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Losing Our Religion

Illustration for article titled Losing Our Religion

In the early 90's Nintendo was famous for removing religious iconography and references from video games for North American release. Have times changed, or is religion still a taboo subject in the video game industry?

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Any discussion of religious censorship in games inevitably leads to Nintendo of America in the early 90's. Religious themes, images, ideas, references and or depictions were banned from games for the NES, Super Nintendo, or Game Boy, at least as far as obtaining the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality was concerned, which led to many Japanese games being modified for release in North America.

The Japanese have always been more relaxed regarding the inclusion of religion in their video games. Take the Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the states) series. The beloved role-playing game series has long featured strong religious overtones, with characters visiting a church in order to be healed of their wounds. Nintendo of America instituted changes in the North American releases, renaming the churches Houses of Healing, though players young and old understood that these were indeed houses of worship as well.

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Several Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy titles were modified to fit within Nintendo's policies. Enix's ActRaiser and its sequel, ActRaiser 2, explore profound religious questions. The first game in particular ends with the game's protagonist, the Master, ascending into the sky, having ended the suffering of his people, causing them to no longer have any reason to attend church and pray. It's an obvious allegory to God; in fact, in the Japanese sequel the text reveals that the protagonist's original name was God.

The North American releases of these titles removed any references to God or his arch-enemy, the Devil, though the subtext was clearly still in place, and savvy players didn't have to squint their eyes to see the truth.

While the ActRaiser and Dragon Quest series received some of the most notable changes, countless titles had minute details changed in order to ensure there would be no religious controversy surrounding Nintendo games.

The Japanese release of Super Castlevania IV, for instance, featured crosses on some of the tombstones in the introduction, which were removed for European and U.S. release. Darlene Waddington, a producer on Disney's Duck Tales, recalls having to remove the crosses from coffins in one stage of the game.

"...the crosses on the coffins had to go. Not just a Nintendo issue. I don't think any publisher would let that go back then. Don't know about now. Seems a little silly to me, but apparently this is the world we live in."

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Indeed it was the world at the time. There's even a Wikipedia page dedicated to Nintendo's censorship, citing at least a dozen examples of games being modified due to religious content.

Nintendo has become a lot more tolerable of religious references, especially since doing away with the official Nintendo Seal of Quality, but the end of one censorship promoting process came after the formation of another - the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB.

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The introduction of the ESRB actually made it easier for religious themes to be presented in video games, as long as publishers were willing to accept a rating higher than the all-ages friendly E for Everyone.

In one case, Sony Computer Entertainment was not.

In its original form, stage six of PlayStation Parappa the Rapper follow-up UmJammer Lammy saw the game's heroine die and go to hell, forced to battle Teriyaki Yoko to win back her life. Here's the original stage:


And here is how the stage turned out in the U.S. release:


As you can see, the references to hell have been obliterated, with song lyrics changed to remove references to the devil. UmJammer Lammy scored its E for Everyone label, and went on to sell not nearly as well as its predecessor.

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Sony would later stumble upon more religious trouble with LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3, famously recalled for containing a song track the contained words from Islamic religious text the Qur'an. Later, an Islamic group would speak out on the recall, calling it censorship.

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Illustration for article titled Losing Our Religion

Microsoft hasn't been immune to religious censorship either, having famously recalled copies of original Xbox fighting game Kakuto Chojin for a similar reason. Religious references found in the game included a song that contained phrases from the Qu'ran being chanted, which led to the game being pulled off the shelves in 2003. Unlike LittleBigPlanet, Kakuto Chojin wasn't modified and re-released, as it wasn't very good to begin with.

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For all of the examples we can give of games having their religious iconography and themes toned down, perhaps the greatest loss to come from the schism that's formed between religion and gaming is all of the ideas that never came to fruition for fear of prosecution, or struck down by publishers unwilling to explore such themes.

Video games have long been a place where gamers could experience power far beyond that of mere mortal beings, exploring grand stories from the point of view of the heroes and heroines involved in them.

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Some of the grandest stories of them all can be found within religious texts. Stories that inspire and empower people, driving them to new heights of greatness with their inspiration.

Just imagine how inspiring they'd be if we were allowed to experience them on a more personal, interactive level, say with a video game controller in hand.

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DISCUSSION

I think this post sort of misses the point.

Japan is not a Christian nation. They may have incorporated certain Christian events into their lives (Christmas, weddings, etc.) but only something like 2% of the country identifies itself as Christian and the vast majority of the country knows nothing whatsoever about it. I'm certain Ashcraft could attest to that.

They use Christian iconography because they like the way it looks. That's it. It's the same with weddings - they're not doing it for religious reasons, they do it because they think it's cool. I have a store that sells Japanese street fashion and right now we have a gothic t-shirt from one of Japan's major brands that has both crosses and Stars of David all over it. They have no clue what any of it means. It just looks interesting to them.

So when things get translated over here, there is great potential for misunderstanding. They may have used these icons in an offensive way without meaning to, because they hadn't considered the Christian audience in development. And they don't actually really even know what's offensive or not, so they just remove everything to be safe.

Is that "censorship"? I'm not sure I'd call it that, not even self-censorship. I think it's showing a level of sensitivity they probably should have to begin with. Let's say an American developer incorporates a bunch of Buddhist iconography into a game about the devil. That game then gets a Japanese release. The developer says "uh oh" and takes it all out. It's the same thing - they really should have just been more careful to begin with.

I think people make a mistake when labeling something like this "censorship" in that they're assuming the meaning of the game is now being changed. But that's not the case - because these religious icons have no real meaning for the Japanese, the meaning of the game is being preserved by removing them. Otherwise, we would be inferring meaning from them that was not intended.

I'm not saying all the original copies of the game should then be destroyed, but this is one situation where I can understand differences in the game for different locales. What's decoration in one locale has real meaning in another, and that meaning might really have nothing to do with the game. So why should it be in the game if it actually distracts from it?