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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