Religion is one of the few topics that people generally don’t want to talk about. It discusses the very nature of being, why we are here, and informs people of their worldviews. To make a game that has religion either as a central narrative component or as game mechanic seems like a fool’s errand, but there have been a multitude of games that done just that. With the release of the new God of War, I started thinking about how religion is incorporated in the world of video games, and it’s typically done in a few ways:
- A real religion is treated respectfully
- A real religion is parodied
- A fake religion is made to parody a real one
In this case, a religion from our world is brought into a virtual one and is not derided. They may bend the mythology, but a respect is paid to the source material. Case in point, you have the God of War series. In it, you interact with not one, but two pantheons filled with deities who are central to their respective cultures. The original trilogy, how should I say... “tweaked” the ancient Greco-Roman stories and gods to suit its purposes, but a special attention was paid to the Nordic world in God of War (2018).
The developers incorporated the theme of Ragnarok into the game, such as the having the characters of Loki, Jörmungandr, and Mimir, the death of Baldur (including him being injured by mistletoe), and foreshadowing the event itself at the end of the game. They even mentioned “Fimbulwinter”, which is the three year-long winter that is the prelude to Ragnarok. While trying to forge a path for itself, God of War is staying (mostly) true to its source material.
An example of an extant religion being treated with respect is the case of Mormonism in the Fallout series. When the bombs fell in the Great War, the Mormons in Ogden, Utah fled to a vault that they had designed themselves and survived the nuclear apocalypse. As a result, it allowed for Mormonism to be one of the few Old World religions to appear in the games, particularly in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Honest Hearts.
In this conversation, Joshua Graham gives a quick rundown of what his spiritual tradition has to offer. His faith extends a message of hope for a better life after this one that is so plagued with inequity and pain, which is something that was not really discussed in previous installments of the series. Even if you choose to scoff at the notion of a higher power, he does not take offense to your words and just shrugs them off. Honest Hearts treats Mormonism with a reverence that is not normally seen in media in general, much less in video games, and it is a refreshing take.
Other games that typically do this are strategy games like Civilization, where the religion(s) in question are there, but meant as a mechanic that doesn’t upset players. In Civilization, religion was introduced as an advancement so that people could construct certain buildings and world wonders. Civilization IV brought back religion as a means to give civs a chance to find national cohesion and possible positive (or negative) diplomatic bonuses. In this instance, the developers brought in real religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Confucianism, but did not give inherent bonuses to them.
Buddhism didn’t give players +5 meditation, nor didn’t Christianity give them -5 to other religions during an inquisition. Instead, they were just names that players took for their country’s faith; nothing more, nothing less. In V and VI, players can assign bonuses to their faiths, but they are usually grounded on what resources they have at their disposal. No religion is lauded as being better than others, but they are treated as ways to bolster their countries.
This brings us to the last group in this category: games designed to teach and spread religion. They mainly focus on one tradition to the exclusion of others and are mostly educational in nature. In the case of Christian games, they often are non-denominational so that they can reach a wider audience without offending other sects in Christendom. These titles are more focused on the message they are sending than anything else, which makes sense for their purpose.
Parodies are one of the most effective narrative tools we have to critique an element in our society. Most games steer away from this when it comes to religion out of fear that the targeted group will feel attacked and organize a boycott. There are a few developers, though, that brave these dangerous waters and make their criticisms. The most prominent member of this category in recent memory is BioShock Infinite.
If the first BioShock was parodying what an Ayn Randian, atheist, capitalist utopia would look like, Infinite sought to take down the more fanatical and discriminatory aspects of American Christianity. Obviously, the Christianity presented in the game is a strawman, an easy setup to knock down, but that doesn’t really detract from Inifinite’s argument. When Christianity and American Exceptionalism are united, you get the xenophobia and racism that you find in the floating metropolis of Columbia. The notion that Americans (white ones to be precise) are better than everyone else oozes into much of the game, with hideous portrayals of Asians, Africans, and Indigenous peoples to name a few.
This view is upheld for Columbians by the church that the antagonist Zachary Comstock founded. As the prophet of his people, he tells his flock that the only truly “free” people in the world, and thus the only ones deserving God’s love, are white Anglo-Saxons, and that Columbia is a testament to that “truth”. Columbia’s holy duty is to not only be the shining beacon on the hill, but to be a beacon that “brings its light of truth” to the rest of the world, using force to do so. The cult he forms from this ideology is symptomatic of what happens in many churches in the U.S., as they often utilize an “us vs them” mentality and shun the message of compassion that is the heart of the faith. BioShock Infinite takes the premise of Columbia and uses it to expose some the seedy aspects of Christianity in brilliant fashion.
This is the avenue that most games take if they want to do the same thing as BioShock Infinite did, but are too wary of the ramifications. The strawmen that are set up are clearly meant to parody, if not outright mock, a religion. They usually set their sights on groups that are regarded as very out of the ordinary or even as cults in the eyes of many. For example, a great deal of games choose Scientology to critique. In the Fallout series, there is a religious group that comes to prominence in the west that follows the tenets of “Hubology”. Based on the writings of Dick Hubbell (referencing L. Ron Hubbard), the group believes the same basic teachings that Scientologists profess, but they are played for comedic effect. Members pay ludicrous amounts of money to advance to higher levels in the faith, there is a leader who is murderously distrustful of outsiders, and the religion is widely seen as a hoax to steal as much wealth from people as possible. They even had their own version of Tom Cruise (Juan Cruz) and Nicole Kidman (Vikki Goldman) in Fallout 2.
While Fallout’s take on Scientology is more irreverent and satirical, a less light-hearted takedown of Scientology is found in Dead Space with Unitology. Unitologists also share attributes similar to Scientology: a hierarchy that people move up in by paying large amounts of money, a belief in unity, and merchandise/books that have the same aesthetic.
In this series, though, the Scientology parody is not merely a group scamming others to obtain great wealth, but a threat to the very survival of life on Earth. In their zealotry, they either are brainwashed by the alien markers to do their bidding or willfully ignore the evidence in front of them that the very things they worship will be the end of everything.
The lesson of these parodies is that if your religious fervor blinds you to the harm that you are incurring upon not only yourself but others as well, then perhaps you should reevaluate your faith. Video games can be excellent tools to explore the less savory aspects of faiths and get them out in the open to be discussed. Do these takes sometimes become borderline discriminatory? Absolutely, and in those cases they should be roundly criticized for overstepping boundaries. But when done appropriately, religious parodies can help the real faiths to pinpoint their own flaws and mature and prosper.
Religion is a tricky subject to tackle in any medium, much less in video games. With the threat of trivializing beliefs strongly held by the vast majority of their customers and alienating a massive of amount of revenue should the depiction fall flat, many game companies shy away from the topic. Others, though, either represent various religions as best as they can, or find ways to aptly satirize them. In the end, it’s important to incorporate religion into video games if it makes sense to the universe of the game, and the more games that branch out and try it, the better.