Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EXP Podcast #82: Space Jesus

While they may not always do so in the most graceful fashion, even even the most mainstream games address complex issues like sex and violence. Religion, however, remains a relatively understudied topic. This week, we draw inspiration from Richard Clark and Jason Killingsworth, two authors who examine the ways religion is manifested in games and how theology impacts our relationship with them. Over the course of the discussion we touch upon faith as a game mechanic, how religion impacts cultural expression, the deity’s of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the inspiration for this episode’s silly title. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- In which games has religion played a major role?

- Can issues like faith and spirituality be conveyed with game systems or should religion be explored through thematic details?

- How does your religious background affect your response to religion in games? How do you want to see the subject addressed, if at all?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
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Show notes:

- Run time: 31 min 53 sec
- “Not Beyond Belief - How Religion And Gaming Interact,” by Richard Clark, via Gamasutra
- “In Your Game We Play,” by Jason Killingsworth
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Guys, I'm really honored to be discussed not only in the same breath as Jason, but on this podcast. I've been listening to you guys for the past few weeks and have really been impressed with the level-headed intelligence on display on your podcast.

    You guys did a great job discussing the issues at hand. I was in particular agreement with your thoughts toward the end on how you would like religion to be dealt with within games. Faith without struggle or doubt is not just boring, but an altogether false notion, and one that should be challenged by the religious as well as non-religious. Even if what I believe as a Christian is true (and I believe it is), it certainly isn't an easy or simple belief.

    I think that acknowledging this is the key to demonstrating faith in a game that's compelling and thoughtful. The Assassin's Creed video game falls short in my opinion because it's just too sure of its' agnosticism. Left Behind: the video game falls short on a LOT of fronts, but this area in particular. With death and destruction all around, doesn't it go without saying that the issue of how a good God could kill so many would come up? These concepts are never really explored in depth in either game.

    I don't ask for support or even direct acknowledgement of my Christian faith. I simply want games to treat subjects with the nuance and complexity that they deserve.

  2. Hey Richard, thanks for stopping by!

    It's nice to see folks like you and Jason look more carefully at religion in games, as I think it can push both developers and players to expect more substantive material.

    I'm still undecided as to whether it is possible to convey faith in terms of game mechanics or traditional authorially-driven narritive.

    Have you played Flower? While not overtly religious, I feel like there were definite allusions to faith, suffering and redemption built in to the story and the mechanics.

  3. Yeah, I absolutely felt the same thing in Flower, and I think it establishes something interesting. For me, Flower was one of the more emotionally affecting games I've played. It got to me in ways I couldn't articulate, and I think you're articulated it well. It deals with issues that are inherent to life, and yet they're issues we don't always take the time to stop and think about, much less demand be addressed in our games.

    Yet, one characteristic of art is that it brings up these issues that we have ignored or suppressed - usually issues that are incredibly harmful to the human experience if ignore or suppressed. When a game, film, novel or song addresses them in a way that doesn't drive us away, we find these things remarkably resonant. Braid, Bioshock 1 and 2, are other games that did the same thing for me.

  4. Sorry for the late reply guys; I listened to the show last month but have been sorting out my thoughts since then.

    I appreciate you guys covering the topic but was a bit disappointed to learn that, as secular humanist, neither of you have a dog in the fight. That is to say, as a Christian who is committed to non-violence I find myself in a very awkward position with most non-puzzle games. Just the genre label 'FPS' presents itself with a challenge.

    I would like to see more games that would not only give me the option to solve quests non-violently. At this point I can only think of a few games in that genre that have given the user the chance to play without killing. Some of the Bioware games give you the chance to solve quests by using people skills (i.e. talk people out of conflict) but you could hardly complete the entire game that way.

    Deus Ex comes to mind as a game that would let you knock out the enemy instead of killing them - but on later levels that pretty much became impossible due to the strength of the enemies.

  5. @ Shannon

    Thanks for leaving your thoughts, regardless of when you had a chance. Rationalizing my enjoyment of many admittedly violent games with the seriousness with which I approach non-violence and peace is an interesting endeavor. I think there are many games that do not require me to kill, albeit they may not all be top-tier releases.

    What is interesting to me are games that let me kill, but do not require me to do so. Something like Mirror's Edge held that promise, but ultimately fell short for me. Mass Effect allows characters to use dialogue frequently, potentially using violence as a last resort. Depending on how staunch of a non-violent activist one is, that could be pretty satisfying.

    Great comment, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hey Shannon,

    I'll echo Jorge's thoughts, but I also wanted to point out Gerard Delaney's Pacifist Gamer as an interesting experiment in trying to apply a pacifist mentality to popular games. As you point out, it's pretty hard to find a game in which non-violence is a viable option, and Gerard's experiments provide some insight into how design choices influence this practice.

    Thanks for stopping by!