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.