Debates over violent or sexually-explicit video games have been raging since the early days of gaming, as titles like Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and others fueled the fires of controversy.
Final Fantasy XIII (Square-Enix)But Greg Perreault, a doctoral student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, decided to explore an untapped avenue of gaming controversy: religion. More specifically, he focused on the correlation between violence and religion, both organized and more spiritual beliefs.
Perreault studied five games, and while the specifics differ, he found that in each case, religion was closely tied to violence.
Take role-playing hit Mass Effect 2. In creating the sprawling Mass Effect universe, which includes two games (a third is releasing on March 6th), DLC, novels, comic books and an upcoming Hollywood movie, developer BioWare worked religion -- as well as ethical dilemmas -- into the narrative storyline.
The character Thane, for instance, is a deadly warrior-monk assassin with a guilty conscience.
"Thane is part of the Drell race and he follows the more naturalistic faith of his people, which has elements of Buddhism and Shinto," said Perreault. "Although his religion believes that the body and spirit are separate and that the sins of the body can be attributed to someone else, he prays for the people he assassinates."
Another game that was part of the study, Final Fantasy XIII, includes a great antagonist force that Perreault said mirrors the Roman Catholic Church.
In the game world, the Primarch, which translates to "great pope," plays a similar role to the Catholic Pope in the real world. He acts as a mediating force between the god of that world and humanity and even wears regalia similar to the real Pontiff. People who follow the Primarch also wear nun-like outfits.
The Catholic Church — specifically, the Crusades -- plays an integral role in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Perreault found this game to be the most overtly critical of religion. One of the central quests in the game by the secular assassins is to find the Pieces of Eden and keep them out of the hands of the religious Templars.
"Neither the religious forces nor the secular forces have any good intentions of how to use these powerful relics, which can control people's minds," said Perreault. "They both, ultimately, want to use their powers for their own purposes."
Despite the correlation, Perreault doesn't believe game developers are doing it intentionally.
"It doesn't appear that game developers are trying to purposefully bash organized religion in these games," he said. "I believe they are only using religion to create stimulating plot points in their story lines. If you look at video games across the board, most of them involve violence in some fashion because violence is conflict and conflict is exciting. Religion appears to get tied in with violence because that makes for a compelling narrative."
Perreault also played and studied Konami's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
"What surprised me is that I expected to see organized religion portrayed poorly, but it was just as violent as spiritualized religion," said Perreault. "So many games have an absolute evil force and an absolute good force that embraces violence to do good."
In Castlevania, the character's journey into the heavily forested realm correlates with the pagan belief that forests are magical places. Perreault said that the very idea of a saved game is religious. In the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example, players pray to a bird idol to save their game.
Perreault hopes to further explore religion and games in a book, including the Nintendo heydays of 8-Bit and 16-bit gaming.
"Nintendo had very high censorship and they wouldn't allow any religious depictions in games, but writers would find ways around this," said Perreault. "In Final Fantasy IV there's a spell called White, which is an aura that comes down from heaven and attacks your enemy. The Japanese translation is actually 'holy.'"