Gods of Power and Might: What Civilization V Gets Right (and Wrong) About Christianity
Games rarely address the subject of religion, but when they do, it's almost always connected to a power struggle, even when entire nations aren't at play. In fact, in most other games, religion is represented in a game's villains. The Assassin's Creed series introduces an entire web of conspiracy against the common people that goes all the way up to the Pope. Dead Space offers up the shadowy Unitologists, whose beliefs and traditions are mysterious and seemingly insidious. Even the more personal independent offering, The Binding of Isaac offered up the Christian religion as the ideology that pushes poor Isaac's mother over the edge, causing her to unleash all sorts of abuse on her son in the name of God.
None of these portrayals are exactly unfair—religion, when misused for the sake of attaining power can be downright villainous. Civilizationat least gives religion a positive spin, allowing faith to be a commodity that improves a nation rather than a liability. Still, there is a significant dearth of religious portrayals in videogames that represent the heart of true religion: meekness.
There's a reason for that. Meekness operates on of the assumption that the first will be last. It eschews self-interest for self-sacrifice. It simply isn't compatible with any game where winning matters most—which is, of course, most games. Whether religion plays an antagonistic or heroic role, striving for first place is simply not the primary function of Christianity. Trying to live out Christian meekness in almost any traditional game will result in an incredibly short play session and a rapidly-displayed game over screen.
But that's changing. As videogames mature and grow past the typical mechanics and begin to explore other possibilities, winning becomes a secondary aspect of digital play. Even now a number of games have risen to the top that have exploration and experimentation rather than earning points or defeating enemies as their focal point. In Minecraft, players explore an infinitely expansive land, gathering resources and building creative structures. Last year's Skyrim was extremely popular, not because of the challenge it provided its players, but because of the stories the players were able to live out through their on-screen characters. This year, the accessible and critically acclaimed Journey exhilarated players by allowing them to bump into actual human strangers in the midst of an epic pilgrimage.
Journey in particular may provide the best model for meekness exhibited through digital play. A traveler often sees another anonymous traveler out in the distance, and at that point the game leaves the response up to each player. It's possible to leave the other player behind, but the game offers no incentive to do so. Instead, what makes the game interesting are those moments that come when players help one another. If one player is stuck, the other patiently demonstrates how to proceed. If players seem to have different ideas of which way to go, they have the opportunity to compromise. Journey doesn't force you to love your neighbor, but it goes out of the way to encourage it, not with points or a sense of achievement, but with a fuller experience and a sense of deep satisfaction.
Civilization provides a bird's eye view of the role of religion in world history, and provides enough nuance that it doesn't paint an unfair picture of what it's attempting to portray. But demonstrating true religion in games requires zooming in closer to the individuals who believe. Christianity isn't as well represented when it's founded in Moscow as it is when we see its citizens living it out.