Religion in Games
Religion has provided the inspiration and subject matter for countless books, films and plays for many years, and continues to do so to this day. It makes fundamental claims about philosophy and ethics that have attracted fervent criticism and praise in almost every form and from almost every possible direction in recent years. So with all this in mind, why have we not seen more games that deal directly with the issues surrounding faith and religious belief? Well aside from the fact that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it is somewhat of a taboo to openly criticise religion intellectually or artistically (an immunity that all other forms of discourse are completely free from), the last ten or so years have shown that mainstream developers will invariably get bombarded with complaints and criticism that is mostly generated by an extremely vocal and hostile minority claiming to represent the views of people of faith worldwide, should they attempt to do so. The ensuing controversy results in developers being forced to tip-toe their way around issues surrounding faith or even avoid engagement with them at all, out of a needless fear of causing ‘offence’.
The makers of Hitman 2, for instance, were forced to rerelease an altered version of the game after the original sparked controversy over a level in which Sikh guards were being killed within a depiction of the Harmandir Sahib, a Sikh holy site. More recently, Resistance: Fall of Man was protested by the Church of England for including a gun battle in Manchester Cathedral. Legal threats were levelled at Sony by the Church, who demanded a formal apology, a substantial donation and complete withdrawal of the game purely because they considered the depiction of the Cathedral to be ‘desecration’. Thankfully, Sony did not capitulate. The attitude of the media at the time, however, in paying too much in the way of lip service to the ludicrous accusations and demands of the Church has somewhat neutered the industry and helped to discourage many other developers from using explicit religious imagery in their titles. If major producers are getting their wrists slapped for merely depicting religious symbols or using ‘holy sites’ as the setting for certain scenes, then the industry has no hope of engaging with religious faith on a sophisticated level in the same way as cinema or literature.
Of course these kinds of themes and materials must be dealt with appropriately, and abominations like Ethnic Cleansing and Muslim Massacre only end up contributing to the stigma that games can’t deal with them seriously and objectively. Equally damaging, however, are the ‘religious-games developers’ who attempt to force gratuitous religious messages into their games and essentially proselytise their audience, which merely serves to attract ridicule and ultimately deter other developers from even trying to engage critically with faith. TwoGuysSoftware’s (now known as XcrucifiX) Eternal War: Shadows of Light, for example, is just a poorly disguised recruitment drive that has a deviously brainwashy feel to it. The attempt to involve religion more directly does deserve some credit, but when implemented with such an overtly Christian agenda it not only detracts from the level of enjoyment possible but serves to alienate the mass audience, who are largely unconcerned with the bogus moral values of religion being snuck into their gaming experience.
Where is the middle ground then? On the one hand you have some peripheral developers placing religion at the centre of the experience and essentially creating interactive propaganda, and on the other there are the mainstream developers who are terribly afraid of overtly trespassing on religious subject matter out of fear of incurring a lawsuit. Clearly there is not a market for the former, but there is a serious deficiency in the mainstream industry of genuinely creative, objective and dispassionate exploration of religious issues and the problems they have caused and still cause in today’s world.
Assassin’s Creed is a case in point. Although most would argue that the Crusades were considerably political or territorial in nature, I found it frustrating how the extraordinarily fundamental role of religion in the conflict and its pervasive presence in medieval society was forcibly pushed into the background as to be almost indiscernible. This was particularly damaging for a game which was specifically criticised for its lack of depth and the unconvincing nature of the world it created. Had the developers reflected in the game how religiously charged society was in the 12th century and not treated the issue so sensitively it would have gone some way to alleviating this and adding a certain level of believability to their depictions of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem, which were, at the time, religious centres of the world.
With the political, ethical and metaphysical issues surrounding religion becoming more salient since the 9/11 bombings and the rise of ‘New Atheism’, developers are going to find themselves increasingly constrained in the kinds of contemporary issues they are able to engage with creatively if such a hugely significant subject remains untouchable. We have come a long way from the early 90s, where a game with even the slightest religious reference was heavily censored, but until religion is placed back on the table of rational discourse and criticism, video games as a creative medium will continue to be taken less seriously than other forms of entertainment. Authors and filmmakers seem to have a lot more courage when it comes to critically and objectively examining religion and if games developers can follow the example set by people like Salman Rushdie, Geert Wilders or Kevin Smith, it will just be a matter of time before the gaming medium will grow to a similar level of maturity and sophistication, which it undoubtedly has the potential for.
7 thoughts on “Religion in Games”
Joe summed it up, pretty much.
Although I’d like to hear your hypothesis of how to more effectively integrate religious atmosphere/tension into Assassin’s Creed, a game of such minimalism and focused objectives.
In no list should Geert Wilders be next to Salman Rushdie and Kevin Smith. He’s a rabble rouser and a borderline racist.
Perhaps the closest games get to critical examination of religion (albeit oblique) is in a fantasy setting. I’m thinking Morrowind, Torment.
@Jakkar: I’m really not sure if I’m being honest. For starters I think the language could have involved the mention of god a lot more, as it wasn’t made explicitly clear that the Assassins were actually an Islamic group, or that many of the people involved in the conflict were involved because of their religious beliefs. Answers on a postcard :D
@ Another Joe: In no way do I want to be seen to be condoning the politics of Geert Wilders. My point was that, irrespective of his political position, he dealt with Islam critically and objectively, and should be applauded for doing that in the face of significant hostility, both actual and intellectual. The other issue is that whether you agree with his portrayal of Islam or not, he was merely exercising his right to free expression and we all have a responsibility to condemn any attempt to restrict that. I actually have a huge problem with Geert Wilders for other reasons, but I have a lot of respect for him risking his life (which he did) to make a film that was actually very informative and gave a fairly accurate portrayal of certain elements of a belief system that is exeptionally violent and oppressive. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious arse, that famous Voltaire quote sums it up: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think it was contemptible that he was banned from entering the UK and anyone who supported the ban should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
OK rant over
geert wilders? seriously?
You’re critical of games with “an overtly Christian agenda”, but champion games that depict the desecration of holy symbols, which strikes me as an overtly anti-religious (or at least iconoclastic) agenda. I’m curious: could a “serious” treatment of religion in games perhaps take religion seriously? Or must it always mock? You’re spot-on right regarding AC’s failure to take on it’s setting whole-heartedly. I see a distinct lack of maturity in the industry (witness how we so often cling to redemptive violence as the single-note theme), and a distinct lack of production values from the nascent “Christian games” ghetto. We certainly don’t need supine, mealy-mouthed “let’s just not offend anyone” treatments, which are anything but serious. I’d personally like to see a G.K. Chesterton of games, as holy as Edmund McMillen is profane and overtly Christian as cactus is overtly strange. Then we’d have some serious religion in our games.
Games are an art form. They can handle religion just like books or movies etc. etc. Civilization 4 did it well, demonstrating that religion can be a social and political tool to be wielded by a ruler attempting to exact domestic or international change. While it names the religions, and uses the names of their historical/literary characters and famous places of worship, it does so with a dry style that emphasizes their role in the game; as interchangeable properties that drive underlying mechanics.
I especially like these design choices, and here is why.
Having been born and raised into an adulthood of work in the wonderful state of Kansas, I had to become callous at a young age towards all the various zealots screaming at the top of their lungs about their slightly different (but still protestant, mind) interpretations of the bible. As a kid, I was dutifully dropped off at Sunday school by my mother at many different churches (as she was shopping around for one she liked), and I got exposed to these differences.
Since all the adults told the different stories, or drew different “lessons” from the same story, I took some advice from a great uncle out of context he had probably intended: “If two people tell you two stories about the same thing, they’re probably both lying.” I pretty much became a little atheist at age five or six; in my early teen years, I ended up reading a bunch of philosophy, and realized that was just another baseless position like those I had abandoned. Agnosticism, yay.
Now, I just wish people would shut up about the whole issue. Its a private matter; it ought to have nothing to do with your politics or your public life. Probably, only your family and close friends ought to have any idea what beliefs you hold outside a conversation like this.