Apocalypses, Saviors, Heroes and Magic: Religion and Video Games

A screenshot from the game Bioshock: Infinite (2013, Sony Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC), a game which has been widely discussed for its religious themes and commentary.

For years, video game narratives have been largely ignored in press coverage. And it’s easy to see why. Not too long ago, video games were defined by Pong and Donkey Kong. Storytelling was limited and so it was difficult to see why video games deserved the same sort of criticism as is seen with film and television. Storytelling has developed within video game play as has press coverage of it. The Huffington Post, Forbes Magazine, Wired Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and The Washington Post all now have reporters who cover video games as at least a part of their beat. In 2013, 30-minutes of game play from Beyond: Two Souls (a video game for the Playstation 3) premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Similarly, a movie based on the Halo franchise (Halo is for the Xbox 360) was nominated for an Emmy.

Gaming is a part of contemporary culture. According to the ESA, nearly 70 percent of U.S. households play video games on a regular basis (video games including games on smartphones, tablets, social networks, consoles and computers). The number of people under the age of 18 who play video games may be closer to 80 percent–and that number is only rising each year as gaming becomes both more affordable and more pervasive.  In short, there are many reasons to explore what’s happening in gaming.

Currently, there are three different avenues for discussion regarding the interaction of religion and video games. The first is through examining depictions of religion in the video games themselves, the second is through examining video games as religion, and the third is through examining how religions have used video games as tools for instruction and proselytization. And while these different avenues may seem distinct abstractly, in reality they can overlap and do, frequently.

This source guide explores these different avenues and provide resources on the coverage of religion in video games.

Background

Video games depicting religion

In Bioshock: Infinite (2013), it is impossible to explore the surroundings of the game without recognizing the overt religiousity of the culture. Set in a city in the clouds–Columbia, the game is a first-person shooter in which the player must rescue a young woman named Elizabeth. She’s the daughter of the Columbia’s president and prophet Zachary Hale Comstock. Elizabeth has special powers that allow her to open portals between dimensions and thus is both separated from and revered by Columbia society. Just to enter the city, the player’s avatar must submit to a baptism.

The imagery in Bioshock: Infinite brought about widespread discussion in the press and blogs. One developer at the video game company reportedly threatened to quit over the religious depictions in the game.

And while the depictions in Bioshock: Infinite may be more overt than in other games, it is hardly the only game in which religious depictions appear.

Common themes in video game narratives include killing God or Satan, evil/hypocritical establishment religious figures, god figure(s) as a motivator for violence, and saving your game progress by praying to a religious shrine.

Below is an illustrative list of a few games that have been objects of discussion in terms of religious imagery. Many of these stem from the role-playing game genre since many of the early games with religious depictions tended to be narrative-based, and thus lend themselves to that genre:

  • Super Mario Bros. (1985, Nintendo Entertainment System)- The heroic plummer travels through a series of lands in order to rescue a princess. Along the way, he can eat magic mushrooms in order to grow larger and eat flowers in order to throw fireballs. Magic mushrooms are frequent theme in religious texts including the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. Conservative Christian groups initially opposed the games imagery as promoting witchcraft.
  • Final Fantasy IV (1991, Super Nintendo Entertainment System)- In this game, the protagonist undergoes what could be described as a conversion experience as he is translated by a holy light from being a “Dark Knight” to being a “Paladin.” One of the main characters in the game, Kain, betrays the hero on multiple occasions–a possible allusion to the Cain and Abel story. The game also features a location called the Tower of Babil. The wiki “Religious Allusions in Final Fantasy” is dedicated to following the frequent religious allusions in the Final Fantasy series.
  • Breath of Fire (1993, Super Nintendo Entertainment System)- In this game, the hero Ryu is one of the sole survivors of a clan of Light Dragons who have been largely wiped out by the Dark Dragons. Both clans appear human but can transform into dragons. The Dark Dragons are taking their orders and pursuing world domination at the behest of the evil god Tyr. In order to advance through the lengthy game, Ryu (and the player) must save their progress by praying to a competing god, Ladon. Wherever Ladon’s shrine is available, Ryu can save his progress. To complete the game, Ryu and his companions must kill the god Tyr. The game has spawned a series of sequels that have similar dynamics.
  • Lunar: Silver Star Complete (1998, Sony Playstation/Sega Saturn)- Revamped from an earlier 1992 game on a largely unpopular console, Lunar story focused on Alex, an aspiring “Dragonmaster,” and Luna, a young orphan woman with a mysterious past. The two young, small town people leave home seeking adventure. In the process, the heroes discover that the Goddess of the land, Altheina, has taken the form of a human–Luna–to better understand humanity and allow humans to craft their own destiny.
  • God of War (2005, Sony Playstation 2)- The beginning of a series of ultra violet games set in the harsh depicted world of Greek mythology, the hero Kratos is a servant of the gods who seeks revenge against the god of war, Ares. Aided by other gods who dislike Ares, Kratos plunges through the politics of the Greek pantheon in order to challenge him. The game was banned in a number of countries.
  • The Binding of Isaac (2011, multiple formats)- This game serves as a critique of fundamentalist Christianity. A child spends the game facing monsters while running from his mother, who is twisted by her devotion to a television preacher. The publisher Nintendo initially rejected the game for publication because of its’ religious imagery, but later, the game went on to be published in a wide variety of formats.
  • The Last of Us (2013, Sony Playstation 3)- This is an action adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world suffering from a zombie contagion. Religion appears little in the game, but what is there is significant. A derelict church is used as a hideout. In conversations, the lead characters note that they don’t believe in an afterlife. The indication given is that in this world, not only have government establishments collapsed, but religious establishments as well. However, the game does feature a single overtly religious character who is depicted as crazy and has resorted to cannibalism.

Video games as religion

Dr. Catherine Albanese in her discussion of “ordinary religion” implies that the distinct between religion and culture can be a false one. Albanese argues that “ordinary” aspects of culture can actually serve to have religious meanings and fulfill religious needs. Just as some have begun to examine sports and shopping as religious activities, some have begun to examine gaming.

As noted earlier, gaming is a part of contemporary culture. Some games are more narrative–like some of the games listed above–while others are more casual.

“Gaming as Religion” is a theory pioneered by Dr. Rachel Wagner of Ithaca College which builds on Albanese’s concept of ordinary religion–the video game is just another piece of culture that can be used to make meaning for human existence. This has been evidenced in the rabid fan cultures that surround video games (some fans could be described as following games “religiously”) and even in the very procedures behind video game play: starting the game, playing the game, the character dies and the player is given the opportunity to resurrect the character. In the game itself, the player is transported beyond space and time to explore a new world that is structured, but open to the possibility of player exploration.

And here it is also worth discussing the “real world” religions that have a foothold in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. In Second Life, for example, people can practice Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and a host of other religions within the virtual space of the game.

Video games as religious outreach

Imagine there was a game where you play as Noah. The way you get animals onto the Ark is to raise them over your heads a la Super Mario Bros. 2 to throw them in. But wait, there’s more. Imagine you can play as Miriam and in order to beat levels, you have to escape Egyptian guards with baby Moses, who you can throw like a football. But wait, there’s still more. You can also play as David and in order to work up to fighting Goliath, you need to collect a ton of sheep.

To top it all off, Bible Adventures (1991, Nintendo Entertainment System), was produced without the proper licensing. The evangelical Christian company that made the game worked around the lockout chip in the Nintendo cartridge so they didn’t have to pass Nintendo’s licensing process.

While some religious organizations have recently entered MMO games for outreach purposes (as noted above), there is a long history of religious outreach with video games–much of it stemming from evangelical Christian groups.

That said in early console video games, Nintendo employed a strict censorship policy that kept religion out of American games. Perceiving more puritanical values in America than in Japan and greatly desiring the video game to be “child-friendly,” Nintendo censored sex, violence and religion from their games until the mid-1990s. This played a significant role in forming an idea of what video games were since Nintendo was by far the dominant video game company from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

However, this didn’t mean computer games were censored. One of the most controversial computer games Left Behind: Eternal Forces (2006) was a real-time strategy (RTS) game put out by a conservative Christian company. Allegations that there was violence in the game directed at non-believers eventually sunk the game. In the game, players control the “Tribulation Force” and can either use conversion or violence when they encounter non-believers. Players are encouraged to use violence only when necessary because it causes their “spirit level” to drop. And if the “spirit level” of troops go to low they could either become neutral forces or defect. The game caused an outcry from non-Christians and Christians alike.

But there are other groups that now use mobile video games who have used video games to great effect. Lightside Games released Journey of Moses, Journey of Jesus: The Calling, and Light the Way: the Bible–all of which have more than 2 million players and have caused little controversy.

Articles and Resources

Video Game technology and history

Religious content in video games

National Sources

  • James Paul Gee

    The Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University and a researcher who has worked in psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, bilingual education, and literacy. He argues that video games work to enhance learning. He’s the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007), The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning (2013), Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010), and Good Video Games and Good Learning: New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies (2007).

  • Rachel Wagner

    Rachel Wagner is an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. She has taught courses on religion and video games and is interested in the ways video and computer games depict rituals and sacred space, such as churches and cemeteries.

  • Catherine Albanese

    Catherine Albanese is Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions & Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to New Age (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and America: Religions and Religion, 5th. ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2012).

  • William Bainbridge

    William Bainbridge is a sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. He is co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation and a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He teaches sociology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In 2013, he published eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming, which presents research gained from more than 2,400 hours of ethnographic study of massively multiplayer online (MMO) game religious practices. He is also an expert on the Children of God, commonly called The Family, an end-times New Religious Movement.

  • John P. Ferré

    John P. Ferré is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. His focus is on media, religion and culture. He is the editor of Channels of Belief: Religion and American Commercial Television (Iowa State University Press, 1990).

  • Jason Anthony

    A writer and games designer. His games, including Shabbat-Put! and Sacrifice Play have been staged in the U.S. and U.K., and earlier this year he staged a fully-gamed church service at Union Theological Seminary. His largest project to date is a belief agnostic, fully-gamed new religion, Ten Year Game, which started in fall 2011.

  • Gregory Grieve

    Associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He studies the intersection of Asian religions, Digital Media, Popular Culture and ethnographic approaches to the study of religion. He is also the director of MERGE: A Network for Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Scholarship. His book Finding Religion in Digital Gaming (Indiana University Press) provides a survey of current work in the study of religion, digital gaming, and by offering a focused reflection on how video games inform our understanding of religion.

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