Religious context, or similarities in any form, within media often cite criticism and often end with negative publicity. This occurs even if they don’t portray that in which they represent in the manner expected from the followers of that particular faith. There have been many examples of books, illustrations, films and even music that have caused offence, whilst there are also many examples which celebrate particular religions.
In this edition of Console Yourself we will be taking a look at the celebrations, brash imitations, dangerous and the subtle religious references in video games across the generations.
Sometimes video games and their use of cultural or religious context comes across as a subtle reference instead of an implicit narrative. For example the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda is based n the concept of mon. Mon (紋), also monshō (紋章), mondokoro (紋所), and kamon (家紋) are Japanese emblems that are used for decoration of an individuals, families or businesses identification.
The reference to Mon (紋) is so subtle that many people, especially in the Western world, would not recognise this as a link to a cultural reference.
Other games have elements that can be obvious to certain groups, but again subtle to those whom are not part of that denomination or belief system. A prime example of this is Halo.
Master Chief John-117
Halo obviously has a title that could be relatable to Christianity, or just a shape, but it also has religious undertones. The most obvious is Master Chief‘s callsign John-117.
Some people utter this in the manner of “John one seventeen” but within the franchise the protagonist himself uses the phrase “John one one seven,” which brings about a interesting exert from 1 John, Chapter 1 verse 7 of The Bible.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”1 John 1:7
The verse could be perceived as meaning that being good people, like Jesus’ teachings, we and all others will have a peaceful existence. Master Chief can be looked on as a parallel to Jesus Christ. His sacrifice’s of his long military career, losing Cortana and losing his Spartan brothers allow humanity to achieve lasting peace. And by following his tenacity humanity therefore maintains that peace.
The end of the Halo story saw humanity reclaiming the Mantle of Responsibility for all life within the galaxy. This is a parallel of “fellowship with one another”. The death of Master Chief also parallels that of Jesus. These subtle references and parallels could easily go unnoticed.
Video games as a vessel of expression
Some video games differ with religious context and instead offer a religious or a spiritual experience. Journey, released in 2012 is one game where the developers, Thatgamecompany and Santa Monica Studio, used the game to express their own existential and spiritual feelings. The game was based on Joseph Campbell’s book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the “Hero’s Journey” narrative structure.
The game is intended to make the player feel small and make a forced sense of awe about the players surroundings.
Other games have been used as a vessel of cultural and spiritual empowerment. After the death of Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy Star Trek Online added two statues in his honour. After the death of Robin Williams there was an NPC (Non Playable Character) added to World of Warcraft in his legacy. Other games have also honoured late fans such as Borderlands fan Michael John Mamaril who died from cancer appearing as an NPC in the sequel.
The perception of video games with religious references changes between cultures, religion and denomination. For example, the religious references in the entire Final Fantasy game series were originally censored in the US market. When Final Fantasy VII was released on the Sony PlayStation the references were left largely intact.
Assassins Creed developers Ubisoft Motreal made sure they had a disclaimer at the start of their game as to make sure that it caused no offence to people around the world.
“Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.”Assassin’s Creed disclaimer (Ubisoft)
Other games have not been as lucky and have come under fire from the general public, certain denominations or the media in regards to the content they provide.
Christianity in video games
Bioshock Infinite is a game that was largely based on the notion of American exceptionalism at the turn of the 20th century. This is a European-born critique of the United States of America that the country sees its history as inherently different from that of other nations, stemming from its emergence from the American Revolution becoming what Seymour Lipset named “the first new nation” and developing a uniquely American ideology (Americanism) based on liberty, individual representation, equality before law, representative democracy, republicanism and laissez-faire economics.
It fully supports the games dystopian theme however Baptism in this game was highly controversial. The developer Ken Levine stated that it was to consider baptism in relation to forgiveness rather than merely as a religious tenet after he was asked if he could change this element of the game during development.
Other games that have pushed peoples buttons are also big-budget titles. Far Cry 5 has seen controversy across several layers. Firstly a petition on change.org was created to ban the game based on the depiction of American white extremists as the games villains. It also came under fire after the key artwork for the game is an image of these villains arranged in similar fashion to that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, where 65% of adults identify as Christian, 28% percent identify as Evangelical Protestants, 17% identify as being Catholic and 14 % Mainline Protestant. The artwork caused mass controversy with people accusing the game of being a violent revenge against average Americans.
Borderland 3 is another game that came under fire. When I was planning this article it was Borderlands 3 that gave me the initial idea. On looking for the key artwork it was at that point I also stumbled across multiple petitions against the game. One of those petitions was on lifepetitions.com which asked “Tell UK Advertising Standards Authority to sanction blasphemy of the Sacred Heart”.
The issue I see here is that the game is an artistic representation of a futuristic, near apocalyptic, fantasy representation and the artwork fits this. While is is similar in imagery to the Sacred Heart it also follows the story in which the developers are trying to create. There are several images of a new religious sect or cult-based system in the game that are parts of the fantasy world that has been created. Phrases such as “Rupture upon us, holy is the mouth that bleeds,” “we witness mayhem”, “children of the vault” all bolster this perception of the key art and explain its motives and what it represents.
Hinduism in video games
In October of 2008 it was announced that Fallout 3 was not to be released in India. The reasoning behind this was due to the fact that the game contained within a mutated two-headed cow which was called Brahmin.
Brahmin is the name of the ancient and powerful hereditary caste of Hindu priests and religious scholars in India. It is also incredibly similar in spelling to Brahman which is a type of cos that originated in India. Brahman, which is a breed of Zebu, are revered by Hindu’s.
Islam in video games
In 2008 LittleBigPlanet was delayed at the last minute due to one of the licensed songs including passages from the Qur’an. A PlayStation community member had highlighted this and also how it could be offensive to Muslims. The song, Tapha Niang, was by Malian artist Toumani Diabaté, a devout Muslim. Two patches occurred, with the second removing the vocals from the music.
Some American Muslims responded to the recall and stated that they were offended by the restriction of freedom of speech. M. Zuhdi Jasser M.D., head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, was quoted as saying, “Muslims cannot benefit from freedom of expression and religion and then turn around and ask that anytime their sensibilities are offended that the freedom of others be restricted.”
Sikhism in video games
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, sparked controversy in 2002 when it was revealed that a level featured the killing of Sikhs. Not only was the depiction bad but the location was of their most holy site, the Harmandir Sahib. This was unfortunately the same site that hundreds of Sikhs were massacred in 1984. The game was altered and the new version of the game was released with this material removed from the game.
Many other games have religious narratives, symbols or references. Obvious games like The Binding of Isaac, Dante’s Inferno, Agony and Doom all have an element of religious undertones or reference material.
The difficult thing for developers is trying to find the line between direct and insulting narratives to artistic creativeness. Finding the area between the two where denominations are not offended and artistic juices can flow must be incredibly difficult in todays society.