Religion and Video Games

Video games, like comic books, have never really gotten the respect they deserve as a medium. I meet too many people who assume that anything that involves a controller must be for kids and be about killing aliens. But this is changing. People who hear the phrase “video game” and think Donkey Kong are going the way of people who remember when comic books cost a dime.

It is widely believed that as the audience matures, and the fogeys shuffle off to complain about the next media revolution, video games will tackle more mature themes. But what about religious themes?

First off, it’s obvious that Danny is a secularist. When talking about religious themes (at about 2:30) he automatically jumps to secularism and religious freedom. Fine, but recognize that religion is a broad topic.

Folks like James McGrath are happy to expound on the way that science fiction handles religious issues – sometimes without mentioning religion at all. A discussion of guilt and redemption could be considered a discussion of Christian themes, even if no one name-checks Jesus. A discussion of the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force is just as much a religious discussion as a commentary on the First Amendment. A game doesn’t have to feature religious conflict to have religious content.

I don’t agree that video games shy away from depictions of religion, and the early days were not a barren wasteland. Infocom’s A Mind Forever Voyaging dealt with Reagan era policy, including the emphasis on traditional religion. In Sid Meier’s original Civilization, building temples and cathedrals pacifies your population: Religion as the opiate of the masses. The original Portal, which sparked arguments about what qualifies as a game, involves a character who becomes a science fiction messiah and leads humanity to a new Kingdom.

Darklands, which was set in medieval Germany, tried to stay true to medieval Catholicism, with a lengthy list of saints that you could pray to for various effects. In the fourth Ultima game you were tasked with becoming a secular redeemer by mastering a virtuous life. Most other fantasy games had some sort of polytheistic religion in the background.

Adventure, an expansion of Colossal Cave, was one of the first video games with a story, and it had a major portion in a church. And if you want a depiction of the futility of prayer, try typing “xyzzy”.

I could go on (endlessly). The point is that video games have always dealt with religion on some level. So I think the response to, “why aren’t games handling religious issues?” is “what do we mean by handling?” and “which religious issues?”

(Postscript just to say goodbye to Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore, whose computers got me started.)

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  • DMG

    One game I recently found treated religion in an interesting way was Bastion.

    You’re able to build a shrine and collect idols, filling out the pantheon of the game’s civilizations (two nationalities who ostensibly worship the same gods, but with deep cultural differences that lead to discrimination, segregation, and war – sound familiar?)

    You can “invoke” a god via its idol in the shrine, but the result is always bad: making your enemies stronger, faster, etc. You level up faster by defeating the more challenging foes, but you get no better ending for being pious – it’s just harder to get there.

    I thought it was an unusual approach to look at worship as a conscious choice, one that brings burdens and trials but no ultimate deliverance.

    (Also, if you’re looking not for religion but spirituality in games, play Journey!)

  • JohnMWhite

    Good post, vorjack, and right up my alley. Of course, religion has been handled in one way or another across hundreds of games, including some major names. Final Fantasy VII has an interesting dynamic in that its background seems to be built of a combination of Judeo-Christian tradition and Gaia theory: we have a villain literally named Sephiroth, a world-ending calamity from the skies, human sacrifice required to save the world, and yet underneath it all is the living, almost conscious planet itself, which is protected and cherished if not outright worshiped.

    Religious elements and themes flow through the story like the lifestream through the Earth’s crust, and RPGs are rife with religion. The Elder Scrolls series has a pantheon steeped in significant lore, and over the course of the series it has been interesting to watch them grow and their relationship with their followers change. In the latest installment, Skyrim, one god has been outright banned by an invading force, leading to a civil war over the rights of states to determine their own manner of religious freedom. Religion quickly becomes wrapped up in politics, just as in real life.

    Not sure where Danny is getting the idea that video games have not dealt much with religion. It’s everywhere. Well, it may not be quite as ubiquitous as space marines shooting aliens in grubby grey and brown environments, but it is still a common thread in many games. Even Monkey Island 1 had a church in it.

    • JohnMWhite

      Probably should have finished watching the video first, Danny covers the Skyrim thing, but that just makes his stance even more confusing – it’s a huge example of exactly what he is complaining is lacking, and it’s not alone. He’s essentially saying “there isn’t enough religion in games, other than all these examples that I go on about for 12 minutes”.

      • DMG

        One thing is that religion in games is often just part of the setting/set dressing/character backstory, not an integral part of the player’s decision-making and influence on the game world. In that sense, games definitely haven’t explored religion to the depth that they’ve explored things like shooting. ;)

        I think that absence of religious significance of the player’s choices (outside of god games or propaganda games like that rapture one), is what he’s getting at.

        He did leave out Age of Mythology, which was disappointing. I always wished they’d release an Abrahamic expansion pack to that game, with one or more monotheistic cultures. I guess labeling anything described in the Bible as “mythology” would have created too much backlash, though. Still, I think wielding the powers of a wrathful Yahweh would have been a blast. :D

        • Len

          not an integral part of the player’s decision-making and influence on the game world

          Maybe because you have to make rational decisions in games or you’re dead.

        • JohnMWhite

          That might be what he’s getting at, but it’s just not true. Skyrim is an example he brings up, and much of the plot hinges on where your own beliefs lie and whether you are willing to aid Talos worshipers or not. Final Fantasy VII is steeped in spirituality vs technology as a major theme and as essentially the sides in the main conflict. Bioshock’s world is built on a reaction to religion, and religion’s pushback. Most games don’t give the player many choices as it is, you just follow the plot along, so it is all about the plot itself whether or not you even get the opportunity to make a religiously relevant choice, but that goes for every theme. Shooting is a mechanic, religion isn’t, so the two cannot really be compared. There are plenty of games where religion is relevant to the player’s actions, though.

          I guess I just do not get what Danny is looking for, and I don’t think he quite does either. On the surface it seems he wants religion to be treated with more depth, nuance and variety in games than they have previously, and not just as window dressing, and that’s a reasonable request. Yet there have been plenty of games that invoke religion in a variety of ways, and there’s only so much you can do to make it part of how the game actually plays. It just seems a bit of an empty complaint to say “games don’t do enough to tackle religion in-depth, except all the games and whole genres that do so”. What more does he want?

          The shooting Muslims thing is a bit problematic as well. It certainly is true that video games, like all mainstream media, tend to couple Islam with terrorism, but they do the same with Russians, and being Russian is not a religion. Stereotyping and using stock bad guys is what media tends to do, and as much as it sucks and is lazy and potentially damaging, I don’t think it is really a commentary on how video games handle religion. Pretty much everything in FPS games now is lazy and stock anyway.

          • Elemenope

            The shooting Muslims thing is a bit problematic as well. It certainly is true that video games, like all mainstream media, tend to couple Islam with terrorism, but they do the same with Russians, and being Russian is not a religion.

            “I get it. You want to get cigarettes into the hands of someone other than the usual RAVs.”


            “Russians, Arabs, and villains.”

          • DMG

            “Skyrim is an example he brings up, and much of the plot hinges on where your own beliefs lie and whether you are willing to aid Talos worshipers or not.”

            But is that explicitly a matter of whether you believe in Talos or not? Or could you be acting out of secular ethics and compassion, or self-interest? Or conversely, could you play a Talos follower who condemns his fellows to avoid suspicion? I may misunderstand the scenario, but I gather that the player has no interaction with the faith itself – only with its followers, which makes their position ambiguous.

            “Final Fantasy VII is steeped in spirituality vs technology as a major theme” “Bioshock’s world is built on a reaction to religion”

            In neither of those games does the player have a choice of game-impacting stance on religious issues. The player is on a linear path through these worlds steeped in religion. They can choose what weapons to equip or how to approach a battle or puzzle, but has little means of expressing or exploring a religious viewpoint through their character & actions, beyond the plot-as-written.

            The closest those games come is Bioshock’s choice of how to deal with the Little Sisters – but that’s really a question of ethics, which could be religious or secular and still reach either outcome. One could even read the player’s persona as a Randian as extreme as Ryan himself, and still reach the same outcomes as any other player.

            • JohnMWhite

              Actually the player does interact with the Talos faith and may worship Talos if they so choose. Or they can decide they hate Talos and prefer one of his rivals, or they can decide they prefer a rival but believe that the people of Skyrim should be free to worship whomever they choose, or they can decide that they don’t believe in or worship any gods at all and either restore or continue the ban of Talos worship out of their own secular ethics. The player gets to adopt one of many positions. I mean… what more depth can one want?

              As for Final Fantasy and Bioshock – that was part of my point, in most games you don’t get to make choices at all, you follow a linear narrative, and faith or religion may or may not play a part in that. It’s asking a lot that there be some special class of games that somehow wraps religion up with the way the game is actually played, especially when there is already a genre that does this. To say a game “has little means of expressing or exploring a religious viewpoint through their character & actions, beyond the plot-as-written” is a bit like saying the same about a film – that it only expresses a religious viewpoint through the characters and their actions within the plot of the film. Where else is it going to do so?

              To write off Bioshock’s dilemma as something that could be a question of secular ethics compounds the problem: gamers have a choice of bringing their own ethics to bear on games or following the mores of their player-character as suggested by the plot. What other choices can you give them? I still don’t know what more you want. It’s either provide a loose narrative where religion is something that is mostly decorative, or provide an unfolding story where your character’s path is guided at least in part by their particular spiritual inclinations. Both options are out there and it seems like yourself and Danny are asking for option C, without ever being able to define what that would be since it seems to be either A or B at any given moment.

              Perhaps there is room for greater balance, but that would be a technical issue requiring games in general to be written and created in a different way. If you get the chance to play Skyrim, I recommend it, and you might find it provides the balance you’re looking for since it allows for player agency to have some relation to religion. Still, I just don’t see religion in particular being neglected by the industry, any more than any other theme that does not get its full exploration because the nature of how games work is you either have to have a tightly controlled plot with prescribed characters or something more freeform that by necessity provides just about everything as a coat of paint over the world, be it race, religion, gender or whatever else.

            • DMG

              To clarify: I’m just trying to interpret the video author’s perceived lack of religious exploratiom in games – that’s not a crticism of the industry I’m making myself.

              Actually, I think games show a better range of religious portrayals than most Hollywood film, which gets pretty hung up on Judeo-Christian tropes.

              Also, it seems I did misunderstand the choices presented in Skyrim, so I happily withdraw my earlier skeptical claim. It seems they’ve gone further in allowing a player to explore choices in religious affiliation and action than any other game I’ve seen. I’m very impressed! :)

              I think the lack of religious choices in FF and Bioshock still stands to exclude them as examples – comparing to the non-interactive medium of film doesn’t work, as the Skyrim example demonstrates that games, through choices, can do things film can’t. That’s fine, though: not every game must include meaningful religious interaction to be valid, and both games are rightly regarded as classics for other reasons.

              I agree that the author’s thesis is overstated and under-demonstrated, but I think we’ve at least sketched out what he was getting at: games where the player INTERACTS with religion are relatively rare, but there are still some interesting examples. :)

            • Darwin

              In Kingdoms of Amalur, you pick a specific god to follow in character creation. You can also pick to follow no god at all.

            • JohnMWhite

              I still must disagree, DMG, about excluding the likes of Bioshock and Final Fantasy. Comparison to the non-interactive medium of film is entirely valid because many games by their nature are driven by a linear story. To say Final Fantasy, rich with religious themes and spiritual sentiment as it is, does not count because you don’t get to make any choices about those sentiments is still asking far too much of the game. It is interactive in the mechanical sense – you click buttons to make your character do things, but all you are doing in these kind of games is navigating a story that has already been written. The narrative itself is not interactive, by design.

              Games certainly can offer choices, but they are under no obligation to do so. The vast majority of games have a linear narrative, and to write off games that follow one as somehow not counting means we might as complain that literature doesn’t offer enough choice and agency for readers because choose-your-own-adventure books exist.

  • meandmine

    One thing that I think that video vastly underplayed was just now secular the assassins of Assassins Creed became. I think that game is an impressive example of representing secularism and opposition to religious brainwashing. Sure in the beginning the Assassins were just as dogmatic and loyal and brainwashed but then they slowly became more than that. They disregarded this in the video simply by saying that the assassins were a kind of religion in themselves.

    • DMG

      Yeah, I got a real thrill playing AC2 and reading Altair’s writings. It was the first time I can remember seeing (what I read as) an atheist role model in a game protagonist. Someone who (maybe?) doesn’t believe in gods, but is still committed to helping his fellow humans live freely and prosper, and who follows a strong ethical code in that pursuit (though granted, one that involves more killing than I strictly like…).

  • Lana

    I think some of this idea of games being non-religious may be confirmation bias, too. When I first heard about this “issue” a few days ago, my first thought was, “What games are they playing?!?”

    See, I love, love, love RPGs. I actually don’t play games nearly as often as I would like to, because my absolute favorite games are the RPG’s for two or more players — like Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes or Champions of Norrath or Baldur’s Gate or Sacred. You’ll note that except for Sacred (which kinda sucked on console) those are all older games. Since most of the recent good console RPG’s — like Dragon Age: Origins — are single player, I just don’t play very often. I like to play video games with my son or husband, and I don’t like FPS or racing games. End result? I don’t play video games that often.

    Anyway, since all the video games I do play are set in a fantasy faux-medieval magical world, they all deal with questions of good/evil. They have a story arc that follows the Hero’s Journey. Some of them offer options for you to be “evil” (like Sacred) and pray to evil gods for evil powers. Your character often has the ability to raise demons or call on good spirits. Personally, I feel like the fantasy genre of video games not only features religious questions, but actually focuses on them and plays with them. I did play Dragon Age: Origins despite it being single-player, and I really felt like it had a lot of moral and ethical questions, and brought religion into the game through the conflict between the Templers and those who resist their magical control. In DA: Awakening, they even brought up a moral gray area with the Darkspawn — DA:O had posited the Darkspawn as corrupted, mindless personifications of evil, but DA:A, they showed intelligent, organized Darkspawn, which raised the question of inherent corruption and evil.

    I’d recommend the Dragon Age games for anyone who says video games do not address religion.

  • DMG

    Beware the conflation of religion with ethics. That’s the kind of thinking that leads some theists to conclude that all atheists must be selfish, immoral, objectivist animals. ;)

    A lot of games offer ethical choices, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as allowing players to explore a religious perspective.

    • Darwin

      Exactly. Gta IV offered an ethical problem at the end, and so do tons of other games. In some games, these don’t even have an effect on the gameplay. They are completely your choice.