Which video game defines your life

Religion in video gamesOh, you holy joystick

Martial music - text is faded in: The gods are at war. On the screen. Buddha fights: against Zeus, then against Anubis and against Moses. Then a sun rises over the hill of Golgotha ​​- a muscular Jesus tears himself off the cross and beats Buddha. And you read: "He's back and he's mad at the cross."

The trailer for the video game "Fight of Gods" gets you in the right mood for a bizarre fight. It puts the player in the role of Zeus or Anubis, Odin or even Jesus. And then let them compete against each other. Each of them with special abilities: Moses, for example, even if strictly speaking not a god, can hurt his opponent by calling on the stone tablets with the ten commandments. Christian Schiffer says:

"Games have this ability to let you try out other roles, why not the role of a god, with all the advantages and disadvantages that can bring?"

"In terms of game mechanics, religion really appears all the time"

The player becomes God - and the game explains what religion is good for.

"Religion affects your empire in many ways, but its main use is that it makes your people happy. Happy citizens are more productive."

Oliver Steffen says:

"And if you look at religion from this point of view, then of course you are not dealing with a religious view of religion, but with a distanced, sociological and, in fact, religion-critical view."

The Swiss religious scholar Oliver Steffen conducts research at the interface between religion and computer games - one of his books is called "Gaming with God". His central questions: How is the topic of religion dealt with in computer games? And: To what extent can computer games themselves become religious acts? Can they lead to religious experiences? Oliver Steffen observes ...

"... that one immerses oneself in another world, in another reality, out of everyday life, which is also like a kind of vision that one has, which is partly reminiscent of visions in the Bible that the prophets had . You immerse yourself in worlds that are also mysterious, numinous in a certain sense. "

Christian Schiffer says:

"The problem is, of course, that the religious texts are charged with a lot more meaning, so that you may not be able to deal with these original religious texts in such a playful way."

The Munich journalist Christian Schiffer has been dealing with computer game culture and the social significance of games for years, including as editor of the WASD magazine.

"In terms of game mechanics, religion really occurs all the time. What every player knows is that you go to the temple to heal yourself. In many games, religion is a kind of repair shop for your soul's salvation, but often also for your physical health."

"Ares: 'Zeus! See what your son can do! You preferred Athena, but her city lies in ruins before me.'"

"Religious elements simply contribute to the visual, that's because the religious, material culture simply offers a lot for the eye."

From ancient Greece to evangelical America

Religious elements have been found in them for as long as video games have existed. The world of religions offers a cornucopia of stories, characters, conflicts and, in general, of aesthetic offers that are ideally suited for entertainment media. This applies to literature as well as to films - and also to computer games.

"After thousands of years, Pandora's box was reopened, the power of the gods unleashed. Ares: 'You are still only a mortal, weak, like the day you begged for your life ...'"

The game "God of War" from 2005 was one of the most successful video games of the past few years. The story of the game, which is told in an extremely brutal way, makes use of the Greek mythology of gods.

In the games of the "God of War" series, players take on the fight against titans and gods (Sony / God of War III (remastered))

Processing mythological motifs in video games can have a sales-promoting effect. A few years ago the Japanese entertainment giant Sony wanted to tap into the growing Indian market - by developing games with a regional reference. The first was "Hanuman: Boy Warrior". The player slipped into the role of Hanuman - a deity in the form of a monkey - handed down in the Hindu Ramayana epic.

In this 3D action game, the player fights with Hanuman against other characters from the Ramayana. "Hanuman: Boy Warrior" was unanimously panned by the trade press. But in India the game was a sales success and became the model for similar attempts to turn motifs from Hindu mythology into action games.

The example of Hanuman also shows that the use of religious motifs in games also leads to criticism. Rajan Zed, a US-based Hindu clergyman who has some influence as president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, criticized the game as trivializing the Hindu deity.

In addition to the primarily commercial games, in which religion is more a means to an end for an entertaining gaming experience, there are also a large number of games in which religious attitudes are represented.

Many religious games are cheaply cobbled together games that focus on religious pedagogy, especially harmless Bible quizzes. Others, on the other hand, are much more complex, like the military strategy game "Left Behind". The game is based on the end-time novels by the American Baptist pastor Tim LaHaye.

"In human history, men and women have chosen between three paths. Those who seek a daily, personal relationship with God, unbelievers or believers who do not seek God, and those who have chosen to ignore God. And those Prophets foresaw: God will come to bring his people home. "

Oliver Steffen says:

"You play the Christians, so clearly there is also violence and the proselytizing of non-believers or those of different faiths."

"For those who stayed behind, the apocalypse has only just begun."

The first Christian video games appeared over 30 years ago. They were never limited to a particular genre. Some of them are just about imparting some biblical content to the players on the side.

Others, on the other hand, try to suggest a certain belief system to the players, mostly a Christian evangelical one. That goes for "Left Behind", but also for "Journey to Heaven" - from "Genesis Works". "Genesis Works", developers close to the US free churches, write on their website that their mission is to make games that stimulate the Christian faith.

In "Journey to Heaven" the player comes to the outer gates of heaven at the beginning. In the course of seven levels he finally reaches the throne of God. The game is graphically complex and tries to arouse religious feelings with numerous effects, i.e. through overwhelming technology.

"Computer games live from freedom of choice"

Oliver Steffen, author of "Gamen mit Gott" (private) Religious games have predominantly a Christian background, says religious scholar Oliver Steffen. There are only a few Jewish or Buddhist educational games. It looks different in the Islamic world. But the games there have less religious and historical themes, but rather reflect current conflicts in the Middle East. These include eg first-person shooters such as "Special Force", in which the player plays the role of a Hezbollah terrorist fighting Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.

Game makers who want to serve fundamentalist followers of religious communities, however, have a problem: unchangeable beliefs and canonical scriptures clash with interactivity. Christian Schiffer says:

"So computer games live from the freedom of choice. These stories that religion tell are of course very set in stone."

A film that tells the story of Jesus cannot end with Jesus not being crucified. That would turn history upside down. But if the player takes on the role of Jesus in a video game - and fails to walk on the water and go under because he is not very good at the game - does that change the story of the Gospel of Matthew? As absurd as the example sounds, this is exactly what can happen in the game "Run Jesus Run".

The result: Many games make use of religious motifs, but the stories, for example from the Bible and the Koran, are almost never part of the plot itself. The religious culture and tradition rather serve as a foil on which the plot takes place.

The divine is objectified

And there is another problem: Oliver Steffen calls it the objectification of religion.

1989 - the small British development studio "Bullfrog" publishes their second work, the strategy game "Populous" - a worldwide success. "Populous" is the first so-called god simulation. Christian Schiffer says:

"'Populous' is a game where you play a god. And this god then gets more power: The more people believe in him, the more power he gets. With this power he can, for example, level the country so that the people can use it then be able to build better houses. "

If religion is part of the game, it has to be represented, i.e. objectified.

"He can also send catastrophes down on his enemies, such as columns of flame or volcanic eruptions or earthquakes: at the time I just thought: Wow, cool, I can trigger a volcanic eruption."

Divine energy is reified with the help of flashes of light, flames or volcanic eruptions. The divine is objectified and thus profaned - transcendence becomes an effect.

Hardly any other word stands for this objectification of transcendent content in computer games like "mana". The term comes from the everyday religious world of the peoples of Oceania, especially the Polynesian culture. It describes the potential for spirituality of living beings or objects. Computer gamers know "mana" as a numerical value for everything that is somehow divine or supernatural. In the god simulation "Populous", more "mana" means more power and means progress in the game.

Is that blasphemy?

So is religion actually profaned - at any numerical value among others? Which you can collect as you like in order to be better off in the game? And is that blasphemous?

"Now that you know how to win the game, I want to bring your attention to religion."

One of the best known and most successful computer strategy games is the Civilization series by the Canadian designer legend Sid Meier. In his games, a human civilization can be led through history: from nomadic people to space travelers. Since the fourth part of the game, a strategically important aspect of the game has gained in importance: the foundation and dissemination of religions.

"To found a religion, you have to be the first realm to discover a certain technology. For example, the first civilization to discover meditation will found Buddhism."

"Religion always had a bit of an 'opium for the people' function in the series: you could build churches and cathedrals; and they clearly had the function of keeping the population calm," says Christian Schiffer.

"Excellent! You are the first civilization to discover meditation, Buddhism was founded!"

Gamers constantly deal with religious motives - often in a very pragmatic way

In the course of the game, other religions can also be founded: Islam, for example. Each religion has its respective game mechanics advantages, which players are discussing on the net around the world. The player "Scorcher24" writes:

"The most important thing is Judaism, because I use it as the state religion and get a 25% bonus on building construction."

Player "Mozi" writes:

"I find it very interesting that hardly anyone here emphasizes the financial advantages of religions. If you develop a religion quickly and spread it quickly, this has, among other things, enormous financial implications."

Not a blasphemous, but a religion-critical view, says Oliver Steffen. In his book "Gamen mit Gott" he writes about this reduction of religion to a sociological-economic phenomenon in strategy games:

"The church does not appear primarily in its religious function, but as the economic engine of a society that also wants to be supplied with spiritual goods. The image of religion largely corresponds to that of social theorists and sociologists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber or Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, who understand religion as a condition or part of an economic system. "

Developers of mainstream games want to prevent a game from being perceived as blasphemous at all costs. You want to sell, not cause controversy.

Black-humored criticism of evangelical upbringing

But this caution applies especially to large development studios. Independent developers have less reservations.

"Isaac and his mother lived alone in a small house on a hill. Isaac was often alone, painting pictures or playing with his toys, while his mother watched Christian TV channels. Until one day Isaac's mother heard a voice from above."

The video game "The Binding of Isaac" is based on the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac (imago / Le Pictorium)

For example: "The Binding of Isaac", which alludes to the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac and makes fun of fundamentalist Christians with a lot of black humor. The Californian game designer Edmund McMillen processed his childhood in a Christian-conservative environment. He says:

"I wanted to address the negative effects religion can have on a child, negative effects religion can have on a mother, on someone confused about their sexuality, how religion can affect a child with a vivid imagination."

In "The Binding of Isaac" you steer the eponymous hero through the cellar under Isaac's room and thus flee from the fanatical mother.

"To show your love and devotion, I ask for a sacrifice, your son Isaac. Enter his room and end his life. 'Yes, sir,' she replied, and got a butcher's knife from the kitchen."

In the independent developer scene in particular, the trend in video games is becoming increasingly serious. And just as composers or painters reflect their religiosity, their beliefs or their doubts in pictures or express them in music, video game designers can develop corresponding games.

Groundbreaking game art and sermons in the VR room

There is an example of such a religious computer game that could point the way in how games could turn from pure entertainment to - also religious - works of art in the future: "That Dragon, Cancer". Christian Schiffer says:

"That was done by two parents who lost their child with cancer. They processed this experience in a game; and these parents were very, very religious. And this is one of the few games where religion actually appears differently, that is, as Help in just such a situation, where you can understand why religion is such an important part of human existence. "

"So there we are. And the air is emptier without his laughter. And I hope that in the next breath of the Lord, that he whispers his love song in your ear, Joel."

In "That Dragon, Cancer" the developers Amy and Ryan Green share how they experienced the last months of their child's life with cancer and how they found consolation in faith - all in childlike alienated 3D graphics. In a game that cannot be won, at least not in the classic sense. Because the end is certain from the start: Joel, her son, will die. Christian Schiffer says:

"It's not aboutChristian Schiffer is publisher and editor-in-chief of the game magazine "WASD" (Monika Hippold) that you have fun, but that you try to understand how your parents dealt with this pain. And that you at least get an idea to understand how they were doing. And these are experiences that can make an interactive medium such as computer games very, very understandable. "

If a video game deals with existential questions, can playing such a game turn into a spiritual, religious experience? Christian Schiffer says:

"I can't rule it out."

Oliver Steffen says:

"There are simply certain aspects of computer games that have structural similarities with religious factors, depending on the definition of religion, of course. So, you could say that gaming is almost like a kind of ritual, gaming is almost like an experience of transcendence. You stand out from everyday life and explores ideal worlds with an ideal body. "

"Who knows, if the technology continues, for example with virtual reality, that we will really be in the game. Who knows what is then possible, which senses can then also be addressed by computer games and who knows, maybe has one or the other have a religious or spiritual experience. Maybe also supportive that the priest in the church says: Well, go to the VR room today and let that affect you and see what that is about your life, says about God and the world, "says Christian Schiffer.

Oliver Steffen: "Gaming with God"
Verlag TVZ, 2017, 164 pages, 12.5 x 20.0 cm, paperback, 26.90 euros