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Introduction

I think for the purposes of this write up, it is probably best if I do not reveal my own personal beliefs and ideals, in hope to provide a fairer and less biased report. I don't wish to tip the balance by personal feelings. There are more than enough Holy Wars on E2, and I don't wish to start yet another deep theological discussion.

In this write-up, I hope to analyze what aspects of religion exist in computer games, and if there are any similarities and differences between these virtual beliefs, and our "real" ones.

Examples of Games Covered:

Discuss: Polytheism Vs. Monotheism Theory

Contrary to the modern-day Real World, religions based on multiple Gods are greater in number than those with a single deity within video games. Those who played played Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn may have come across the priest who preached the existance of the one true God, the "Blind Eye". Acting as a missionary of one of the nearby temples, you investigate. Of course, this "God" turns out to be a giant blind Beholder, who forces his followers to tear their own eyeballs out.

Although Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is not a computer game in itself, but a system of rules, it is the foundation for the Baldur's Gate engine. AD&D exsists in a polytheological environment. There is very much proof that Gods do exist. It is difficult to just walk down the street and not see something breaking the laws of our own universe. It should also be noted that Gods can belong to alignments other than Good (see: Evil, Neutral).

Perhaps this is due to novelty. It is said that 85% of Americans are Chirstians. Maybe the creators of D&D (Inspired through early fantasy fiction) thought it might be fun to role-play polytheism for a change. Players could choose to be a "Cleric", who could be represent one of various different Gods. This idea obviously expanded and was also included in the Advanced version of the game.

This brings up the subject of changing religion. While in the Real World, it is not unknown for someone to suddenly change their belief structure, to "find God" or even to stop believing alltogether, I have not really encountered occasions in games where players can or have to change their religion. The only comparable occasion that springs to mind is during Final Fantasy IV, when Cecil, a "Dark Knight", becomes a Paladin (Evil and Good respectively). This is a good model for an Evil person becoming angry at his Gods, then switching to another religion in protest. This suggests to me that "virtual religion" is something a lot easier to live with than "real" beliefs. As is very different from the real world, game players are usually surrounded by concrete evidence that their God exists, never having to doubt themselves.

As for an extremely polytheistic game, try the Discworld MUD. You can learn a lot about Discworld-Gods theory in Terry Pratchett's book "Small Gods". Basically, there can be a God for anything, but there has to be enough belief behind it in order for the God to exist. So, meet Gufnork, the God of fluff, and Hat, the God of Unexpected Visitors.

Discuss: What is Magic?

The origin of your magical powers is so commonly overlooked in many games. How is it you are able to create fire? Move rocks bigger than yourself? Become invisible? Turn your skin to wood?

More often than not, no explanation is given as to how you are able to cast spells, and produce a result. In general, no religious meaning is attached to the ability to use magic. For each individual game world, various mechanics have to be considered:

  • Was the world created by a God or God-like being?
  • Does the power of Science co-exist?
  • Can anyone use magic, or is it restricted to "chosen ones"?
  • Does the belief in any God provide you with extra powers?

For example, In Baldur's Gate (AD&D system), priests have acess to spells unattainable by others (e.g. Draw on Holy Might). However, "normal" magic is drawn from the power within your character. This force is something you develop with time, not dissimilar to training your muscles. One instantly has to argue here however, that the material plane (maybe all or some others, I'm not sure on that one), was created by the Gods. Therefore, any force you use, and even your own existance can only happen because of a God. Atheists can choose not to believe this of course, and in my experience they are not punished by the expected bolt of lightning. Which God have they disrespected, if they believe in none?

The question being raised here is that can atheists use any magic without questioning their belief structure? In our "priest magic" example, certain spells would be instantly unaccessable, but does that mean atheists are excused from all the arcane arts?

In the game Final Fantasy VI, your run-of-the-mill mage war ended up destroying civilization. But people rose from the ashes with the power of Science. Magic is discovered 1000 years later by researchers of The Empire, and is cross bred to create Magi-Tek. Characters in the game are surprised and scared when they first witness this power, an effect uncommon in RPGs.

Discuss: Religion Vs. Marketing

The Final Fantasy Series is a good example of games where religion does not appear where you might expect it to.

In my experience, many Japanese RPGs that see an international release do not make references to characters having religion in any way or form. You do however have to fight your way through many avatars (or even Gods themselves), to Win.

Either this is simply coincidence, or Japanese game designers do not care for religion, or perhaps there are marketing reasons behind this. As I metioned before, most Americans are Christian in one form or another. Japan does have Christianity, but it is by no means the majority religion. Perhaps the marketers for companies like Sqauresoft see religion as a possible cause for conflict. I know it might sound unreasonable to assume, but there are a lot of sensitive people in the world, and religion can be the source of some terrible things. The last thing developers want is to have their game hailed as "The Work of the Devil", and burned to cleanse the planet of this "evil".

A point closer to home would be that I've seen computer games that feature real religion as a strongpoint:

This fast-paced religious computer game is sure to appeal to the "techies" in your family ages 7 and up! Test your knowledge of 2,200 cross-referenced Catechism questions and answers. Choose among three levels of difficulty as you progress. Complete Bible stories, name that liturgical hymn, solve moral dilemmas and remember cherished prayers.

"Catholic Challenge: Catechism Game"
www.catholicgames.com

But I've yet to see anything similar in any of my local video game retailers.

For the Atheists Among Us:

While role-playing, it is very possible to be (or play) an atheist. How far you take this is totally up to the player. Depending on your Game Master, you may or may not have to enforce your beliefs every so often:

<Fred the Mage>I cast Flesh To Stone at the thief!!!
<Jim the Atheist Fighter>Hmm...Where did that statue come from?
<GM>Bob the Evil Mage casts Fireball at Fred!
<Jim the Atheist Fighter>Fred! Why did you spontaneously combust?! NOOOOOOO!
etc...

The Nethack Guidebook provides a very interesting piece on Atheism, while discussing various aspects on player conduct which affect your final score:

An atheist is one who rejects religion. This means that you cannot #PRAY, #OFFER sacrifices to any god, #TURN undead, or #CHAT with a priest. Particularly selective readers may argue that playing Monk or Priest characters should violate this conduct; that is a choice left to the player. Offering the Amulet of Yendor to your god is necessary to win the game and is not counted against this conduct. You are also not penalized for being spoken to by an angry god, priest(ess), or other religious figure; a true atheist would hear the words but attach no special meaning to them.

Now to most, this is simply a challenge (or a method to reinforce "The DevTeam Thinks Of Everything"), trying to beat the game without resorting to praying for help. Examples of "help" includes; filling your stomach when weak with hunger, and restoring your vitality when low on health. I can't say I've met any active atheists who play Nethack, those who would refuse to #PRAY by belief. Would they go that far? I don't know. I suppose it depends on how true an atheist sticks to their beliefs. There are those who are on the verge of becoming agnostic, and those who will go out of their way to prove religion is a silly thing.

The best way for people to truely express something they want to is to play an online game (e.g. Ulitma Online). These non-linear games allow you to say and do as you choose. I have heard of people starting up their own religions and cults on similar online games.

Thanks to mblase for inspiration on this section:

Games in which the player is a God also deserve a mention. For example, the famed Black & White, and Dungeon Keeper. These games let the player control avatars of themselves, governing over various servants and carrying out your will. The ultimate power trip, games like these allow a certain degree of freedom in your decisions, in an attempt to emulate omnipotence as best as possible. Dungeon Keeper is noted here for being a game in which your only option is to be Evil. Is playing God a big Atheist no-no? Or can atheists ignore this for just a moment and enjoy the game?

Conclusion

Religion can be a very difficult subject to talk about. Some people are very broad minded, while others are not. Computer games, like many other forms of expression in the world, can be the cause of many an argument. It appears some designers may take this into account, so religion may be more of an issue than some people think.

I guess that there is something for everyone, as it were. Well, perhaps not everyone. I don't know any Amish people, so I can't ask them what their opinions are. I think playing a computer game instantly violates their beliefs, so I guess it would be difficult to corner their market.

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