An approach to God in videogames cannot begin directly from either God or videogames. The complexity in the argument requires us to take a step back. Without delving into a specific god or religion, we will examine how the general ideas of religious theory and spirituality, as well as godliness and godlessness, are explored, espoused and suppressed in videogames.
The manifestation of religious theory in videogames is much more commonplace than religion itself. The particular notion in mind is the scapegoat theory, which occurs in virtually every piece of art. We are, in fact, surrounded by it in our literature, film, society and politics. So much so, psychologists propagate it as their theory, and anthropologists as theirs.
While every religion draws on scapegoat theory, the most well- known example occurs in the Bible‘s New Testament. Three of the four Gospels retell the happenings when Jesus lands in Gerasene, across the Sea of Galilee. Here, Jesus performs the miracle of exorcizing the village demoniac of the demon, Legion. The Gospels of Mark (5:1-20) and Luke (8:26-39) offer the greatest detail.
The idea of a single victim being able to shoulder all the blame and malcontent in a system gives every other individual in the system a sense of safety and security. A society with a scapegoat will try its best to preserve it. The Gerasene demoniac was chastised, fettered and marginalized before Jesus arrived, but never killed. The scapegoat represents a single solution to all problems. So long as the status quo is upheld, the society’s balance will be maintained. This is precisely why the Gerasenes were upset and demanded that Jesus leave after he healed the demoniac.
In any society, the scapegoat is not singly responsible for all wrong with the world, but he is made to take on all the blame. To this end, he is a victim. The chief antagonist in a game is not the root of all evil, or even all disorder. Hundreds of problems plague a society, from disease to famine and drought to sudden climate shift and of course, the disappearance of mana. No single entity is ever the agent that causes all the pain and suffering in every part of the game world, but invariably, a single entity is made to shoulder all the blame. Very often, a scapegoat narrative involves a vague darkness overwhelming a quiet and peaceful land. The archvillain is never the master of all the negativity that the dark forces bring. Too often, we see game worlds shrouded in evil invite minor antagonists, like bandits and mercenaries, with no affiliation to the single nemesis who personifies and epitomizes evil. Whether the hero engages the minor antagonists or not remains a matter of a gamer’s preference, but the dissolution of the scapegoat will resolve and redress the smallest and most tangential act of evil operating anywhere in the universe.
In literature, the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings holds the essence of Sauron, and so its destruction guarantees the end of its master. The end of Sauron immediately resolves all the evil in Middle-earth. He is the scapegoat. Middle-earth was on the brink of ruin and nothing was going right, but the single act of killing Sauron fixes everything. Convenient.
Tolkien’s work might seem overly simplified in light of this theory, but like I said, scapegoat theory is everywhere. Samus destroying Mother Brain in Metroid has the same effect. In fact, this example is more powerful because Mother Brain’s death triggers a self-destruct mechanism across the entire planet. Mother Brain is the perfect scapegoat. Her death causes the destruction of every sign of her existence. Bowser serves the same purpose when his armies invade the Mushroom Kingdom. No matter how many Koopa Troopas are downed, the world is in disarray until Bowser is defeated.
Legend and game designer Shigeru Miyamoto voiced this truth when he said Link is born to oppose the rise of every Ganondorf. Link appears whenever Hyrule needs him; the deeper implication is Link needs Ganondorf. Each episode of The Legend of Zelda‘s fiction remains far from completion, even after the final dungeon, so long as the duel against Ganondorf remains pending.
The scapegoat represents a single solution to all the troubles afflicting an entire universe. In any game, beating a single level or boss never comes close to the single swift act of removing the archvillain. So, Sonic has Dr. Robotnik; Megaman has Dr. Wily; Ryu has M. Bison; and Earthworm Jim has The Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-Filled, Malformed, Slug-For-A-Butt … Each malevolent boss becomes a victim raised to power through the same recycled rituals and then sacrificed for the sake of a balanced universe.
The list might well be endless. Every hero goes on a journey to exorcise demons, and like Jesus when he performs any other miracle, he is celebrated. In videogames, the death of the archvillain returns the game’s universe to a Utopia. Religion is directly avoided in videogames, even though its influence is obvious.
Apart from this virtually universal element, religion and videogames rarely collide. The obvious, though still uncommon, exception is Bible games, which tend to play more like video Jeopardy! than traditional videogames. Crave Entertainment’s aptly-titled The Bible Game, now available for multiple platforms, is the most recent entry with this goal. But when “gameplay” devolves into something resembling a Sunday school catechism, not much gaming happens.
Whereas The Bible Game might be considered a God game, a larger genre that draws more mainstream attention is the god game. We move from pseudo-game to pseudo- mythology. These titles, which range from Populous to Black & White to Doshin the Giant, serve as group life managers. An entire village or society is at your mercy, and the decisions regarding who should prosper and who should suffer are solely yours. These games are pseudo-mythologies because the narrative, as you play it out, becomes the mythology. No pre-existing story guides the empowered player on how to act. A village’s erection of monuments for the player-deity is a flimsy game mechanic serving as a novelty doing nothing to enhance the mythos or the gameplay. The shrines represent a token nod to spirituality, and the self-aggrandizement in the context means little. Despite the very name of the genre, the god-ness of a player is never fleshed out.
Another interesting aspect of god games is they consistently offer the player-deity rule over primitive village people. Is this to suggest that the fiction the game world tries to create would not survive in a contemporary setting? Is the modern player too arrogant and narcissistic to believe a god game could function in her city? If Project Gotham Racing 3 can create a sense of immersion and attachment to its world by recreating present-day Los Angeles, why can’t Black & White 3?
Doing so would invite present-day religious iconography. Lionhead Studios wants the player to think of a god (or God Himself) without the difficulties and complexities associated with religion. For the same reason PGR3 avoids depicting churches, mosques and synagogues, Populous follows suit. Despite the obvious place temples and cathedrals would have in a god game, they are ignored. They are removed from the context by unerringly giving the player control over gangs of hunters and gatherers.
As we move from games promising group life management to those advertising group and individual life simulations, we can move from pseudo-mythology to “no mythology.” Titles like SimCity, The Sims and Second Life all try to create a complete life within a modernized, closed system. And still, they all deny the presence of religion, religion iconography and places of worship. The seminal SimCity, for example, asserts that a society can function fully without any place of worship. As mayor, the player makes decisions regarding airports, sea ports, hospitals, fire departments, police stations, post offices and residential areas, but is not allowed to consider building a church.
The same philosophy pervades the other games mentioned. EA’s overwhelmingly popular The Sims and Linden Labs’ burgeoning Second Life both promise a complete virtual existence for your digital avatar. You can earn money, do chores and engage in intercourse. These are, to a large extent, the goals of the game. You cannot, however, visit or attend a place of worship. No avatar is so distinctly Hindu that a Bindi is visible on its forehead, and none is so distinctly an Orthodox Jew to permit preserved forelocks. Both games bear a message for the player, arguing a virtual life is best enjoyed bereft of spirituality. Even a game like GTA: San Andreas, lauded for its huge and complete living, breathing game world lacks places of worship, but is replete with dialog repeating the words “God-damn!”
Among the games trying to outline even a crude belief system (the one that usually explains the creation of the world), most create some derivative simple mythology to service its game world. The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy both employ these tactics. A host of other games will mention a group of all-powerful gods that either abandoned the Earth, or were locked away by some malevolent force. This lackadaisical consideration of a world mythology is trite and hackneyed.
Religion is specifically avoided in such titles, despite the layers of complexity it could unravel, because it would compromise the integrity of the organic world the designers intended. Religion and spirituality among players – be they religious, sacrilegious or passionately irreligious – remain higher on the hierarchy than any other aspect of our humanity, like economics, politics, race and nationalism. Religion must offer a more intimate relationship and experience. As such, it is unspeakable. The word “God” becomes taboo, but “god” is somehow still acceptable.
Occasionally, we see titles embracing real mythologies as functions in the game world (like God of War) as well as titles choosing to say very little concerning the obvious spirituality of its universe (like Shadow of the Colossus). The former places many characters and settings from Greek mythology in its engine not only to carve a narrative, which employs significant borrowing from Greek legend, but also tries to enhance the gameplay with representative opponents, weapons and puzzles. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus offers an invisible mythology with minimal information regarding the circumstances of its world. Each of the colossi is clearly immense, powerful and unique – the three most important characteristics of a deity, but beyond that obvious interpretation, we are given little insight. Both these approaches rule out traditional religious iconography, while maintaining a sense of sacredness and sanctity toward the game elements.
There are a handful of games that accomplish what God of War does. That is, employ its mythology to not only influence, but also enhance all the aspects of the game. Games with developed mythologies engineered for a specific videogame, however, are more significant to this discourse. Although these cases are rare, it is interesting to see they are realized in many different genres. Take, for example, Tales of Symphonia, Killer7 and Katamari Damacy.
ToS is an RPG that creates a believable mythology. It recounts the journey a group takes to regenerate a dying world, and involves thick symbolism of scapegoats, rituals, prayers, angels, demons and an all-powerful goddess, Martel. The game’s design presents frequent priests, priestesses, temples and altars, and the characters often utter prayers in their exclamations. These nuances fill out the mythology in ways ignored by most other games.
Killer7 crosses every line regarding the sacred and sanctimonious. Every icon, image, figure and name is subverted. Every angelic figure the game presents must have its wings shot off by the player. And yet, the player still manages to serve as a hero in the game world. This is clearly an extreme realization of vigilantism and extra- judicial violence, which consistently acknowledges the redemptive powers of faith and spirituality moments before abandoning them for the game’s prescribed brand of justice and resolution. Coincidentally, the last time a game tried to accomplish a similar task, the result was Shiny Entertainment’s Messiah, an abject failure, commercially and critically. Even in hindsight, I doubt anyone would argue it proved to be avant- garde. Subverting the bifurcation of not just good and evil, but ethical and unethical, moral and immoral is not, in and of itself, provocative.
Katamari Damacy develops a mythology of an irresponsible King of All Cosmos and the player-controlled Prince. The idea that a katamari will cling to anything smaller than itself provides an awareness of perspective not realized since the 1977 short science film Powers of Ten. Being forced into motion at the command of a higher being, even the great Prince of All Cosmos is left to literally roll to and fro over the Earth with no greater objective than to grow before disappearing into the stars. The existential ennui suggested in the premise sounds remarkably like the desperation that left Schopenhauer bewildered some 150 years ago.
Having looked at the practicality of religion in videogames, we are left to consider the possibility of religion in videogaming. Religion has revealed itself to be a touchy subject for game designers, but remains a topic of active discourse among players. While faith-based games are niche products, numbers of gamers of faith are growing and looking for titles that – at the very least – do nothing to espouse philosophies contrary to their own. The internet has provided an outlet for purposes of such enlightenment.
Groups of gamers with single religious and spiritual inclinations advise each other on the appropriateness, and by extension wholesomeness, of games’ plots, themes and characterizations. A game like Killer7 might score an enviable 80% for its gameplay component, adjudged based on graphics, sound and control, but manage a meager 20% for its appropriateness review, which considers its graphic and gratuitous violence and sexual themes, thus yielding an overall score of 50%.
The use of such a review system begs more questions of what the player hopes to get out of his gaming. When a gamer feels his or her sensitivities being questioned, the wholesomeness of the playing experience is undermined. The entertainment value of the game is not subverted (as shocking as some of the violence in Resident Evil 4 may be, it’s still damn fun), but the value of the entertainment becomes diminished. The player will not want to play around children, for example. If the appropriateness of the software based on the criteria outlined by a religious lifestyle remains a major determinant of its playability, an impasse is inevitable. Given the increasing popularity of Mature-rated games, and the aging demographics of the hobbyists, it seems that both sides of the equation will lose. The conscientious player will begin to suffer through his pastime, enduring it as a guilty pleasure. If the disturbing themes continue to escalate and frustrate the player, the sense of remorse will swell to overcome the player’s attitude toward the hobby and the industry supporting it, and not just a few titles. I believe this question of wholesomeness will come to the fore over the next decade once we all agree videogames are art.
Games incorporate religion to varying degrees, under varying circumstances, to varying success. If we were to imagine gaming imbued with religion in every conceivable way, the results would be jarring. Consider id’s Doom series. How would you react to the games if the designers had further enhanced the idea of fighting through Christian Hell with Christian iconography? That would, after all, make more sense. What if the imps and demons were fought with holy water and crucifixes, instead of a space marine’s standard issue handgun and the BFG9000. What if you were required to pick up the Old Testament’s 39 books for an Easter egg hunt?
Not to parody Doom, or make you laugh, but the image conjured is compellingly absurd. Our human mythoi are beginning to converge in videogames. The scapegoat in any game with a boss hearkens to its religious roots. But new methods of blending religion and spirituality are clearly being forged. The examples of recent successes cannot be ignored.
Khurram is pursuing his MA in English at home in Kingston, Jamaica and holds a long-term goal of developing a working framework for videogame criticism.