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Religion in video games: more problematic than reality?

Templars from the Siege of Masyaf, Assassin's Creed 1

Via Kotaku, Aliasalpha and Glendon Mellow both brought to my attention a study by Greg Perrault, a doctorate student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which claims that video games present a problematized view of religion that is somehow unique amongst other media. More specifically, it is that these video games which feature religion also feature violence.

Perreault examined five recent video games that incorporate religion heavily into the storyline. The video games he studied were “Mass Effect 2,” “Final Fantasy 13,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow” and “Elder Scrolls: Oblivion”. Perreault found that all of these video games problematize religion by closely tying it in with violence.


The scientist part of me — at least, however much of that mantle I can claim without training — is screaming “selection size” and “sampling bias” right out of the gate. Why? Perrault is good enough to explain.

“In most of these games there was a heavy emphasis on a “Knights Templar” and crusader motifs,” Perreault said. “Not only was the violent side of religion emphasized, but in each of these games religion created a of problem that the main character must overcome, whether it is a direct confrontation with religious zealots or being haunted by religious guilt.”

I can think of a score more games with Knights Templar in good roles — as healers and virtuous saviours.

In games like Dragon Age, done by the good folks at BioWare who also created the Mass Effect series, the Chantry faction serves as one of the only religious organizations, and it is the largest and most powerful, worshipping The Maker (the monotheistic god that practically parodies Yahweh directly). Its adherents provide for the poor and needy, and are generally regarded as the “good guys”. They are not unambiguously so, but they are for the most part well-intentioned, even if they are mostly against other factions like the Mages (for being too easily corruptible by demons). Their sword arm, the Templars, are almost certainly patterned after the same Knights Templar.

Mass Effect has an alien race, the Hanar, jellyfish-like creatures who are generally found peacefully preaching about the Protheans, the race of beings who “enkindled” them into sapience. Other than as shopkeepers or street preachers, they have no particular bearing on the story other than as novelties. They are, generally, harmless. And the one “religious zealot” assassin Perreault mentions doesn’t actually seem to be following any specific religion.

Oblivion, as with all the Elder Scrolls games, have a polytheistic system of both Aedra (the Divines, or the Eight / Nine) and Daedra (princes of Oblivion, the Elder Scrolls’ version of Hell). The “/ Nine” part of the Aedra includes the man who ascended to godhood, Tiber Septim, or Talos. Elves don’t worship him; they consider worship of Talos to be heresy. The Aedra offer blessings to people who pray at their shrines, but rarely if ever engage in affairs of mortals. The Daedra, on the other hand, take corporeal form or otherwise mess with mortals for their amusement. The game also has a Knights of the Nine expansion that explicitly adds a Knights Templar faction that you can join and come to lead.

Assassin’s Creed deals explicitly with religion as a whole, turning the Christian mythology into science fiction — suggesting that every religious icon throughout history came about due to influence from a Piece of Eden, a piece of advanced technology from a progenitor race indistinguishable from magic in how powerful it is. The Knights Templar and the Church in these games attempt to control and enslave humanity via these artefacts. Yes, this is particularly a problematic view of religion, but not a particularly problematized one. Given that churches exist here in real life expressly to spread their influence and control humankind’s actions through fear of divine reprisal, it’s not a view that’s particularly far off. (The plot of the Assassin’s Creed games is candy for atheists and sci-fi nerds alike, by the way. Get them.)

One Castlevania game explicitly mentions God and his war with Satan; as a Belmont, as a vampire slayer, you are generally faithful, using holy water and crosses and commisserating with priests to assist in your quest to purge the evil satanic influence from the land. All wrapped up in a game system that’s good enough that I pretty much have to overlook all the religious overtones and suspend disbelief for every new game.

And Final Fantasy 13, while I haven’t played it, I would assume involves mere mortals rising up to overthrow a godlike entity, possibly even an entity posing as a god. This is not a new plot for Japanese anime-style RPGs, quite frankly. This plot structure has been present in as many Japanese fantasies as dwarves, elves and orcs in Western fantasy. It’s an overdone trope, to be sure, but it can be done exceptionally well. The main difference in these games to reality is that these “deities” are corporeal beings, ultimately.

None of these depictions are without nuance, and none of them rely on coupling religions with violence. If you want games that show flat one-dimensional representations of “religion is good, apostasy is bad”, look to the Left Behind game series.

While Perreault observed a relationship between violence and video games, he does not believe video game developers are creating an intentional commentary on religion.

“It doesn’t appear that game developers are trying to purposefully bash organized religion in these games,” Perreault said. “I believe they are only using religion to create stimulating plot points in their story lines. If you look at video games across the board, most of them involve violence in some fashion because violence is conflict and conflict is exciting. Religion appears to get tied in with violence because that makes for a compelling narrative.”

There are most certainly video games that laud faith, that reward peaceful resolution to conflicts, that equate being good with being angelic and being evil with being demonic, that operate morality as a binary sliding scale where your choices are between saving the box of kittens, or exploding them with a fireball spell. These games reify the morality as set forth by the Abrahamic religions, as with the BioWare offerings, or they ignore it altogether to present a wholly secular system for punishment as with the Elder Scrolls games. And yet, in many or all of these fantasy offerings, these deities actually exist within the context of the game world. They have tangible effects on the plot and characters and leave evidence for the players to collect and use as they see fit.

It is only in this way that video games’ depictions of religion are generally problematized. No religion here in the real world can make any such claim to evidence. Otherwise, religion’s influence on humanity (or whatever race exists in the particular game world) is pretty much described to a tee in every one of the games Perreault examined.

I strongly suspect Perreault did not so much examine the games themselves as read about them, given how uncharitably he viewed each’s plot. I would dearly love to read the original study, rather than this press release. The cynical bit of me (which often kicks the scientist part in the shins) wonders why would a university produce a press release for a doctoral student’s thesis except to draw ire from video gamers and atheists, and stoke the flames of the anti-video-game wing of the conservative electorate. I suppose I’ve risen to the bait.

Comments

  1. says

    “And yet, in many or all of these fantasy offerings, these deities actually exist within the context of the game world. They have tangible effects on the plot and characters and leave evidence for the players to collect and use as they see fit.”

    This said it all to me right there. Bang on. No wonder I don’t mind it in my fiction. It’s more believable (in context) than what the religious devout really believe.

  2. jaranath says

    There’s a right-wing freakout waiting to happen over religion in games (specifically, that religion is bashed and/or that players are encouraged to worship demons/magic/whatever). I know that’s happened at least a little bit before, and of course they laid into RPGs long ago. But unless I’ve just missed it, I’ve seen almost no reaction to video games lately, even the more provocative plots like Assassin’s Creed’s.

    I’ve enjoyed the religious elements in most games I’ve played (that had them). Not all, but most. I’m particularly fond of the Thief series, and I’d add Thief 2 to the “atheist candy” category. The complexity of the Elder Scrolls series also appeals to me, especially in the way that even some “evil” Daedra don’t fit conventional definitions of evil.

  3. leftwingfox says

    I also wonder if there’s a little game of Press Release Telephone, and if the issue the author is making is about legitimization of religious violence through video games as a solution to Good versus Evil.

    Probably not, but that would certainly be a more interesting paper to read than suggesting viewing religion from a wide range of perspectives is “problematic”.

    Ah well. I’m really looking forward to playing Ecaflip’s Coin or Eniripsa’s Hand tomorrow when Wakfu is released (All the classes are named after their patron deity)

  4. Robert B. says

    Final Fantasy 13? Really?

    Frankly the relationship between that game and religion is hard to quickly analyze, especially since the plot is so poorly explained. But I’m gonna try, so spoiler warning. Basically, the game features beings called “l’cie” that are large and powerful and directly run the functions of the world(s). They seem much more inspired by Shinto than Christianity. L’cie also have the ability to create “fal’cie,” humans empowered with magic.

    Some of the l’cie are tired of having to run the world and keep humans alive, but their natures don’t permit them to stop. So they come up with this really convoluted plot to manipulate some fal’cie (the main characters) into killing them. There’s a few lines that talk about a “Maker” that the l’cie believe in/remember. (Unlike the l’cie, the Maker leaves no actual evidence or influence on the world of the game.) Supposedly, the massive human die-off that would follow the death of the l’cie will summon the Maker back into the world. Meanwhile, another faction of l’cie who aren’t part of this plot range from neutral to somewhat helpful, just forces of nature writ large. In the end, the heroes kill the manipulative l’cie but save humanity, and the claims about the Maker are never tested.

    So if I was going to read the game as a religious allegory, I’d read it as criticizing monotheism for corrupting the more naturalistic polytheism. Given that the game is Japanese, I’d probably be willing to go more specific and say that (again, if it’s meant as allegory at all) it’s slamming Christianity in favor of Shinto. But religion in general is not portrayed as violent, or any other undesirable thing.

  5. Seth_S says

    Two quick notes -

    1) In Mess Effect, I think the authors would be more worried about the robotic ‘Geth’ race. Some of the Geth worship the Reapers, who are the ultimate bad guys of the ME universe. Legion, a geth robot that joins your team, states that only the tiny percentage of geth who worship the Reapers are violent. Interestingly, the Geth call the Reapers the ‘Old Gods.’

    2) The Assassin’s Creed games are awesome, and AC:Revelations is on sale for half off ($24.99 vs $49.99) this week on Steam. I just snagged one for myself today.

  6. Aliasalpha says

    The most interesting thing about Thane in ME2 (and further solidifies Jason’s suspicions of the author reading about the games rather than playing them) is that he wasn’t even remotely close to a religious zealot. The initial encounter made him seem like he could be a zealot that would be included to provide character conflict but it rapidly became apparent that he wasn’t, becoming one of the most interesting characters in the game.

    The Chantry in Dragon Age is a pretty good example of religion really, it has a lot of positive qualities from the nice people involved and a lot of seething malevolence, bigotry & miscellaneous hatred from the puritanical fanatical dicks like knight commander meredith. I’m desperately hoping we get the option to wipe the chantry out (also the option to defend it to the last man) in DA3.

    The study author could well be a noob (or pitching the study towards noobs) which would explain why most of his games were contemporay, there’s been several games that have elements of belief & philosophy over the years, most notably the unquestionably bestest gaem evaaaar!!!!!!11, Planescape Torment.

    Also in the ‘middling game’/’awful concept’ Dante’s Inferno game, the player is in control of a templar knight. Though in the cae of that game, the problem that needed to be overcome was “We made a carbon copy of God Of War that wasn’t as good, how can we sell it?” proving that the only religion EA has is worship of money…

    One thing that’s definitely worthy of note though, the author specifically mentions that he doesn’t see games as specifically bashing religion which at least implies a degree of impartiality

  7. jaranath says

    Aliasalpha: Oh, how could I have forgotten Torment? What a lovely thing that was!

    Seth_S: They could surprise me, but I think the ultimate bad guys in Mass Effect are going to turn out to be pretty much everyone.

  8. Aliasalpha says

    Have you ever tried PST with the mods, jaranath? There’s some fantastic mods out there to let you run it at 1920×1080 & re-add a bunch of little things that were never quite finished. A guide for installing the mods.

    Damnit, now I have to re-play planescape for the hundredth time, there’s just so much awesome

  9. Mr.Kosta says

    For a perfect marriage between religion and violence in a videogame, one should try Dead Space. The Uniologists give me the creeps.

  10. julian says

    This guy would have had an aneurysm if he’d played Final Fantasy Tactics back on the PS1. Christians must have really hated to read back in 97/98 as that’s the only explanation for how that game managed to fly so far under everyone’s radar.

    I’m desperately hoping we get the option to wipe the chantry out

    Or the mages…

  11. says

    Going off the top of my head from games of my youth re: religion:

    Legend of Zelda – no real worship mentioned aside from the goddesses, who are good-natured creator beings and left behind the Triforce. There’s a chapel in Link to the Past with a nice preacher man who helps you and tries to protect the Princess, but gets killed.

    Seiken Densetsu (Mana series) – Some ambiguous religions in these games, none of whom are painted as bad. They tend to be either really helpful (Seiken III) or mere background.

    Earthbound – Happy Happyist Cult… ridiculous. Not evil, only hypnotized by the Mani Mani statue.

    That’s all I thought up so far. Religion in most video games tends to be a backdrop, no real effect good or bad. The really bad religions tend to be cults or led by someone who is in it for power and money. The good religions tend to be very helpful, but never truly having much effect on the storyline.

    This guy did crappy research, and it’s getting around so naturally it’ll make another generation of Christian parents annoyed with video games *sigh*

  12. Aeryk says

    This guy would have had an aneurysm if he’d played Final Fantasy Tactics back on the PS1. Christians must have really hated to read back in 97/98 as that’s the only explanation for how that game managed to fly so far under everyone’s radar.

    And as it happens one of my favourite games. I can think of older games such as Breath of Fire 2 (SNES), Xenogears (PS1) where there are similar themes, so it’s not all that uncommon.

  13. Gregory says

    *Ahem* What about the Left Behind video games, where the whole point is to convert or kill everyone for The Eternal Glory of God? These games were created by and marketed to Christians.

    But I suppose that is different.

  14. karmakin says

    Final Fantasy X would have REALLY blown this guys mind (spoilers ahead).

    If my memory serves me right (details might be a bit hazy), every so often this massive monster called “Sin” rises up to punish the people, a summoner fights the monster after turning a good friend into a monster to fight against it, and the latter monster eventually becomes the NEXT Sin. Turns out that the god that the dominant religion worship and take their cues from is behind the cycle (with the knowledge of the religious leaders) in order to maintain control over the people.

    Cycle is broken when the current summoner refuses to sacrifice the person she’s closest to, and they find another way to beat Sin (who is actually the father of said person), and then beat the god behind the whole thing. (Which isn’t actually a real fight, in the game)

  15. says

    Is it just me, or has this guy just now discovered that video games are a little violent? Next breaking news… they are a little sexist at times as well! Religion can get to the back of the line!

  16. Aeryk says

    Is it just me, or has this guy just now discovered that video games are a little violent? Next breaking news… they are a little sexist at times as well! Religion can get to the back of the line!

    There’s a lot of misinformation going around regarding video games I’d say, it’s quite annoying. Watched an old episode of Fifth Estate the other day and they showed a very one sided view of how dangerous violent video games are. Turns out the Swedish Media Council doesn’t quite agree: http://www.thelocal.se/37756/20111206/

  17. julian says

    Which isn’t actually a real fight, in the game

    Which was for the best. I wouldn’t have made it past Ifrit in that last fight if it had been for real. Max stats and breaking stat limits kind of would have made the whole thing literally impossible to win.

  18. julian says

    There’s a lot of misinformation going around regarding video games I’d say, it’s quite annoying.

    The Mass Effect sex blow up. People who’d never even played the game hyping off one another. All over the most unobjectionable romance progression I could possibly imagine.

    Which isn’t to say there is any kind of romance that’s objectionable (with the obvious exception of abusive ones) but, I had to wait until just shy of the climatic finish before Liara decided xe was ready. This wasn’t the prostitutes out of GoW. This was a 100 year old virgin alien who wanted to wait for the right one before xe’d ‘go all the way.’ Isn’t that what these people want?

  19. Brownian says

    Greg Perrault, eh? I wonder if he’d be interested in funding my new RPG. Generally, you wander around convincing people not to use condoms, all the while accruing spiritual experience points called ‘trinitons’. When you reach a high enough level, you get voted in as a sort of Supreme Priest, and the social and economic structures of millions of people on an entire continent are more or less decimated.

    No fighting at all.

  20. says

    Mass Effect has an alien race, the Hanar, jellyfish-like creatures who are generally found peacefully preaching about the Protheans, the race of beings who “enkindled” them into sapience. Other than as shopkeepers or street preachers, they have no particular bearing on the story other than as novelties. They are, generally, harmless. And the one “religious zealot” assassin Perreault mentions doesn’t actually seem to be following any specific religion.

    Not only that but ME2 goes into detail to give a taste of what religion is like for a variety of species

    Mordin the scientist embraces religion in hope that his actions didn’t permanently snuff out lives

    The Drell are deeply religious to the point of soliphcism where they believe the body and soul are different entities and one can act without the other. This allows Thane to act without guilt as an assasian because it’s his body acting

    The Assari worship a goddess

    Tali and her people practice ancestor worship

    the only time religion is shown to be violent is from the Batarians, because they’re a RWA state with a heavy caste system, and those who fall under Reaper indoctrination, which don’t count because they’re brain washed.

  21. says

    Thane was actually a great character because he did trigger my religious bias and I presumed I wouldn’t like him because of that…and let him make the case of his culture and religion so that I/Shepard could understand it, even if not exactly respect it or endorse it. It also presents their beliefs as a fairly ‘logical/understandable conclusion from their psychology. You can actually seeing beings with the Drell’s memory seeing extreme dualism as a obvious truth.

    Interestingly, the Geth call the Reapers the ‘Old Gods.’

    I thought it was the Old Machines?

    Final Fantasy X would have REALLY blown this guys mind (spoilers ahead).

    If my memory serves me right (details might be a bit hazy), every so often this massive monster called “Sin” rises up to punish the people, a summoner fights the monster after turning a good friend into a monster to fight against it, and the latter monster eventually becomes the NEXT Sin. Turns out that the god that the dominant religion worship and take their cues from is behind the cycle (with the knowledge of the religious leaders) in order to maintain control over the people.

    Cycle is broken when the current summoner refuses to sacrifice the person she’s closest to, and they find another way to beat Sin (who is actually the father of said person), and then beat the god behind the whole thing. (Which isn’t actually a real fight, in the game)

    That’s mostly right, Yu Yevon uses their religion to feed himself as a lovecraftian parasite. If you want an anvilicious metaphor, his body is armor literally crafted out of the dead souls of those killed in his name.

    Though FFX wasn’t anywhere near the first to do that, or the best. What about 7 where the “son” of a God that descended from the heavens (Called Jenova, wink wink) tries to end the world.

  22. Desert Son, OM says

    While we’re on the subject, there’s also the Legacy of Kain series of games, which are delightfully brooding and complex, wonderfully voice-acted, deliciously intricate in writing, sometimes annoying in game play, and essentially a long philosophical examination of free will.

    Spoilers ahead!

    The central divine figure, the Elder God, is a kind of balance construct (see also the philosophical alignment of much of Michael Moorcock’s writing) that regularly dispatches various agents into the world to wreak all kinds of havoc as a self-sustaining exercise. Most cultural expressions in the game world are unwitting perpetuations of the Elder God’s subtle and (frequently sociopathic) behind-the-scenes manipulations.

    Sometimes the game controls drove me nuts, but what an absolutely intoxicating fantasy fiction story with rich and complex characters, story, and atmosphere.

    It’s possible I’ve drifted from the centrality of the subject post. I apologize.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  23. says

    I’ve replayed both Mass Effect games over the past couple of weeks in preparation for the upcoming release of ME3 next Tuesday, and here are the religious depictions I found (er, beware of spoilers, I guess?):

    1) The aforementioned hanar, who preach about the Protheans, but are mostly harmless.

    2) Thane Krios, who is deeply into his traditional multi-deity Drell religion, but does not preach it. I interpret it more a personal thing he clings to for comfort. I don’t think his religion is specifically tied to violence, although he does have certain deities he prays to when committing violent acts.

    3) Samara, who I guess is the Knight Templar of the ME universe. The Justicar code is basically THE religious code for the Asari, and the Justicars are supposed to enforce it any way they can, even through violence, and even to the point of causing inter-species incidents.

    4)In ME1, there’s Ashley Williams, who has your basic Christian beliefs. I think it is somewhat implied that her religious beliefs tie into her xenophobia a bit, but that might just be me reading too much into things.

    I’m not exactly sure how any of this is “bashing” organized religion, really. I think Mass Effect (and Bioware games in general) has one of the most diverse and realistic depictions of religion in a game.

  24. says

    Oh and duh, I forgot

    5) The “heretic” geth, who worship the Reapers as gods and as the pinnacle of their evolution. I think the normal geth have no religion, or at least none that was mentioned, aside from them calling the Quarians “Creators.”

  25. John Horstman says

    Oh FSM, nobody tell him about Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines…

    Also, ditto on the point about most game religions describing phenomena that are actually real in the game universe. That single feature (i.e. actual evidence directly observed by the player) serves to distinguish ‘religions’ in speculative fantasy (which frequently aren’t actually religions at all, given the reliance on evidence for determining true things about the universe) from real-world religions.

    Double-also, ditto on the point about the actual history of religion on actual Earth being defined, if not primarily, then frequently, by violence.

  26. sithrazer says

    There’s the ‘Church of Atom’ in FO3, who were basically praying to a live, undetonated atomic bomb (praying for it to blow up, to be specific).

  27. Drolfe says

    In response to #4

    I’ve been finishing up all the stuff in Final Fantasy 13 since the sequel is out or about to be (haven’t been keeping a close eye since I’m still finishing off the last marks and upgrading each weapon for a dumb achievement).

    Anyhow, a nitpick to #4 is that the descriptions are backwards. If you’re familiar with the other Final Fantasies, the fal’Cie are essentially Espers, and are thus demi-gods that are largely animistic (in light of Shinto and its influence on pop culture these are as mentioned above common tropes in Japanese games, manga, etc.; the fal’Cie represent your common sort of pantheon, there’s a “god” of creation, death, balance, animals, light, the elements, and such). As we are accustomed from pantheistic mythologies the “gods” all have their own personalities and agendas and so aren’t really any different from people except for their vast powers. A particular fal’Cie in her death creates mortal humanity, and certain fal’Cie are set about to nurture, direct and protect humans. Fal’Cie have the power to anoint humans as l’Cie, which basically makes them magic users (and also slaves to some extent to their fal’Cie,). In the story being a magic user basically makes you a pariah since you’re scary and powerful and might unpredictably be an opponent of whatever faction.

    Anyway, I don’t see how any of this is controversial or problematic since it’s just the usual amalgamation of Norse, Greek, and Japanese pantheons smooshed together to tell a tale of outcast heroes saving the whole worlds (which is the thematic arc of every game in the series since FF3, basically). There no question that the gods are real and have influence over human events, you see them, you fight a couple. In-universe religion is barely even touched upon (some people wear a sort of monastic garb, but there’s no depicted churches, priests, etc.)

    I’d say that FF13 might even be one of the least problematic FFs ever with minor exceptions. From memory this is the most diverse and inclusive cast yet, with the only glaring hole being a sort of “hot dominatrix” who is a minor part of the story and really exists only to ironically be punished and destroyed by “the real bad guy”. Otherwise, you have positive depictions of strong women leaders, lesbian love, a gang-leader that isn’t black, a single father, a rich kid that learns self-reliance, persons of color, a gender balanced party, age diversity. My subjective gripes about the characters is that Fang is not “as brown” if you will as originally depicted; Vanille’s voice acting is so grating; Sahz has a very small amount of unfortunate dialogue in the grand scheme, but I think it’s because I’m so finely attuned rather than an error on Square’s part.

    By comparison the earlier Square game Xenogears is chocked full of religion and religious references, lots of Old Testament in addition to the usual sampling from Norse, Greek, Japanese, etc. Still, it’s one of my favorite games, all time, and highly recommend it if you haven’t played it.

    The ending to Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Kojima-style in full effect. I’m biased to the franchise, so I basically loved it, plus it’s narrated by PATRICK STUART. (!!!) Granted, it’s not a particularly positive version of Christian myth (but hey, it’s a world where vampires and werewolves and monsters and death are all totally real).

    As to the particular paper, yeah the sample size is tiny. You might be able to make deeper pronouncements if you sampled say all the titles that made it to “greatest hits” release since the PS1 release. That’s going to cover a lot of ground rather than looking at five games from 2010 — e.g. http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Divinity_in_Final_Fantasy

    Whoa, I overdid this comment.

  28. Freedom says

    May be real or not, all I know is that Assassin’S Creed, Assassin’S Creed II, Assassin’S Creed Brotherhood, Assassin’S Creed Revelations, have all opened my mind. Have opened my mind in all of it senses…. Nothing is true, means that we are the architects of our actions and we can choose in what to believe, Everything is permited, means that we must be held accountable for our actions wether they are glorious or treacherous… AC foorr liifee!!!!

  29. Ronixis says

    I personally like the portrayal of the Chantry in Dragon Age. They do good works, but support discriminatory practices against elves and mages. Unlike in many fantasy worlds, there is no evidence for their claims. I think it’s a very realistic and fair portrayal of religion.

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