Video games and religion have long had a rocky relationship. Themes of escapism and hedonism that accompany any form of entertainment media often seem to clash with religious themes of spiritual growth, social consciousness, generosity, righteousness or worldliness. Even as games continue to take root in popular culture and grow rampantly as a global phenomenon, many religious authorities urge people to resist them.
Of course, here in Utah, we can’t discuss the influences of religion without a quick look at our state’s predominant faith. These same concerns over games and their negative influences appear again and again across discussion boards for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These posts warn against the violence, sexuality and other more mature themes in many games that the religion sees as corruptive, especially towards children.
The church recommends cautious dealings with games, but it does not condemn games in and of themselves. Elder M. Russel Ballard gave a speech in 2002 stating that “Games, sports, recreational activities and even television can be relaxing and rejuvenating, especially in times when you are under stress or heavily scheduled.” Many church members actually recommend video games as a fun family-strengthening activity. There are other issues that can emerge from a player’s relationship with gaming, however. Even with those more appropriate games, the threat of game addiction leading members of the faith astray remains. Various church members and leaders share posts telling horror stories of video game addiction and advise constant vigilance towards one’s own gaming habits.
Amidst this massive boom for the video game industry, we are watching the genres of games available grow immensely and diversify. Yet in the most widely popular video games, mature themes often saturate gameplay. Violence — in all its forms — often appears as a staple of the biggest budget games because it’s a safe formula that’s been proven to sell. Examples include the war fronts of “Battlefield” and “Call of Duty,” the historical alleyways of “Assassins Creed,” the alternate realities in “Grand Theft Auto” and “Tomb Raider,” the Battle Royale style of “Fortnite” and “Apex Legends,” and even the cartoon action of “Mario” and Disney games. All of these games have violence to some degree. Obviously, many more games exist that would be considered appropriate by the standards of these articles. Each individual follower of the church can come to their own conclusions on what sort of codes and standards they will abide by, but these posts all indicate some degree of fundamental tension between video games and religion.
Looking deeper into the intersection of religion and video games, the U presents an interesting arena in which we feel both influences acutely. On one hand, the U rests in the heart of a state where about 55 percent of the population identify as Latter-day Saints, according to the Pew Research Center. There is an LDS Institute of Religion on campus. Many of our students practice Mormonism and many even participate in Latter-day Saints Studies courses. On the other hand, our Entertainment Arts and Engineering program offers one of the top game design degrees in the nation.
Hoping to better understand how these two forces interact, I decided to interview EAE adjunct professor Alex Johnstone. Johnstone — a graduate of the U’s EAE Master program himself — designs video games and teaches EAE courses such as Traditional Game Development, Alternative Game Development and Interactive Machinima. Johnstone has had Latter-day Saint students come through his classes and has seen them succeed just like any other student. For them, religion was not an obstacle in the way of game creation. Instead, many have used their faith as a focal point for their work. Johnstone remarked, “What we each find interesting, meaningful, powerful is different for all of us. There exists some aspect of spirituality in most people and exploring this in game design isn’t significantly different than for another art form.”
In fact, Johnstone claims that games provide an excellent medium for discussions of religion and proper ways of living. He said, “Games and religion exist in closer proximity than you might expect, both seeking to provide structure and guidance for human behavior. Games are incredibly effective at teaching us a complex game world and instructing us in how to effectively operate within this world. Throughout the centuries it has been the primary goal of religion to provide meaning, justification and structure to human behavior and existence.”
As video games continue to develop and spread to cover a wider array of topics, themes and perspectives, Johnstone expects we will begin to see these heavier themes addressed in games. As we see that space grow for engaging and even “fun” discussions of faith and righteous ways of living, perhaps we will see the religions of the world begin to fully embrace the potential of video games.
This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”