Divine gaming?

18_Divine-gaming-image-printI take my character, Altaïr, behind a pillar, to sit and to eavesdrop. In order to carry out my next assassination I need to pickpocket a civilian up ahead, who is currently meeting a friend, for a map he owns. The men discuss my target, William of Montferrat, whose citadel has fallen into disrepair, leaving him vulnerable.

All of this seems to be a typical conversation between two non-playable characters (NPCs), when something unexpected and delightful happens. The two characters start talking theology.

Civilian 1: Well, the Bible does say, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Civilian 2: Nah, it doesn’t actually. That’s from one of Aesop’s Fables. The Bible says quite the opposite, in fact. Many passages about being patient and faithful, and waiting for the Lord to decide if he wishes to assist.

The game Assassin’s Creed depicts a struggle between the evil Knights Templar and the ancient Order of Assassins. The game has biblical references scattered throughout.

Set during the Crusades, the series’ first entry depicts street preachers, Muslim and Christian alike, spreading imperialist propaganda.
While all this may give the impression that the game’s team is cynical when it comes to the value of faith, it appears that this is not the case. The game’s introduction carries the disclaimer “this work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs”.

Assassin’s Creed is just one of many popular current video games that depict issues of faith. This might suggest that the medium has evolved to an extent, where, like film, it can explore important questions regarding human existence. But how do these games fare regarding their handling of faith as a theme?

In a conference paper released last year, Greg Perreault, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, tried to answer this question. He found that many current-generation video games equate religion with violence and social problems. Perreault’s study incorporated five recent games, including Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy 13, Castlevania: Lord of Shadow and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

Perrault told the website, Science Daily, he did not believe video game companies were intentionally making a comment on religion. However he found that: “Not only was the violent side of religion emphasised, but in each of these games religion created a problem that the main character must overcome, whether it is a direct confrontation with religious zealots or being haunted by religious guilt.”
Rev Will Nicholas is a minister at Launceston North Uniting Church, a ministry he shares with his wife Amanda. The Nicholases’ have incorporated video games into their ministry. Mr Nicholas told Crosslight he was not concerned about Perreault’s findings.

“Let’s face it; corrupt religious figures make for great antagonists,” he said. “Who can forget the conniving Cardinal Richelieu in the Alexander Dumas classic The Three Musketeers?”

“History shows us that the times when the Church universal has been in power it has been capable of horrible misuses of that power…it is not an undeserved portrayal given our history.”

Mr Nicholas said he has also experienced many positive depictions of Christianity in video games. “For example in many Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, such as Civilization, the building of a church or cathedral improves the peace of a city.”

Video games represent a booming industry with a large potential audience. According to a Bond University report published last year, Australians spent $1.5 billion on hardware and software in 2011. The study found the average age of gamers is 31, with around 47 per cent being female. Ministering to this emerging subculture is a challenge churches and individuals are taking on.

Through hosting LAN (local area network) parties and board game nights, Will and Amanda Nicholas have been able to maintain an active ministry to Launceston’s local gaming community.

“There have been so many opportunities in ministry where I have been able to speak a subcultural language with gamers in a way they do not expect from a minister of religion,” Mr Nicholas said.

“I have…been able to ask deeper questions about the nature of faith, power, corruption and religion using this insider language in a way that breaks open the gospel to this unique community.”

Wollongong chemist Nick Harvey Walker has been an avid gamer since his parents bought him a Sega Master System when he was seven (they later sold it because he was playing it too much). Mr Harvey Walker said his hobby was a helpful tool in sharing his faith with others.

“Some of the most honest and open conversations I’ve ever had have been in-game,” he said.

“People are also open to talking about things they’d be too polite to talk about with their work colleagues or family.

“One of the great things about video games is that it can be a bit of an equaliser: it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, rich or poor… all that matters is how well you play the game, and sometimes that doesn’t even matter.”

Jonathan Foye is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney and a freelance journalist.

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