personal projects.  His favorite Christian ministers with online material are Pastor Joseph Prince and Pastor Creflo Dollar.  His favorite Christian music is from New Creation Church.

This article was inspired heavily by his time playing Baldur's Gate 1 & 2, and Zelda 1, watching a speedrun of Castlevania 3, and talking with a church member about the general absence of Christian video games.


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