It’s a strange feeling when watching the inauguration of the new Pope turns into an intense internal debate regarding the use of religion in video gaming. One minute, some bloke changes his name to Francis, speaks some mumbo-jumbo in Latin and waves to his adoring fans,the next I’m channelling all my thoughts into why the video game industry has really never thrown caution to the wind and challenged religion head on. It’s not as if it doesn’t have the potential to critically examine the constructs of religion, society and the world at large, as it’s a medium possessing all the characteristics required to analyse, appraise and assess, as well as other alliterative sequences. It’s slightly curious therefore that we haven’t thus far been exposed to video gaming at its glorious, rebellious, indomitable best.
I suppose an obvious example when it comes to religion would be Bioshock, which uses its philosophies and background imagery to make indirect commentary on the affair. But this generally takes the form of religious iconography as opposed to in-your-face discussion. Not taking anything away from a game deemed vitally important to the form; it does go to great lengths to demonstrate its inherent philosophies relating to Ayn Rand and Objectivism, yet it only considers a life sans religion, through the act of eliminating limitations. Because it delves into the murky waters of life without religion, it doesn’t actually make any distinct commentary outside of the idea of people eternally deferring back to it as something they have become accustomed to; the citizens of Rapture, much like in Communist Russia smuggle religious texts into their new utopia because some can’t deal with unlimited freedom.
However, Bioshock didn’t offend anyone, despite its clear themes. Perhaps the subtlety of how it incorporated its material allowed it to pass through the filters untarnished. This wasn’t the case with The Binding of Isaac, which was originally rejected by Nintendo due to questionable religious elements. The game focuses on a boy running from his mother, who, tasked by God to kill her son, has finally committed to carrying out the heinous act. It’s certainly a first in the video gaming world, and it contains meritous notation about the ambiguity of religious actions. It’s a direct commentary: Team Meat, the developers behind Super Meat Boy seemingly had no qualms tackling the subject head on. It shouldn’t be a hot potato topic, of course, but Nintendo deemed it so. What then does the concept reveal or demonstrate that’s worthy of rejection? In my eyes, nothing. It’s the creative prerogative of developers to create and design a game based on their own inner rumblings and theorisations. They wanted to talk about an issue, they wanted to spark discussion and were pushed back by the company because it might cause a mild upset.
Outside of the aforementioned video games, other titles featuring religion as a predominant element are few and far between. Games like Darklands and Civilization incorporate aspects of religion, through medieval Catholicism and using religion as an anaesthetic for the population respectively, but it’s more of an add-on than anything. The commentary is so bare, so barren, so vacant, so unassuming that you’d be hard pressed to remember afterwards that there are religious components at all. It’s a shame in many ways, because it’s demonstrative of a medium that possibly doesn’t place as much prominence on a game’s subject matter as is possible or required for fear of being lambasted. We’ve got games that either vaguely implement specific areas of religion, or avoid it completely in case they are treated similarly to The Binding of Isaac. It’s disappointing as someone waiting on the medium to educe intelligent global discussion.
Religion isn’t the only area to which overzealous critics have unjustly ventured, though. There have been a number of incidents that have damaged games as a whole; mountains out of mole hills perpetuated by a negligent media. The Mass Effect inter-alien sex scandal was quickly followed by issues of violence with Mortal Kombat down under, then the Supreme Court got unnecessarily involved in the US and finally it’s ended up with Kratos’ ego being partly tarnished by some over-eager feminists. I should point out that they have a point with the title of the achievement, but seeing Sony Santa Monica bend so easily does bring up an issue within the gaming world: are there some issues that are simply too hot to handle? I’d argue that there shouldn’t be, as the freedom of cultural creativity is more important than any provocations raised. However, the industry does seem easily scared of being challenged by the mainstream media in a manner that doesn’t necessarily do it any favours. It might be because it still considers itself a fledgling medium, but there’s a tendency within gaming to still not want to adventure outside of the nest and really focus on aspects of life, the universe and everything in-between in the same vein as film, television, literature, art, and hell, pretty much every other cultural medium.
The furore associated with violence, sexism and misogyny haunting gaming currently dictates where the industry is heading. Eventually, one brave soul will choose to take on the savagery of those rabid, wild naysayers, but it doesn’t seem we’ll see a full-frontal,unabashedly religious mainstream game anytime soon. We, as champions of the form, have always wanted the medium to be as diverse as possible, and it is admirably varied already. Nevertheless, you can argue there hasn’t been that drive to challenge people through games. For gaming to build its own cache of integrity, there has to continually be a purpose in pushing the boundaries as far as is feasible. It sounds risky and dangerous, but for the evolution and progression of story-driven games, full to the brim with topics that challenge the player, it is much needed.
We just have to look at film to see similar murmurings and problematic periods. There was an emphasis on the whimsical, clean and safe during the early years after its inception stage, but it would take certain film-makers to really, absolutely, once and for all open the floodgates. Buñuel and Dali would force the viewers into watching scenes they were uncomfortable with, layering the surrealism with doses of societal contempt in the 1931 film L’Age D’Or. The 1932 film, Freaks, would elicit such a fierce reaction that it’s still technically banned in certain American states, but it did wonders for the recognition of these ignored, supposedly grotesque types, who, when all was said and done, ended up being understood more as human-beings than the titular premise that the film suggests. The 1971 film by Ken Russell, The Devils, took on the church directly, mixing in satire, horror and scaring the authorities of almost every administrative collective into submission. Now, obviously gaming doesn’t necessarily need to rebel against the system yet, although that would be incredibly fun to see, but it does need to keep smashing the glass that it’s encased in as a means of continued progression.
My personal take on where gaming is at currently doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the medium; it contains an absolute wealth of fantastic games with progressively more interesting characters and gameplay. I just don’t want the medium to take what is has for granted and go stale, like that last bit of Hovis Best of Both lurking somewhere deep in the recesses of your cupboard. I’m also not an anarchist. I don’t want developers to go absolutely ape-shit mental and start creating games that solely focus on attacking people like Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Barbara Streisand (retracted comment in relation to Streisand), but it’s important to occasionally provoke the masses with much needed and frank criticism of bigger picture issues.
So, returning vaguely to a Pope-filled analogy, whilst I don’t want this article to inspire any future game developers to make a Vatican Double Dragon, where evil church thugs kidnap civil rights, it would be quite nice to see gaming commenting more on the impact of something like religion when it’s so continuously relevant and at the forefront of the public consciousness.