“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” – James 4:7
“I shall purge this land of the shadow.” – The Amazon, Diablo II
Two doors burst open and a pair of impossibly muscled creatures emerges with equal expressions of pissed-off menace on their minotaur-like faces. My breath catches as I deftly shift my mouse to the right, preparing to fire my chaingun in righteous self-defense. Through a combination of a well-timed strafe and dumping dozens of rounds into the maws of the red-skinned beasts, I conquer the level and walk triumphantly towards a platform engraved with a pentagram.
In the mid 1990s, the first person shooter Doom was arguably the most frightening experience a videogamer could have. For me, however, a shy youth raised in a church where something called “spiritual warfare” was a major part of our Sunday School education, the act of battling demons as a nameless space marine with an affinity for large weapons and later as a warrior in the Demon-centric action roleplaying game Diablo was an entirely therapeutic experience in helping me overcome my fear of real devils and demons.
When I use the word “demons,” I don’t mean it in the way people living in the 21st century usually do, as a clever metaphor to describe the hidden problems or nagging personal hang-ups that someone like Ernest Hemingway or Lindsay Lohan might have. I say those words in the most literal sense possible – I was actually terrified of living and breathing evil beings that had the power to do all sorts of nefarious things to me.
Even as I write the previous sentence, I’m aware of how odd that might sound. It sounds ridiculous to me considering that my own religious beliefs have eroded to the point of nonexistence over the past decade. On the spirituality meter, I now flit somewhere between agnostic and total skeptic.
The type of irrational fear that I suffered as a kid isn’t a rare thing. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2007, roughly seven out of ten Americans profess some sort of belief in the devil and in hell. Approximately 35 percent of adults in North America also conclude that Satan is a living being with supernatural powers, as noted by a more detailed survey conducted by Barna Group in 2009.
This surprising statistic is likely in step with the rise of evangelicalism in the West over the last fifty years. The still growing evangelical movement (well-known followers include TV preacher Billy Graham and former president George W. Bush) teaches that every word of the Bible is true, unerring and literal. While more liberal mainline Protestant denominations tend to view things like the devil and hell as symbolic ideas meant to personify acts of rebellion or evil, evangelicals perceive them as unquestioned realities.
I was forced to attend an evangelical church two or three times a week for the first 18 years of my life and I became well versed in the ways of The Artist Formerly Known As Lucifer. The pastor at my family’s first church was an old World War II vet who frightened me nearly as much as Satan did with his bellowing voice and the frozen stare of his glass eye. His casual apocalyptic musings about the devil – like he lived down the street from us – were just as frightening. Amongst other wild claims, Pastor Johnson suggested that the Antichrist would soon walk the Earth and as a double whammy, would be a flaming homosexual – a Hitler meets Liberace. No one blinked an eye when the pastor predicted the sexual preferences of the Devil’s right-hand man.
One of the verses from the Good Book that I was instructed to memorize was 1 Peter 5:8 and it scared the living crap out of me: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Perhaps some Christians took it as a metaphor for sin and the destructive effects it could have on one’s soul, but my 14-year-old self thought, “Holy shit, Satan is going to morph into a Thundercat and eat my soul. I’m dead.”
Perhaps since reality already seemed stranger than fiction, I began turning towards the narratives of comic books, fantasy novels and videogames in my early teens as a means of escape. Videogames in particular became my hobby of choice, in part because they granted me a semblance of control over the destiny of the heroes. Even in my favorite books and movies, I remained a passive observer watching someone else save the day. In games, with my direct help, Mario and Link could take down their respective nemeses and save princesses from the throes of mortal peril.
I didn’t see games as a way of dealing directly with my fear of the devil, at least, not until I first installed Doom. In most videogames, evil or “badness” is embodied in the form of a cruel crime lord, misshapen monster or lunatic leader of some alien civilization. Doom‘s generic Mars-base setting is fairly standard videogame stuff, but the enemies you face are possessed human soldiers, fireball tossing imps, and giant demons with laser guns for right arms – as if Satan co-wrote a story with Philip K. Dick.
Perhaps it was because of the immediacy of the game’s first-person perspective, all you’re allowed to glimpse of your character is his hands, but I imagined that I was personally exterminating the demon-infested corridors of Doom. Yes, I was a tad scared by these virtual manifestations of evil, but I also experienced a sense of liberation. As the familiar idiom goes, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Satan, as presented in my religious indoctrination, haunted me because I could never truly perceive him. He was an invisible being that could strike at any time and turn me into the head-spinning, bile spitting torture victim from The Exorcist.
In Doom, supernatural evil had corporeal bodies, ones that I could puncture with a full arsenal of weaponry found lying around like discarded trash. They had the ability to return the hurt, sure, but that’s what picking up med kits and new suits of armor were for. Plus, not even the ultimate bad guy could conquer the magic powers of the quicksave. Death in Doom just meant a new beginning.
I didn’t feel particularly strange about this violent recreation, even though I considered myself a devout Christian at the time. After all, I was just doing what the Bible told me to do. One of the verses of the New Testament that I’d memorized was a stern piece of advice aimed at true believers of the faith – “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Brandishing a rocket launcher with murderous intent in a game, of course, was probably not what the apostle James had in mind, but that’s what he gets for being so very nonspecific about how one might accomplish said resisting, right?
Then there was the added sense of control I achieved when I later stumbled upon the PC game Diablo. Diablo borrowed Doom‘s hell-come-to-life concept and married it to a medieval wizards and warriors roleplaying trope.
Even more so than with Doom, what I enjoyed about Diablo was that it all boiled down to a numbers game. Damage to yourself or enemies, the strength of your weapons and armor – all of it was easily quantifiable with simple numbers. Everything had hit points or a percentage of strength or weakness.
This was a huge contrast to the battles against Satan that I learned about in church, where all conflict is vague and ethereal. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the Bible outlines a method of anti-devil protection called “The Armor of God” where you put on pieces like the “Breastplate of Righteousness” and “Shield of Faith” (and one that always made me giggle, “having your loins girt about with truth“) to stop the “devil’s fiery arrows.” In Diablo, something called the Armor of God would be an actual full suit of armor that would probably give a +20 bonus to Holy magic and help you beat your enemies in a way you could predict and calculate. The Bible’s brand of armor felt like the Emperor’s New Clothes – an empty gesture meant to placate me. If the devil really wanted to attack me, I’d be screwed, I thought.
Even without obtaining my own suit of shiny armor, I eventually overcame my fear of the devil in my college years. Today, I’m about as scared of Satan as I am nervous about Thor striking me down with his thunder hammer. I’d be overstating the case if I said that videogames were the tonic that completely cured me. A lot of it had to do with leaving the insular church of my childhood and going away to college, where I was exposed to new philosophies and perspectives.
Games like Doom and Diablo served as a crude form of therapy. I felt powerless in my own life against the supernatural, but the characters I inhabited controlled their own destinies. Though I wasn’t literally picking up shotguns or an enchanted sword, my ability to war with the virtual legions of hell in videogames served as a small act of catharsis that granted me temporary refuge from my fear.
Ryan Smith is a freelance writer/journalist with a decade of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and the web. He covers videogames, tech, and sports for Chicago Tribune‘s RedEye edition and authors GameSmith, a Chicago specific gaming blog.