UPDATED: New Study Claims Video Games Depict Religion in Problematic Light

Update: The study’s author Greg Perreault responded to a number of questions we had about the methodology he used to come to his conclusions. When asked how much time he put into each game chosen for the study, he said:

"I spent somewhere between 30 and 70 hours with each game. I clocked in the longest with Final Fantasy XIII because it just took so darn long to figure out what was happening–if anyone actually knows.

The method I used was to play through each game, taking notes on key themes that emerged. Then I went back through and performed a visual analysis on specific scenes that had significant religious content."

We also asked if he included any games that weren’t rated T or M by the ESRB in his study. He said:

"Not for this paper, although I've been doing some research on Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which is rated E10. What I've seen thus far supports my findings."

We wondered if game writers were simply following the same kind of story-telling methods that are typically employed by Hollywood and the Television industry. His thoughts on that:

"I think that writers in general find religion to be an interesting topic because it is something that is key to people's motivations, to their lives. There's a vast literature in Western society in books, movies and television about what religion and what role it has in society. As video games are telling deep and more compelling narratives, I think they're just tapping into that conversation."

Finally, Greg explained why this study is important to him and why it should be important to the public:

"This is part of some ongoing research that I'd like to continue and maybe eventually make into a book–looking at religious depictions in different eras of video games. Yes, I found that there was this connection between religion and violence, but that's a conversation that's been happening in Western society for centuries. In early games like the Atari, it was hard to tell those stories. With the dominance of Nintendo and their licensing process, we didn't see alot of those stories–religious elements were mostly censored out of the games. So it's fascinating to see how video games have entered the conversation.:

Thanks to Greg for his willingness to fill in some of the blanks we had about this study.

Original Story: A new study authored by University of Missouri School of Journalism doctoral student Greg Perreault comes to the conclusion that video games often present religion in a problematic light, or as an obstacle that must be overcome through violent means.

Perreault, who recently presented his findings at the Center for Media Religion and Culture Conference on Digital Religion, found that some games  used narratives and plot lines that equated religion with violence – or required violence as the solution to problems involving religion. Often a religious group must be overcome through violent means in order to succeed in these games. For his research, Perreault examined Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy 13, Assassin’s Creed, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Perreault came to the conclusion that – in one way or another – all of these titles "problematize religion by closely tying it in with violence."

"In most of these games there was a heavy emphasis on a 'Knights Templar' and crusader motifs," Perreault 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 or being haunted by religious guilt."

At the same time that Perreault draws these conclusions, he also emphasizes that he does not believe that video game developers are trying to create any kind of intentional commentary on religion.

"It doesn’t appear that game developers are trying to purposefully bash organized religion in these games," Perreault 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."

We have contacted the University to learn more about the methodology Perreault used to come to his conclusions, including how long he spent with each of the games mentioned.

Source: journalism.missouri.edu. Image Credit: Shutterstock

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  1. Ryan Cardozo says:

    There are many number of games which have a plot of good and evil (mostly the rpg and strategy games) and even out of this 85% of the games (which I have played myself) contains a lot of religious factors involved in the ploy of the game this by far only gives an interesting and a twist to the story of the game making it appealing to the gamers.. I don't see any harm coming to the religion (as the good always wins over the bad) unless the game includes any disrespect or taboo (which the game developers are smart enough to avoid).


    Ryan Cardozo- mole removal

  2. Kajex says:

    Assassin's Creed isn't completely fiction, unfortunately. The story and plot is, but it revolves around a period of time where the church was fucking insane and compelled its followers to go on long-ass pilgrimages which in the beginning claimed the lives of more Christians than it did Muslims.

    Christians in Assassin's Creed are portrayed as violent because they WERE violent back then, as were Muslims (although certainly less-so than Christians). They're problematic because, much like today, many of their teachings are not synonymous with their actions- and in many cases, many of their actions are synonymous with their texts.

  3. Andrew Eisen says:

    Skyward Sword depicts religion in a problematic light?

    Really?  I'm going to have to give that one some thought.


    Andrew Eisen

  4. masterdingo says:

    I'm surprised he didn't take a look at Grandia II. The good God, Granas, was killed in the fight between Good and Evil (think God vs Satan). The church of Granas hides this fact from the people and lies about it for 1000's of years. His weapon, the Sword of Granas is left behind. Then your avatar takes up the sword to go kill Valmar (Satan). You do kill him, so at the end of the game, there are no Gods left. You have made the world atheist.

  5. Sajomir says:

    Honestly, this is ultimately the point. Most of what the public sees as religious activity just isn't fun. Not to mention, the single core gameplay element of almost ALL games, combat/killing, just isn't a very devout behavior. It's really hard to rationalize the slaughter of a bazillion enemies if you're a good peaceloving religous believer. It's true there are militant monks in eastern cultures, but it's not really the same thing.

    There are options, it's true. We see it in the "redeemed killer" plotline, the "angels vs demons" plotline (and the inverse, demons vs angels), the shadowy bad religion plotline, etc. There's even gods against other gods. However, I can name several games for each of these variations.

    I'd love to see a way to represent religion in a positive way. However, I think a lot of times this sort of story is best left to non-interactive media like a movie, book, or graphic novel. It would be more likely the conflict in such a story would be internal, or at least not external in the sense of needing to bash face.

    (Yes, I am Christian. No, I don't mind seeing the big shady organization/religion motif as it's used in most games.)

  6. kagirinai says:

    your lack of understanding of religion in general

    I don't think you're aware of how common this belief (that someone without a positive view of religion is uninformed or otherwise lacking) is, or how fundamentally offensive it is. I understand religion just fine. Moreover, it is ultimately a social institution with all the trappings that come from that — this problem extends beyond just religion, in the same way that it is currently impossible to produce a game about artistic expression that is meaningful.

    We cannot (at least yet) create a game that would 'score' a player on the depth of their writing or the quality of their art. Some games (such as Pokemon Snap and Dead Rising) attempt to produce this by reducing the complexity of interaction (basic elements, composition, framing) down to elements the computer can measure in some meaningful way.

    The idea of a pilgrimage isn't an uncommon idea in games, in the sense of travel to meaningful places. The bulk of Earthbound could be seen as a positive, new-agey, religious story, as four children (one who is explicitly religious) travel to 'sanctuaries' to acquire the Earth's power (blessing) in order to stop a great evil. But non of those elements are meaningful to the play, they are just narrative elements.

    As a player, I cannot seek alternative solutions to this problem, and the religious elements could be easily reframed in virtually any other light — they aren't necessary.

    You can't measure a player's faith, or score how well they pray. There is no meaningful way to incorporate religious ideas in to gaming except as window dressing and fluff, unless you make it fantastic (like the otherwise mentioned Guild Wars) which itself doesn't reflect action religious ideas, behaviors, or outcomes.

  7. lordlundar says:

    Ok. I really don't understand this point. Of course you cannot represent religion through programming rationale, but what does that have to do with narrative where religious representation take place?

    Games, like most narratives tell a story and because of their nature are limited in scope. Sure a game could have the history of said religion either up front or tucked away, but unless you need that information it is little more than padding. Even games such as Xenogears which has religion as the crux of the larger story spends a lot of time explaining the various groups, has a large section of extra information outside of the game and STILL is confusing as hell.

    As such the best means is, unless it is the whole point of the story, is to keep it as limited as possible. So if an organization is, in the eyes of the main character a violent one, then every member is. Unless proving it isn't is a part of the storyline, most developers are fine with that.

  8. E. Zachary Knight says:

    I think the main reason you are having such a hard time coming up with fun and innovative ways to use religion in gaming is because of your lack of understanding of religion in general. Religion is not just about study, prayer, preaching or advancement in the order. It is a life decision that affects the choices and path of an individual. There are plenty of ways to use that devotion as the motivation of a character and story that would be interesting to play.

    Let's look at an example from religious history, the pilgrimage. A lot of religions have instituted pilgrimage in some fashion. We have The biblical account of the Israelites fleeing from Egypt. The Muslims have pilgrimages to Mecha. The Mormons have their pilgrimages to Utah. If gaming has shown us one thing about the potential for pilgrimage, it is that it can be fun when done right (Oregon Trail). There is plenty of fodder there to make a compelling game without resorting to violence as the primary gameplay mechanic.

    As for your three options, I don't think that is true. There is one that you missed that I tried to highlight here, you could have a compelling experience. Honestly, nothing is off the table when it comes to driving a narrative. If you can make something compelling, then you should try it. 

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  9. kagirinai says:

    Like Andrew said, it's not fun. It'd feel superflous, it wouldn't add anything.

    How would you interact with the religion? There's study and preaching; which I cannot imagine as being fun. There's advancement in a religious order, but it would be likely be offensive since it would reduce religious participation to a mechanical function, rather than a relevatory experience.

    The only thing I could imagine is that you add it as fluff material. Either dotting conversation and backgrounds with religious iconography, or adding it mechanically with edicts (ie: Thou shall not kill) but this would probably feel arbitrary like Judge Rules in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Perhaps the best you could do is something like Nethack's conduct challenges, but again — in most games that would be merely tacked on.

    Ultimately, the basic options are: Have religion operate as a logical system (ie: act under conduct, pray, be rewarded, or some similar system), as a background or optional element (superflous), or as an irrational element (random chance). If religion works functionally, you trivialize real-life religion. If you don't, it's just fluff.

    More importantly, if you treat the religion as "real", you'll upset fundamentalists. If you use actual religions, you'll probably upset just about everyone.

  10. Andrew Eisen says:

    Probably because no one's thought of a way to do it that would be fun (or that producers would fund).  Every game I can think of that's tried has been really, really lousy.


    Andrew Eisen

  11. Lisa Pham says:

    How many wars have been started because of religious beliefs? Please be HONEST.

    And how many different religions are out there in the world and how many of those depict religion in the wrong way or "Wrong Light"?

    Come one guys… these are GAMES and aren't meant to be taken literally, which means they are full of fallacies of ALL kinds. Games are expansions of truth, fantasy, religion, etc, etc, etc,… And they are made for entertainment purposes only.

  12. Mrxknown_JG says:

    In what facet does Mass Effect 2 depict religion in this way?

    Is he mentioning the AI's belief in a superior AI's ability to enhance them?

    What about the moments where your Salarian scientist (if you choose to push the conversation down this path), says a prayer for a victim of experiments and expressed a need to come to terms with what affect his actions had.

    I can't recall any negative light on religion in Mass Effect. The play can choose to say they are religious in the first game when talking with a crewmember, but could also attack religion or pass off their beliefs as nothing good or bad as long as it didn't affect the mission.

    Mass Effect is a game driven by the player, it's hard to determine how a game like that shows religion when it entirely depends on how the player chooses to respond to it.

    In the Assassin Creed video games, the conflict was rooted in the Templar's beliefs but of their use of religion to gain a following and power.

  13. ddrfr33k says:

    I graduated from a Christian high school, and have been a Christian for all of my life.  This is one thing that a lot of gamers I've talked to find odd.  There's this perception that video games and faith are mutually exclusive, and that "true Christians" don't play video games.  The irrationality excuse almost seems like it's become a stereotype, to the point where outliers are looked upon with shock and disbelief.


    Actually, your comment about corruption is spot on.  It reminds me of the book of 1 John, which encourages the recipients of the letter to be wary of people who come proclaiming the word of God.  Essentially, the devil will lead you astray if you're not careful.  Maybe one of the Christian game developers could include that in a game…that would be a nice inclusion…

  14. E. Zachary Knight says:

    This is actually a very interesting topic to me. I am religious and I recognize when religion is used as the basis for conflict in games. I have recognized it since the early days of gaming. In the early days it was often a cult or cult like organization that has risen to prominence in the world which fuels the goals of the games eventual antagonist. Games like the Breath of Fire series come to mind. Often these games are about dueling theologies or deities.

    I think one of the main reasons why religion is often used as a point of conflict is because it is easy to portray as irrational and dangerous. We have a massive treasure trove of religion acting in such fashion. Things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, religions practicing human sacrifice etc. History is rife with such references. However, this is little different from similar circumstances based on political ideology, racism, power and resources. Often we see that many religious conflicts are below the surface little more than the latter listed. People using religion as a means to retain or gain power, wealth, resources etc. 

    Unfortunately, many lazy narrative writers can't muster a valid and realistic reason for conflict in games without resorting to something that is easy to make irrational. This is why they choose religion. Because the beliefs brought about by religion are based on faith, it can easily be seen as irrational and thus prone to corruption more easily. Sadly, for some faiths that is true.

    I think the main issue that needs to be focused on is to advance the narrative of gaming beyond the need of such crutches to propel the plot forward. However, in order to do so successfully, we need to move beyond violence as the main source of conflict in gaming. Until that happens, we will continue to have such shallow portrayals of many such institutions.

    (Of course this is helped little by games such as the Left Behind games)

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  15. ZippyDSMlee says:

    Dramatic story telling involves both the good and bad of whatever it is that makes us a human. Its like saying moving pictures move to fast….

  16. E. Zachary Knight says:

    But the reality is, games are logical systems. Religion is not.

    ​Ok. I really don't understand this point. Of course you cannot represent religion through programming rationale, but what does that have to do with narrative where religious representation take place?

    ​There are plenty of ways to include religion in games without making it about violence. There are plenty of ways to make games in general without violence. The point is, why are we not including religion in non-violent non-adversarial positions more often?

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  17. kagirinai says:

    I would guess, based on demographics, that game devs are disproportionately atheistic. However, I believe that Greg Perreault is correct in his belief that the (purported) slant against religion isn't intentional.

    But the reality is, games are logical systems. Religion is not. There is no way to portray religion positively in the scope of most games — if religious characters or organizations are violent, they will virtually always appear zealous and irrational. If they aren't violent, then they're likely passive. Of course, violence isn't always required in a game (and less violence would be good) but there is no meaningful way to present religion in another context — what would that even be? You cannot mathematically progress in a religious organization, and religious organizations generally do little beyond preach and run small social events.

    But the bias isn't just against religion. It's against large organizations. Plenty of games have players rebelling against an army or government for similar reasons. It's not surprising either; it provides a game with a shadowy villainous organization that the player — against all odds — can overcome, with people of power and swarms of minions and underlings.

    Also, I don't think many games can claim to have "compelling narrative". The 'shadowy organization' trope, religious or otherwise, is generally pretty lazy and is definitely overplayed.

  18. Sora-Chan says:

    I wonder if Dead Space 2 was on the list. I would of thought it would of been a bigger player in the study personally.

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  19. Zerodash says:

    Really? We are worried that bronze-age beliefs are not being portrayed in a good light through video games?  

    – The rantings of the likes of Rick Santorum, Pat Robertson, Michelle Bachmann, and their crusades against civil rights is doing more to make religion a laughing-stock.

    – The hole in the ground in Manhattan is doing more to harm to the image of religion.

    – The sorry state of women in the middle east is doing more to harm religion.

    – Creation museums doing more to harm to the image of religion.

    I could go on, but I'll leave it at THIS.



  20. Samster says:

    Positive representations of religions do exist, but I find it's usually where that belief system is ingrained in a culture or society and presented as a way of life, rather than the practices of a more isolated faction. Similarly, that way of life will usually tend not to be overzealous and overbearing. It's the level of zealotry that usually points to negativity of representation.

    As an example, in Guild Wars, the 6 gods revered by the human culture have a tangible presence in the real world and drawing strength from them is presented as a normal practice. In the same game, however, you'll run across a nation of humans slavering devotedly to false gods who need to be struck down, and an enemy race dominated by a clan of shamans who forcibly preach devotion to monstrous entities and primal magic.

    The more obsessive and cult-like the religion, the more likely it is to be negative. It's really hard to present that level of zealotry in a positive way – and often in a game, you're a character who will stand out, not be a mindless face in a cult crowd. Good gods favour heroes; bad gods want an army of slave worshippers.

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