As I reach the halfway point of the "threescore years and ten" years that the Book of Psalms promise to let us live, it occurs to me I have spent too much of my free time thinking about religion and its role in society. I have also spent too much time playing video games. Not only that, but I can't even seem to separate church and PlayStation.
It wasn’t always like this. Many years ago, I wore out my thumbs on the Atari 2600, the NES and the Sega Genesis, leading Pac Man away from evil ghosts. My mind went numb as I defeated such fierce heavyweights as King Hippo. Videogames served as a comforting stress reliever after a trying day in junior high, but that was all.
While not up to Caravaggio’s dramatic standards, my road to Damascus went through a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when my older brother dropped off a PlayStation along with a few games one day. While some of them remained good ways to relieve stress as they were in my tween years, others had a knack for sophisticated character development, plot and subplot.
For a few months, I spent inordinate amounts of time playing epic Role Playing Games (RPGs) on the PlayStation. I spent more time thinking about Final Fantasy VII than I did the political campaigns where I was volunteering or my profession. When my girlfriend told me she wanted to take night classes to complete her MA, I encouraged her so I could spend time with the other woman in my life, one Lara Croft.
While I enjoyed the political intrigue infused in a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, I found the subplot of a corrupt church, a hollow gospel and a fake messiah a bit disturbing. This was tame compared to Xenogears in which myriad oblique references to the Book of Genesis and Freud culminate in a player killing God to liberate man by game's end. Think Philip Pullman with a bunch of giant battling robots.
There is something off-putting about Japanese video games subtly attacking the Western religious tradition. I don’t think manufacturers are deliberately seeking to undermine faith in American society, but there does seem to be an anti-religious pattern in RPGs.
If video games plots were as facile as they used to be, the anti-church plots would not be as much a concern. But RPGs have well-crafted story lines and a host of heroic characters all wrapped up in wonderful graphics and engaging music that dopes the child into a fantastical stupor in which ideology is right around the corner. But if we are looking for a balance of faith in the video game world, it would probably not be productive for Christians to create their own video games. After all, as blogger Bill Barnwell points out, the majority of Christianity’s forays into pop culture have been dreadful failures. Maybe with the exception of The Passion of the Christ.
The takeaway is that video games are as much a part of the religious debate in the public square--and acutely so for younger players who are not critical thinkers--as mega-churches, abortion debates, and the Rick Warrens of the world. It’s time to take final fantasies seriously and consider how they form our perceptions of God, faith and creed.