#1 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

I posted on this topic many months ago, but became busy working on my dissertation and let the idea slip by the wayside. But after chatting with MattBodega and EpicSteve while in line to play Transistor (which was great, by the way) at PAX East, Steve convinced/demanded me to finally make this project a reality.

The short story is I am finishing a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology and my focus is the intersection of science and religion. I am also an expert on religious pluralism. I have run across academic articles from scientists, philosophers, and theologians engaging video games in different ways. This made me wonder what themes related to my own work I could find in the games I play and whether a given game could deepen existing understandings of a given philosophical or theological theme. It is also a good excuse to practice my writing while engaging my beloved leisure activity.

So biweekly I will be writing long-form essays (not 20 page papers, but probably between 1,000 and 2,000 words) on science, philosophy, theology, and games. I am going to start with two posts introducing what academics have already done by distilling the information in some journal articles for those not in the field. That will transition to the first game/franchise I will handle, Deus Ex, since it repeatedly comes up in academic articles and was requested in the old thread on this topic. The lineup after that will be as follows:

  • Final Fantasy X - Death of God theology and the inherent flaws in all God concepts
  • Bastion - Eschatology and hope in the face of social evil and natural doom (like the heat death of the universe)
  • BioShock Infinite - Political philosophy and religion in the public sphere, focusing on religious pluralism and how differences can or cannot coexist

After that, I want suggestions! I will be drawing from my older post on this topic, but hopefully new people will be reading this and have new ideas. Tell me what games, franchises, or general topics interest you. Hopefully the conversations on each post will generate ideas for what to write about next. Also, while engaging serious topics, I hope this will be fun and interesting for anyone. That being said, if any of these seem interesting enough and with the help of everyone who comments, I hope to turn some of these posts into articles I will publish.

So follow me if this sounds interesting and look for my blog to be updated with my first post about this business sometime Sunday night or Monday!

P.S. My avatar image is when Paul Tillich (theologian at the heart of my dissertation and GiantBomb namesake) met Albert Einstein, because science and religion.

#2 Edited by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

In addition to suggestions for games and themes I could write about, please let me know why you do or do not find this idea interesting. And nothing about this is set in stone, obviously, so I welcome comments that want to take this idea of mine in a direction I did not mention.

#3 Edited by Brodehouse (9760 posts) -

I like science and video games! I like anthropology so I suppose that covers theology. And philosophy is ... a thing someone can be into. I suppose. Philosophy. LET ME TELL YOU A TH- okay I'll calm down.

I'll think on it more, but off the top of my head one of the more interesting takes on religion and society I've seen in games is the as-of-yet unreleased Project Eternity. In a fantasy universe where there are many gods, who not only exist but are intrinsically active. The lore for the game speaks of the relation between deities and worshipper as a kind of quantum reciprocity; the gods bequeath their power into their supplicants and worshippers, while at the same time receive their astral power from the prayers themselves. A powerful god is a popular god, a dead one is one who has been forgotten first. It almost casts deities as supernatural politicians, campaigning for votes in exchange for benefits.

More on the philosophy angle, Silent Hill 2 and 3 could be explored along the lines of Cartesian doubt. Both games make it a point to suggest to the player that they might not be seeing real events, but at the same time does not heavily suggest the player character's sanity being an issue. Rather than the Spec Ops example, where your senses momentarily suggest impossible or questionable reality and then quickly establish 'real' reality to inform of your worsening mental state, Silent Hill 2 and 3 really leans in no direction or the other. Returning to an area where you fought a hostile creature, you see blood and police tape... but there are no signs of police and nothing to suggest this is 'real' reality. Regarding the hostile creatures, an inveterate manipulator asks the player character "Monsters? They look like monsters to you? *laughs* I'm just kidding!" There is no way to know whether or not he's telling the truth or not, and no 'real' reality to counterpoint 'impossible' reality. In many cases, even what pauses for a naturalistic perspective remains extremely implausible. It suggests not that the player characters are crazy, but it's the world itself that is crazy.

Keep in mind I'm an avowed rationalist and empiricist, so Cartesian doubt and the postmodern nonsense it spawned angers me to my core. And yet I love Silent Hill 2 and 3.

#4 Edited by MildMolasses (3218 posts) -


I like the idea (as a person with a largely useless degree in religion, its nice to see topics like this come up), however I'm not convinced the religious extremism in Bioshock Infinite can be extrapolated on (especially in regards to pluralism) as I find it to be such a red herring to distract from the nature of what is really going on but I suppose that is a matter of debate, in which case I look forward to seeing what you have to say about it

#5 Edited by MildMolasses (3218 posts) -

Rather than the Spec Ops example, where your senses momentarily suggest impossible or questionable reality and then quickly establish 'real' reality to inform of your worsening mental state,

There's a certain interpretation about that game (from the writer himself) that would actually make that a great game to examine from a theological perspective

#6 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@brodehouse: I'm an empiricist, though that means something more broad to me and those I have learned from than what most people think of the word thanks to popular but shallow science writers like Dawkins. The heart of what I do follows American Pragmatism, especially Charles Sanders Peirce, if that school of thought or name sound familiar.

@mildmolasses: I've heard the Spec Ops writer on several podcasts. Do you have a specific interview he gave or article he wrote in mind? I'd like to engage his interpretation.

#7 Edited by MildMolasses (3218 posts) -

@paul_tillich: There's this article from IGN and this podcast from Gamespot that Jeff was also on. Specifically it's his interpretation that the helicopter crash kills Walker and he is creating his own hell in death

#8 Edited by Laiv162560asse (487 posts) -

Planescape is worth looking at due to the way it hybridises the many-worlds theory of the universe with the classical notion of Heaven, Hell and the material world. In the universe of Planescape, you have different planes of existence such as the 'Prime Material' plane which houses all the different worlds inhabited by standard living creatures. Then the 'Outer Planes' contain worlds that correspond to the alignment of those that live within them, things like angels, deities and demons. In such a manner, belief shapes the nature of the universe.

The nature of the planes and the philosophical implications for their inhabitants are kind of fascinating. It's a very philosophy-heavy game. If you're looking to dive into the game and get a quick overview of how its universe works, there's a guy in the Smoldering Corpse bar who has reams of dialogue which serves purely to illustrate.

#9 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@laivasse: I have that game and never finished it despite enjoying what I did play. I suppose this is a good excuse to jump back in. Its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera, looks interesting. It has over $3 million on kickstarter already.

#10 Posted by Laiv162560asse (487 posts) -

@paul_tillich: I'm excited to see how the new Torment game shapes up, but my understanding is it won't be set in the same universe as Planescape.

#11 Posted by Slag (4221 posts) -


Final Fantasy tactics had some heavy religious themes if memory serves, mainly involving a demonic takeover over religious organization

and as others have said Xenogears.

It's also not strictly game related,but the Trasnformers universe has some pretty weird conflicting ideas about their in universe creation myth.

#12 Posted by Brodehouse (9760 posts) -

Well Dawkins is more a rationalist than an empiricist, more about ethos than philosophy. More interested in reason and reality based evidence as a tool for knowledge and understanding than in disposing 'meaning' a la empiricists. And no, sorry I dont know American Pragmatism. I'm far more into the science and anthropolgy portions of intellecual life than I am philosophy. Hopefully it's not a spinoff of either positivism or any kind of structuralist thing. I find structural and post-structural and yada yada to be far too much navel gazing to stomach.

Spoilers for Spec Ops follows

Regarding the interview, the only big revelations I remember is that Walker is actually dead, he dies in the helicopter crash shown at the beginning. What follows after that is a dying dream, like Jacob's Ladder. Unless there's some other actual theological reference... It is about a man on a crusade in the desert.

#13 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@brodehouse: American Pragmatism is a direct rejection of logical positivism and developed in close dialogue with the sciences. William James was both a philosopher and scientist, for example. It is gaining some popularity as an alternative to the failure that is analytic philosophy. My notion of empiricism is not one that "disposes of meaning" but one with a broad concept of valid experiences open to reflection.

#14 Edited by Aurelito (721 posts) -

Not trying to derail the thread, but Spec Ops is probably the most retarded game ever released. 'Arabs' in this game speak Persian. One idiot might not even know the difference (because he's an idiot of course) but any idiot can understand, Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic Semitic language. Persian is an Indo-European Iranic language. They are as related as banana is related to avocado. Ergo, I doubt people who made this game are really that smart to add religious undertone to their games.

Anyways, every time I think of religion in games I wonder why there hasn't been any game based on Abrahamic religions (except that laughable fiasco for Genesis). I know there's a lot of sensitivity over Abrahamic religions. One's an ethnicity, one's a hierarchical shitfest and one has a lot of violent followers who would burn their own children to protest if such game was made. However, Semitic/Abrahamic religion mythology is filled with blood, and they could make a damn nice game.

#15 Posted by indieslaw (337 posts) -

Maybe a look at Black and White from a Leviticus POV? That's where most of the wrath of the Old Testament lies, doesn't it?

#16 Edited by TangoUp (307 posts) -

I think Mordin's loyalty mission does it best in ME2. Especially when Shepard and Mordin are having this huge convo upon discovering a dead female Krogan in Tuchanka.

And besides it is best to leave alone all real world religions that still have a following because many publishers have set dangerous precedents already by bowing to pressure and altering games (LittleBigPlanet and MW2). If I'm following some other religion and see it being trashed while these two games get altered for spurious reasons, then I am going to feel insulted.

#17 Edited by believer258 (11771 posts) -

Xenosaga talks about these topics a whole lot, from what I understand.

#18 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@aurelito: @mattbodega (Kessler, tagged you hoping you will elaborate on your question so I can turn it into a post) made a similar point while we were waiting in the Transistor line and Steve was demanding I make this idea a reality. I was asked why there is more religion in games from Japanese developers. My initial thought is that the mythic nature of popular religion has been reintegrated into secular society in Japan. That is, everyone is "religious" in that they don't believe in religious claims but still integrate religious rituals into daily life for various reasons. There is such a strong divide between popular atheists and religious fundamentalists in the U.S., with little to no reporting on what lies between, that such games would anger everyone represented in the headlines. Loud atheists would bemoan a game treating something as "stupid" as religion seriously, and the religious right would not be able to detach popular mythology from deeper constructive theological positions and would thus take such treatment as an outright attack.

It would be fascinating to see, though. Publishers deal in general opinion, as my comments here have. It would be neat if the U.S. market saw such a game and dealt with it well.

#19 Posted by Brodehouse (9760 posts) -

@paul_tillich: I am one of those loud atheists, and yet I have absolutely no problem with the inclusion of religion in games provided it exists in one of two forms; the anthropological/cultural method, of how religious mythology and moral prescription and proscription changes how cultures work... or the purely fantastic, supernatural version where gods are real and has little to do with verisimilitude.

For the former, Dragon Age actually works extremely well. There are different religions in the world, with various creation myths, various explanations for the elements of the world they do not truly understand (such as magic), and different ways that they have shaped their cultures. Even in such a world that magic exists, there exist both theological and rational ways of looking at why it exists or how it works. A major character in the first game is simultaneously an atheist and a mage, who denies the existence of a Maker and who believes magic exists because it does and works by the process with which it works. Even then, the anthropological ends are interesting to see how various beliefs shaped cultures (and vice versa). The Andrastians abide by what we recognize as the Abrahamic model of an infinitely just and benevolent monotheistic god who suffers the actions of a corrupt and sinful people, while the Dalish's old gods resemble something closer to pagan beliefs; polytheistic gods who care little for the moral wellbeing of the people and exist to either protect or prey upon them. Still further the old Tevinters worshipped those with magical power in cults of personality becoming of sungods, pharoahs or emperors... the dwarves have a form of ancestor worship more resembling of Eastern schools of thought. This reflects in the way they ethically respond, the Andrastians pray to strength their personal moral codes while we recognize that the Dalish are in fact praying for bad luck to pass them by (personified by the Dread Wolf Fen'Harel).

Where this becomes questionable for me is the qunari; while it's a pretty clear counterpart to Islam and their invasions reflect the Moorish incursion, it has both the book and the prophet, it completely lacks the supernatural qualities you'd expect to appear. It's less a religion and more an incredibly strict version of collectivism, which would place it 400-500 years ahead of the rest of its contemporaries. In that, I like its existence as one of those historical What-Ifs you can play on reddit, but at the same time I can't help but feel that it's out of place for a global culture that still remains heavily ignorant and superstitious. I would hold that proto-collectivist theories only came about because technology and rationalism gave it the foundation it needed to propagate, and that in a world in which most people struggled against the environment, life was short and blood was cheap, it wouldn't take hold.

#20 Posted by MildMolasses (3218 posts) -

@brodehouse: That spec-ops bit is what I'm referring to, but the theological aspect is the idea of Hell as punishment for sins

#21 Edited by Kaibar (82 posts) -

@paul_tillich: I remember your original thread, and as a philosophy major would love to see you write about some of this stuff. Since Peirce's pragmatism is all about 'ideal scientific conditions', if I remember correctly, anything that shows how science can go wrong could potentially be interesting. Like the original Bioshock or similar dystopian games.

Also, as a fan of Davidson, please don't call analytic philosophy a failure :( It's no more a failure than classical pragmatism, in that it evolved into something much different from its origin. For example, you can't really compare modern pragmatists like Brandom or Rorty to James or Peirce, I think.

Also, shameless plug for my blog where I discussed Philosophy in video games: (I think it was even inspired by your original topic :D)


#22 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@kaibar: Sure, I mean failure in the best way, if that makes sense. Analytic philosophers in the tradition of logical positivism aim to be a science like physics, and in that sense surely have A LOT of work ahead of them. But in terms of promoting clear thinking and promoting logic in general, there has been progress. You can see my bias, though. I prefer thinking that can weigh facts, opinions, etc now and choose the best option for future progress. It may be wrong, but hopefully lead in the right direction. Which leads me to your mention of Peirce.

It is not ideal conditions, but an ideal community which motivated Peirce. In other words, he believed if we all worked hard to develop the best method for thinking philosophically we would reach genuine truth in the long run. He was fallible about all his claims and regularly wrote anyone should be ready to drop a belief at the drop of a hat. But, with the right method joined with willingness to discard ideas proven wrong, a community of people committed to that kind of philosophy can really figure some things out. The problem with Peirce, though he has some resources he never used himself, if that he undervalued unique individual experiences.

I'm thrilled you know Peirce.

#23 Edited by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

Oh shit. I missed the part where you wanted suggestions. How about 999 and the prisoner's dilemma (and all that entails)? Or maybe religious imagery in Fire Emblem (EG for all the crap Seisen no Keifu throws at religion, the game still has some important uses for it)? Maybe I'm out of my element in recommending stuff like this.

#24 Edited by Branthog (7458 posts) -

So, really, science and magic - but with a more socially acceptable name for it. I have to be frank, religion in anything is the easiest way to put me off of it. Less so when it's either entirely invented or when it's done in a clearly mythological way, though.

I would love to see more science in games, however. Unfortunately, it's usually treated the same way JJ Abrams ruins everything with his pseudo-science/religion bullshit. You know, starts out with a great concept. Has some great ideas. Devolves into a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.

It's interesting how oblivious I am to most religious connotations and contexts in games, simply because I don't give even the slightest of fucks about religion. As a result, I think I enjoy a lot of games that I might otherwise feel a bit put off by (I'm not one of those atheists who feels I have to immerse myself in religion to reassure myself that I don't believe in what I don't believe in). I mean, other than games where we're talking about religion presented in a mythological context or where it's just a "fill in the blanks" component of an RPG, where religion has to play a part in society the same way it does in societies in the real world.

I would actually be interested to know how much thought, in these fantasy worlds, is actually put into the religions. I usually get the feeling that the game designers and writers just sit around a table and punch out a bunch of random silliness -- often just correlating with things in known religions or mythologies to draw off of, but with made up names -- and then move on to the meat of the game, that they actually care about.

Anyway, yeah -- if you want to do a series that is something more than the typical "I'm 21 and I just took a philosophy class, so let me enlighten everyone" crap you usually find, I think more than a few of us would gladly follow along. Just remember that you might have to put in some context for the heathens among us or we might be totally lost. :)

#25 Posted by BigBoss1911 (2426 posts) -

This whole scene.

#26 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

@branthog said:

Just remember that you might have to put in some context for the heathens among us or we might be totally lost. :)

Have you seen how many people play SMT games on this site? I don't think a lot of people will be kept in the dark on this type of thing.

#27 Posted by Kaibar (82 posts) -

@paul_tillich: Thanks for clearing that up! I really only know Peirce through Rorty, and although I love his writings, he does have a tendency to misrepresent the people who influenced him. The ideal community theory is actually something that I feel like is echoed a lot in modern moral philosophy, e.g. in Habermaß' ethics of discourse.

Back on topic, after thinking about it, I feel like writing about a single videogame might actually not be the best way to discuss philosophy in them. It's like interpreting a book or a movie, there's not that much room to ascribe actual scientific theorems to it. The better alternative might be to take videogames, or a genre, as a whole and discuss the direction it's taking as a piece of culture that's becoming more and more important. I don't know much about theological theories, but an interesting topic could be how different religious cultures produce different kind of games. You already mentioned Japanese development, and I would agree that the way they treat religious imagery in games is probably due to Japanese popular religion being open to a lot of different ideas, thus not taking offense as much as western societies.

There's also the obvious connection between moral values and religious backgrounds, so maybe a critical essay on how that influences the 'goals' in videogames could be interesting.

#28 Posted by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@kaibar: There is a lot of writing about the huge gap separating classical pragmatists on modern neo-pragmatists. They are almost two different schools than one continuous group. Almost. You are right about the ideal community. For instance, Rorty turns in into an ideal discourse about existing social practices - moving it from a goal in science and reality as in Peirce into language and practice.

I'll think about your suggestion. There is no reason this has to be solely about treating one game at a time. That was just an easy place to start and I had some games to say strong things about. In fact, I suspect most posts will treat genres, multiple games, or themes at a general level. I already plan on dealing with min-maxing in RPGs and similar talk in genetics now that certain traits can be selected in zygotes.

@brodehouse had a good general idea, though I'm probably taking it in a slightly different direction. A lot of writing in what is called the Cognitive Sciences of Religion or the Bio-cultural Study of Religion (basically using neuroscience, evolution, psychology, and philosophy of these sciences to understand religion) concerns the origins of religious beliefs. The Dragon Age example and the Qunari people nicely illustrate what is becoming consensus among many scientists: group solidarity gave early humans a competitive advantage over those with only loose social ties. Religious beliefs then can later and tied some groups together even more (follow our group's rules or the invisible being with infinite power will punish you, as one easy example). But then those beliefs can become like dinosaurs as societies keep changing, except, unlike the dinosaurs, the beliefs still remain. I will probably write about this issue, but more general topics take more planning if they are to be treated adequately.

#29 Edited by theoreticalpunch (7 posts) -

I'd definitely be interested in reading what you have to say, Paul_Tillich. Its been a while since I've played Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss, but if I recall correctly, I think those games might have had some interesting things to look at, as far as religion and science goes. Or perhaps they only seemed that way to an ignoramus like me.

#30 Edited by Paul_Tillich (171 posts) -

@branthog: I'm not here to necessarily take a pro-religion perspective, as should be evident in my previous mention of some very critical science work. Theology can be very critical of religions as well. My dissertation advisor debated Daniel Dennett and I wrote about it, if you want an example of what I mean. Someone like yourself is also the kind of person I had in mind when thinking about doing this. I do popular writing for papers and online journals sometimes and explaining context and introducing concepts for those who are completely unaware of an issue is crucial. At the same time, I'm hoping to provide more information than many popular outlets. Your "I just took a college class" example is unfortunately too reflective of what most people know about religion, philosophy, and even science. I think that is due to a lack of information being presented, not lack of interest, though. Hopefully I can live up to your expectations.