Why is There So Little Religion in Games?

The inhabitants of Possum Springs apparently have two options on Sunday mornings: they can attend a church with a progressive woman pastor who cares deeply about serving marginalized folks, or they can sacrifice kids to a monster in the abandoned mines beneath the town.

Easy choice, right? 

As an Extremely Online millennial, I love Infinite Falls’ Night in the Woods very much. But, insofar as contemporary religion is discussed in games at all, this is the dichotomy that developers often present. Religious people are either progressives (or otherwise practitioners of an inoffensive, harmless faith), or they are cultists, obviously violent and cartoonishly evil. People’s experiences of religion in everyday life are much more varied. But even as games have begun to tackle more complex narrative subjects and experiences, religion has mostly been left on the sidelines.

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Going Big

At least partially, our verbs are at fault. The ‘90s LucasArts point-and-clicks, like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle offered players a menu of potential actions (like open, close, give, pick up, use) that they could use with objects to accomplish a goal. However, newer adventure games, like Broken Age and Unavowed, have simplified this system. Now, due to the visual complexity and cost of modern games, adventure games largely opt for one context-sensitive verb: interact.

This is also true of games in general. Platformers, shooters, open-world games and RPGs all offer players a limited number of actions, and killing almost always makes the shortlist. Mario stomps Goombas, Kratos chops Draugr, Doom Guy shoots cacodemons. Regardless of genre, the primary way players interact with the game world is by killing people and breaking things. 

This isn’t always bad. Characters have desires that motivate their actions, and conflict arises when something or someone obstructs the path to their goals. Sometimes conflicts can be resolved non-violently — and there are an increasing number of worthwhile non-violent games. But, often — in our reality, in our stories, and in our games — violence is the end result when differences prove irreconcilable.

However, the game industry’s singular focus on destruction has led to a dearth of believable representations of mundane religion. Video games’ presentation of religion echoes the broad, bloody strokes of religious history, but little resembles the day-to-day practice of faith that most religious people experience.

Many JRPGs climax with the player killing a god. Shooters like Far Cry 5 task the player with murdering deranged cultists. And the religious orders of fantasy epics like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are often defined by the people they oppress. The most famous game series to include “God” in its title follows it up with “of War.” Gaming and violence have been linked since the medium’s infancy; small wonder its representation of religion follows suit.

That isn’t to say that the history of religion hasn’t provided plenty of violent examples. The Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition. Jonestown and Waco. Our world’s history of worship is inextricably bound up with its history of violence. But games, too frequently, go big, favoring the kinds of jaw-dropping acts of religious violence that our history books record — genocides, wars and acts of terrorism—rather than the small acts of religious violence and oppression that are so commonplace they go unremarked upon.

Religious Excuse, Political Violence

Of course, for marginalized people, the ways that religion does harm are often obvious. Religion frequently provides a holy incentive for racist and sexist laws. As feminist theologian and philosopher Mary Daly said, “‘God’s plan’ is often a front for men’s plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil.”

For example, a 2018 Pew poll found that 73 percent of White evangelical Protestants favored capital punishment, a penalty that disproportionately impacts black people, who made up 34.2 percent of death penalty recipients since 1976, despite accounting for just 12.6 percent of the United States population (as of 2016). The recent anti-choice laws in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri were voted into law by a majority of white men, and will disproportionately hurt women of color

This kind of politically-enacted religious violence is rarely represented in video games. For every Butterfly Soup — an excellent visual novel about queer Asian teenagers growing up in the ‘00s that features a scene during which two of its protagonists witness and comment on Proposition 8 picketers protesting California’s decision to extend marriage rights to gay couples — there are a dozen Far Cry 5s. While fantasy games, like BioWare’s Dragon Age series, have often commented on the formal theocracies of ages past with villainous stand-ins for the medieval Catholic church (or in the case of A Plague Tale: Innocence, the actual medieval Catholic church), games rarely tackle the ways that the intertwining of religion and politics harms people today.

Quiet Time

Religion is frequently racist, anti-woman and homophobic and this theology influences political action — as in the case of the Trump administration barring transgender people from enlisting in the United States military. But just as frequently, hateful religious people do harm to people within their churches and homes.

In Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, author Deborah Jian Lee follows four marginalized people on their journeys from conservative evangelicalism to more inclusive expressions of Christianity. Lisa Sharon Harper, a black woman who converted to conservative evangelicalism in high school, recounts the ways that her community encouraged her to “act white.” Jennifer Crumpton, a white woman, struggled with evangelical leaders who would not recognize her desire to become a pastor because she was a woman. And Will Haggerty and Tasha Magness, former students at Biola University, wrestled with the school’s anti-gay policies, forming the “Biola Queer Underground” to find a more fulfilling community within the school. 

Essentially, Lee’s book illustrates the ways that conservative evangelicalism assumes the straight, white man as the normative default, condemning other sexual orientations, gender expressions and racial identities as sinful. These norms can wreak havoc on the mental health of the oppressed.

Given that games’ protagonists often look like evangelical leadership — serving up white dude after white dude — its unsurprising that they rarely offer a critique of the religious systems reinforcing the same norms. As extremely expensive products of capitalism, AAA video games tend to reflect the values of the system that produced them; a system that is designed by and for straight, white men. Additionally, video game publishers have almost universally assumed straight, white teenage boys and young men as their target demographic and, as a result, AAA games reflect their values. 

And, increasingly, young, straight, white men are also the target audience for far-right reactionaries on sites like YouTube, Reddit, 4-Chan and worse. When young white men are trained to see the mere presence of queer folks, people of color or women in a work of art as pandering, meaningful criticism of hegemonic structures of straight, white, male, Christian power become toxic to sales. In part, games struggle to say anything meaningful about religion because the audience they are made and marketed for does not want to hear anything meaningful about religion.

Blessed Are the Games

Games have done a slightly better job in recent years of showing how faith can positively impact people’s lives. That Dragon Cancer illustrated how faith could sustain a family through their child’s illness and death. Night in the Woods’ pastor butts heads with local church bureaucracy over whether the church will allow a homeless man to sleep in the building. In this year’s A Plague Tale: Innocence, protagonist Amicia stops by an altar while passing through an abandoned church to pray for forgiveness after she kills a man while defending her brother. Games are starting to drill down to the positive nature of what religious faith can accomplish for its adherents — the way belief can provide comfort through difficult moments, spur believers on to fight corrupt systems and seek forgiveness for wrongdoing and pursue growth and change.

But, they still have a long way to go in representing the dangers of mundane religion, the religion with a smiling face and oppressive theology; with generous potlucks and “all are welcome” branding disguising racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic doctrine. Essentially, games have typically focused on portraying religion at its most extreme, with violent cults and oppressive theocracies at one end of the spectrum and an idealized, faultlessly progressive commitment to justice on the other. While these expressions of faith certainly exist in the real world, the truth tends to be somewhere in the murky middle.

Benediction

In short, games have a problem of vocabulary. Thankfully, that’s a problem that indie games are addressing. While it’s unlikely that you’ll play a non-violent AAA game anytime soon — sports sims excluded — this year alone, independent games like The Outer Wilds, Observation, Baba is You, Hypnospace Outlaw and others have offered fascinating, non-violent experiences. 

As I said before, non-violent doesn’t equal good and violent doesn’t equal bad. In fact, violence is often a key part of our most culturally significant stories. But, in order for the representation of religion in video games to improve, our vocabulary needs to expand. When the only verb is shoot, the only religious representation a game can offer is in the person firing the gun or the person getting shot. 

If games are going to attempt to depict religion in a nuanced way — to understand the everyday good and everyday evil that religious people do — we need to remember those old LucasArts adventure games; to consider the ways that religion pushes, pulls, gives, takes and uses us.

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