I worship El Shaddai. Not the game (although it’s pretty great), but God Almighty. Some people hear this and call my morality into question when I play a game like Mortal Kombat.
There’s stuff in scripture that can be enjoyable to read or watch on film, but there’s not a lot to do.
Speaking as a Christian, many people in my religion feel a strong need to justify the media they consume in some way or another. Some do this by only watching shows, reading books or playing games that are explicitly “Christian” in nature. You know, things like Left Behind, Veggie Tales and The Passion of the Christ.
Even if a piece of content takes a lot of liberties with its source material, it’s seen as OK because “it’s from the Bible.” The Prince of Egypt, mostly faithful to Exodus though it was, wasn’t an exact retelling of Moses’ story. And Jesus’ bizarre “I’m a carpenter and I know what sort of tables people in the future will eat off of” moment in The Passion wasn’t in my translation of The New Testament.
But it’s really hard to make a compelling videogame based off of Biblical content that doesn’t involve you feeding the animals on Noah’s Ark (see: Super Noah’s Ark 3D for the SNES). The problem is that it’s hard to make Bible story games exciting, especially without offending people. There’s stuff in scripture that can be enjoyable to read or watch on film, but there’s not a lot to do.
It’s especially hard when you get to the New Testament, where most of the text is about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek. Even if you take tremendous liberties and try to make an action level in the Garden of Gethsemane, where you are tasked with defending Jesus from Roman soldiers as they try to arrest him, the game wouldn’t be any fun. It would always end with Jesus healing everybody you cut down and scolding you for living by the sword.
But then, if Jesus condemns violence against my fellow man, does that mean I shouldn’t play the majority of videogames on the market today? Does this make my no-kill playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution that much more important?
Shunning mainstream videogames would be a hard thing for a gamer to do. Some Christians, frustrated with the lack of quality in “Christian” games, resort to trying to find spiritual meaning in their secular content, whether it’s really there or not.
Neverwinter Nights was a tough sell in my household back in the day because it was based on Dungeons & Dragons (I wasn’t wise enough to make the argument, then, that Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, was actually a Christian and not a worshiper of Satan). But the game let you name your deity right off the bat, so I could make my Lawful Good Paladin worship Jesus. In my mind, that made everything A-OK, more or less. I could just roleplay a Christian in a dark world – like real life, only with more dice rolls.
It seems so easy, right? Sprinkle a little God here, a little Jesus there and suddenly everything’s purified. Never mind the violence and language in The Book of Eli. Eli is on a journey to save the world’s last Bible! He’s a Christian! Can you say “Church movie night”?
Heck, if you try hard enough, you can make a lot of things seem spiritual. I mean, a great deal of fantasy is derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien at some point, who was a strong Catholic. So that makes most of the fantasy genre Catholic, right?
That’s where we start to run into a problem.
A lot of people confuse Christian imagery or symbolism with being Christian. Paul Atreides is not an allegory for Jesus just because he was Dune‘s messiah. Same goes for Neo from The Matrix. That said, a lot of videogames aren’t as cut-and-dried as you may think.
It’s not hard to think that names like “The Flood,” “The Covenant” and “The Ark” aren’t coincidences.
Halo caught a little flack not long after the release of Halo 2 because some church youth groups were using the game’s popularity to attract young people into church buildings. My own church’s youth pastor did this, sweetening the deal with the promise of free pizza. The ethics of this sort of Pied Piper approach can of course be debated, but most of the controversy came from within the church itself. Halo 2 was rated “M,” and the entire multiplayer was built around killing each other. Most church leaders didn’t take kindly to it.
But type “Halo as Christian allegory” into Google and you get a treasure trove of speculative message board posts concerning the role of religion in the popular FPS series. It’s not hard to think that names like “The Flood,” “The Covenant” and “The Ark” aren’t coincidences. You’ll even find the occasional interview where a Bungie staffer says as much, such as when Bungie’s Chris Butcher said bluntly that they saw the Halo story as Biblical allegory.
So you find a lot of Internet posts arguing for Halo as a Christian story, with John 117 being a direct reference to a Bible verse (John 1:17), putting Master Chief in Christ’s shoes and having him fulfill Old Testament law. Or maybe the Covenant is an allegory for the fallen Christian (or sometimes even Muslim) church. That’s actually underselling some of the fantastic write-ups gamers have done concerning the series’ religious symbolism, of which there is much.
Does that make Halo a Christian story? After all, you can have a Biblical allegory without being supportive of the Bible as Holy Scripture. Does it matter either way, considering we’re talking about an M-rated entertainment product?
Still, you could make a strong enough case for Halo. A much harder sell is the PlayStation classic Xenogears, which at first glance seems to take the Christian religion and villainize it in every way possible.
Spoiler alert: The game ends with you killing God. Sort of. Something that calls itself God, anyway. It’s something that leads to most Christian reviews of the game being very negative, despite acknowledging the game’s overall quality.
But there’s enough wiggle room in the plot for gamers to theorize about the true meaning of Xenogears. They can say things like, “You didn’t really kill God, you killed Satan. The Wave Existence was the real God,” to which other people say, “But the Wave Existence isn’t anything like the God of the Bible.” This can go back and forth for a long time.
Then there are weird cases like Zelda. As in, comma, The Legend of. If you’ve been around the internet long enough you may have seen a picture of Link kneeling in prayer right in front of a crucifix, Jesus and all. It’s an image that circulated when A Link to the Past was released in Japan, appearing in guidebooks, and it still gets brought up every now and then.
The image meshes with a few other Christian symbols in the early Zelda games, such as the fact that Link’s shield had a cross on it and that the Book of Magic was originally named “Bible” in Japan. Was this just Shigeru Miyamoto thinking, “Well, a Bible item works for Castlevania, so maybe it will work for us,” or was Link supposed to be a Christian originally?
Or maybe Link goes to church every Sunday. Maybe he busts out his Zora mask and plays guitar for the worship band.
You could say this conflicts with Hyrule’s current religion of the three goddesses, but does it? Many Christians today believe in the doctrine of the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It’s the idea that God is three Beings but is also One. Maybe this “connection” is just Miyamoto’s apparent obsession with threes. Maybe it’s the mere fact that many creation myths – Christianity’s included – have a ton of similarities when you really dig into them.
Or maybe Link goes to church every Sunday. Maybe he busts out his Zora mask and plays guitar for the worship band. Malon sings. Ingo serves coffee. Tingle and Navi are ushers.
To be fair, this sort of debate and commentary is common with any art form (there’s an entire website devoted to listing the religious beliefs of various comic book heroes and villains), and such commentary isn’t restricted to spirituality. But churches are one of the main places where you sometimes have to defend the media you consume. When people you respect accuse you of not “walking the walk,” there’s an urge to justify yourself and your actions.
Personally, I don’t always bother to defend myself when confronted about my entertainment choices, and I don’t bring it up. I’ll play just about anything that catches my eye. I loved Grand Theft Auto IV. I enjoyed The Darkness. I skipped Duke Nukem Forever, but that wasn’t for religious reasons.
Is my carefree attitude towards gaming hypocritical? I don’t think so. I personally worship God by appreciating one of the greatest gifts he could have possibly given humanity: imagination. Well-crafted videogames have that in spades, and I have no issue separating fantasy from reality. I don’t need my games to explicitly praise God in order to feel good about playing them. But that’s me and my own personal convictions.
I don’t think trying to find spirituality in secular media is a bad thing, within reason. When religion is done right in a story, it can be a pleasure for anybody – religious or not – to find and discuss. I was one of the people who loved the spirituality in Lost. I think viewing Halo as a religious allegory makes the plot deeper and more interesting. But if you can only let yourself play Silent Hill 2 once you’ve determined that its good spiritual message outweighs the strong horror content then maybe you need to reevaluate some priorities.
Britton Peele is a firm believer in God, Middle-Earth and Oceanic flight 815. He’s a freelance writer and aspiring author from Texas who spends too much time on his Twitter and can be found at his website, www.brittonpeele.com.