Games and religion are rarely seen as compatible sections of society. On the surface, there seems to be very little overlap between the two, and often when we hear about religion and games in the same article, it is because the two are in conflict. Whether it is the use of Manchester Cathedral in a shooter or the use of a Hindu god in a fighting game, the general opinion is that religion in games simply causes offence and outcry. But perhaps this doesn’t have to be the case.
I am both a games designer and an atheist. The way I see it, games are an awesome framework for teaching, for encouraging and for having fun. Whilst I may not be religious, I appreciate the underlying messages of moral and ethical betterment, and the intent to bring people together as a more caring and kindly society. If we take religion as being a method for helping people and encouraging them to consider their morals, I think this is a very worthy cause to push. But how would one go about combining the two – especially when both seem to flit between indifference and outright opposition to each other? Would such a creation really even work?
Well, let’s first take some similarities between the two. Games and religion are both very powerful platforms for change. Religion is used to help convicts understand a better system of morals, to help drug addicts overcome problems with substance abuse, and even to help people overcome instances of loss and grief. Similarly, games have been used to educate people, to aid scientific research and for rehabilitation purposes to help people recover from afflictions such as loss of motor skills. Look back at each of those three examples for religion and games… Are the underlying principles so different? At a base level, I would say they aren’t, but for further evidence, let’s continue.
Both games and religion encourage people to come together to spend time with each other. Religion gathers followers together for sermons in buildings such as churches, synagogues and mosques. They encourage people to come together as a religious family and to look after and encourage each other. Similarly, games encourage people to play together online, to complete epic quests and to aid each other as a team. Both encourage social support – for cooperation and care for your fellow gamer or believer.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, both games and religion share a mutual end goal – a big tip of the hat to Miss Jane McGonigal here – “to offer a healing alternative to our broken world”. When life doesn’t live up to our expectations, when we are feeling down or powerless, or even when we are just world weary – religion and games offer an escape. Admittedly, the way religion and games tackle these issues are a little different, but the end result is the same. If I feel small or un-empowered in my daily life, religion might advise me that I do have an important purpose and that I mean a lot to those around me and to God. Games, on the other hand, make me feel empowered by putting me into an entirely separate world and allowing me to become its all-powerful saviour. At the end of it all, I will still have filled the void of feeling small and powerless.
So we’ve acknowledged that they both have similarities, but we still haven’t really answered my previous questions – how do we combine them, and will it even work? Well, when it comes to the development of a religious game, I think there is enough evidence to say that no – a game based strictly around a religion will not work. At their core, games offer entertaining challenges – be they physical or mental – which players must overcome through use of sufficient skillful action. Religion, however, is more of an exercise in listening and spiritual discipline. There is little in the way of challenge or gameplay mechanics which can be gleaned from listening to scripture readings, praying regularly and remaining faithful. That’s not to say that you couldn’t find mechanics if you dug a little deeper into a specific religion – just that it may require you to remodel or to add other aspects to better fit the purposes of a game.
Additionally, games are carefully crafted around the power of positive feedback. Gamers love to “level up”. We love it when we gain experience points, increase our score and win new loot. With this in mind, games encourage people to perform actions by offering them tangible rewards and pats on the back, and also offer gamers visible proof that they’re doing well and progressing, be it through unlocking gadgets, gaining new missions or awarding us trophies. This is a proven and brilliant way to encourage people to perform certain actions, be it side quests, gathering collectables, or even performing certain specific actions, such as defeating a boss with a certain weapon. We will literally modify our behaviour and play styles just for these purposes, and I can name plenty of people who continued to play a game well after completion because they needed to gain all the related unlockables. But this is often juxtaposed to the systems used to convince people to perform certain actions in religion.
Religion focuses more on avoidance of sin and potential punishment for bad actions, rather than positive feedback for performing actions of good. Everyone is aware of the idea of being born with sin, and “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”, but there is no other hand to this. I’m not implying that there should be some kind of “High Five me, Father, for I helped the homeless”, but there does have to be some form of positive feedback for religion to translate well into a game. Convincing someone to go to church every Sunday to avoid going to hell is an example of negative feedback, and when negative feedback is put into a game, players will simply stop playing. If a game – or anything for that matter – is constantly negative, it’s hard to find any kind of fun in it. With that said, would players download a game that isn’t fun? No. Would religious leaders want people turning away from their religion because it seems negative and boring? Of course not!
Lastly, the issue of re-purposing aspects of religion for gaming purposes is further exacerbated by the staunch and unwavering opinions of both sides, that even if religion did fit easily, it still would have no place in games. This is an opinion which has been firmly rooted into the minds of most people, and more than likely remains the primary issue standing between religion becoming a marketable gaming property. More often than not, religious titles find their messages of morals and value stuck between a market that sees them as preaching, and a religion which sees them as belittling their faith. It seems to be common opinion between both sides that religion is not a game, nor should it be treated as such.
I think it is relatively self-evident that religion and games have a long way to progress before they can be fully affiliated, but perhaps the actual inclusion of specific religion within games is not a requirement. Throughout this piece I’ve been speaking of the underlying basis of religion – of the religious principles of moral and ethical betterment, and the intent to bring people together. To build a game which suits these principles does not necessarily require the direct inclusion of any religious scripture or undertones. People will play games with a purpose, both for the enjoyment of playing, and to better themselves or their world in the process. Titles such as “SuperBetter”, “World Without Oil” and “Foldit” have proven that players enjoy games with a deeper meaning or purpose, and that games have the capacity to help people to adapt their lives or to shape their world for the better.
Let’s take SuperBetter as an example. Here is their explanation of SuperBetter, from their website. “Playing SuperBetter helps build personal resilience: the ability to stay strong, motivated, and optimistic even in the face of difficult challenges. Resilience has a powerful effect on health—by boosting physical and emotional well-being. Resilience also helps you achieve your life goals—by strengthening your social support and increasing your stamina, willpower, and focus. Every aspect of the game is designed to harness the power of positive emotions and social connection to help you improve your life.” Does this sound like the end goal of religion to you? It certainly does to me!
SuperBetter encourages you to battle bad guys, make allies, activate power-ups and complete quests – all of which correlate to real life improvements. An ally is anyone you invite to support you on your journey to getting better – giving you social support from others. Power-ups are small things which you can do each day to help you feel a little better – helping to improve your mood and keep you focused on being happy. Bad guys are anything that might oppose your end goals – such as focusing on your mortality when trying to overcome illness. Quests are the things you can do to get closer to your goals. In the case of overcoming illness; this might be doing ten minutes of exercise to boost your immune system. Lastly, each action is tracked by a progress metre – a personal resilience bar, which you can fill by achieving the above tasks. The bottom line is this – SuperBetter provides a support network and helps you focus on being positive and overcoming the problem. Religion might try and help you do these things by providing the same social support network, by providing pick-me-ups and advice in the form of scripture passages. Ultimately, SuperBetter is proof that religion is not needed in the game to achieve this outcome. The end goals are identical – to help someone overcome a struggle in their life. But SuperBetter does a far better job of helping people to achieve these goals and remain motivated.
So why does gaming do a better job than traditional religion? Well; simply because it provides a more interactive and enjoyable method of absorbing the information. Again, the core principles are still the same. Religion and games are both powerful storytelling mediums, and both use stories to provide people with meaning and purpose. Even to this day, Bible stories remain popular and well known amongst all circles of society. We all know about the life of Jesus, Noah gathering animals on his ark and Jonah being swallowed by a whale. They are such powerful stories that they permeate all sections of society and transcend all races and beliefs – these stories are infectiously viral. But they are not just about the stories, in the same way that the Bible is not just a novel. The Bible uses the stories as a means to teach people, and to help them engage and understand the teachings of the Bible. Games are also a means for delivering epic stories, and by their very nature as an interactive tool, they provide a means for truly engaging with the content in a very literal as well as metaphorical manner.
By virtue of immersion and engagement, games provide a manner for taking these stories and improving a person’s understanding and their capacity to remember the story’s purpose. Games allow you to live out a story, and by utilising gameplay to underpin the meaning of the tale, help to better hammer home its meaning. As an example, the game Mirror’s Edge encourages people not to use guns, and actively detriments the player for their violence. In order to complete the game with the fastest time and the highest score, the player must avoid using any kind of firearms during a level, instead benefiting from completing their goals in a non-violent manner. This use of gameplay and story helps to hammer home the idea of anti-violence, which sticks with the player far longer than a traditional story would. This takes the traditional religious message of “turn the other cheek”, but presents it in a much more palatable format, removing the religious stigma whilst still encouraging the same core principle. This is in many ways a very facetious example, but by providing a story based around parkour and futuristic society, the same message can be delivered in a far more memorable and engaging way – without even changing the core delivery method of story-telling.
Fundamentally, everyone loves to be attached to epic stories and the sense of meaning that they provide. Whether this is delivered through religion or games should remain irrelevant. As long as the notion of feeling inspired and motivated to do what matters is provided, the root sum remains the same. We become more inspired to continue to perform this action or hold this belief. Where religion currently betters games is that gamers currently spend their time improving virtual worlds, whereas religion focuses on real life. Perhaps by applying the principles of one through the delivery of the other, religion and games can help to provide games with a greater meaning, and provide a method for bridging the gap from the virtual into the real. By taking religious rules, such as though shalt not covet, and applying these as rules in a purposeful game – we better illustrate the point. Reward this behaviour in game, and the positive associations can help people to carry these views into their daily lives. Games, just like religions, require a set of rules to function. Let’s use these to create a place for people to come together and cooperate; to find meaning, purpose and betterment.
Both games and religion encourage us to come together to be a part of something bigger than ourselves – whether that’s helping people to achieve a happy life, or saving planet Alderaan from the Death Star. Perhaps the ultimate underlying issue with the entire concept of religious games is that faith remains a purely personal standing, and even those of the same religion often find dividing lines between their beliefs. How can a religious game encourage us to come together as part of something bigger, if it instinctively separates us by highlighting our differences in belief? Perhaps religion is better left absent in name but present in spirit. If people will bond over a game, but not over a religion, then perhaps subtlety and subconscious teaching are necessary evils, at least for the present.
The world is a constantly evolving place, and we’ve seen religion slowly adapt over time to mirror the needs and ethics of new generations. No longer do we see acts such as stoning for adultery or mass Sunday church attendance, and even hot topics such as homosexuality are becoming more acceptable in many religions. It is this capacity to adapt that has kept religion and its underlying message of human betterment relevant throughout the ages. With this thought of adapt to survive, as the message being delivered changes, perhaps the method by which it is delivered needs to change too? As religious numbers continue to plummet, and the number of gamers continues to soar, perhaps it is time for religion to adopt a new medium for delivering its teachings. If people won’t come to the sermon, perhaps it is time to find a way to bring the sermon to them.
As a conclusion, I shall leave you with a quote from Reverend Susan Sparks, who has already worded everything far more eloquently than I ever could. “People are starving for meaning and social connection – to be a part of something epic. And they are flocking from the church to games, because gamers are the ones creating opportunities for these needs; chances for real people to come together and create global solutions. To put it in religious terms: reality is the world after the fall and games are offering one of the few glimpses of the new Eden – a place where people find meaning and purpose, a world of global cooperation, a community where epic healing can happen.”