Religion in Video Games: How God Reveals Himself in Mario and Master Chief (part 3 of 3)
Do narrative-driven games reveal the mind of God?
In one sense, video game developers have done their level-best to avoid God as a topic in narrative-driven games. Consider this article written by Julian Murdoch over at GameSpy. Murdoch admits that even a professional video game journalist, who has no dog in this fight, can’t get developers to talk about why they don’t include God in their games. What little I did uncover strongly suggests what most of us already think: God polarizes, therefore God does not sell. Michael Thompson, who speculated as to the reason why including God as part of a narrative within a game doesn’t sell concluded that no two people have exactly the same view on religion. This would make it near impossible to figure out how to market a religious game.
In another sense, many games have religious elements to them. Diablo and Dante’s Inferno come to mind. But, very few make any kind of statement that would be worth defending, or they create a religion that serves the narrative of the game and may bear some resemblance to a real-life religion but not enough to be of any significance. So, is it even worth it?
One Sunday morning, before Sunday School started, I was chatting with some of my students about the most current Game Informer magazine. As I was flipping through the magazine from page to page, I started keeping track of the games that were more story than they were game. And every time I came across one, I’d yell, “STORY GAME!” Of course, I didn’t do this just to annoy some of my students who happen to like those games. I also did it to prove a point. Most games out there are being influenced more and more by the narrative element. Even a game like Rayman and the Raving Rabbids, which is essentially just a collection of mini-games, has a story to it. I would venture to say that most teenagers of this generation demand that their games be more like movies than games.
Another observation I made that supports this theory was one time I was at a Gamestop and I decided to see how many games relied heavily on a narrative to justify their existence. I do not recall the exact number, but I remember being surprised at the overwhelming majority of them being first or third person shooters (the Wii is an exception) that all have characters with deep backgrounds and immersive storytelling aspects. When I was growing up, you were lucky if the instruction manual, let alone the game itself, gave you a story synopsis. But, newer games like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, and Final Resident Evil are all games that rely heavily on cinematic experience. Some games have a whole universe devoted to filling in the mythos surrounding the noted characters in that franchise. Halo, for example, has a line of books, comic books, cartoons, a board game, and of course action figures.
And gameplay sometimes doesn’t matter as much. Regardless of whether or not they play well, video games have had and will continue to have a narrative element to them that attracts gamers. Sometimes a game can be filled with buggy gameplay mechanics, iffy graphics, and a poor layout but still sell decently because of the story. In the case of licensed movie-to-video games, the gaming industry has had a notoriously bad reputation of putting out poor games in that particular genre. Yet, they continue to sell. Why? Because who doesn’t want to play as John McClane from Die Hard or Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings? After all, the story is already good.
Narratives are so ingrained in us as human beings, it is impossible to deny their influence in our lives. For narratives to exist, there must be three essential elements present: 1) Sequential events 2) Memories of those events 3) A desire to tell someone else about those events. One could argue that our lives are just a series of narratives. Or one could argue that our life is just one long narrative. Or one could even argue that the history of the world is just one long narrative. But, if life is just one long narrative, then is there a point to it all? Can we learn anything from our story?
The Bible gives us an explanation for why we exist: For His Glory. Isaiah 43:7 says that God’s people were created by him for his glory. Although that packs a lot of meaning which cannot be fully discussed within the focus of this blog post, I will at least say that for his glory includes worshipping the Lord and following his commandments. The Bible itself is a narrative, beginning with the inception of the world and ending with the universe as we know it ceasing to exist and being replaced by a new heaven and new Earth. I think it no coincidence that God uses narratives to reveal himself to mankind. But, with video games keeping theology out of its narratives, can we still claim that narrative-driven games reveal the mind of God?
Yes, we can. And there are two ways to go about it. One way, we have already explored in parts one and two. Narratives are universally experienced which can only be explained if God exists. But, we’ve already covered this way enough. The other way that narratives in video games reveal God is by the themes we see common in most games. These themes include, but are not limited to:
1. treasure hunting.
2. rescuing someone.
4. justice (victory over evil)
In Mario and Zelda, you are rescuing a princess. In Prince of Persia and a Boy and His Blob, you are treasure hunting. In Castlevania, you are overthrowing the evil Dracula. In Red Dead Redemption you are trying to make good on a past life as an outlaw. Again, you could possibly add to this list of themes, but not at the risk of sounding repetitive.
All four of these themes can be found in the Bible in various places. Consider these stories:
1. Moses and the March to the Promise Land (treasure hunting): Exodus 3:16,17 says, “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’” There are several great treasures mentioned in the Old Testament: the Temple, the ark of the covenant, the stone tablets where the 10 commandments were written on. But, none of them mean as much to the Jews then (and now) as the Promised Land. They literally travelled miles to get to it, sent spies in to survey it, put together armies to defeat the enemies that occupied it and have ever since fought to keep it.
2. Peter’s Miraculous Escape from Prison (rescuing someone): Acts 12 recalls the story of when Peter was put into prison for preaching the gospel. An angel comes along and literally rescues Peter by supernaturally loosening his chains, opening the doors, and (maybe) causing the guards to fall and stay asleep.
3. Samson and the two pillars (or any story in the Bible for that matter- redemption): Samson, known for his God-given super-human strength, is captured by the enemies stripped of his hair (and therefore the source of his strength), made into a slave, has his eyes gouged out, and then is brought to a party to be made fun of. He then proceeds to call out to God for one last act of redemption. This is his prayer: Judges 16:28) “Sovereign LORD, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” He then pushes against two pillars that were holding up a balcony (full of people) and the whole thing comes crashing down on them and him.
4. The Story of Esther (justice): The story of Esther is a rather long, complex story involving several twists. But, basically Haman, who is out to destroy the Jews is foiled by Queen Esther, who convinces King Xerxes of Haman’s deceptive ways. Xerxes then has Haman hung on the same gallows that he built for Mordecai’s (Esther’s uncle) execution.
Of course, these stories are all pieces of a bigger story. The story of Jesus. One could say that the whole Bible is about Jesus. His story encompasses all four video game themes. Luke 15 compares seeking after the Kingdom of Christ to a woman who finds a coin she lost (treasure hunting). When Jesus died on the cross, Colossians 1:13 describes it as thus: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” The Bible says that Jesus redeems us of all our sins, past, present, and future: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Eph 1:7)
The idea that religious video games would never sell is, I believe ultimately false. I don’t pretend to know how to make them sell, but all other mediums and forms of art have proven that there is a market for such. But, regardless of any overt attempts to include religion in video games, they ultimately cannot escape God’s presence. For every time you tell a story, you are a using a form of communication that God himself has used- that God himself invented.
It should be clear by now that God does reveal himself in video games in one form or another. Nothing escapes God’s imprint. Everything shows his handiwork. My hope in writing this series on video games is to show you how God fits into every aspect of your life–even something as “pointless” as video games. So, the next time you do play a video game, stop and think about who God is and how he is working your own “narrative” called life.
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