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Gaming and religion – strange bedfellows?

Do you enjoy Pokémon Go, but are worried that it may not be Holy enough for you? Well, worry not – the Catholic Church has got you covered, with the recent release of Follow JC Go! for iOS and Android. The game sees you ‘catch’ saints and Biblical characters by answering religious quiz questions, although there’s no pitting your teams against each other, Pokémon fans. You can collect virtual water, food and ‘spirituality’, but it also encourages real-world worship – if you pass a church, it prompts you to stop and pray, and it gives you the option to donate to charity.

Now, it’s easy to make jokes about this kind of thing (and I had to cut a fair few out believe me), but it does lead to a fairly obvious question: why doesn’t gaming tend to engage with religion? You’ll find games about a huge variety of subjects, from apocalypse to war to even Goat Simulator. Yet something as big as religion (the Church boasts 1.2 billion followers worldwide) rarely ever crops up seriously. Why is this?

Although I’m saying that religion in games is sparse, I don’t want to claim in any way that it is totally absent. You’ll see things like churches and priests everywhere (in the Dragon Quest series, churches function as save points), and you’ll find implicit narrative references to the topic in many adventure games (think of Zelda’s Triforce, for example). Some releases have tackled it head on – El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is inspired by the Book of Enoch, as Enoch tries to find fallen angels and prevent a great flood from destroying mankind, and the first Assassin’s Creed took place during the Third Crusade. Then you’ve got the usual middle ground – games which feature religious characters or elements, but aren’t concerned with being religious.

The Binding of Isaac was dubbed “blasphemous” by several game rating boards, and Fallout 3 was not released in India on religious grounds

You’ll often find moral panic and concern when video games tackle religion, and this takes a variety of forms. The Binding of Isaac was dubbed “blasphemous” by several game rating boards, and Fallout 3 was not released in India on religious grounds. The exact reason was never revealed, but one assumes it is because the game has two-headed mutant cows called Brahmin. (Brahman, a similarly-named breed of cows, are revered by Hindus.) LittleBigPlanet also had a last-minute delay because the lyrics to a song in the game featured passages from the Qur’an, which some worried could be seen as offensive.

Part of this concern stems from a general perception that the game industry is a corrupting influence on the youth of the world, with religious figures as high up as the Pope condemning them. For the developers, the all-but-guaranteed negative reaction means it’s often not worth bothering with trying to incorporate religious elements. If they do, it’s normally an ancient religion instead – think Age of Mythology or Prince of Persia. Add in the fact that religion is a very personal experience, and you’re almost doomed to fail. Simply put, developers cannot viably pitch a personal interpretation of religion to legions of fans each with their own perceptions and interpretations.

Part of this concern stems from a general perception that the game industry is a corrupting influence on the youth of the world

We’ve seen recent games like the Bayonetta series (which draws heavily on Dante’s Divine Comedy) and The Binding of Isaac (which is perhaps the most mainstream religious game in quite a long time), but the downsides mean most religious games tend to independent, smaller releases. In the late 80s, Wisdom Tree (then Color Dreams) gained notoriety for titles like Bible Adventures and Super 3D Noah’s Ark, which were essentially poorly reshaped clones of bigger hits like Super Mario Bros. 2. Fundamentally religious games by religious developers are often attacked as propaganda intent on converting the player. A key title that really took some flak was 2006’s Left Behind: Eternal Forces. The game was slated for its poor controls and lack of fun, but it also drew fire for its message, with a ‘kill-or-convert’ attitude employed towards characters who didn’t believe in Jesus.

Fundamentally religious games by religious developers are often attacked as propaganda intent on converting the player

It seems that a fine balance has been struck. Games can’t really go beyond basic religious concepts without risking upsetting people or failing to be enjoyable that much is true. However they can explore some of the key religious and spiritual themes, for example making moral decisions in gameplay and concepts of moral agency. And yet, that doesn’t seem a satisfactory answer to me. The Bible has tons of compelling stories (look at how Hollywood used it in its Biblical epic days of the 50s), and developers aren’t keen on touching them. If they put their minds to it, I’m sure they’ll manage. There are games about bin collecting; anything is possible.

I’m not a religious guy, but I want to draw on the Pope here. He is allegedly impressed with the Follow JC Go! App. A director of the company that made the game said that “he understood the idea, what we were trying to do: combine technology with evangelisation.” Although believers are still numerous, religious belief is on the decline, and especially amongst young people. It seems to me that video gaming would be a perfect way for the Church to start to modernise and appeal to a younger demographic, while giving developers a huge global market base that may not be natural gamers. A bit of cooperation between the two, and just maybe we could see a well-done religious game yet.

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