Monday, June 3, 2013

Faith in fiction is hard

My blogging rate has been suffering lately because I decided to watch most of the Extra Credits video series, mostly about video game design.  I found it quite interesting, even though I hardly play any video games anymore, and have no interest in joining the game industry.  Being a typical ungrateful blogger, I will reward the show by picking out the one video I disagreed with most so I can talk about how terrible it was.

Specifically, they try to explain why video games have thus far failed to deal with themes of faith (and not just dealing with the trappings of religion).  I do not agree with their explanation.

They got so many responses to the video that they posted another video defending themselves.

I did not read the responses, but I suspect that the main reason they got so many negative responses is that they repeated some pretty standard arguments in favor of faith.  They argue that science and math also require faith, bring up the early 20th century physics revolution, and patronizingly attribute hostility towards faith as a mere reaction against bad behavior from people of faith.  This is guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction, because lots of people have already heard these arguments, and have pre-prepared counter-arguments.

But I won't get into any of these arguments (unless any readers are interested).  Rather, I wish to discuss why video games have failed to deal with issues of faith.  Extra Credits believes that it's because the gaming community is hostile towards faith.  That's only half right.

The thing is, if the gaming community were just uniformly hostile towards faith, then it would be easy for video games to explore faith by putting faith in a negative light.  And arguably video games already do this to some extent.1  The problem is that gamers are not uniform.  If the gaming community is anything like the rest of society, there are radical atheists like me, conservatively religious people, and also the entire spectrum in-between.  Some people whole-heartedly value faith, others think faith has no value whatsoever, and still others (like the people in Extra Credits) think it's a wash.  It's really hard to make a work of fiction that deals with faith themes in a way that will satisfy people in a large range.

Usually when a writer tries to deal with faith or religion, it feels like they're beating you over the head.  If a writer makes a character who values faith, and portrays any consequences this has for the character, this already telegraphs the writer's position on the matter.  If the consumer disagrees with this position, they'll feel values dissonance2. And even if the consumer agrees with the position, they may feel uncomfortable with how heavy-handed it is.3  And it doesn't help to portray faith as partly good and partly bad, because lots of us really think it's mostly good or mostly bad.

One way to get around the problem is to only portray things that we mostly agree on.  Most people think violent religious zealotry is bad, so writers can portray that negatively without problems.  We can all agree that sometimes the ways that religious and non-religious people interact is problematic.  We can all agree that particular people who are religious or non-religious may have their personal strengths and flaws.

Another way to get around the problem is to avoid portraying positive or negative consequences.  This allows the consumers to judge it however they like.  For example, I think House did this on a regular basis.  Dr. House was very much anti-faith, but some of his doctors acted as religious foils.  Whenever an episode dealt with religious themes, viewers were free to agree with Dr. House, or to agree with any of the religious characters.  It's a difficult balance, and it's hard for me to tell if they pulled it off, since I have a one-sided perspective.

It may be particularly difficult to pull this off in video games.  Consequences are everywhere in video games.  Extra Credits suggested a faith-skepticism meter (much like the good-evil meters in many games), but this wouldn't work if the meter has any consequences with respect to achieving in-game goals.  If having a faithful or a skeptical character were both valid strategies, that would harm my suspension of disbelief.  I think the way to go is to offer the player choices that don't have in-game consequences (except perhaps who your allies are).  The consequences are simply how the player feels about playing a faithful or unfaithful character.  If I recall, Mass Effect was able to do this, but it's been years since I played it.

(Further complicating matters are the fantastical settings in many video games.  In some of these universes, it may be unreasonable to be an atheist, and faith may mean something entirely different.)


1. To judge for yourself, see this Gamespot video showing lots of examples of religion in video games.
2. See TV Tropes.
3. This is why I don't like the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Though I might agree with Philip Pullman's views on religion, it felt like he was just beating up on a concept that couldn't defend itself, because the only person who could provide a defense was Pullman.


Gavin Doyle said...

I used to help admin a small internet role playing game with a fantasy D&D setting. We had a problem once with a player who decided to role play a Paladin who hunted down sexual deviants. Of course some people took offense, words were said, the whole thing dragged on for a few weeks and we lost several good players. After that we implemented religion into the game but opted for Greek myth style polytheism to avoid real life issues.

Religious folk tend to be conservative and form the bulk of the organized groups opposed to video game violence. So I would imagine game developers are weary of further antagonizing or catering for that particular demographic.

Eduard said...

Interesting topic!