From the Nintendojo Op-Ed Vault: Religion and Gaming

This piece dates back to the holidays in 2007, when I was still relatively new to writing for video game site Nintendojo. Some things in gaming have changed since the article was written, and some have not … both for the video game industry and for me as a writer. It’s a fun artifact to resurrect either way. Some of the links, sadly, are broken — this was probably unavoidable given the age of the article. For various reasons, I’ve left those links in the article.

Even the original version of this piece is no longer where it once was. When Nintendojo migrated to WordPress in 2010, the most of the site’s history went into an archive. The (pre-WordPress) archived version of this op-ed can be found here.

Cerebral Gamer: Religion and Gaming

With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, millions of kids are hard at work pitching their Christmas dreams to their parents. It would seem a foregone conclusion that video game consoles will be oft-mentioned, although we all know that Nintendo-themed consoles and handhelds — still in as high a demand as ever — will remain an elusive catch for that coveted spot under the tree. Nevertheless, millions upon millions of dollars will be put out in a rather curious meeting of religious festivity and gaming. This climate makes now the ideal time to reflect upon the fascinating and multifaceted relationship between religion and gaming. Our own Khurram has already explored the prevalence of religious symbolism in gaming; my aim here is to briefly examine the societal relationship between the religious and gaming communities.

This is a tough issue to tackle, as people have been frequently fed a skewed perception of the relationship between faith and gaming. The media, with its sensationalist sensibilities, has frequently framed the interaction between the two as some sort of Hatfield-McCoy feud. What’s worse, some elements of both faith and gaming seem to revel in that paradigm. On one side, you have you have some religious websites tossing out all sorts of wild accusations or you’ve got the Jack Thompsons of the world invoking the Old Testament in some sort of bizarre holy crusade against gaming.

Some gaming websites, unfortunately, are often far-too-willing to reciprocate with equal venom. Some gamer articles that deal with religion seem to border on paranoia, while overtly religious-themed video games like the Mormon-produced The Bible Game or the apocalyptic Left Behind: Eternal Forces, for example, are not often received kindly by the gaming press. The latter judgment is not always completely unfair (Left Behind was not a particularly good RTS, for example, and the threats made by Left Behind Games against negative comments was reprehensible); but the end result is that many gamers (and some game sites) tend to marginalize the impact of religion on gaming.

To simply conclude that religion and gaming are mortal opponents in a culture war would be an easy conclusion to reach, but it would also be an unfortunate and inaccurate one. Far from being separate spheres, religion has a tremendous — if often overlooked — influence on gaming. Likewise, gaming has had an equally-important effect on many of the world’s largest and most influential religions.

Evidence of this is easy enough to find. Active Christian guilds and clans exist in many major online games, whether it be holding Bible studies in the online lobby of Halo 2 or aiding noobs in the PvE realms of Guild Wars. Muslim gamers regularly meet and talk both faith and gaming on the GameSpot boards. Eastern religious themes permeate many Japanese RPGs, including the ideas of balance, desire leading to suffering, and the cycle of rebirth. Western religious themes permeate many American-made games, whether it be bringing elements of the Christian notions of demons and Hell into the Diablo franchise or incorporating the cosmic mythos of H.P. Lovecraft in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. One Hindu, in the spirit of his beliefs, has even tried to create a non-violent FPS using the Unreal Engine. Religious gaming boards have been home to exploration on the religious themes of Tales of Symphonia, from its characterization of institutional religion to its notion of a self-sacrificing Chosen. Those same boards have witnessed squabbles over whether the denizens of the Doom franchise are meant to represent a Christian-like Hell or whether they represented an alien plane unrelated to Hell.

And these are just the vocal faithful. There are perhaps millions of church, temple and synagogue-going gamers out there who create and play games without ever speaking of their faith openly on chat lines or message boards. Some share elements of Jack Thompson’s approach to gaming; others do not. Some of them are cautious gamers who are more skeptical of mature titles and gravitate toward family-friendly fare; others are more hardcore gamers who play online FPS deathmatches or quest in complex fantasy MMOs. In truth, if you’ve played a game online, you’ve probably played side-by-side with them and not even realized it.

This brings up a question many religious gamers also grapple with: what games (if any) should a religious believer play? Because of their own convictions, followers of many faiths have to critically consider what games they should or should not play. Should a Hindu gamer play Rayman: Raving Rabbids, where cows are tossed irreverently into the air? Should Muslim gamers purchase games that portray Muslims as maniacs and terrorists? Should Christian Scientists play games likeTrauma Center that promote medicine? These may sound like foolish questions to those outside of those faiths, but to those trying to decide what to spend their own money on, these can be deeply personal, deeply complex questions for gamers trying to align their entertainment lifestyle with their worldview.

Perhaps the most well-known case study in this question lies in the interesting relationship Nintendo has with gamers and gamer parents on both sides of the Pacific. Most of Nintendo’s games are comparatively clean,”with even more hardcore titles — like Metroid Prime or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess — earning nary more than a T-rating. Nintendo-published M-rated titles like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and Geist, by contrast, are relatively rare. (The debate earlier this year over Manhunt 2 stems, at least in small part, from the fact that Manhunt 2’s image runs counter to the image that Nintendo is best known for casting.)

This position has curried favor with population segments in both Japan and in the United States. In Japan, for example, there is generally a cultural aversion to excessively violent games. Japan enjoys one of the lowest violent crime rates in the industrialized world, even in large metropolitan areas like Tokyo and gory games generally do not sell well there. A recent example of this came in the form of Biohazard 4 (Resident Evil 4 in the U.S.); some of the gory headshots present in the U.S. version were censored out of the Japanese version.

In the U.S., Nintendo has (perhaps unintentionally) proven a hit with the conservative religious establishment, which has been a powerful legislative and social force in America since they locked arms with Ronald Reagan and company in 1980. Nintendo’s broad lineup of clean-cut titles — Mario-based titles, for example — appeal to religious conservatives looking to control the levels of violence present in their games or in the games of their children. Of course, Nintendo has not always been above criticism for this approach — older gamers will recall the outcry over removing blood from the SNES version of Mortal Kombat — but conservative Catholics and evangelicals eat that sort of thing up.

That the religious community is important to the overall gaming culture speaks to the true diversity of the gaming world. While some religious parties rage against game companies on religious grounds, the true influence of religion on gaming does not come from them. It comes from the millions of religious gamers and game developers — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and many others — who have created a gaming world that is more richly interesting for it.

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