First of all, games are interactive media texts. Like movies, they are prepared in advance and repeatable by many people. But they are changeable and responsive, like social media and oral conversation, although typically governed by more explicit and inflexible rules. The kind of play that games allow for can challenge traditional religions that rely on fixed (or very slow-changing) doctrines. As religion and games scholar Rachel Wagner suggests, it would be challenging for Christians to play a game that allows for the possibility that Jesus does not die on the cross. However, this very playfulness allows gamers to build powerfully meaningful practices and rituals. thatgamecompany’s games like Flower and Journey have a kind of quiet spirituality that invites players to participate, play, and engage.
Because so many video games focus on competition, religion in games can often become competitive as well. It is often reduced to nothing more than team jerseys: if you belong to my group, you are my friend; if you belong to another religion, you are my enemy. While this kind of classification is hardly a new cultural dynamic, video games provide a new space for a hyper-competitive approach to religion—albeit one where nobody actually dies or gets hurt. The MOBA-genre game Smite, for example, features a wide range of mythological gods and goddesses using mystical powers in constant combat. At the same time, clerical figures in games are often healers and promoters of unity within a community, as is evident in practically any role-playing game.
Because games are always rule-bound systems, it is very easy for them to portray religion itself as a kind of social machine. In other words, games can reduce religion to a series of sociological effects, and nothing more. Europa Universalis IV is a good example of this: while the dominant religion of a province is one sociological factor among several that determines chances of unrest and productivity, and it is a complicated religious system, it does not in any way delve into the real experience of religion. Deeper dives are, however, possible. That Dragon, Cancer, for instance, follows a Christian family struggling with illness, grief, and loss. The key here is that games are not just systems of rules—they are also frequently narrative and rich in symbolic imagery and sound. This means games can engage just about any aspect of culture with nuance and intelligence, and the growing body of thoughtful indie games suggests that this is increasingly likely to happen.
Finally, games are more than just texts people use: they are increasingly spaces where gamers meet, communicate, and build community. Games like Fortnite are frequently just an excuse for people to get together, and sometimes gaming is less important than socializing. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for destructive and negative associations. This became apparent first in the sexist GamerGate movement in 2014, and is still evident in the many violent and regressive movements currently recruiting in-game and in game-associate spaces. (To be fair, this is hardly limited to gaming culture.) Yet, as Rachel Wagner’s book Godwired explored several years ago, many religious movements are moving into digital spaces to practice their faith. Gaming communities can span the globe and facilitate connections, and believers of any faith can and do take advantage of that.
It is probably fair to say that nonfictional religions have a relatively small presence in the world of video games. But it is impossible to avoid the big questions religion grapples with in the world of video games. I certainly believe that religion can be an important and positive part of gaming culture. I am a professor at a Christian university, and we have just started up a program to prepare students to work in the games industry—not to make explicitly religious games necessarily, but to be consciously people of faith in their chosen profession. While there are certainly problems in the world of gaming, I love the playfulness and creative possibility of games. Regardless of our feelings, video games are a significant part of our culture, and religious communities need to engage games if they want to reach gamers.