In most forms of entertainment–film, music, literature–there are few topics that are off-limits for creative people to explore. Religion, spirituality, death and loss, morality and ethics are all common themes in even the lightest genres of popular music or fiction, and yet video games–one of the most economically significant forms of modern media–rarely give these subjects more than a passing glance.
It’s not hard to figure out why. The first decades of gaming were constrained by limited technology and a target demographic that wasn’t exactly clamoring for digital meditations on mortality, grown-up explorations of relationships, and answers to life’s big-picture questions. But gamers have aged, and that first 8-bit generation is well into their middle years…and, surveys say, still gaming (and too often, apologizing for their hobby’s lack of real maturity). We also have a new generation of powerful consoles, but will the thematic content of games ever begin to match the system-selling visual fidelity of the new machines? Even though games have edged up to the limits of graphic violence and sexual content, there are still some surprising taboos that developers seem unwilling or unable to confront.
Taboo: Religion and Spirituality
Religious doctrines and beliefs influence the lives and behaviors of billions of people worldwide, and conflicts over religion continue to generate global tension and war, while also inspiring humanitarian efforts and providing solace and guidance. As important as religion is to many people, game developers have rarely attempted to make it the focus of a game or even make it a significant aspect of a game’s story. Perhaps afraid of alienating a potential audience by hewing too closely to any recognizable belief system, games most often treat religion as a character trait (i.e. stat modifier) with about as much importance as hair color or torso size.
Countless role-playing games (Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, etc.) and many strategy games such as the Civilization series treat religions–both real-world and fictional–in this way. In many fantasy games, a character’s religion may indeed have an influence on the type of “magic” or behaviors or associations available, and may even in some small way influence the story, but rarely is the player/character asked to make a behavioral decision from a religious point of view or act in accordance with any consistent spiritual outlook.
There are certainly some games in which religion or clashing religious beliefs provide some of the the dramatic conflict. Xenosaga and Fallout 3 include adherence to religious cults in the central story arc, with the Silent Hill series having one of the most fully imagined religious belief systems in games. Then there are the so-called “God games” where the player literally (Black and White) or figuratively assumes the role of a deity.
Occasionally, an important character in a game’s story will be motivated by religious beliefs, most often satirically or in a way that broadly demonstrates contempt. For example, BioShock Infinite‘s Comstock uses a pseudo-Baptist belief system to rationalize the more racist, jingoistic aspects of his dark utopia, Columbia. The not-so-subtle trope of narrow-minded religion birthing a tradition of ignorant, American intolerance is one of the lower-hanging thematic fruits in literature, but it is telling that Ken Levine and company have been lauded (and derided) for having even this relatively unsophisticated inclusion of a religious theme. South Park or Simpsons satiric approaches aside, actually playing as a recognizable religious figure is almost unheard of. Hi-Rez studios (Tribes:Ascend) created a controversy when they included playable Hindu gods in their online fighting game, Smite. The developers claimed the use of Hindu gods like Kali was in keeping with the game’s historical-fantasy theme, but some Hindus found the use of recognizable religious images “pornographic.” The shooter Prey used–with some resulting protests–elements of Native American spirituality and the ability of the main character to assume a “spirit form,” was a central gameplay element.
Other games treat religious beliefs with even less respect. In the Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row series Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, and New Agers are all equally seen as objects of derision and contempt; religious belief is used as a stand-in for slavish, ignorant behavior. At the other end of the spectrum, horribly executed titles like the failed Left Behind games treat non-Christian secular beliefs in much the same way.
Sometimes, the influence of religion is simply aesthetic. Japanese games often include visual references to Buddhist and Shinto art and deities, practices and folk beliefs, often excised in the American releases of the games. Further, Japanese-developed games like Castlevania or Devil May Cry use Christian iconography and story elements such as the perpetual war between “good” and “fallen” angels. Similarly, the alternative-history context of the first Assassin’s Creed games was heavily infused with religious content, and the Dead Space games included cathedral-like spaces… in space.
Oddly, the games that most often have a genuinely “religious” approach–if we broadly define religion as a system of beliefs for answering the profound, transcendent questions of death and the meaning of life–are those in which religion is not even mentioned. Thatgamecompany’s 2012 PS3 title, Journey, comes very close to being a perfect, wordless meditation on the universal arc of companionship, life and death. Thanks to Austin Wintory’s moving score and the game’s artistic vision, playing through the game is a genuinely spiritual, meditative experience, not unlike Flower or Flow but with a significantly deeper theme. Similarly, Dear Esther has a quiet, profound, ethereal quality that does not imply, or rely on, specific religious symbols and yet radiates transcendent hope at the end. 2013’s Brothers faced the question of death and memory with the disarming directness of a fable. Some games confront the existential questions of existence, ethics, and morality–normally the realm of religion–in a more secular manner (Papers, Please; The Stanley Parable).
It is clear that while religion has penetrated the stories, settings, and aesthetics of many games, we have yet to experience more than a handful of titles with real religious content. And this is only one taboo. In future articles we’ll examine death and loss, such as what meaning death has to the player who “dies” countless times in games, and look at love and relationships in gaming, including which games break the taboo of creating genuine partnerships and something approaching real love between characters.