<< Portico: Games and Religion

6/11/2005

Games and Religion

Christian Game Developers will be holding a conference in Portland, Oregon at the end of the month. Their "three-fold mission" includes the usual exchange on game development and making contacts with developers with similar interests as well as the not-quite typical prayer session for the industry at large.

Given the secular nature of popular entertainment at large, the lack of obviously Christian or religious games on best-seller lists should not be surprising. Given the reluctance of most game developers to deal with Ideas at all, their unwillingness to include messages of faith (or lack thereof) is standard operating procedure.

So, we have role-playing games with clerics who pray, but their faith is usually unmentioned. We have cultural distinctions based on religion in grand strategy or even Crusades, but the player never really engages with the religious issues that surround them. Religion, when present, is either an historical curiosity or a route to a flamestrike spell.

Probably the most famous Christian game is Catechumen, an odd first-person shooter that had the player converting enemy soldiers by zapping them with a magic sword. But there was no real religion or faith there, so even Christians don't know how to make really Christian games.

Civilization IV will include historic religious faiths, and this idea is rife with peril. The religions will have to have "bonuses" of some kind, but this risks reinforcing preconceptions of what religions are like. Not to mention that, in treating historic religions as interchangeable parts of a society, they miss the fact that many people take their religions as truth, not cultural constructs. I don't subscribe to the idea that this is another example of Sid Meier's insidious leftist agenda (if anything, the Civ games privilege conservative realpolitik over internationalist ideas), but it does just place religion into the scale as just another part of a civilization - something all cultures have, but no more.

And there is nothing wrong with this. Even Christians like myself can appreciate alternate views of the place and purpose of religion in the development of humankind. As a mainstream Protestant, I probably have an easier time with this than my evangelical brethren.

But there is a great challenge to be taken up here. How do we communicate values in a game? Role-playing games seem to be the obvious avenue for this since they require the player to make choices. If the trade-offs are meaningful - if there is a sense of temptation to follow a certain path - the player could get a window into their own souls. Bioware's dark/light role-playing system in Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic is a very crude version of this, since "light" inevitably means healing and "dark" means all the cool pyrotechnics. Apparently the good doctors at Bioware never read Genesis.

As I said above, the inability or unwillingness of game designers to confront religion is just a symptom of a larger reluctance to have their games confront anything beyond frame rates and unit balance. Games aren't messageless, but what they communicate is more by what they don't address than by what they do.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Botswana said...

I think part of the problem is that people who want to make religious games are scared to introduce anything that might be considered as "sinful" into the game.

So you can't have violence because it might be perceived as bad. After all, Christians aren't violent right? We turn the other cheek instead.

There's no compelling conflict, and without conflict there is no story. Thus, the games have been pretty wishy washy and not the least bit interesting. Either that or they are so abstract as to be meaningless.

The irony here is that the Bible itself is filled with stories of violence, betrayal, sex, crime, and other events we would consider horrendous. Interestingly enough, the Bible doesn't include these stories to glorify the morally bankrupt or criminal, but instead to illustrate the dangers of these activities.

But there is always going to be a sect of Christianity that views any portrayal of real conflict as "bad", and no game designer trying to make a Christian themed game is going to chance that.

6/12/2005 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Verbal said...

I don't think games ignore religion, or treat it as a mere number to show on the screen.

Games tend to be set in exotic periods and environments. So spirituality in games usually takes the form of paganism or magic. Most medieval-period greatly rely on magic, both in gameplay and in story. Other games let your people pray for Gods and build altars for them. Age of Mythology took this to an extreme, and at times it appeared the entire game revolved around following the stronger Gods. Black and White had you play the role of a pagan God, and religion was the leading motive in the game.

As to Christianity, being less exotic, it stars much more rarely, but it's not non-existent. Sid Meier's Colonization had you send missioneries to Indian villages. You were supposed to build Churches and train priests. Increased faith would result in increased immigration. The game as you know contains a lot of text, and this text was intentionally written to support the religious tone of the game.

And Atheism is not forgotten. IMO, Will Wright makes it quite clear in his games where he stands. Modern society doesn't rely on religion. You can build Universities and Libraries and Schools, but never Churchs. You sims will study philosophy or join the army, but they'll never become priests.

I think most game designers are in fact very intelligent, self-aware people, and it's unfair to say they concern themselves only with frame-rates and unit-balances. Sure, hired-to-make-money designers that provide the same old formulas are not going to surprise you with a deep message. But those original ones, that write good stories, and come up with interesting new game-plays, think no doubt about the role of ideas in their games.

6/12/2005 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

Interesting point, Verbal, but even the "paganism" in games isn't treated as a religion so much as it is a bunch of magic spells. The only reason to "worship" in Age of Mythology is to get access to bigger and better monsters. Religion's only role in the society is to put the smack down on a rival deity.

Which, oddly, enough, is an ideology more in line with monotheism than polytheism.

6/13/2005 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous steve said...

When I reviewed The Sims, I had a comment about how it has no religious items, which seemed like a curious oversight. Of course its main religion is capitalism, but you'd think there could be a "spiritual book" you could read to calm your sim down... it's not hard to imagine how you could work in generic religious items that give you a spiritual boost.

6/14/2005 11:25:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home