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What's so bad about religion in games?

Eirik has grown tired of developers having to apologise or change something as soon as they even touch Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious people and aspects.

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It's been four and three years since yours truly and Suzanne Berget shared our thoughts about allowing games to be more inclusive and have more diverse characters, so it's unfortunate that things haven't changed much since then. Sure, we've seen more games with minorities in them and a bigger part of the public become a bit more open to people who identify differently, but the problem will never be completely fixed. 2021 was a great example of this, as many games were criticised for having or touching upon heated subjects. One that caught my eye the most was religion. People are obviously allowed to have different opinions about faith and such, but going crazy when a game barely touches religious themes is just ridiculous. Let me explain.

What's so bad about religion in games?

First of all, it's important to note that I'm what you might call a mild Christian. I believe in God, but have never read the entire Bible or go to church more than once a year. This means that I don't become offended by someone with a different belief or when the religion is represented in an unconventional way, something many do. Just look at what happened when players noticed pages from the Quran lying on the ground in Call of Duty: Vanguard's Zombies mode. While I can understand why some found this revolting and Activision Blizzard decided to remove them, I also think the developers deserve some praise for including them in the first place because book burning and desecration were a part of World War II (even a fictive version in this case). Very few games even dare touch these kinds of acts even if they were a significant part of the real world inspirations. Why? The developers should be allowed to depict blasphemous and controversial things in their games if it leads to a better or more realistic experience. We're not talking about real people or items here. These pages were virtual objects made by a talented group of people by using ones and zeros on their PCs. It would have been something else if they committed sacrileges acts with the real deal in developer diaries or something just to get attention. Then they would have gone too far. That can't be said about having pages from religious books and scriptures floating or lying around in places ruined by supernatural powers and Nazis. Are you seriously going to complain about games lacking impact because they don't dive deeper into the darker sides of humanity or certain subjects while also going bananas when they do something that will upset someone? The same applies to gods and religious figures.

A few months ago, I got a press release from Rajan Zed, a well-known Hindu community activist and spokesperson, urging Sega and Atlus to stop depicting Hindu deities like Ganesha, Hanuman, Kali, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Shiva and Vishnu as demons in the Shin Megami Tensei games. He said this was sacrilege and would confuse or mislead people, so an apology seemed justified. I'm glad Mr. Zed hasn't played a Final Fantasy or many other games the last thirty years, as Shiva and other deities have been and are fairly often represented in this amazing medium and rarely in a way I think is taken straight out of holy texts. Maybe a few players might be confused by these interpretations, but there's a limit to how touchy one can be. Developers must be allowed to take some creative liberties with the overflowing of great inspiration the stories and characters in the Bible, Quran, Vedas and such offer without fearing threats and being accused of misleading people. Yes, I know that certain holy texts and characters in the east are more sacred than the Bible and Jesus are in the west these days, but I think all religions would benefit from loosening up a bit.

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Especially since including some special interpretations of them might and will lead to more interest for the source material, something that can be said about me. If it wasn't for games like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Final Fantasy X, Assassin's Creed and Herc's Adventures/Disney's Hercules, I would never have been as fascinated by or knowledgeable about the Cold War, Hinduism, a handful other religions and places in the east, and Greek mythology respectively. Maybe I'm just an outlier here, but it clearly shows that games can make us interested in learning more as well.

That's why it's such a shame that games aren't even allowed to launch before the discussions about their representation of religion start. Because Shin Megami Tensei V wasn't the first time Raja Zed sent me a statement about games. Zed also begged Naughty Dog to show Hinduism the respect it deserves a few months before Uncharted: The Lost Legacy launched in 2017, and the same when Ubisoft showed more of Beyond Good & Evil 2 a year later. Smart, as Ubisoft has never been careful about including politics and religion in its games...Oh wait! For Pete's sake. It's been fourteen years since the French company included the following message at the start of Assassin's Creed:

What's so bad about religion in games?

You can often see similar notes before movies and series, something many a lawyer has advised the companies to do in hope of minimising the risk of legal trouble, but it shouldn't be necessary. As long as we're not talking about The Passion Of The Christ, the upcoming I Am Jesus Christ or similar projects trying to be more true to their source material, being beaten over the head with the fact that what's happening is a work of fiction makes me feel dumb. For the last time, I'm mostly complaining about the reactions to situations where it makes some sense to include religious elements, as those who use them just to get headline or provoke can go screw themselves.

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Because, just like I wrote four years ago, we shouldn't stop these creative and talented game makers from creating what they want by restricting from representing something in new and different ways. Putting obstacles in their way would lead us down a very monotonous and boring path. One of the examples why The Last of Us: Part II and The Forgotten City are two of the best games the last two years is that they dared to highlight and question themes and scenarios few even dare come close to. When do games cross the line? Should we complain about how attractive and cool the characters in Hades are? How about building upon what Germany used to do by censoring or editing certain symbols? Can't an openly Christian or Jew be the hero or be killed in a game without outcry? For the love of god: Let developers have religion and minorities in their games without whining about it. Not doing so will lead to a lack of innovation and less diversity, so please don't make such a fuss about it.

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