What do you get when you mix religion and video games? According to a new study released by the University of Missouri earlier this week, you get violence; or specifically, an over-emphasized depiction of violence in connection with religion.
This little controversial cocktail was stirred up by a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Greg Perreault. His findings were presented at the Center for Media Religion and Culture (CMRC) Conference on Digital Religion this past January.
The 20-odd page research paper, according to the conference program, is called RPG religion: Depictions of religion in contemporary role-playing games. It examines five recently released video games which Perreault believes to have the heaviest reliance on religion for storyline: Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy 13, Assassin’s Creed, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Three of the games are fictional religious, while two deal with the Roman Catholic Church. Perreault says he spent somewhere between 30 and 70 hours per game, with the exception of Final Fantasy XIII, which took much longer.
Perreault played through each game, took notes on key themes and visually analyzed the scenes that were heaviest with religious themes; he concluded that the video games were closely tying religion to violence.
“In most of these games there was a heavy emphasis on a ‘Knights of Templar’ and crusader motifs,” the doctoral student said. Not only was the violent side of religion emphasized, 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 of being haunted by religious guilt.”
We’ve already seen how touchy a subject like violence in video games can be with the number of legal movements over the years, why throw in another touchy subject like religion with violence? Perreault tells VentureBeat that initially he didn’t expect to stumble across the violent aspect:
“In general, I tend to to think that studies of violence in video games are passe. I set out interested in the depictions of organized religions versus spiritual religions, expecting to find organized religions depicted far more poorly than spiritual [ones].”
So, are video games churning out anti-religious propaganda? On the one hand, Perreault points to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed title, where the heroes, or Assassins, are depicted as “Enlightment era secularists” who are working to prevent the Roman Catholic Church, with its Knights Templar, from controlling the wills of the masses. On the other hand, there is Thane and Mass Effect 2 where the “spiritual themes” are portrayed in a more positive light. Ultimately, Perreault believes that game developers aren’t intentionally trying to hurt organized religion’s image.
“I believe they are only using religion to create stimulating plot points in their storyline. If you look at video games across the board, most 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,” he said.
In an interesting rebuttal to the idea of the study, Gamma Squad points out that video games were initially defined by Japanese developers, and Japan’s major religions include Shintoism and Buddhism. As a result, developers treated Western religions as exotic and unusual; overly sensationalizing certain aspects of the history.
Perreault elaborated on his study at Game Politics, saying that religion is an interesting topic for writers because “it is something that is key to people’s motivations, to their lives.” He went on to say that, Western literature, movies and television have already been stipulating religion’s role in society, and video games’ growth as an industry in recent years has allowed more compelling stories which “[tap] into that conversation” on religion. Incidentally, the conclusion isn’t limited to T or M rated video games; Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has also supported Perreault’s findings.