Religion in Games

“Holy creatures, transform me into your servant, show me the path to enlightenment, as you alter my flesh and free my soul.” Upon first glance, this borderline creepy quote looks like something from an ancient religious artifact. This quote however comes from Dead Space 2, or more specifically the Church of Unitology as presented in Dead Space 2. This is only one of the many references to religion within this game. In fact, all throughout the story of Dead Space, the “church’s” history is revealed and presented in a very antagonistic way. At one point, Isaac Clark comes upon a museum-esque presentation of the church’s past and beliefs. This is a great and relatively recent example of religion as presented in video games, which happens far more often than people really think.

The beautiful church in Dead Space 2

So what’s the point of putting religion in a game? We all know that developers have been striving harder and harder to weave incredible stories throughout a game’s course, and one of the greatest ways to do that is to place relatable events and characters into a game. This is one of the ways religion is implemented in games. Whatever it may be, we all believe in something, and when writers and developers place these beliefs in a game it sparks something in the player that becomes familiar. In almost every city and town in the U.S. you can find a religious establishment of some sort, and we are therefore, all exposed to that aspect of culture. Not only this, but we all have our pre-suppositions about these establishments, be they good or bad. When games include these establishments (or their facsimiles), they provide an antagonistic or protagonistic class. In Dead Space, the Church of Unitology was considered evil and corrupt, to the point of being murderous, while many JRPG’s portray religious organizations as benevolent peaceful people. Even Assassin’s Creed used the Roman Catholic Church as part of the order of the Templars. One of the most despicable characters in the series comes from it! These religious appearances aren’t without controversy, but still manage to ignite enough in games to provide excellent narrative and story telling. So much that developers still place religious an religious undertones in their games. The way I see it, video games should hold excellent gameplay, well-done sound, and a solid story, an using religion is a great way to make a story personal without being biased or even too opinionated. This brings me to my next point: how far is too far? Some games we see in the industry operate in extremes; some things as plain and un-controversial as Pac-man, and some as insane and ultra-violent as Carmageddon. The same applies for video games with religion implemented into them. I can remember playing a flash game a long time ago simply called “;the game;”. It was an odd game that made fun of… well just about everything, including religion.

Assassin’s Creed portrays the templars as a highly religious group

This game held its own in the flash game world, but had this game been released by a major developer, it most likely would have caused anger in any gamer that was mildly religious. But Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed had little problem with this. I think it’s because of the way they presented the subject. They didn’t openly come out claiming a religion was right or wrong, but presented it in a way that pushed forward the story, not the writers vendetta against a religion. Religion is placed in just about every series somehow, and in every genre of gaming. Even as a Christian I have yet to be really offended a a game for going way too far (well maybe that flash game). So long as story writers keep making good stories that don’t cross the fine line between intriguing and offensive, people will still enjoy the stories as much as they are meant to be enjoyed. I know I do!

  • sony8755

    I never know what to think of a lot of the controversies about these subjects… like Doom was supposedly hated by Christians even though it was about destroying demons and escaping from Hell, and most of the levels were designed by a Mormon. Night Trap was supposedly about watching girls undress and raping them when it was actually about saving them and they didn’t undress. Dead Space has the Unitology Church which seemed more obviously aimed at Scientology than Christianity, but since they were casting a big net it could mean all sorts of things — but it seemed to me that it was about the dangerous character of cults, of submitting your will/life to a controlling group that was eventually leading everyone to their deaths — or “rebirths” with the alien marker / necromorph stuff (sorry, didn’t really pay attention that well). They were worshipping a physical object, the marker, which is idolatry according to the Bible. It seemed more like a futuristic Jim Jones or Heaven’s Gate kind of thing, not like Mom and pop’s Methodist or Baptist church — hopefully the designers weren’t really thinking of it like that. 
    All the candles seemed like a Buddhist temple, but the environements were largely Catholic-church-looking. A lot of purple. 
    I didn’t take much from it. I’m usually less at ease with stuff like having to pray at the great tree in Dragon Quest IX (DS) to save the game, as ridiculous as that probably sounds. It IS ridiculous — it’s just a game, sprites, polygons… it’s an LCD screen. You’re not actually praying to a tree. But you know there’s a lot of that kind of pagan stuff more from Japan. 
    I guess. Then again you have God of War. Is that disturbing? But he’s killing Greek gods. It doesn’t make any sense. He BECOMES the god of war after killing him? It’s like a title? He ascends the throne. Still doesn’t make sense to me. But interesting nonetheless that it focuses on Ares (in the first game) rather than any other. 
    The back of the box says, “You will murder the God of War.” Since then I noticed “murder” often being used in place of just “kill” — as a synonym. 
    There’s been some other games with “religion” in it — like Binding of Isaac (haven’t played it), The Shivah from WadjetEye Games, the older WisdomTree games on the NES that everyone laughed at. I remember first reading about them at |tsr’s website (“|tsr’s NES archive”). 
    Of course, most people would say there’s spirituality (don’t know what that word means) found in anything beautiful, and they find a lot of beauty in games. Whether it’s just the environments and poetic impact of Ico / Shadow of the Colossus (popular examples) or perhaps much more obscure stuff that rarely gets blogged & LPed. But that can be abstract, just in the design, and an come in all forms. I mean, if a game accurately simulates a sunset on a beach it might feel romantic or beautiful… people could have religious feelings from it just as they have from paintings. 
    The music too — like in Nier. Beautiful? Religious-sounding? 
    I noticed there’s a lot of Stars of Davids as magic symbols in Japanese games, like the Touhou series. Seems like it’s USUALLY a symbol of “dark magic” (bad? antisemitic?) I’m reaching here, I’m sure… but I’ve seen that in a lot of games. I think in Riot Zone (or maybe another obscure sidescrolling beat-em-up) there’s a Star of David on the carpet of a corporate office building as you approach the end? I remember seeing that in a video, you’re approaching the bad guy. And in the bad castle area of “Marvel Land” (old Namco game) you can see a big Star of David as a black magic symbol in the background, as I recall. Stuff like that. But those Japs never did like the Allies too much. Oppenheimer invented the bomb and killed all those people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they were teaming up with the Nazis…

    • sony8755

      In the new 3DS game Etrian Odyssey 4 there’s a song titled “Faith is My Pillar” and apparently people started arguing about belief in the comments: 

      Just cause of that title. Simarly, from the same composer, I remember a little bit of heated chit-chat somewhere about his song “Holy Land Anthem” for Maximum Tune. 
      Can’t seem to find those comments now, but there’s multiple uploads on YouTube. 
      another track from the same game is “Atheist on the Highway.” It sounds dark and nihilistic, at least compared to say “Love to Rise in the Summer Morning” or “Fun-Loving Spirit.” 
      The upcoming remake of Dragon Quest VII, I’m not sure if it has censored/changed the Jehovah part, where you can fight and beat “God” – that was in the Playstation 1 Japan version and I can’t remember if it was in the U.S. version but probably not which is probably why I even read about it to begin with, because that caused controversy. 
      Xenogears I think was one of the big ones to break the dam on these kind of subjects? Haven’t played it. 
      usually in anything futuristic faith is absent.

      • sony8755

        OK to leave a third comment? Sorry, I was thinking there was also ActRaiser on the SNES where you play as God and defeat Satan in the Japanese version, but the names and identities were changed in the Western release. There’s also El Shaddai on current systems and in the new Devil May Cry I think you’re half angel — isn’t the word nephilism? Trendy word. Always its “gods” in video games, or “goddess.”
        There’s “Illusion of Gaia,” called “Illusion of Time” in Europe:
        The final puzzle is at the Tower of Babel, it says.

        • sony8755

          In “Devil Crash” or Devil’s Crush, a pinball game, there’s a Satanic ritual at the top of the screen with monks circling a pentagram that’s glowing red — it’s a heavy metal game — but that was changed to triangle for the American release and I think an 8-sided symbol for the Genesis American release (Dragon’s Fury). 
          In Doom the swastikas were removed early on, and in the most recent edition the Nazis in the secret levels of Doom II were removed.

  • ChrisMcLaughlin

    Incorporating fictional religions into games doesn’t offend anyone very much. Non-believer’s don’t have much respect for religion in general, and believers are the same way with every religion but their own. It’s win-win for developers.We see very many pro-religion games, like Left Behind: Eternal Forces, that represent a specific religious viewpoint. As soon as a specifically anti-religious game comes out, such as an anti-Christian game, there will be an uproar from the religious. This despite the fact that there is no requirement that anyone play such a game. It seems that religion survives because of the social contract that many of us submit to: that religions be free from public criticism and scrutiny.It’s understandable that the religious are uncomfortable about portrayals of religion in video games; a discomfort that non-believers do not feel at all. I suspect that it is this discomfort that prompted Chance H. to write the article above. These games put the religious in the position of thinking critically about the legitimacy of religions. And they understand that this has implications related to their own beliefs.Typically, people don’t remain in their religion after thoroughly researching it’s history and theology. One should not ask why religious portrayals in popular media make one uncomfortable. One should ask oneself that if one’s best religious justification is faith, then how is it that a person can prefer one religion over another?