When I was younger someone once said to me, “If you want to have a good party never introduce the topics of sex, religion and politics.” I’m beginning to think that perhaps we need to add video games to that list and keep it separate from religion and politics. Don’t even let the words touch one another in a sentence; it could be a lethal, and explosive, combination.
Recently I’ve discovered that religion in video games is quietly rearing its head once more. It’s a steamy topic that’s making a lot of people very, ahem, cross. Writer Julian Murdoch, in a feature for Gamespy wrote that he “encountered a wall of fear and paranoia when [he] called around, asking developers to talk about religion in gaming.”
Some were happy to talk about it, others refused point blank. It’s just too hot to handle and if one person says the wrong thing with the wrong inflection then it could be all out pandemonium. A PR nightmare. Littlebigplanet from Sony had to delay the game in order to remove music with texts from the Quran as lyrics. It's that tricky.
So what is the role of religion in video games? Is it even necessary? I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the titles and genres that have incorporated religion to a greater or lesser degree, and see if it made any difference at all.
To start with I must admit that while I’ve enjoyed many God games and played other titles, like Gabriel Knight, with a religious subtext, I’ve never really noticed. Still, I do wonder if using religion in games isn’t just stirring up a nest of already pissed off hornets?
Sim management and construction games such as Black & White, Spore, Populous and Utopia are considered to be God games. You play the ruler, the overlord, the great mind that makes decisions for the populace. You can crush them, reward them or both. Depends on your mood really.
The first of these on a console was Utopia, designed by Don Daglow on Intellivision in 1982, and the first for the PC was Populous by Peter Molyneux.
Black & White is one of the most popular of this genre as you play, quite simply, a god. Some religious factions believe that this may make the gamers feel like they are gods and that they could begin to equate their own abilities with those of the known deities. Seriously? I have yet to walk away from a God game feeling like I can manipulate the lady down at the Co-op to give me free groceries. And, as far as I know, there have been no reports of gamers marching down streets demanding that the peasants fall to their knees and worship them.
However, in the fantasy genre, religion plays a huge role. Even Murdoch notes that “virtually every fantasy role-playing game, from World of Warcraft to the simplest, roguelike, explicitly includes the divine in the form of priests calling down healing prayers or smiting evil foes.” Good point. In my many man hours of WoW I’ve even seen priests (players that are priests, natch) gathering in the churches of Stormwind for informal or formal meetings.
Fantasy has always contained an element of the divine; from D&D to MMORPG there are religious overtones that are neither subtle nor bland. But the use of fantasy to instil a sense of religious belief or to transmit a message has been common practise for centuries. Remember the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? C.S. Lewis was a religious man who believed that his allegory would draw children to the Christian faith.
Perhaps this debate has resurfaced primarily because of a couple of recent titles that have caused some disturbance. Assassins Creed II and Dante’s Inferno both have religious overtones and have made some waves in the media. Dante’s Inferno doesn’t really march around waving religion in your face, it's set too far back from contemporary beliefs and is not a serious religious undertaking.
Assassin’s Creed, however, is a little trickier. The game even has the disclaimer “Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.”
Well, ok then. Clearly Ubisoft felt that they were going to be entering a war zone and planned for every eventuality. I can almost see the hiring process now.
Three suits in a room, “Frank, we need three more faiths, hire them.”
“But we only need one more designer.”
“I don’t care, I need that disclaimer.”
How do we reconcile the world of gaming with the world of religion? Should we even be trying? Perhaps the use of video games to bring young people to the faith would work; certainly there are denominations and beliefs that are trying this strategy. But those are games for and about religion. Should mainstream games take it seriously enough to include it on a moral level or should it remain something that is introduced so long as it’s a part of the story and carries it along? Even I've been too nervous about backlash to write any deeper than this, perhaps it is something best left alone...