Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Theological Gameplay

Religion isn’t a new aspect of gaming by any means. Gaming worlds often blast through ideas like faith and worship in favor of the occasional tête-à-tête with the deities that created the world.

And then we beat them up.


Less dramatically, games are happy to provide priests and paladins, whose powers come from prayer, usually in some abstract mechanics.


These tend to be far removed from the real world—either adopting generic religious terminology or building their own complex mythologies.

But every so often the real thing will show up.

Other games may have had the occasional passing reference, but I first came across the direct presence of real religious beliefs in video games while playing through Civilization IV. The series is—roughly—a historical simulation, letting the player build a society from the Stone Age to Alpha Centauri. In that context, ignoring religion would be impossible, but for the first three games, Civ kept things very broad, allowing generic “temples” and specific religious wonders of world like Notre Dame, without linking the player to a particular faith.

Civ IV changed that, adding a religious mechanic for the first time. The developers selected a collection of real-world faiths, and let the player declare their empire to be Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Taoist. But they were still cautious. It mattered if you shared a religion with a neighbor, or didn’t, but which religion had virtually no gameplay effect. Each religion let the player construct a building with a special name—stupa, mandir, academy, synagogue, cathedral, mosque, and pagoda respectively—but each had the same effect. The only actual difference was that each religion was founded by the first player to discover a given technology.

youhavefoundedtaoism.jpgIt was tiny, but it gave just a whisper of judgment to the game. Judaism came to the first nation to develop Monotheism, Confucianism came with Code of Laws, Islam with the Divine Right of Kings. None of it was particularly objectionable (although the last one is curious), but it was non-neutral. It broke a taboo. It was using religion not only as a generic game mechanic, but it was using specific religions for specific game mechanics. It was muddied with the game’s random happenstance like having Taoism founded in France or Islam in the Aztec Empire, but it was there.

It was still too much, too controversial, too discomfiting. An expansion let the player choose which religion was founded with each technology, which was repeated in Civilization V. You’d get a religious symbol and a special building depending on your choice, but the gameplay wouldn’t change.

However, other developers would take a different tack. Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy series Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis abandoned any sense of neutrality, deciding instead to make specific religious choices a focus of their games.


The Paradox games are much more faithful historical simulations than Civ. Rather than reimagining history from the ground up, these games insert the player as the head of a specific country during a specific time. Between them, they span more than a millennium from Charlemagne to Napoleon.

In that context, religion is a vital gameplay mechanic, and one which is not easily rendered generic as in Civ. After all, the Holy Roman Emperor’s particular relationship with the Pope is not matched by anything in Persia or Japan. A game called Crusader Kings will have to treat the Crusades as a unique event, rather than something any religion can do in the same manner.

But it’s not those simple, specific mechanics that give me pause. Instead, it’s the extent to which religious gameplay mechanics seem to comment on beliefs, rather than events, and make judgments based on how people of certain faiths will act. Catholic countries can seek Papal blessings for their wars, Muslims can have multiple wives, Protestants get bonus cash. You can’t play these games without accepting the Protestant Work Ethic.

That’s enough for some unease, but the game amplifies it by making religion a dynamic aspect of its story. Nations and territories not only have a particular religious identity, but can be converted. Suddenly, the player is incentivized to lead Spain away from the Catholic Church in order to cash on the fiscal benefits of Protestantism. Worse, the regular conquests of these types of games now have a missionary element. If the player leads the Russian Empire into China, the best strategy is to set up the Orthodox Church in Beijing.


Weird things can happen.

Despite the historical setting, contemporary politics seem to lurk in the shadows. Players’ in-game achievements become unavoidably political, and uncomfortably so if it’s a matter of driving Islam out of Spain or Greece, notwithstanding the relevant history. There’s more than a whiff of genocide about the whole endeavor, amplified by the usual gamer’s lack of taste: players who drive the Ottoman Empire out of Europe brag about “removing kebab.”

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There’s something off-putting about these dynamics, without any clear solution. The games are intended to model historical scenarios, and so religion is inescapable. The horrors of historical religious struggles will be modeled, and perhaps, the games prompt thought rather than hatred.They’re built to be played more than once, and different mechanics between religious countries encourages player to take on the game from all sides, and imagine worlds without a Reconquista in Spain, or with Buddhism spreading to the New World. Immersing players in historical struggles can encourage research and understanding, preventing some easy mistakes about the Crusades or the 30 Years War. Converting beliefs into mechanics is always risky, but the need to keep gameplay balanced may have a positive effect, discouraging developers and players from seeing certain beliefs as superior.

This can be improved! The games tend to imagine religion as being almost purely political, with the mechanics fading into the background. But these kinds of historical simulations are very broad otherwise: Crusader Kings simulates rulers down to their arranged marriages and the fostering of their children. Religion would permeate their personal lives, as well as the management of their empires. Religious advisers would steer players in the direction of their characters’ faith, risking popular disapproval. Trade goods like fish or wine would vary in value depending on local beliefs. Violent conversions could have greater humanitarian costs, which could be made clear to the player visually, while also having dramatic in-game effects. Above all, historical events (or fictional ones in modified worlds) could be spelled out in ever greater detail and with ongoing gameplay effects, so that the players engage with the real beliefs and experiences of various religions, rather than reducing them to a mechanic to be exploited and then clicked through. Or, as a freebie, incorporate as many Wikipedia links as possible. Curious about the Al-Aqsa Mosque you just took over? Here’s its story.

Are any other games taking this on? Anyone doing better or worse? Let me know in the comments.

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