Preface: I am a hobbyist scholar of history, civilization, and theology. In the past, I have fully read the texts of The Bible (Torah, Gospel), the translation of Qur’an, and the Tao-Te Ching along with numerous other Eastern religious texts. I am currently still on my path of finding my faith.
A couple weeks ago I went to the best video game launch party ever. This wasn’t because the party offered free drinks or had famous live DJs. Actually, it was quite the opposite. The launch party was filled with families from churches and kids who were in line to make pancakes together, honoring loss and the creation of a beautiful piece of art. I approached the host, Ryan Green, and said to him, “this has got to be the most family-oriented video game party I’ve ever seen!” He smiled and replied, “yeah, it’s not your typical group.”
After the party, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “what made this party such an extraordinarily warm experience for me?” It wasn’t until days later when I finished the game that I finally made the connection.
It’s the comfort of religious values.
That Dragon, Cancer is a meaningful artistic video game based on Ryan and his family’s experience of raising Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months old. Although given only 4 months to live, Joel continued to live 4 more years before eventually succumbing to the cancer in March of 2014. The game was released on January 12, 2016, on what would have been Joel’s 7th birthday.
(In Memoriam: Joel Green. Game Developer Choice Awards 2015)
What stood out to me about the game was the raw nature of the family’s struggles with cancer, and more importantly, their struggles with faith. The game does not take faith lightly. In the game, Ryan consistently quotes from The Bible and explains his inner demons in dealing with Joel through these passages. I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up multiple times while playing, most notably when Ryan shared his thoughts to the audience during the meeting with the doctor, and when Amy and Ryan had their argument on the water while Ryan was drowning. Although we’ve been friends for years, I’ve never really “known” his family until I finished the game. The game itself was fearless in spreading the truth of their family, a family deeply rooted in a foundation of religion and faith.
Why has religion always been so frowned upon in video games?
Since the early 1980’s, companies like Nintendo of America had always worked hard to censor their games. Examples include changing “pubs” to “cafes” in Final Fantasy and Christian crosses to printing of “RIP” on coffins in Duck Tales. This established a strong precedent for the game industry in designing games to circumvent any religious motifs. As time went on, other banned themes such as sex, violence, and alcohol eventually crept back into popular game design, creating the controversial topics that consistently make headlines today.
(Left: Duck Tales for Famicom JP. Right: Duck Tales for NES USA).
However, due to the liberal-leaning nature of the game industry, the topic of religion never quite made a comeback. Most people within our industry inherently associate religious belief with false predispositions such as close-mindedness, lack of belief in science, or even hatred towards others.
Truth is, all of us, including atheists, live on fundamental values that originally stemmed in conjunction with historically religious teachings. This includes values that get us to take action towards higher self-esteem, treat others with kindness, contribute to our society, or continue the search for the greater truth. Religion has played such a critical part in history, its values have already been deeply ingrained into our daily lives. It’s both silly and naive to think that faith does not belong in the media we consume.
It is critical that instead of blind rejection, we must embrace those who share their faith with us. Their faith is what makes them real, it’s what makes their art unique. That Dragon, Cancer was beautiful not only for its amazing art, music, and story, but because it was true to its values. Without understanding the complexity of Ryan’s faith, there would be no story, and the art would have become meaningless.
What if people use video games to try to push Christianity/Islam/(insert fear of particular group of people) onto me?
Why not let them?
The very nature of being open-minded is to surround yourself with foreign ideas. This can be a new scientific finding, a new philosophical thought, a new culture, or a new sector of belief.
The best example of this would be Booker Prize winner Yann Martel for his novel Life of Pi. In the book lives a boy who has lost everything but continues to hold on to his life and his faith, or more specifically, his faiths. The boy is deeply ingrained in and practices multiple religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. I’ve never learned more about religion, culture, and open-mindedness in a singular emotional piece of art.
Another great example is a video game currently in production 1979 Revolution by iNK Stories. The game puts the player in the middle of the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a photojournalist where all the choices in the game are based on factual historical events.
Lastly, on the other end of the spectrum, let’s not forget the iconic game by Edmund McMillen, The Binding of Isaac. It’s an amazing rogue-like game that shows the nature of terrifying religious fundamentals, criticizing it through satirical themes and art styles. The game gained a massive following despite having extremely antagonistic opinions on American Christianity.
Stories like these, alongside That Dragon, Cancer, would never be told if the developers tried to avoid religion. The religious value of their culture is what generates meaning from the experience. It’s critical for us to embrace topics that may be foreign to ourselves and seek our own meaning. Just like how a launch party opened up a completely new chapter for me in how I seek value in games, so might a bold game about someone’s faith open up new paths for you in the future.
- That Dragon, Cancer Website: http://www.thatdragoncancer.com/
- Polygon – That Dragon, Cancer Review: http://www.polygon.com/2016/1/11/10739756/that-dragon-cancer
- The Escapist – A Look At The Religious Censorship in Nintendo of America’s Games: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/15045-Nintendo-of-America-Used-Religious-Censorship-to-Avoid-Controver.2
- 1979 Revolution – Video Game Website: http://inkstories.com/1979RevolutionGame/
- Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_of_Pi
- The Binding of Isaac (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Binding_of_Isaac_(video_game)