Religion in Games: Less a Leap of Faith, More a Suspension of BeliefS

I've no idea why, but it seems no accident that the week before Easter I went back to start over the original Assassin's Creed, the only game I've ever played that is set in the Holy Land.

Never have I been someone of faith. I'm a confirmed Episcopalian, a sect I've often trivialized as Catholics with a divorce, as voting hell out of existence and practicing a polite drive-thru religion that defines WASP culture. When I was 11, Mom and Dad encouraged my confirmation not so much to perfect my bond with the church, I suspect, but because they always taught me not to shut off my options and in this case, if I were to grow up to run for office in my home state, I'd need a verified religious affiliation. My term as an acolyte was mostly spent asking to be the one lighting and extinguishing the candles - because you used a device called the "lucifer" - and overcounting the congregation so my brother and I could consume the leftover consecrated wine.

But this week, like every time I've played Assassin's Creed, I felt a tug back to Sunday School, which I recall as full of stories about conflicted people who looked like Charlton Heston living in places that looked like a Prince Valiant comic or an Indiana Jones excavation, starring me, a guy who would be openly skeptical of it all if I lived then. Assassin's Creed truly indulges that nostalgia. Forgetting the atheism of its protagonists, the series delivers an undeniably sanitized presentation of religion. Religion is more a political than a cultural force, which allows the story to, for example, acknowledge certain facts about the Crusades or the Papacy without infusing any righteousness, or absence of it, to the faith they represent. The morality is entirely secular. Thus there's no value judgment on any religion, as the game's notorious startup-screen disclaimer takes pains to communicate.

To kick off Kotaku's weeklong look at religion in video games, it's best to get started with its history in the medium - that means bona fide religions and religious references. Games aren't the first to give us violent, blood-spattered tales of good versus evil; religions began that genre centuries ago. But incorporating the imagery and figures of faiths that are still practiced today remains rare. You're more likely to see only allegorical or completely invented representations of divinity or belief sets.

Religion in Games: Less a Leap of Faith, More a Suspension of BeliefS

That includes this February's debut of Dante's Inferno, the game adaptation of an epic poem whose many representations of the Christian afterlife have been absorbed into the popular understanding of Hell. The game has been criticized as derivative of works like God of War, and possibly for good reason. The only real difference in the presentation of Dante's Inferno and the mythology informing God of War is the fact the former draws on a religion still practiced today.

I hunted high and low for a mainstream game that actually starred God - as he's understood by more than three billion Christians, Jews or Muslims in the world, not "a god," or you-as-god or some analogized concept like Deus in Xenogears. I kept coming back to, of all things, Scribblenauts, where He appears in classic Sistine Chapel representation, a gray-haired man wearing a robe. God intervenes when Maxwell is attacked but He is not omnipotent, and can be defeated by Death, Dragon, Blob and a few other NPCs. He does, however, triumph over the devil should the player spawn him or Hell. And He notably frightens off Einstein, who of course knows that God doesn't play dice with the universe.

But Jesus is not in Scribblenauts' word list. Nor any of the Apostles, though we can conclude that "John" probably does not summon the saint or the Baptist. And the prophet Muhammad is absolutely not in the game, as any depiction is considered blasphemous in Islam. Of the principal figures in Judaism, the name "David" makes the list, perhaps to be matched against Goliath. But no Moses, no Isaac, Jacob, Aaron or Solomon, and the only Abraham is Lincoln.

In Scribblenauts' treatment we see - for the mainstream, anyway - a microcosm of how the bulk of video games deals with religion. Namely that abstractions, ideals, higher powers and indirect references are all fine. But even though Western humanists caricature Muslims as hyperventilatingly intolerant of non-canonical depictions of their divine figures, the truth is, on some level, all religions are hostile to this. As well they should. The latter day use of "canon" might refer to the accepted events of the Star Wars or Halo continuity, but it literally means "a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council."

This is why it's so tough to trace the history of religious depictions in games, because any interaction with the actual messengers of a faith, outside of prayer, is so basically controversial, if not comprehensively taboo. Even in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, an openly religious game completely unafraid to place Christianity in a context of combative righteousness, the instruments of that faith are new characters, and mortal, not divine. And, it should be said, the antagonists to be converted are not believers of another faith, but the minions of the "Global Community" a secular, world dominating government.

Religion in Games: Less a Leap of Faith, More a Suspension of BeliefS

Why is it we can pray to the divine, read of them in literature, even see them in film, but not meet them in a video game? The open-ended interactivity is likely the problem. Religions are by nature top-down constructs, very linear in how the message plays out. X happened, Y was the response and Z was the good result. Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple is a well known story. To inhabit Jesus as a character in that act, or even meet him in the temple and participate in the rampage, one then gets to implement one's own motives for his behavior.

One game has attempted such an interaction, but it involved not the Abrahamic faiths but Hinduism: Last year's Hanuman: Boy Warrior, for the PS2. Described as the first console game developed entirely in India, it placed its players in control of Hanuman, a divine incarnation who in Hindu canon is sent to aid Rama, himself an avatar of the deity Vishnu. Leaving aside the game's poor quality, it was attacked as trivializing major figures in Hinduism. Controlling and manipulating such an important figure was itself considered a denigration. And just placing him in the same medium that was home to characters like Scooby Doo, Barbie and the Looney Tunes characters was insult by association.

Such discomfort is hardly felt by just Hindus. Video games are, by classical definition, a vulgar work. They appeal to a mob. They're a worldly pleasure. I'd no more expect to see Jesus or Muhammad or John the Baptist in a video game offered for mainstream consumption than I would in a comic book, and I'd distrust any example I found of either as a hackneyed, tone deaf missionary text. Sure, Jesus may have appeared in comics, but their purpose was not to entertain.

And that's where you hit the fundamental incompatibility. Games and religion are unsuitable for one another because of that value: Entertainment. It's not to say games can never have a redeeming message. It's not to say a faith has no thrilling tales to tell. But one's purpose is supposed to make you live better, while the other's purpose is to make life better, without putting too fine a point on it.

There is then, perhaps, a natural and necessary separation of church and games. And I would say "Render into games the things which are of games," And unto God, well, it's best to let Him render those things.