Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Religion in PC Games

Being a frequent connnoisseur of games (Hi, my name is Glenn and it has been three months since I last played World of Warcraft), I found this article marginally interesting, if a bit shallower than I would have liked. There is, I suspect, a great potential for treating of religious subject matter in games, but it seems that most of that potential, maybe from the nature of the medium, has been and will continue to be channeled more in the direction of what one would in another context call moral theology. For the rest, the majority of religious subject matter in games would fall naturally into the category of Crystal Dragon Jesus. Which is not particularly interesting on the face of it.

There are, of course, other more minor religious avenues in gaming. In particular, I have in mind historical games. Some of these have a better track record than others. The Civilization games, for example, encapsulate in their basic game mechanic a quintessentially nineteenth century concept of Progress, where theocracy and monarchy belong to the ancient/medieval periods and secularism and democracy belong to the modern period and one is inherently superior to the other, so one graduates from one to the other as the appropriate technologies/philosophical advances are discovered. I recall also how Age of Empires II had a terribly PC slant to it, where you had to play as peaceful Saladin against the evil crusaders, as misunderstood Frederick Barbarossa (strangely, you never got to play as him on the Crusade after his change of heart later in life), then as the peaceful Aztecs against the evil conquistadors in the expansion. On the other hand, the Total War games tend to be a bit less ideological and a bit more matter-of-fact about religions. And are more enjoyable for that (it does, for example, give you a buzz if one of your cardinals whom you have trained up and been using to evangelise in your country or abroad suddenly gets elected to the papacy).

To what I mean about moral theology in games, it is an element that is growing more commonplace and is becoming ever more interesting as games become more sophisticated. More and more games, particularly (but not exclusively) RPGs, have been incorporating some form of good/evil metre over the past few years and offering players several different ways of solving problems, some more morally acceptable, some less (and, naturally, a genuine moral dilemma from time to time to keep things interesting). There is an intriguing potential here- an avenue to explore the ethics of situations in a context without real-world consequences but which nonetheless, if one has become invested in the characters and the world they inhabit, can have an impact on the conscience.

An example: I have recently been playing the game Dragon Age: Origins. At a certain point, it is revealed that, by virtue of various details of the narrative, to slay the dragon in the battle, it is inevitable that one member of the Order to which the player belongs will have to sacrifice his own life. Naturally, the player expects that the person to make that sacrifice will be him. But then, soon after this revelation is made, another character offers a way out. Maybe no one will have to die. Another course is available. But, if you take it, there may be other much more far-reaching consequences, and those are ambiguous at best. I sat in front of my screen for fully five minutes trying to decide which course to take. Why? Because in that moment, with the richness of the story, characters and environment (as detailed as a good novel), the decision had all the weight of a genuine moral choice. Does one choose to embrace death for the greater good, or to live, with the knowledge of one's cowardice and the possibility of one's deeds coming back to haunt one at some indeterminate point in the future?

This is one example. Like a good book, the game player lives the adventures, deeds and dilemmas of the protagonist vicariously, but with this one vital difference- the player can alter the course of the adventure, make choices and thereby change the moral tenor of the character, for the better or for the worse. There is some fascinating potential in that mechanic, much of which remains untapped.

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