Questions Of Faith: What Is Religion's Role In Games?

Unsurprisingly, many game developers and publishers would rather stick a fork in a live power outlet than discuss religion in games, much less write it into a game with a role more complex than archetypal good-vs.-evil belief sets.

But GameSpy's Julian Murdoch went in search of truth on the subject, despite the stonewalling and no-commentary this effort was certain to receive. Some luminaries in the field are eager to take up the subject - notably Peter Molyneux, creator of the god-sim Populous, and Ken Levine, whose Irrational Games made BioShock, whose dystopic objectivist society is introduced with the memorable banner "No Gods or Kings, Only Man."

Games run a couple risks that literature and cinema would not seem to share. One, that as a form of interactive recreation, its consumers come to a game in search of fun and may not care to ponder such weighty subjects. And two, because of that role, no matter how seriously the matter is treated, it's still a game, and making that out of a faith's iconography or belief structure is bound to offend someone. There seems to be little percentage in grounding a game's message in any actual faith - and far less in making judgments of one, specifically.

That does not mean its time will never come, and as Murdoch's reporting shows, there are some willing to bring it into the discussion.

God's PR Problem: The Role of Religion in Videogames [GameSpy, Jan. 13]

[...]Dante's Inferno has received substantial attention for the religious context of its story — a re-imagined journey of poet-turned-crusader Dante Aleghieri into Hell to recover his lost love Beatrice — but most of that attention was self-generated. EA's PR team deliberately played up the "sins" of each circle of Hell in their media outreach, going so far as to stage mock protests from faux fundamentalists outside last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo.

But, oddly enough, it doesn't seem that the game itself is actually looking to make a point about religion at all. "It's dealing with religious imagery and symbolism and context," explains [Visceral Games' Jonathan]Knight. "But it [takes place]a long, long time ago. It doesn't presume to make any judgments about today, or about belief." I detect a note of sadness in his voice as he says this; it's clear that he sees a real opportunity for games to directly explore such issues.

I ask him what questions he wants to tackle, and where he thinks games can take us. "What happens when you die?" asks Knight. "What's the higher purpose? What is God's plan for us?" he asks. "It's pervasive. Some properties do it loosely, or abstracted, or metaphorically. Some folks get a little closer to the third rail. But it's always there."

That third rail turns out to be very hard to touch. Sure, Fable II features good and bad churches, but they're largely stereotypes, played for comic effect. Games as old and revered as the Gabriel Knight series were set into religious contexts, and organized churches are a common trope of many Japanese RPGs. But is there enough of a payoff for a designer to really dig deep into the issues of belief?

Yes and no, according to 2K Boston's Creative Director Ken Levine, designer of BioShock and Thief: The Dark Project, two games which tackled the nature of belief head-on. "I think it's very tough to find a right and a wrong choice in life, so I tend to be drawn to shades of grey," Levine says. In BioShock, protagonist Andrew Ryan builds a city based on his belief system — one that denies God and worships man. In Ryan's underwater city of Rapture, the number-one item smuggled from the surface seems to be bibles, which litter the poorer districts of the city like People Magazine in a dentist's office. "As things get worse, people tend to go even further into their belief systems, rather than question them," Levine remarks. "I think that's interesting."

In Thief: The Dark Project (a game on which Levine served primarily as the story designer), he set a traditional, Christian-like church (the Hammerites) against a church based around a living, breathing prophet (the Trickster). "With an organized religion, there's the question — what actually happened? Virgin birth or not? Resurrection or not? But when you have an actual god walking around, it's harder to define canon; he just is. It was an interesting set of forces to put against each other — the primal force, and the organized force."

But are games the right place for these explorations? Lionhead's Molyneux certainly thinks so. "For me, faith is a real and tangible thing," he explains. "I think, like any form of entertainment or any form of fiction, games can drive towards faith. If people walk away from the game and think more deeply about things, and faith is one of those things, that would be brilliant." [...]

- Julian Murdoch

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


    The only time games deal with Religion is when its about kicking the crap out of monsters and demons.
    Eg: Darksiders, Bayonetta, Dantes Inferno.

    Or if its some evil cult religion youre killing.
    Eg: Resident Evil 3.

    Or if its people in positions of religious power and using their positions for evil doing.
    Eg: Assassins Creed 2

    See the theme here?
    Religion is always portrayed as evil.

      That's because religion *is* evil... no?

      Isn't terribly far from the truth though. Individuals have always used the notion of a divine to assert their authority over others.

    Well what does the gta series have to do with religion seeing that the series deals with a number of social issue
    1. In gta san andreas i remember a certain mission where you had to kill a preacher

    there is more interesting stuff at
    about religion in gta games.

    Religion should have the same impact in games that it does on education, social issue policy, politics and legal proceedings.


      It'd be great if gaming could be the one thing that religion can't muscle itself into. Leave gaming to the free thinkers who don't believe in fairytales.... we just play them.

        i'm a christian, and yet i'm a gamer too... your comment is ignorant and, to be blunt, stupid, suggesting not only that religious people can't play games, but that they aren't free thinkers.

    What a pretentious question. What is religion's role in games? The same as it in any other media: whatever the creator wants it to be. There's absolutely no reason for a more complex analysis just because we're talking about games instead of books or movies.

    Want to make a game that has religious themes? Go ahead, you're hardly the first. Want to make a character a preacher? Plenty of games have characters who are very explicitly members of a religion, no issue there. How about a story that explores themes of faith, whether directly or merely analogous to a real-world religion? That's been done too! These are things that are all over books, films and games already. I just don't see why games are somehow any different to any other form of media.

    Glad to see some of my own sentiments reflected here. I personally am an atheist and really don't want to see real world religions in games, at least not in a way that appears to try and convert someone.

    I personally enjoyed AC2 and the way it seemed to imply all religions were false, however I could imagine a lot of religious people finding that quite offensive, as I would if they had made it the other way round, saying that religions are true and we should all start going to church. To that end I don't think religion really should be in games, unless it is fictional.

    Oh and also, please never, ever ask Peter Molyneux anything. I actually really like the games he works on but he is the worst guy for loving the sound of his own voice.

    Religion has no plac ein Video games, school or society.

    I guess the christians running Kotaku think religion should also be apart of this site.

    It's THE MOST counter-evolution trend in the world that has caused more genocide than anythign to date.

    I'd like to see more games having a go at religion. Assassins Creed sort of did that, but I don't think it was intentional.

    I think we just need more games that are making a point. If that happens to include religion then that's fine.

    I think it's largely dependent on the game but a game, which features realistic characters with their own motivations, feelings, thoughts and, yes, religion/faith/belief system, is to be encouraged. THAT is good writing. Just because a character, even one I'm controlling, has a differing outlook on life, doesn't mean it's an attempt at conversion.

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