Are You There God? It's-a Me, Mario

Few video games deal with the touchy subject of religion seriously. When they do, they often deal with the more fantastical outlying bits of different faith systems, like last year's Dante's Inferno, or the upcoming El Shaddai: Rise of the Metatron. Rarely do we see games that hunker down and deal with real questions of faith and the questions that surround faith.

When looking at game franchises like Modern Warfare, Fallout, and Killzone, one can't help but notice that belief systems are radically absent from the mind of the characters that we play as and interact with. In the face of horrific and devastating circumstances, there is no hint of the theodicy or the fox-hole conversion. In situations where human beings are faced with some of the most dire and core-shaking experiences, no one asks the basic human questions: Is there a God? If God is good, how can any of this happen?

Games like The Witcher stand out, boldly presenting a character who is an atheist, yet also sympathetic to the theistic characters in the game. Unafraid to ask difficult questions, games like this simply feel more real and fleshed out. Can we imagine a world where, after nuclear holocaust, the human race simply stops asking the question "Where is God?" This rings totally false when we consider the devastated idealism of the 19th century that crumbled with the ruin of whole generations of European youth in the early 20th century. It's verisimilitude falls to pieces when we consider the Jewish religious, philosophical, and psychological (i.e. Frankl) response after Dachau and Bergen Belsen. When we consider even a single parent's questions when a child dies (i.e. Kushner), such a world seems devastatingly shallow.

We have done incredibly well portraying evil in the gaming industry. We have succeeded in showing horror, devastation, and images of tragedy. But we have failed at portraying real human response to that horror. When driven to desperate situations, people, even jaded North-Easterners like myself, turn to God even if we laugh at ourselves a couple of years later. The Mosque, the Church, the Synagogue, and the Temple, all fill when the world burns. How is it then that we have almost totally missed this in gaming?

Perhaps we have missed it because we are afraid. Perhaps we fear even greater backlash from the media. Showing a Rabbi who has lost his faith because his whole congregation was wiped out in a nuclear strike might make Jewish groups mad. Showing a Priest who has converted to Hinduism because he finds the answers there more helpful after seeing the world he knew destroyed by war might draw fire from the Catholic or Episcopal Church. Showing a Muslim man fighting next to an atheist to defend their homes might raise the ire of Muslim groups. Doing any of these things might be bad for business.

Perhaps we don't do it because players don't seem to want it. "Don't get your religion in my games" seems to be a common response on many message boards. But I think this is for fear of games like "Left Behind" which attempt to proselatize. The purpose of games is not to convince people of one point or another, but to have fun. For many people, that fun has to do with how well a story is told, and how real the characters are. Good stories often ask questions about ultimate reality. If games are to grow as an art form, and not just a consumer product, our stories need to ring more truly in the ears of those who hear them. God, whether you believe in God or not, plays a part in that, whether it is by defining oneself against the larger culture by being an atheist, or by affirming a belief in God in the face of watching your friend bleed out on the battlefield. These are real life decisions, and if we are to tell real human stories, they belong in our games.

Joshua Wise is the Owner/EIC of the website The Cross And The Controller, and one of the hosts of the Podcast No Avatars Allowed. He splits his time between the site, working on his Masters in Systematic Theology, and working full time as a .Net Developer.

Republished with permission.

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Comments

    Religion is a heavy and important subject to many, while games are meant to be light and/or shallow representations of the world, violent though they may be. How often do you see religion in action movies?

      Two things:

      The reason we don't explore it isn't because we're a lighthearted, purely for-fun medium, it's because developers and publishers are afraid of the backlash they'd get.

      Two: I don't run to god. Desperation doesn't cause me to instantly believe in a deity. That's just an unfortunately long-lived argument creationists use against atheists, to little effect. It just doesn't happen.

    "Good stories often ask questions about ultimate reality. If games are to grow as an art form, and not just a consumer product, our stories need to ring more truly in the ears of those who hear them."

    This is a very interesting point.

    Unfortunately, the sort of public opprobrium that he highlights in the article might be exactly the reason why a positive, negative or skewed look at religion (from any angle) might not go down too well.

    It'd be a great (and realistic) addition to games that attempt to show the full palette of human experience, but the frenzy of reaction from religious (or non-religious) groups may be extreme, especially given some of the scenarios he mentioned in the article.

      A game producer with balls would do it anyway, the frenzy would give the game coverage you just couldn't buy, and it would open up debate and new gamestyles. If novels, comics and TV series can do it, then games should man-up and give it a go.

        The developer can be as ballsy as they wish... it doesn't mean it will get published.

        *cough* sixdaysinfalujah *cough*

    Violence is a heavy and important subject, killing people would also be considered so. Action movies are different, they go for about 90 minutes, there isn't really a lot of time for any kind of character development, games do.

    I think it isn't really that it is just the religious angle that is missing, games really fail at capturing *any* level of realistic or pseudo-realistic reaction to what is happening. I've long been whining that more characters should just lose it when the going gets tough, or when the world literally goes to hell.
    Squad members should freeze up and refuse to go into battle, some should turn and run, other characters should be really disturbed by what has happened to their world.

    There is a huge swathe of game mechanics opportunities being missed out on. Do you have to threaten your team-mate to get them to continue with the mission in the middle of a fire-fight. Does your comrade turning tail and running cause a major event if you can't (like he runs and if you don't stop him he triggers a trip-wire). Squad members could be more or less nervous depending on your play-style and fumble grenades or shoot when they shouldn't etc. Enemy characters should also react in more unpredictable ways along the same lines, they should run from you occasionally, they might beg not to be killed if wounded.

    How different would the game play if the guerilla fighter you just wounded begged you not to kill them, or asked if you would take care of their daughter who is hiding in the attic?

    So many more gameplay styles would be explored by the player, and you might even get an emotional arc out of your journey, be all gung ho and then feel guilty about it three hours in when you get to the village of the men you shot in combat, let a wounded man live and have him turn on you later or have him help you later on. Not in the OBVIOUS MORAL CHOICE THAT WILL PAY OFF LATER, but in subtle character driven ways. They may not sway the outcome of the game at all, (and only , say, one in five should) but it might sway the way you play, making you play differently at different points in the game.

    Mmm...Not sure I agree with his assertion that games don't explore religion. Take a look at Fallout, Morrowind, Dragon Age, Warcraft, God of War....etc. Most RPG's feature cults/religions/sects/chapters heavily in both game and lore. Perhaps what he wants to see more of is real, modern day religions featured in games.

      Those are mostly fictitious religions, I think what the author is talking about is real-world religions.

      I think it is a hard thing to cover, as he is right, it is too easy for someone to take it as a personal attack to their belief/non-belief, if it does not conform to their own definition of their "type".

      I think the problem, as a whole, is not so much that video games can not explore the subject, but society as a whole can not explore the subject, without fear of reprisal.

      Until society is able to safely, and politely, debate things like religion, without fear of persecution; then what reason would videogames have to broach the subject?

    I thought gaming was a religion?

      This what you're looking for?
      http://www.cad-comic.com/cad/20070623

    Obviously because people making games are aware of the fact that religious lobbies spend a fair amount of time deciding games already offend them and that they would like to ban them?

    I think while religion in games is an area that is often overlooked (deliberately or not), to say it is never explored isn't quite true. As noted above, some games to explore the issue to varying degrees.

    What I would like to see more of is a more complex portrayal of faith, rather than just 'zealot' versus non-believer. One of the characters I considered role playing when I played WoW was a priest who switched from healing to shadow (damage) because he disagreed with the faith itself. While a bit blunt, I don't see why games don't embrace the opportunities that these issues present. On a very basic level, they present at least another lens through which to view war, something that most games use as their bread and butter.

    You could say that the lore in the new Rift MMO is basically a faith vs science game. Interesting side note; The two sides can communicate with one another (if within talking range) and have been known to help one another out of trouble. They're both working towards the same goal, but just have different opinions on how to get there.

    No mention of Mass Effect? If you romance Ashley, her christianity actually comes up several times. It was very surprising and interesting having that appear, since the game is about the future of humanity and all.

    I like so much this game.
    Best,

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