I recently had a bit of a conversation with a friend of mine who is a producer at a game development community, and the topic was religion. There were two main threads to the chat…the first was about the use (and misuse) of religion and religious symbology in games, and the second was about making “Christian” games. Religion is one of those topics people don’t like to discuss, along with politics, mostly because people can be quite passionate about them and when you have individuals with differing views, things can get a bit out of hand…in my experience, this is because strong point of views (both in religion and politics) are usually the product of how someone has been raised, or indoctrination in the higher education system. Very rarely will you find a person who has strong beliefs, and can tell you WHY they believe so strongly. It is even rarer to find someone that can have a DISCUSSION about differing views without things turning into an arguement. Anyway, back to games…

The first bit I would like to discuss is the use (and misuse!) of Religion and religious symbology in games. I think that the game industry in general, is very similar to Hollywood in that any use of religion or historical works such as the Bible, the Koran, and others, is usually taken quite out of context, or twisted with “creative license” (a total cop-out if you ask me) to make something new or to fit it to a particular theme or style of gameplay. Most of the time, when a new movie comes out that has religious references or content, the religious community as a whole (defined as the major recognized religions) tends to cringe and groan about how terrible things are. Facts are wrong, quotes are twisted, things are taken out of context, and other things are entirely made up. The mass public tends to take movies (and other entertainment) at face value…you would be surprised at how many people assume that everything they see on TV or on the internet MUST be true, simply because it was in a movie or on the internet.

I’ll segue for a minute and use The DaVinci Code as an example…the book is a WORK OF FICTION, yet many people take much of what is written in the book as absolute truth. Curators of many of the locations in the book are constantly perplexed by people trying to find places in the book that don’t exist. Another example is Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” painting…I am sure you are familiar with all of the rumors here, one of them being that there was a woman in the picture. I am continually amazed by how many people take this to mean that there actually WAS a woman there, and thus it must be true that Jesus was married and had kids. When I tell them that Leonardo DaVinci WASN’T THERE painting during the Last Supper, they look at me like I am an alien. Seriously people. I could paint a picture of Jimi Hendrix having a drink with Mozart, and eventually people will assume that they must have been related and that Mozart taught Hendrix everything he knew about music. How ludicrous eh?

Back to my topic…religious symbology is used in quite a lot of games, and usually in a very subtle sense. The same goes for a lot of occult and pagan symbols. How many games can you think of that have the crucifix in it? Pentagrams? Druids?

I think that it is fine for writers and designers to create a fictional religion and implement it in a game. This is very useful for defining an interesting and unique setting, as well as giving a reason or rationale for some things (like the origins of magic or whatever). But is it really appropriate to use real world religions and symbols?

When I have had this conversation with people before, the atheists usually take the stance of not caring or claiming that there is no big deal, its “just” religion, or they go on a rant about how the masses are brainwashed and the faithful are just ignorant. Sometimes they whine and complain that religion is offensive to them, and thus should be censored from all public view…including libraries, documents, education, historical objects, and whatnot. What these people fail to understand, is what faith and religion actually MEANS to people that believe, or how much of an influence that religion has had on our global history, culture, and achievements.
For a religious man, his faith is something that is deep, sublime, and critically important to him. Offending and insulting a man is one thing, but offending and insulting the thing he worships is something different…it is much more profane, aggregious, and an offense that is quite intimate in nature and effect. An atheist that does not believe in a God should not go out of his way to insult those who do, or the God they worship. Why should the atheist care if he is a non-believer? Does it really hurt him for other people to worship something? I would say no.

So why is it that the entertainment industry (including games) portrays religions and believers in such a negative light, or presents religious documents, symbols, and beliefs in a twisted or incorrect manner? Whom does it really profit? Does a religion in an MMORPG based on Christianity better than one based on a fictional pantheon? I would say no…I would also say that it is inappropriate and a potential problem in the public arena, not to mention that it could be problematic from a game design. perspective.

Keep religion out of games. If you are going to put it in, make it fictional. If you absolutely must use real world religions and faiths, then be honest about it. Do your research, and portray it accurately. Don’t twist it for your own amusement. If you are a non-believer, or have negative feelings toward those who do believe, then keep it to yourself…don’t portray believers in a deragatory light. You aren’t impressing anyone by attacking religion.

What about games that are meant to be Christian games? (or based on some other religion, I’m just going to use Christianity as the example because I know a few companies trying this)

I think this industry has failed in the past for a variety of reasons (quality, gameplay, etc.). The main distinction here is that they either want to make games that appeal to Christians OR they want to make a game that is Christian themed and meant to be used as an evangelizing tool. All too often, the content of the game is based on teaching historical events in the Bible (sometimes called “Bible Stories”), or we have something like players taking the role of angels that roam around and beat up on demon NPCs.

I think the appropriate approach to take is to design a game that is, first and foremost, a GAME, and fun to play. The second thing then is design the content that is wrapped around the mechanics to be Christian.

It is one thing to make a game that is appealing to Christians and their families, and something else entirely to make a game about Noah trying to gather animals in the Ark. I think that the “Christian” games industry would probably explode overnight if games were designed with Christian values and morals but were still fun. If you want to teach then make a teaching game and leave it at that. If you want to make a tool for evangelizing, you have to think very hard about how to implement that in a game without shoving religion down someone’s throat, or making something that is so hokey and ridiculous that it is treated with derision. I’ve seen a few “Christian” games at E3 every now and then that made me curl my toes and hurt my eyebrows. They were so poorly produced and designed (even with the best of intentions) that they were a total waste of money and resources. “Christian” movies that are produced in recent memory are the same…but all of the ones that warp religion, or present it in a negative or blasphemous light tend to succeed. Why is that? Why were movies like Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments such huge blockbusters? What has changed in our culture? Why is belief in God and religion so derided and hated? Most of the people I see that write and say things about how horrible religion is, or how stupid Christians are, or whatever, are usually the ones that don’t know a thing about it and they can’t back up their opinion with any coherent thought or statement. Even worse, some have had a bad experience with a church or a particular religion when they were a kid, and that has left a bad taste in their mouth (never mind the fact that the root of their bad experience was one or more individuals…which are never representative of a faith or religion as a whole…we are all “sinners” as they say).

I guess the moral of this particular blog, or at least a summary of my late night rambling are as follows:

1) Keep real-world religions out of games. If you have to put it in, make sure there is a solid design reason for it, and be accurate about your presentation and facts. Nothing irritates me more than twisting something like religion for shock value or profit.

2) Fictional religions in a game are OK. Even better they are interesting and can give a game a whole new level of depth and substance.

3) If you are going to make a game to appeal to a religious market, then go right ahead. But learn the craft of making games first…Bible puzzles, or 3D re-enactments of Bible Stories aren’t good games, and they aren’t fun. If you are going to make a religious based game for the mass market, don’t stuff it with indoctrination and too much religion. Use themes, morals, values, metaphors, and allegory to your advantage. Remember too, that even the “holiest” among us are all human with their own flaws and shortcomings.

Above all, be respectful of others…regardless of what you believe, and what they believe. Flapping at the mouth about how non-believers are all going to burn in hell or screaming that any believer is a fanatical nutcase is an ignorant thing to do and intolerant. Try learning about the other’s point of view and WHY they believe or don’t believe. You might learn something.

One last note…this post isn’t meant to be a reflection of my own beliefs (or lack thereof)…I just think it is an interesting topic (particularly how religion is used in game design), and I wanted to throw some thoughts on the table and see what you think. Don’t bother posting some dumb comment that flames one side or another…I’d rather you make observations on what you have inexperienced in games, and how religious themes or undertones have enhanced or diminished a particular game.

I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say.


9 thoughts on “Religion…”

  1. ” Very rarely will you find a person who has strong beliefs, and can tell you WHY they believe so strongly. It is even rarer to find someone that can have a DISCUSSION about differing views without things turning into an arguement.”

    This is the reason I always avoid mentioning any sort of religeon things at home =)

    I would like to see a well-built game for the faithful out there, but then I wonder…where would it stop? And would it only enhance the difference between the faiths and cause yet more strife? That would be my fear, irrational as it may be.

  2. Can you give some specific examples of the misuse of religion and religious imagery in games? Or places where a fictional religion should, in your opinion, have substituted for a real one? It’s hard to imagine a place where such as swap wouldn’t ring distractingly false. Any setting where a developer would use a real religion is probably already too much like our world for any fictional religion to fit in well.

    The closest I’ve ever come to objecting to religious trappings in games is being bored with the quasi-Satanic imagery in Diablo. In a fantasy setting, things like pentagrams and Judeo-Christian-derived demons fit in about as well as Zeus-worship in Grand Theft Auto.

  3. Where is all this offensive religion? I’ve totally missed it too.


  4. “In a fantasy setting, things like pentagrams and Judeo-Christian-derived demons fit in about as well as Zeus-worship in Grand Theft Auto. ”

    Most of the imagery in Diablo, and in christianity had its origins long before christianity existed. Nor are Demons exclusive to christianity. Satan himself has origins in Zoroastrianism. So I don’t see Diablo as a misuse of those things in a fantasy setting, especially if one considers the fact that back in the Middle Ages most of what was done in Diablo (magic, and the like) was considered quite possible. Not saying Diablo is a historical game just that none of what appears in it is really out of place.

    Back to Nico.

    The above I believe is one of the reasons it is so hard to just make a new religion in a game. For example if one adds a pentagram in their religion then most people (in the US )immediately attatch Judeo-Christian tones to it, regardless of whether the designer intended it or not. The same goes for most “mystical” images. So for a developer to get past that bias they would have to spend a rather large amount of time explaining each and every symbol, having their players read it, accept it against what they want to believe ANYWAY, all for something that in all reality has not alot of influence on the game world in most games. It is easier for them to to use the symbol and attatch a meaning to it similar to what is commonly accepted and use the existing mythos behind it with slight alterations to fit their world.


    bah have to cut this short for now, mor later.

  5. “Why should the atheist care if he is a non-believer? Does it really hurt him for other people to worship something? I would say no.”

    Playing the Devil’s Advocate for a moment, I would disagree with this one. One of the primary beefs atheists tend to have with organized religions is the amount of pain and suffering that has been brought upon the world in the name of religion, in the form of wars, persecution, terror and witch hunts. In this sense, it really does hurt him to have other people worship something.

    To comment on your main point, I can’t agree that religion has no place in games – or that if they do, they have to be portrayed such that they perfectly reflect the religion’s party line with no room for creative interpretation and artistic license. What about the portrayal of world nations in games (most current “realistic” FPSs and ALL war games pre-perestroika)? What about the portrayal of medeival Europe in fantasy-themed games? What about the physics of platforms hovering in the air, or of slowly falling blocks?

    Fact is, the “truth” is not always what’s fun or exciting. I would not want to play a medeival Europe themed game where I collect other people’s excrement off the street, and if the blocks in Tetris fell quickly and straight the game would be considerably less fun. I’m sure that there are historians who would take great offense to the image of 1300s Europe as an age of great heroics and fair maidens, and I personally know at least one person who takes great offense to things that do not obey the laws of physics.

    The point is, that’s not the target audience for such games, and the developers are not obligated to cater to their sensitivity on those issues. On the other hand, if you are actually *trying* to make a game that appeals to the “Christian market”, then you better make darned sure that it reflects the Christian faith in such a way as to be appealing to Christians. That doesn’t necessarily mean doing your research and telling the “truth” is an imperative, of course – there are many occasions in history that Christians would not wish to be reminded of, and a game that was perfectly accurate would likely not gain 100% appeal in that market. It means spinning your story in such a way as to gain appeal in a particular market segment. I expect nothing more from a game publisher, whose intent is merely to profit.

    Why does the entertainment industry portray Christianity, other religions, and faith in general in a negative light? Well, why does the entertainment industry portray governments, corporations and schools in a bad light? Why doesn’t anyone make a movie about some exceptionally good social program, or an eco-friendly logging company, or an great class who graduated with honours? Because it doesn’t make for good entertainment – or at least not as good as entertainment about secret conspiracies, money-grubbing, backstabbing CEOs or gang wars. Our current entertainment industry is very critical of established institutions, religions included. This is just the Zeitgeist of the day, and has nothing to do with the liberal media or a Zionist agenda – it’s just what happens to sell.

    In my opinion, if you want to make a good Christian game, recreate the venerable Ultima IV without the overt pagan theme. Such a game would teach you “Christian” values (also values shared by most of the world’s religions, including Humanism) without necessarily becoming preachy and caught up in bible stories.

  6. “Most of the imagery in Diablo, and in christianity had its origins long before christianity existed. Nor are Demons exclusive to christianity. Satan himself has origins in Zoroastrianism. So I don’t see Diablo as a misuse of those things in a fantasy setting, especially if one considers the fact that back in the Middle Ages most of what was done in Diablo (magic, and the like) was considered quite possible.”

    My problem is that those images are still rooted in familiar Earth cultures, while the Diablo games take place on on a world called Sanctuary. Not to say that this kind of thing isn’t done in fantasy all the time, of course. I just don’t dig it.

    For a great example of original symbols that become meaningful and powerful to the player, I’d point to the Thief games and their extremely potent use of imagery connected to the warring “Hammerite” and “Pagan” belief systems. Also, I think I could bring up the Elder Scrolls games: It doesn’t take the player long to recognize the Daedric character indicating “Oblivion,” or to guess that the Sixth House temples in Morrowind are run by some bad, spooky people.

    …Which ain’t to say that all developers could pull this kind of thing off, of course. I’m just saying that these folks did it, and the results were cool.

  7. Also, I have to defend Dan Brown – however pulpy his writing, he does not deserve all the criticism he gets just for writing an interesting story (much like he doesn’t deserve all the praise). He did what thousands of authors do on a day to day basis – take one cup of facts, mix it up with some half-truths, conspiracy theories and research from rogue academics, add pure fiction to taste, and bake for 30 minutes. The core of recognizable facts creates suspension of disbelief for the reader, the theories add an intriguing “what if” element, and the fiction makes it a good story.

    Unfortunately, since Dan Brown uses the language of a 12-year old and his books are available in large print, his novels are so accessible that they get everyone’s attention, including all manners of weirdoes who can’t tell fact from fantasy – the same type of weirdoes who start shooting at police after playing GTA and commit suicide after their D&D character died. I refuse to believe that we would need to pussyfoot around these people.

  8. I’m thinking that “Postal 2” was not an accurate representation of the Christian and Islamic faiths. The priest has an extraordinally large ammo cache behind one of the confessional booths – good thing too, those fundamentalists are a bitch!

  9. Most everything in games is derived from something else in some way. Almost everything in entertainment (and almost everything everywhere) is derivative, so it is inevitable that religion in games is derived from the religions in the real world. The other thing that we often find in entertainment is stereotypes, especially in mass produced/consumed entertainment.

    Personally I don’t have any problem with derivation or stereotypes in games because I realise that they are used for entertainment.

    Also when it comes to religion, you don’t have to look very far to find examples of people doing crazy/bad stuff in the name of religion. Sometimes I think all the fuss is because people don’t want to be reminded in any way whatsoever of the skeletons in the closet of their respective religions…

    In entertainment you find the examples of people twisting things in the name of religion taken to the extreme. Often times I see these kinds of stories as failings of men rather than religions… I guess it depends on your perspective.

    As for religion hurting me if people believe… well anything that teaches people to obey without questioning is something that is potentially harmful because once you get people into thinking like that, all you need is someone willing to twist things to their benefit.

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