Home > Religion in Video Games, Role Playing > Religion in AAA Releases: Some Thoughts on Real and Fictitious Faith

Religion in AAA Releases: Some Thoughts on Real and Fictitious Faith

Major digital game titles are not exactly known for straying from the dominant perspective. One only has to look at how these AAA titles cater to white, male, and heterosexual norms. The question (or at least one of them) becomes why does that change when religion becomes the focus?  I am certainly not saying that portrayals of religion should shamelessly adopt a dominant perspective also, but that religion occupies a small space in the narrative of digital games. In the United States, Christianity is the dominant religion, yet games, like other entertainment media, tend to shy away from portraying that faith in ways that reflect diversity of faith while avoiding preaching and cliché religion portrayals.  Of course faith is a touchy topic and just as explosive as race, yet at the same time is core to the human experience.

However religion, at least in the United States, is complex in part because of the diverse nature of our many faiths. After all, to claim Christ does not reveal is one is orthodox, Catholic, mainline protestant, evangelical, and so on. Moreover, those mixtures change depending on what part of the country you reside.  For example, in One Nation, Divisible, Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh report that in New England, 68% of those who claim religious affiliation are catholic and mainland protestants are outnumbered by evangelicals by 3 to 1. When you compare that to the Southern Crossroads (Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri), you find that the percentage of Roman Catholics drops to 18.6 %.  Moreover, half the Catholics in the region are Latino. Lastly, one will find very few minority religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on) in this area, less than 0.5%.  The other areas of the country, the South, the Pacific, the Pacific Northwest, etc, are all equally diverse.  How do developers address the many aspects of Christianity in their narratives?  For the most part, they don’t.

Leliana (Dragon Age Origins) is a member of the Chantry and a fierce warrior.

Instead some titles address fictional religions.  For example, religion plays a central role in Dragon Age Origins (DAO).  While it is apparent from the start of the game that this religion is modeled closely after Christianity, there are obvious differences.  Still the similarities are such that one can point out multiple examples of Christian faith playing out in the game world.  This should not come as a surprise to anyone who plays role-playing games, the genre to which DOA belongs.  Other games in this genre, such as The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion and Mass Effect, also have religious elements.

Mass Effect 1 takes a different approach in that it creates a new religion around the antagonists of the game, the mechanical Reapers. These ancient machines are worshipped by other machines known as the Geth.  During the game, the player, kills two Geth as they worship the Reapers in a temple.  The player gets very little information because he/she is still trying to figure out the relationship between the two races, so we are left to wonder what other aspects of this fictional religion exists.  The in-game encyclopedia, the Codex offers some slight clues, but little information is forthcoming about Reaper worship in the first two Mass Effect games.

The writers of Mass Effect created a religion for the game.

Of course creating a whole new faith is far safer than attempting to navigate religious waters.  Yet if digital game producers dare to call their craft a full-fledged medium then this bridge will have to be crossed eventually.  Hopefully games will be more bold than television has been in this regard.  To be honest, I have no idea how such an endeavor will work out.  Any honest attempt to explore religion without being preachy (like many of those awful PC Christian games on the market today) can still draw the ire of different groups. However this intersection of faith and adventure does not have to provide any answers, nor does it always have to be direct.  I recall a conversation between Mass Effect characters Commander Shepard and Chief Ashley Williams where they briefly discuss her faith.  That is certainly more tangible than the heavy religious symbolism we see in Bioshock or Assassin’s Creed, but it is a reminder that there are multiple ways to explore the faith of individuals and communities.

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  1. January 12, 2011 at 22:35

    I think RPGs have the best chance of good treatment, both because they can easily craft fictional religions into their worlds (as you note), but the multiple characters naturally entail the possibility of differing viewpoints and debates.

    The best possible way to do this, however, would not be in obvious scripted dialogue but situational conversations that ’emerge’ without triggers. I loved this aspect of Dragon Age: Origins–the two other members of my party would randomly start talking about things without me prompting a conversation.

  2. JLJ
    January 13, 2011 at 16:13

    David,
    I think the character conversation system in DAO is far superior to that in ME2. And I think you are right about RPGs taking the lead in this area, which is sad cause other genres would also benefit from this part of the human condition. BTW, I love your blog.

  3. David
    January 13, 2011 at 16:43

    Thanks for the kind words. Still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do with it.

    Despite both games being over a year old, it still mystifies me that ME2 gets so much more praise than DA:O. I like both, but Dragon Age sucked me in so much more.

  1. January 10, 2011 at 14:22
  2. January 13, 2011 at 15:59
  3. January 16, 2011 at 14:40

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