Aristotle famously thought that art imitates life. As video game technology has evolved beyond depicting simple shapes and movements, its ability to represent aspects of our world has increased exponentially. Game designers, like all artists, often draw inspiration from their environment, and thus a broad range of subjects and concepts find their way into many titles. Over the years, we have seen countless games comment on music, politics, cultural norms, ethics, science, art, literature, relationships, and much much more. Not surprisingly, religion is another real life influence that can appear in video games, although its ties to the medium are arguably the most strained of the lot.
Here are five examples, ranked in no particular order, of controversial religious content in video games.
5. LittleBigPlanet and the Qur’an
In 2008, the puzzle platform game LittleBigPlanet had a delayed release after it was brought to Sony’s attention that a song licensed in the game contained spoken verses from the Qur’an. Translated from the Arabic, the verses say: “Every soul shall have the taste of death” and “All that is on earth will perish.” Admittedly, these are odd choices for a children’s game, but are they offensive enough to merit their removal?
The original notice came from a poster on the PlayStation community forums, who explained: “We Muslims consider the mixing of music and words from our Holy Quran deeply offending,” and asked that the song be removed. Sony complied and replaced the track in the game. However, some Muslims reacted against this, including The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, who criticized the censorship of the song in LittleBigPlanet. “Muslims cannot benefit from freedom of expression and religion,” the group said, “and then turn around and ask that anytime their sensibilities are offended that the freedom of others be restricted.”
The composer of the music in question, Toumani Diabaté, also considers himself a devout Muslim.
4. Brahmin in Fallout 3
One of the common inhabitants of the radiated post-apocalyptic Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 is the species of two-headed mutated cow known as Brahmin. These cuddly critters don’t do much in the game aside from grazing, transporting goods, and occasionally attacking those who disturb their peaceful existence. Yet that existence is apparently so controversial that Fallout 3 was not released on any platform in India, citing “cultural sensitivities” as the reason why.
A detailed explanation was not provided, but it has generally been assumed that the Brahmin are the culprits. There is a caste of Hindu priests and scholars in India known as the Brahmin, and the name is also similar to Brahman and Brahma in Hinduism – the former which is considered the highest or ultimate reality, and the latter being a creator god. It has additionally been speculated that the belief in the sanctity of cows in India is a further reason for why the Brahmin of Fallout could be responsible for the game’s cancellation there.
Of course, it’s difficult to know what exactly motivated the decision. Interestingly, Fallout 4 did see a release in India, with the Brahmin remaining in, and at least one complaint about their presence in the game has since been made on a gaming forum. It seems that although war never changes, concern for cultural sensitivities does.
3. The Fire Temple in Zelda
The controversy surrounding the Fire Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the earliest examples of religious controversy in a video game that I can remember hearing. Well, aside from the general outrage over violent, evil, or allegedly un-Christian games that some religious groups used to love participating in. The Fire Temple thing wasn’t just the usual “video games are corrupting the youth” nonsense. It was different and more surprising, given Nintendo’s image of being family friendly and their longstanding policy of keeping religion out of their games.
Initial copies of Ocarina of Time featured music in the Fire Temple that was changed in later versions of the game. Nintendo has openly stated that the switch was due to an Islamic prayer chant being used in the original music (listen to the differences here). While no one had yet complained, the track was replaced to stay consistent with Nintendo’s image. Allegedly, the chant was taken from a sound library, which was how it slipped under the radar.
Strangely, though, the Gerudo Symbol found on blocks, switches, and the Mirror Shield in Ocarina also looks quite like the crescent moon and star of Islam. In later releases, the design was altered drastically, but it’s pretty curious how a Muslim prayer chant and a symbol very similar to an Islamic symbol could accidentally show up in the same game.
As a matter of fact, the Zelda games have a history of religious references that goes beyond Ocarina. The first game, Legend of Zelda for the NES, famously had a dungeon designed in the shape of a manji, the Buddhist symbol of good fortune. Link’s shield bore the image of a cross as well, and the Book of Magic was even called the Bible in the Japanese version, complete with its own crucifix on the cover. Zelda II has the “Cross” as an item, which enables Link to see invisible enemies on his way through the Valley of Death. The Sanctuary in A Link to the Past is known as the Church in the Japanese original version, which makes sense of bizarre promotional artwork that shows Link praying before a cross in the place (prayer seems to likewise be how you enter the Desert Palace later in the game).
So if Link is a Christian crusader of sorts in the earliest Zelda games… how weird is it that Islam suddenly pops up in Ocarina?
2. Baptism in Bioshock Infinite
During the beginning of Bioshock Infinite, you must undergo baptism in order to progress the story. This apparently upset one player enough to prompt them to request a refund, and the religious themes in the game reportedly even bothered some of the team members who worked on it. Unlike the other games on this list, Infinite intentionally comments on real world religion, especially the sort that gets wrapped up tightly with American exceptionalism. It isn’t the main focus of the game, but with all the questions of free will, redemption, suffering, and so forth that it raises, bringing in politics and religion to the stage could almost be considered inevitable.
If religious sensibilities are why LittleBigPlanet, Ocarina of Time, and many other games have revised their content, then Infinite makes no apologies in directly confronting and challenging those sensibilities. The baptism scene at the start is not disrespectful or mocking, nor does it make light of the ritual. It plays a part in posing problems many Christians already ponder, about false prophets, going through the motions, the mundane nature of evil, the reach of salvation, and more. In some ways, the game is meant to be controversial, but what it draws attention to in the course of its beautiful tale of Booker and Elizabeth should be disturbing for plenty of reasons other than “blasphemy.”
For those interested, I have written a longer review of religion in this game, exploring more of its ideas and controversy in greater depth.
1. Hitman 2 and the Sikh Temple
The Hitman games may just be some of the worst games to look to for any kind of religious deference. I mean, we’re talking about games that simulate contracted murder, not games for kids or for generally sensitive folks. Even so, three missions in 2002’s Hitman 2: Silent Assassin caught the ire of Sikhs who argued that they bear striking similarity to the tragic massacre that took place at Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, in 1984. The level description on the game’s website (which has since been amended) spoke of an “ancient Gurdwara”, or Sikh temple, and noted that an “uprising in this region in the mid 80’s was ruthlessly cracked down on by government-issued troops, and many innocents were killed.” A number of turban-wearing Sikh assassins are your enemies in the level, referred to at one point as “towelheads” by a contact you meet early on in the Temple City Ambush mission.
Eidos responded by removing offensive material from both its website and the game, but most of the changes seem to have been cosmetic, such as censoring or altering words and images. Considering that this game was released fairly shortly after September 11th, the controversy may appear very different now, looking back almost 14 years later. Still today, American Sikhs continue to experience violence and bigotry perpetrated by ignorant individuals who mistake them for Muslim-Americans. Hitman 2 didn’t help by contributing to these misunderstandings in its depiction of Sikhs as “cult” members, assassins, and terrorists, regardless of whether the location in the missions is actually meant to be the Golden Temple.
Contra Aristotle, Oscar Wilde remarked that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Likely the concern of many who object to religious controversies is that they can provoke other, potentially more harmful forms of discrimination. There does seem to be something to this, and it’s probably one reason why most avid gamers find games like Hatred and Ethnic Cleansing abhorrent. On the other hand, censorship is almost never the best solution, not only because it limits the free expression of others, but because it can also significantly impact the attention given to something troubling.
As forms of artistic expression, video games should experiment in the provocative and controversial, and should largely be free to do so. But where we should draw the line and how we ought to respond to offensive material are also questions worth asking – ones that may be productively taken up by the various religious, political, philosophical, and social communities in our diverse world.