God’s PR Problem: The Role of Religion in Videogames «

Writing about videogames is not generally the stuff of Woodward and Bernstein. Occasionally, a hostile public relations manager will make your life difficult, or you’ll lose a scoop to a rival publication. Trying to get a good interview while a game’s in development can be challenging, especially if that game isn’t in its official PR swing yet. But for the most part, this is the entertainment industry: The consumers want to read about it, the producers want to talk about it, and the rest is just details.

So it was with some surprise that I encountered a wall of fear and paranoia when I called around, asking developers to talk about religion in gaming. What I found is a small handful of people who think about the issues a lot, and wanted desperately to be part of the conversation…and a vast, silent majority who didn’t want to touch the topic with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

“There cannot be a hotter potato than this hot potato,” explains Peter Molyneux, Creative Director of Microsoft Game Studios Europe and Lionhead Studios, and one of the brave few not only willing, but eager, to talk about issues of faith. “Religion is one of those things where — if you’re specific about it — you’re going to get yourself into a mountain of trouble,” he suggests. “You have to be very, very careful.”

Black & White sinner in the hands of an angry God.


It’s a touch ironic that he seems so cautious. As one of the earliest developers of so-called God games (the Populous and Black & White series), he started his career in the realm of belief. In those games, players take on the role of God, seeking to engender belief in the hearts of primitive populations, and generally messing with their lives through divine intervention. But Molyneux is quick to point out a critical difference between talking about faith and talking about organized religion.

“If you look at what Assassin’s Creed or a lot of Japanese games do, I think they’re talking about how Man has corrupted a pure and simple and wonderful message: ‘Hey, be nice! Someone loves you! God loves you!'” he says. But how carefully can developers dance back and forth across that line in the sand, between commentary and offense?

Clearly, God — the divine as a concept — plays a huge role in modern gaming. Virtually every fantasy role-playing game, from World of Warcraft to the simplest roguelike, explicitly includes the divine in the form of priests calling down healing prayers or smiting evil foes. How, then, does this square against the subtext of games like Assassin’s Creed II, which — on close reading — can be parsed as a kind of atheist screed? (Unsurprisingly, after extensive e-mail negotiations, AC2 developer/publisher Ubisoft refused to discuss the matter in any way, sticking to the disclaimer that runs at the front of their game — which states that it was crafted by people of many backgrounds and faiths.)

“No comment.”


How do we reconcile this? Is the divine — a present and supernatural divine — only OK when it’s a convenient mechanic, but relegated to the corner with a dunce cap, suitable only for mockery, when it comes to the idea of actual faith?

Wizards of the Coast’s James Wyatt is one of the rare people in the broader game industry that has street cred on both sides of the issue. Wyatt’s best known as the design manager for the Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper game. He’s also written numerous fictional novels set in the D&D world of Eberron, and co-authored the game’s sourcebook on gods, Deities & Demigods. And he’s a former preacher — a minister for the United Methodist Church. He thinks the fantasy worlds presented in our games are the perfect place to play with God.

“Games aren’t a place where you are expected to cling to a belief in something that can’t be seen or proven,” Wyatt explains. “It’s a world where the power of gods is demonstrated daily. [The Lord of the Rings‘] Gandalf was — almost literally — Jesus walking around with the adventuring party.” I’ll admit to being somewhat shocked when Wyatt, in a calm and fatherly tone, explains how awesome it was to cast aside the preconceptions of our shared faith: “Fantasy has this ability to open our eyes to the enchantment of our world, and to view real things with more wonder.”

Dungeons & Dragons: Satan’s game. (We’re kidding.)


To illustrate his point, Wyatt invokes Chronicles of Narnia author (and notable Christian scholar) C.S. Lewis:

“[A child] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.” — C.S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

For days after my conversation with Wyatt, as I simultaneously fumed over the gaming industry’s reticence to discuss the topic, I played through games that inspired that kind of wonder in me — everything from Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online to Daniel Benmergui’s Today I Die — and I tried to open myself up to this kind of enchantment.

And then the demo for EA’s upcoming Dante’s Inferno dropped.

 

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