Earlier this week this story was posted, a story which claimed that video games have a 'problematised' view of religion. But what does 'promblematised' even mean? And is religion represented fairly in video games? We catch up with frequent Kotaku contributor Adam Ruch to discuss.
ADAM: So, the other day, University of Missouri doctoral student Greg Perreault made the news when his paper about religion in videogames was picked up by a few game sites. Well, what they picked up was actually the university's little public release announcing that one of their students was presenting a paper at a conference -- something most uni's like to do, advertise their active research etc. The 20-odd page research paper was reduced to a handful of lines in the release, and then reduced even more by paraphrasing journalists. Kotaku wrote a piece which is pretty well representative of what I've seen in a couple other places.
MARK: Alright, alright, I totally need a rewind here to make sure I've got this right. Doctoral Student writes extensive piece of research about the way religion is treated in games. Said piece makes the claim there's a connection between the way religion is presented in video games and violence, and uses Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect as an example of this.
And your problem is that the story took some selected quotes out of context and built a larger 'video games has a problem with religion' story from the research?
You know what, you are probably right, the story was probably taken out of context. But what really interests me here, and where I'd like to take this discussion, is this: do you think the way religion is presented in video games is problematic? Do you think games have it wrong? Is it always presented alongside violence?
ADAM: Well, to begin with, I just think we need to know what the word "problematize" means in these contexts real quick. For an academic, problematise is a pretty old word, and it just means "take something that seems to be simple and make it complicated". That probably sounds like pedantry and ivory tower people keeping themselves employed to a lot of people, but really all it means is questioning assumptions. So problematised isn't a 'bad' thing, the way 'problematic' is, really. It just means "more complex than it might seem".
The point of the research paper is that the presentation of religion is 'problematised' meaning that it's not portrayed simply as one thing. That's actually a GOOD thing, and much more like real life or other art forms. In some cases, religion is used (by the fictional characters in the game) as an excuse for violent projects, like the Templars in Assassin's Creed. Sometimes it's merely a thematic backdrop, or a source of mythology like in Dante's Inferno or the Castlevania games. Other times it is a source of solace, as for Thane in Mass Effect 2.
I think generally speaking, as videogames move towards more complex fictions, finding religion near violence is a given. Until we have a big wide array of non-violent but still compelling videogames, basically any game with religion in it is going to be presented alongside violence, right?
MARK: That's precisely what I think -- as a rule the verbs we use in game mechanics are pretty limited and most of them involve violence. In video games we're mostly running, shooting, punching or stabbing. Until game mechanics become more deft and refined that's pretty much what we're stuck with.
So from that we can deduce that most games using religious themes will most likely be placed in the context of violence.
Super Mario Brothers places plumbing in the context of violence, Pac-Man actually eats Ghosts (placing the spectral realm in the context of violence) even Tetris has some sort of violence -- as line by line those poor blocky bastards are eliminated from existence.
My point is -- video games feature a lot of violence so it stands to reason that any theme used in video games will be linked to some sort of violence.
But here's a point you might find interesting: my wife goes to Church. I'm an atheist, but I'll often come along regardless. In a recent sermon the Pastor makes this point: in the media most people of religion are represented as being either violent, hypocritical, mentally weak, suspicious, deviant, or as bare faced liars.
Despite being an atheist I actually believe that the representation of religion and religious people in the media is, in general, pretty one-sided and negative. I think video games as a medium is simply following in those same footsteps.
ADAM: Is this pastor implying causation there? I mean, is he suggesting that the religious dirtbags in the media are dirtbags because they are religious? I'd argue that most people, religious or not, in fiction are dirtbags! The whole modern and post-modern movement is preoccupied with destroying the notion of a happy ending for everyone, or clear notions of right and wrong. We have protagonists like Dexter Morgan, we have shows like the Sopranos, these anti-heroes are all about bastards. I guess it doesn't surprise me that bastards can also be religious, but I'm not sure that one always is supposed to have caused the other.
Whatever the case may be, writing a religious character as a bad guy is an immediate source of dramatic tension as well. It is ironic (even in this day and age) for a religious person to be revealed as evil, or a liar, or whatever.
It also works the other way around. Thane is much more compelling as a deeply spiritual assassin than he would have been as a straight-up, one-dimensional bad-ass killer. It adds depth to the character that you might not suspect is there. That's "problematising" the assassin, by the way.
MARK: That's true -- I think Thane is a good example of a video game character who is empowered by his religious beliefs. He is made stronger, both physically and mentally, through his creed -- but he really is an exception.
I think for the most part, particularly in fantasy games, spiritual or religious people are shown to be physically weak. Typically they are wizards, with mage powers. People without religion are typically endowed with more brute strength. Would you agree with that?
ADAM: Sure, that's true in many regards: the typical "cleric" or "priest" in RPG games are defined by their cloth armor and weak melee abilities, generally. But those same clerics gain a great deal of power, magical power, from their religious-ness. To me that really significantly changes what religion even is in fantasy/fiction, as compared to the real world. Whether its videogames or film or novels, religion isn't really "faith" since, usually, the gods are characters who exist in the fictional world. The religious people in fantasy are given great power through their alignment -- real, palpable power with which they can cast spells and such. They might not be big physically strong types (though the Templars in Assassin's Creed certainly are), but they do directly gain power from spirituality.
I think that's one of the reasons I actually like the example of Thane so much. He doesn't become a better assassin by praying to a deity, and gain +2 to stealth. He prays for absolution, because he believes it's the right thing to do. That's a pretty sensitive treatment of religion, as compared to "if I pray I get stronger." It's interesting that you say Thane is "empowered" by his religion, since you're using "empower" to mean he is made a more powerful character, not a more powerful game piece. He isn't any more or less effective, in game mechanical terms, because he prays. He's more interesting as a character—something that's worth experimenting more with in videogames, I think.
What do you think about the portrayal of religion in video games? Is it positive? Negative? Let us know in the comments below.