The depiction of religion in games is awful for non-religious and religious alike
There are rockets crisscrossing over the Gaza Strip between Israel and Palestine again. Among other things, it reminds us again that everywhere, not just in Gaza, the mix of religions, and even non-religion, is dense and complicated. But every time I play a videogame, that topic is dangerously simplified.
On the other side of the world, mostly removed from the kind of violence we so often fictionalize, the world’s most robust video game markets are selling to diverse audiences of both religious, and nonreligious. It’s not a bland market, but concerning religion we often get a bland product. Scores of religious adherents, agnostics, and atheists, are all readier to parse the more difficult subjects of religion than the industry is ready to deliver meaningful commentary on them.
According to a 2009 estimate, 88 percent of the world’s population is religious. There are approximately 4,200 recognized religions in the world, with tens of thousands of subcategories. The irreligious make up 11 percent of the population. Despite that disparity, the five largest video game markets in the world (U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, and the UK) house a relatively diverse mixture of religious and nonreligious.
One estimate shows America as being 79 percent Christian, while other estimates show 36 percent of Americans identified as having ‘no religion’. A Dentsu poll showed 93 percent of people in China say they have “no religion”, but official numbers report “100 million religious adherents” in China. One study estimates three times that amount. A majority in Japan and South Korea said religion is not an important part of their daily lives, but another report showed 23 percent of South Koreans practice Buddhism, and nearly 30 percent Christianity.
This diversity has led to a lack of specificity, watered down portrayals of religion, or altogether lack of religious representation. These demographics, but more so the perception of these demographics by the industry, have led to a kitschy portrayal of religion in games.
Church of kitsch
Religion in games, and nearly all media, is kitsch. My definition of kitsch is largely an aesthetic one, also considering a sociohistorical perspective. It’s been largely influenced by Professors Brian Moriarty (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and Tomas Kulka (Tel Aviv University). Despite its modern connotations, I don’t consider kitsch to necessarily be a bad thing.
While it’s important to note the sociohistorical cues about what is considered kitsch, aesthetically we can define kitsch as, highly charged stock emotions, and unambiguous themes. Kitsch is recognizable imagery, and emotions you’re familiar with.
Kitsch never stumps you, never challenges you, and never wants to. It’s instantly recognizable and easy to process. It gets a predictable response from a large number of people. In religion, the kitschy icons are easy to spot: the nun, the priest, the crucifix, demons, angels, shamans, and the latest motif — Islamist extremists.
If we examine a few games that include reference to religion, we see kitsch.
Dante’s Inferno was released in 2010 by Visceral Games and EA. It is loosely based on Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s Inferno has readily identifiable kitschy elements: demons, angels, crucifixes, a hooded personification of death wielding a scythe (which Dante apprehends after defeating Death, and wields throughout the game).
But kitsch is not kitsch because it contains similar elements as the art that has inspired it. It’s kitsch because it fails to enrich our association with those themes. It’s kitsch because it simplifies the complex, demystifies the ambiguous to the point of corrupting the fragile meaning of the work it’s based on.
First: in the Divine Comedy, Dante is not fighting his way through hell. He is observing, being transported, conversing, soliloquizing, and ultimately recognizing his own sin, and need for redemption. We see some element of this in Dante’s Inferno, when Dante reaches the ninth circle of hell, Treachery, and admits his sins to Beatrice. That causes her to forgive him for committing adultery.
The difference between this event in the poem and the game, is that in the game it’s apparent, and a concentrated event, while in the poem it takes place over a greater period of time, and is subtle. (In hell, Dante speaks often of himself and his accomplishments, as do the sufferers of hell. After reaching Purgatory, Dante speaks less of his own accomplishments. Seeing what became of those people in hell, Dante realizes his own pride and almost without mentioning it, starts becoming less proud.)
Second: it’s often mentioned that Beatrice is the one who saves Dante in the Divine Comedy, by propelling him on his journey to realize his sin, rebuking his sin, and guiding him on a path to God. In the game, Beatrice is captured, corrupted by Satan (something patently opposed to the themes of the original poem), and needs to be rescued by Dante.
This is actually a common criticism of the game, but that’s because it’s obvious. We’ve gained enough awareness that the community recognizes blatant gender bias in our protagonists. In a 14th century epic poem a woman is the redeeming figure even if she’s not the central character. That’s as pertinent, refreshing, and counter-intuitive now as it was then — or at least it would have been.
Third: one of the most poignant themes of the Divine Comedy is Dante’s struggle to accept that so many of the thinkers, poets, religious and political leaders, and philosophers he’s admired would be condemned to hell, and he with them. Even as he encounters some of them in the early stages of hell, he praises them. He even includes some of his own mentors in the latter stages, and still offers praise.
The game does include some historical figures, but it doesn’t address some major inclusions in the original text. In the Divine Comedy, the prophet Muhammad appears in the eighth circle of hell, Fraud. This would be considered heresy and cause untold controversy in the modern muslim world, but regardless, it is included in the original work. Dante also touches on the schism between Sunni and Shia muslims during that section.
Why, in today’s society, is that content cut? Hopefully out of respect for muslims, but more likely because EA was being careful with their commercial product. Where there is commercialism and a need to sell in high quantities, there will be kitsch. Kitsch skips the hard parts and replaces them with easy to swallow tropes and archetypes. In a modern society of mixed cultures, kitch tries to avoid controversy by ignoring diversity instead of engaging it.
Diversity in religion and culture should lead to eclectic and vibrant media. Instead it’s led to bland depictions of religion, or obvious omission of religious content altogether. It’s an attempt to sell to everyone, offend no one; it succeeds at one or the other with mixed results.
An example of a game conspicuously lacking reference to religion is Battlefield 3. Despite being set partially in Iraq and Iran, and dealing with an insurgent group opposed to U.S. military presence in Iran, there is hardly any mention of the group’s motivation. The fictional People’s Liberation Resistance (PLR) in Battlefield 3 has staged a coup (conveniently allowing EA and DICE to avoid portraying the current Ahmadinejad administration in Iran) and mention opposition to the U.S. presence in Iran, but never elaborate beyond the usual bile about inciting global conflict.
Not every insurgent or terrorist group is motivated by faulty religious zeal (extremism), but it’s a mistake in politics, or media to discard the history that includes religiously motivated conflict in the Middle East.
Specifically in the case of Iran, U.S. involvement played a primary role in the 1953 Iranian coup, displacing democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh and placing the U.S. backed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in power. As Shah, Pahlavi was determined to modernize, and secularize Iran, and quickly lost support of the devout Muslims and clergy.
While the effects of his White Revolution can be debated, his pro-western agenda, and that he was clearly put in power by the U.S. did not sit well with segments of the Muslim population who rightly ascertained a foreign power had won a major victory in steering the social and religious direction of their country.
Shah Pahlavi also recognized the state of Israel, which further disturbed his countrymen.
Conflict in the Middle East is diverse. The region as a whole is fractured, multicultural, and even among the major religion (Islam) there is a major divide (Sunni versus Shia doctrines, which can lead to violent clashes). With that said, I assert that the contention that is the most volatile kernel for potential global conflict is the dispute over the Israeli-Palestinian territory.
The contention centers around Jerusalem, which has strong religious significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. According to the Bible and the Jewish Torah, the entire region is divinely appropriated to Israel. Palestinians contend that their presence in the region predates the Zionist agenda for an official Israeli state which started in the late 19th century, and succeeded in 1948. A majority of Palestinians are Muslim, and Jerusalem is believed to be the location of the prophet Muhammad’s ascension. Which religion, and which administration, controls this city and the region is hotly contested and has been for over 100 years.
Muslims all over the region tend to side with Palestine. Most, but not all, Jews side with Israel. Christians can go either way, but given the close relationship between Christianity and Judaism a significant portion of Christians also support Israel. The U.S. supports Israel and while that “support” largely consists of manipulation based on U.S. interests in the region, Christian constituency is regularly hoodwinked by politicians promising to “support Israel”, exploiting well meaning Christians who feel religiously obligated to stand with Israel.
The U.S. — a world superpower — is led by religious beliefs. This approach is dangerous, and unconstitutional. It’s under the guise of “interest in the region”, but anyone who pays attention to U.S. politics knows the Christian voter base is large and active, and few issues catalyze those voters as well as a rallying cry for Israel.
Iran, largely Muslim, is more obviously being led by religious beliefs. Along with general humanitarian concern for Palestinians, that is why they support Palestine, oppose Israel, and by association, oppose the U.S. involving itself anywhere in the region.
Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hezbollah have a myriad of differences between them and their motivations are many and varied, but among them would be perceived persecution of the Muslim faith by western interests, largely committed by the U.S. and nowhere more obviously than in supporting Israeli interests.
Which means at the heart of nearly every conflict in the Middle East, behind a majority of radicalized terrorists, is the fight between two religions that believe a divine authority has given them rights to land. Every movie, every novel, and every video game that has touched on terrorism stemming from, or as a result of, events in the Middle East has been about religion — and not once has it been mentioned in western games.
Generally, Muslims and Islam are ignored or marginalized in western games. There have been a few examples of games produced in the Middle East that address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Under Ash, and Special Force), but they tend to marginalize the Israelis the same way western media marginalizes the Palestinians. It’s better than outright ignoring the issue, but it’s only bias in the other direction.
Video games aren’t responsible for informing or educating us, but they have an opportunity to. Video games are entertainment. They don’t have to discuss religion or politics if they don’t want to. But what they do want is to evoke the emotions that kitsch religion and politics incite, without being specific about the complicated details around these issues. They want this because it sells. That is dangerous, corrosive, and misleading.
If games want to seize the opportunity to enrich our associations with religious themes, specificity is vital. It gives us a better chance for understanding, tolerance, and diversity. Even if there is contention (and surrounding religion, there is a lot), specificity is necessary to determine which grievances are legitimate and which are based on conjecture and presumption.
Portrayal of religion that is unspecific is damaging. It makes the positive elements bland; it makes the harmful elements benign. Blatantly pro or anti religion agendas are seldom useful, but when we portray religion it behooves the honest to be direct, to layout in detail what is beneficial, and what is not. That does not make it easy to discern what is “right” when it comes to religion or a lack of it, it makes it harder. It’s only easy when everything is shown in stereotypes.
Both the religious and the nonreligious are complex and diverse. Their views are often deep, not shallow. When we explore that depth, with a bright light and an earnest curiosity, we won’t find the obdurate views we may have expected, but instead vulnerable people holding to what makes them feel safest.
There will always be contention surrounding religion. There will always be the religious and nonreligious. I’m not advocating some slew of “religious games”. I’m reminding you 88 percent of the world is religious, and that if you’re reading this in the U.S., UK, Japan, China, or South Korea you’re surrounded by a sharp contrast of religion and nonreligion. I’m asserting that we prefer truth in our art. I’m asking our games to be honest.
I’m suggesting that those who wish to advocate for religion should do so honestly, tastefully, with accuracy and specificity. I’m suggesting that for those who feel religion is harmful, the appropriate course is to criticize respectfully, specifically, and with aim to improve, not tear down. This is not the case for or against religion — this is the case to acknowledge, and consider it in a way that is meaningful.
We’ve gotten so far away from meaningful religious discourse, that even in religious nations, a level of unease has developed with public mention of faith; that undoubtedly contributes to a lack of representation in games and other media. Without specifics of faith, and specific criticism, we won’t reach a meaningful discussion about religion.
I live in America, where the primary religion is Christianity. There are lots of Christians in America, but outside of church they mention God with such tepidness, whether you’re religious or not, you’d think it shameful. They say, “the man upstairs” or “a higher power” or some other nondescript generality. Christians believe in God with a capital G, and even atheists are contending against the notion of the capitalization, yet the discourse has somehow slipped to the nonspecific.
Christians don’t believe in “a higher power” — they believe in a God with a name: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Yahweh, Jehovah, El Shaddai, El Elohim, Adonai, the Great I AM, Jesus of Nazareth, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ.
Some people squirm when they read or hear that. Some Christians squirm at that kind of specificity. It’s not kitschy enough. It doesn’t play to a wide enough demographic, even though the numbers worldwide suggest that it does. There are equivalents to that example in every faith, and that is what we’re discussing — fervent, personal faiths of lots of people.
Conversely, the views of atheists and agnostics also get watered down. To use another U.S. specific example — those who want to run for public office are effectively required to subscribe to some kind of religion. Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota and an atheist, is probably the only exception I can think of, and even he admitted that he said he was Christian while running because he didn’t think he could win otherwise.
There are nonreligious people who assert that religions have incited wars, limited or taken the freedoms of women, ethnic minorities, and queers. They assert that religion has stifled scientific process and education. They’re concerned religion is adversely affecting domestic and foreign policies of nations. They deserve to have these issues addressed specifically and respectfully, in games as much as anywhere else.
Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and the Dalai Lama are some of the most well known religious figures in the world. But how often, in video games, are they specifically even mentioned? Aside from ultra kitschy nonsense, they aren’t. Neither are there instances of specific doctrines from any religion that meaningfully make their way into games today.
And how often, through games, do see see dissenters against a specific deity and specific religion, not dissenting because of intolerance, but concern?
If all these views represent the diverse population so well, why have they been restricted to play only in places of worship or contrasting auditoriums?
Because it’s easier that way, socially and commercially. Because diversity is hard, and complicated. Because it’s easy to put down religion when you don’t name one. Because it’s easy to dismiss the atheist if you paint him as a meany with a textbook. Because the more alike we are, the easier the advertising gets, the more kitsch we buy, the more kitsch we want, the less interesting our products, our art, and our world become.
Because the kitschier we are, the kitschier we’re gonna get.
The religious discourse that’s disappearing from mainstream media is important because it highlights the unique, the fervent, the devout, and the skeptic. It’s necessary for an interesting, diverse society. We all want the discussion to be respectful, but if it’s going to continue it will have to be specific, fervent and honest.
That’s the way I want it. That’s the way I want my games to handle the subject of religion or else God damn it.