How is Religion Portrayed in Video Games? April 10, 2012

How is Religion Portrayed in Video Games?

I don’t understand 87% of this video, but it involves the ways religion is portrayed in video games:

Extreme religious groups actively make the world a less cool place to live. Whether it’s Islamic extremists detonating themselves, fundamentalist Christians gunning down doctors, or neighbours in Northern Ireland throwing stones at each other over different interpretations of the same book. These people hijack religion to enforce their own cultural beliefs, and it’s our misinterpretation of this reality that creates the divide between those with faith, and those without.

It’s also the reason games have largely avoided tackling religion, despite it being one of the most interesting aspects of life. Some games such as Mass Effect and Bioshock have done a great job of utilising it in interesting ways, but we still haven’t reached the point where Islam can be portrayed without a suicide bomb.

You’ll all have to help me understand if the statements in the video are accurate.

(Thanks to @WCK604 for the link!)

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  • Adam Pring

    Sounds about right IMO. There are very few religious elements in video games… except RPG’s they don’t really pop up at all.

  • Anonymous

    Again, Assassin’s Creed. “Those Who Came Before” created humans in their image and utilized them as slave labour, fashioning themselves as gods. War broke out, humans rebelled, and at some point two rebels named Adam and Eve stole one of their powerful weapons (“Apples of Eden”).

    I don’t know if I’ve seen any other game use a real religion in such an cool, twisted manner. “Religion” itself (in the abstract sense separate from organized religion) still doesn’t actually play much of any role in the game though. Those Who Came Before are a technologically-advanced society, not a supernatural one. The game doesn’t spend time with people praying or discussing religious matters. The Knights Templar are a secret society who use religion as a cover for their activities, and who owned at least one or two popes to directly use the Church for their nefarious means, but they’re not themselves actually a religious group, nor are the protagonist Assassins Order.

  • It sort of ignores how Japanese developers historically have dealt with it. In that they at times take literal Christian concepts and turn them on its head. Occasionally even casting God as a villain (a number of times even). Sometimes these story elements when translated in the west were changed. 

    One of the main guys behind the science fiction horror game Dead Space was inspired by Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. In this game a Scientology like religion is a cult and is basically the main “villain”.  The only western game I can think of that explicitly even mentions Christianity is the Assassin’s Creed series which doesn’t seem to give a shit. They say almost immediately that the Catholic church (and all religion really) is a massive conspiracy used to control people. It’s basically a crazier and more atheistic “Da Cinci Code”. That’s not to say the series is pro-reason or anti-faith though. Every game so far has a the beginning a screen that reads,  “This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultrual team of various religious faiths and beliefs.”

    In the end though very rarely are real life religions used. And at the same time it’s rare to see religion criticized in the same ways real life atheists would criticize it (no evidence, faith is not a path to truth etc.) It’s usually the easy stuff they go for. Questions like “Should religion be banned?” I think a significant reason for that is when most games exist in a fictional universe where anything seems possible  it’s tough to justify rationality. It’s why a lot of TV shows fall apart for me when you start to even address those issues (Once Upon a Time, Lost etc.)

  • Kruglord

    Jim Sterling, a man whose opinions I greatly respect, made an excellent point about religion in games in the following article: 

    Well worth the read.

  • Ivory

    It’s fairly accurate, yes.

    I think a lot of it has to do with the degree and manner in which real-world specifics (vs. created religions) are used, whether for environment, thematics, or central motivation.
    I’d also like to note that this covers mostly Western games. I can’t speak for the whole of Eastern titles, but some of my favorite JRPGs draw from, if not center around, religious influences. 

  • Official_tristan

    The most obvious exception being Halo, of course. Religion also plays a prominent role in Red Faction: Armageddon and Assassin’s Creed, and more minor roles in games like Gears of War and Dead Space.

  • It’s worth pointing out that Sterling is an atheist who loves to talk about religion in games. He’s the only one who will do it so I read him a lot.

  • Damie

    Eternal Darkness’ take on religion was twisted, with many of the levels set in churches or other various religious buildings which had been taken over by the Ancient Ones (a very Lovecraftian game). These Gods used the religious institutions to disguise what they were doing (won’t reveal spoilers). Also I suppose all the other religions were fake, in that universe.

    There is a similar cover-up in Skyrim, and all the Elder Scroll games. There are many Gods and some creatures worshipped as Gods (daedra) and there is conflict and disagreement between different religions, and a politics to it in a sense. The daedra are the best – yes I will beat someone to death multiple times to get a magic mace if a supernatural being asks me to >:)

    Residetn Evil 4… The monks are monsters(/zombies) and there is a religion based around the parasite. Ha.

    There are a few games where religion is used as a tool of evil. In fact I’m hard pressed to think of one where religion is portrayed in a good light…

  • Revyloution

    I think I need to drop this here:

    and the Reddit thread 

  • Stephen Cameron

     How is religion portrayed in video games?

    Like this?

  • HGee

    In fact I’m hard pressed to think of one where religion is portrayed in a good light…

    When it’s used in a vague way (the video refers to Mass Effect as an example) it usually comes off as positive. It’s the same sort of portrayal you usually see on TV: character uses religion as a source of strength in hard times.

    When it’s used as a main plot device, things get hairy. But then, video games tend to be about conflict.

  • P. J. Reed

    Japanese RPGs have a long tradition of portraying organized religion as a force for evil.  The earliest one I can think of was Breath of Fire 2, which featured a church that was very much like the Catholic church, except that the god of the church was actually a demon who fed off of peoples’ prayers.

  • I’m surprised nobody has mentioned such obvious titles as God of War, Castlevania and Dante’s Inferno.  While the former would be considered mythology by the majority of gamers and believers, the latter two are distinctly Christian themed.

  • I can think of several video games which portray religion negatively, mostly RPG’s.  In Grandia 2, for instance, the plot revolves mainly around church that seems very similar to the catholic church in organizationally.  It turns out to be corrupt and led by someone who wants to destroy the world by resurrecting some demon like creature.

    Devil May Cry 4 also has a similar plot.

  • ¨These people hijack religion to enforce their own cultural beliefs, and it’s our misinterpretation of this reality that creates the divide between those with faith, and those without¨. I think this is very true.

  • It seems accurate.  Up until this point I have been leaving my religious veiws out of my gaming podcast (NinjaCast) because I honastly did not think that it would be a relevent topic to cover.  But there seems to be alot of intrest in it and I would actually love to cover alot of issues that I have been neglecting.  Guess I need to start working it in the next episode.  Also The Family association or some religious group in florida is causing a fuss about Mass Effect 3 and Star Wars the old republic having LGBT content.  That is a story I plan on covering but you can find it on the web.  Defiantly something worth looking into.

  • Pseudonym

    Dante’s Inferno is mentioned in the video. I didn’t watch after reading your post to see if the other two were.

  • Uuu

    I disagree, I think that religion is in games quite a bit and is used very effectively within certain worlds and storylines. It may not appear in the ways people expect or the same as in daily life and that’s why some say it’s not there. Few games have the exact same religions portrayed as they exist in the real world, but how many games have all other elements exactly the same as reality? Games deal with fantasy worlds, alternate histories, radically different time periods, or can be of a genre like puzzle games that don’t portray a “world” anyway. But religion or at least religious themes are used in many stories, settings and experiences.

    The Elder Scrolls has shrines to gods and “demons”, religious proselytizers, divine boons, temples, and quests related to these. The Final Fantasy series has dealt multiple times with issues of divine power/destiny, what it means to be “real”, characters who were created by supernatural beings, etc. Empire-managing games like the Total War or Civilization series use religion prominently as a way to organize your faction’s culture, control unrest, and motivate warriors or the populace. Mass Effect and Halo each incorporate alien races that subscribe to a dogmatic system that is the reason for their attacks on humanity. Many games explore religious themes like persuasive dogmatic leaders, population control, and questioning authority even if they do not explicitly use religion.

    Can it be used more in games? Sure, it is not widespread. But there are plenty of developers that don’t shy away from it.

  • I recently played Assassin’s Creed 2 and wow it isn’t nice to the Pope.

    My favorite JRPG is Shadow Hearts. It doesn’t even try to make sense: a main character’s only weapon is a bible, but many enemies are inspired by Kabbala and the final boss is the Christian deity.

  • I think Islam and Scientology are addressed frequently in video games. They are called different names, though, for the same reasons most people avoid open criticism of them. I’d say they don’t need to be called out specifically.

    If you’ve seen one evil, manipulative cult, haven’t you pretty much seen them all?

  • Dark Jaguar

    Some people have rather limited exposure to, well, FPS games.

    Tetris is OBVIOUSLY a detailed thesis on the monotony of life as challenge after challenge slowly piles up until utter collapse.  However, it offers eternal salvation on the Great High Score Screen.

    Xenogears ends in a battle against someone who’s only desire is to be “redeemed” by god, feeling that there is no point at all to life without god’s love.  Your characters talk him out of this.  The being this person worships as a god actually was simply trapped and really doesn’t seem to care about human concerns.  In the end, it’s so alien that the only connection to it I could make is that hey, I wouldn’t want to be stuck somewhere, flesh or “wave form”.

    Breath of Fire II OPENS in such a spectacular “take that” to religion that even in my fundy christian days, I just had to stare in awe at how awesome it was.  Oh yes, video games actually played a part in my deconversion.  An eye opens and says it is weak, it needs strength, “you must become god’s strength”, and it demands prayers.  Then, your character, as a kid and child of a pastor of the Dragon Shrine goes to rescue his sister and returns to a world that’s completely alien to him, with the church now a church of St. Eva.  Notably, aside from the shift of the object of worship, the church is pretty much exactly the same.  The Zelda series has 3 goddesses that create the world and then just LEAVE it.  Other smaller gods are around but lack a certain finesse, so enter a world wide flood, after which the villian takes the time to point out, hey, “Your gods destroyed you!”.

  • lol yeah Shadow Hearts is great.

  • Rbray18

    i’d say dragon age does a interesting take on religion. the main religion in freleden is kinda sorta based on christianty with the main figure andraste being a jesus/Joan of arc analogue and it portrays it sorta both ways with one of the better aligned characters being religious but it shows a lot of downsides to the religion too.

  • No love for the Diablo series? I know they haven’t released a game in a while but you can’t say a game where the main antagonists are Diablo, Mephisto and Baal lacks religion. Of course, a certain all powerful character from that mythology is not present so the humans have to sort out the mess.

  • thebigJ_A

    Play games, Hemant. They’re very much not games in the old sense. They’re not for children (average gamer is something like thirty now). It’s a form of expression, it can be art, and there’s a lot to be said for an experience you control.

    As an avid gamer, it’s not just a pastime. Though sometimes I might play lighter fair to relax, I often game like I read. I find something that makes me think or feel.

    I thought it was a good video, fairly even-handed and representative of the current state of the industry. There ARE games making comments about religion, they do make people think, and generally it’s subtle enough that the fundies don’t pick up on it.

  • I was going to mention Dragon Age, but you beat me to it. Out of all the video games I have played, Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed use religion as a driving force behind the story line.

  • Mr Shine

    they should have talked about bioshock 2 a little bit, which happens about 10 years after the first one,  when Ryan is already dead, but theres a new dictator in town, which made ruling everyone as a cult, promising “long term immortality” (ill explain this later) you can find recorders with tapes of debates that allow you to see that she used religion as something the people seeked and promised it in case she will rule rapture, one of the main reasons they took her, another main reason was that ryan was mad with power and cared very little about his citizens, occasionly confiscating their property and even shutting down entire areas for his own personal use, for… taking a break apparently. religion didnt change much in rapture, people still hunted each other like madmans in pursue of getting the most ADAM (long story short, superpowers, injected through the veins) the diffrence is that you can occasionly find them sacrificing humans to be taken by… im not even going to get into what the “little sisters” are, again for the immortality, which ill now explain what it is. in rapture, scientists were not, if to qoute Ryan “held back by petty etiques” and were allowed if not encouraged to make experiments in humans, did it turn out good? no. not the slightest bit. you have seen little bits of the life in rapture during this video. drove everyone insane. the new dictator, Dr Sophia Lamb, made a… lets start with a little explanation: the ADAM that affected the human genom to allow superpowers, automatic fitness improvments, creating swarms of bees etc etc could be recollected from the users, and input into one specially made/modified user which was named Eleanor. thus all the memories and knowledges shall be passed over after the death of each and every person in rapture and they all will live through Eleanor, what will eleanor do with all said knowledge? that depends on the actions of your character through the game.  during the game you can find copies of Dr Sopeah Lamb philosophical book “unity in metamorphosis” usually next to wall paintings of a huge white butterfly and a large amount of candels on the floor. here is a link for the many qoutations from the book that can be heard during the game: if you wish to ask more, or if some of the things i said were unclear, feel free to ask me on this thread

  • I was a bit disappointed nothing about Sid Meier’s  Civilization games was mentioned. I don’t know anything about the earlier games, but in Civ 4 all the biggest real-world religions were available. You could use them to develop culture and happiness in your civ, and you could train missionaries to send to other civs to spread the faith. Also, the voice of Leonard Nimoy quotes Galileo when discovering the Scientific Method tech.

    In Civ 5 the religion feature was scrapped, but it still had this jewl:

  • I didn’t quite understand this bit of the article that was posted under the video

    Atheists and people of faith have a common ground; it’s called common sense.

  • Demonhype

     LOVE the Bioshock games.  Don’t have much money these days, but that is the one game I will always buy the moment it comes out, even if I must shun all other games.  And the complexity of the story and the variant outcomes based on the ethical dilemmas is what keeps me coming back.

    Don’t forget that Eleanor sees you not just as “her” Big Daddy but as her father and is asking you to show her how to behave just as a child imitates the adults in his/her life and the behavior a child witnesses in his/her parents is a primary influence in how they learn to behave.

  • hoverFrog

    There is no religion in my life so having none in games seems normal to me.  The only contact I have with religion is when I hear that it has done something awful or someone who is religious has done something extremely stupid.  Portraying that in games would probably offend someone.

  • I would imagine its because many gamers are apathetic towards religion in general. I don’t have any stats to back that up but when you think of “stereotypical gamers” (youngish men), they don’t also fit a religious stereotype…. more the dragged to christmas mass with grandma type. So why include it in games if it isn’t an interest of the gamers?
    However, thanks to this article, I may check out some of the games mentioned. I’m definitely more of a Nintendo person, and I don’t think there’s a deity in Super Mario. However, the Zelda series (which deals with things rather harmlessly) seems to have a goddess, demon, and hero locked in eternal conflict that is resolved in each generation through reincarnation…. does that count as religion?

  • brian_sack

    I don’t think that computer games have skirted around religion at all in the past. From games like Populous (1989) where you play as a god, beneficent or malevolent as your own choosing, to games like fallout (1997) with the various post apocalyptic religions you interact with. What about the longest journey (1999)? A game that directly addresses the intersection between science and technology, religion and magic?

    I can see why console games of the past have shyed away from religion in much the same way they have shyed away from most adult themes. But some games out there, ones that are older than you think, have made some genuine statements about religious belief.

  • Gunstargreen

    Every other Japanese RPG starting from the Playstation era is packed full of religious stuff, usually negatively, so I don’t know what he’s saying by “few times.”

  • Adi Rule

    Yep, I immediately thought of Dragon Age, too. And in Dragon Age 2, religion is at the center of the entire plot. It’s interesting because you can choose to be a very religious character or a very non-religious character (or anywhere in the middle) — and your companions run the gamut as well — and there’s no clear right/wrong, good/evil path.

  • The Other Weirdo

     So, the Ori, then?

  • mike

    In Final Fantasy X the final boss is Sin.  The priests are one of the ruling castes and the elite among them are on suicide quests to destroy Sin, only to become the next Sin.  One of main antagonists is a rich prince who combines church and state to simultaneously appoint himself secular and religious power and in the process even resurrects himself.
    In Final Fantasy XII, the main antagonist is an emperor who is assisted by a demon, who used to be a god.
    In Final Fantasy XIII, the gods use humans as bait to lure back their creator god so that he can kill all of the gods.  To this end they raise up and crush down humans as often as they can, so that their screams call out to the creator god.  This game was intense, and for a moment it seemed as if a main character had actually committed suicide (which is waaay awesome/risky for a game).
    FFX 2 was terrible.  I haven’t played FFXIII 2 yet.
    Antagonists resurrect other people and themselves all the time in the FF universe.  It has become a little bit too much and you never know if a mini-boss is going pull a jesus on you and then run away.

  • Pascale

    The Assassin’s Creed games and Dante’s Inferno come to mind as ones that really vilify the Catholic church… But Islam certainly hasn’t been tackled in that manner.

  • Batman

    Final Fantasy Tactics too

  • Rabid

    And Xenogears out did them all to the point that it very nearly didn’t get a NA release. Still waiting for the damned EU release. Still.

    Thank dog for not-so-legit sourcing practices.

  • Glasofruix

     Try Grandia 2, religion plays a major role in the story.

  • TimothyWells

    No one wants to touch on him casually throwing out the word Bitch there? I was disappoint. 

  • chicago dyke, venomous lesbian

    haven’t played a computer game since the 80s. i would think any fantasy sort of game would be rife with religion, however. i have no idea what is popular these days. 

  • Amy C

    I’m surprised they didn’t mention Eastern games, such as the Final Fantasy series.

  • SomeKid

    I’m surprised no one ever tackled Skyrim or Silent Hill. Both of these series have great use of religion, Skyrim has one type of cultural group( The Adlmeri Dominion ) that is forcing upon their religious beliefs that Talos ( one of the Elder Scrolls deity’s ) doesn’t get up to their expectations as a god, And so use force like torture, kidnapping, and even murder to put down the believers in Talos.

     Silent hill has a psychotic religious group called “The Order”. A cult which play a role in the dilemmas the main protagonists face. This cult believes they can bring a paradise by starting an apocalypse and follow “God”  ( Not a real religious god ) But really isn’t a god, But rather a monster depicted as a deity.

  • Ivory

    Did you watch the video? He spends some time on the Elder Scolls series.

  • Pedro Lemos

    I read somewhere that most of the developers of Civ 4 aren´t religious and that they included religion in the game as they see it, like a virus that spreads and allows you to control the population.

  • Norbury

    Neighbours in Northern Ireland throwing stones at each other? FFS, over 3,500 people died in the Troubles. I realise that’s not the point of this post, but really.

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