Religious scholar Heidi Rautalahti got acquainted with console games as a child. Even though university studies put her gaming hobby on hold, postgraduate studies have led her back to gaming. The article-based thesis she is working on is currently receiving its finishing touches.
“When I planned embarking on doctoral studies in 2014, digital games were a recently introduced research area in the study of religion. In my choice I was inspired by my supervisor, University Lecturer Heikki Pesonen, who has studied popular culture and religion: there would be plenty of work to do in the field of digital games. Soon, the topic indeed started feeling personal.”
Rautalahti’s doctoral thesis examines critical views on religion in video games and as interpreted by players. She approaches games, on the one hand, from the perspective of playing and critical analysis based on theoretical discussion and, on the other, by focusing on players’ actions and experiences. Rautalahti has also contributed to establishing the Helsinki Game Research Collective.
Bad religion produces a narrative and forces decisions
According to Rautalahti, games can function as platforms for critical discussion on religion, as evidenced, for example, in a couple of her personal favourites, the BioShock and Dishonored series of games.
In BioShock, a dictator is aiming to create a realm of their own unconnected to religion and politics, where people can live as themselves. However, this aim is corrupted by the person wielding the power and turns into a cult of worship centred on them. In Dishonored, religion is mixed with thirst for power and the manipulation of citizens, resulting, among other things, in famine and class distinctions.
“Games that draw parallels between religion and the abuse of power often take a critical view of religions. This is a common trend familiar in films, television series and other popular culture. A context is provided by the history of cults in the United States and atrocities committed in the name of religion. Corrupted religion often provides choice material for stories: it threatens the feelings of safety and good memories associated with joint family celebrations and traditions. At the same time, religion can be used to convey a critical message.”
Players are often tasked with opposing religious authorities, gaining the opportunity to do good deeds and act according to a certain moral compass.
“In other words, games take a stance on what good deeds are. Usually individual liberty and decisions based on compassion are considered good. However, in games good deeds do not necessarily generate more good. Instead, the player is enticed with varying shades of grey, and their ethics are challenged. For example, when is killing acceptable? Such considerations also feature in the player interviews I conducted.”
The life-altering power of games
The Last of Us, a game that portrays an alternative history of the United States, has also made an impression on Rautalahti. In the game, two individuals try to survive in a country ravaged by a parasitic disease.
“In the process of doing my research, I found videos where players spoke of video games changing their lives. In the case of The Last of Us, it was the theme of survival that people identified with. The game helped them deal with, for example, losing a closed one, depression and questions of sexuality.”
According to Rautalahti, experiences and stories shared among players also engendered inclusivity, as those posting their views received support and validation from others. The interviews conducted by Rautalahti in 2019 supports the notion of games being a dynamic force.
“The dozen people I interviewed articulated their experiences in three ways. Firstly, they could explore existential questions about life and being through games. Secondly, games helped them process turning points in their personal lives, either by offering a point of identification or simply turning their minds to something else for a moment. This also increased their belief in making it through.”
To describe the third effect, the interviewees used the word ‘enchantment’, among others. Games offer everyday enchantment and enthralment, aesthetic experiences brought about by the game’s visual aspects, which often involve nature and landscapes.
Rautalahti's interviewees preferred to refer to significant moments experienced when playing video games as ‘big questions’ instead of using terminology associated with traditional religious language.
“This was possibly due to my interviewees identifying as agnostics, or due to the fact that religious language didn’t feel right in the context. I find it interesting to consider the narratives or modes of expression which people employ to describe important encounters in their lives, and how scholars of religion do not always study ‘religion’ either. This may say something also about contemporary beliefs and their transformation.”
Contemplating the supernatural through popular culture
Are modern people more interested in spirituality and community than in religious institutions?
“In the Nordic countries, the membership numbers of religions are decreasing. However, new religious or spiritual imagery, such as crystals, feminine mystique and angel beliefs, are given visibility in the media. I think religion in popular culture manifests interest in and closeness to religions without binding membership, which suits the fluctuating and individualistic lives of contemporary people. Popular culture also offers the opportunity to consider supernatural phenomena and use our imagination to describe them,” Rautalahti says.
This type of secularisation is evident in certain games as well. In the landscapes of The Last of Us, the player comes across churches as well. After all, they are part of the American societal imagery familiar to all. In contrast, the developer of the farming simulator Stardew Valley decided to leave churches out of the game.
“The role of the church as a location for functions and ceremonies is taken by the town hall, while the mayor is responsible for holding seasonal celebrations. In other words, the element of religion is missing, but its function, which is to bring the community together and organise parties, remains.”
However, Stardew Valley has a fictional religion, in which a handful of non-player characters not controlled by the player are involved.
“In the story, the fictional religion stands for old religion, or a ‘remnant’, which explains why some of the characters find religion uncomfortable. Certain characters shy away from the religious ones, while to some religion offers comfort and routine. The game does contain a supernatural element, and certain characters in the game are fascinated by it.”
Game design takes religions into consideration
Heidi Rautalahti is a game designer herself, contributing to the development of Runo, a game based on the Finnish national epic Kalevala and Finnish folk religion. In addition to the Kalevala, literature in the folk tradition has been used as background material.
“Religions are a sensitive subject, and you can’t criticise or portray everything without restraint. For example, it's good to acknowledge the problematics of cultural appropriation. An American Hindu activist has criticised the way in which the Indian Hanuman: Boy Warrior game portrays gods, and it would be interesting to know what kind of discussion the western developers behind Ghost of Tsushima, a game that takes place in Japan, had during the development process.”
“Runo is founded on our folklore and notions of Finnishness. In designing the game, we have considered how to handle these elements and the people who believe in them with respect. At the same time, game designers are artists who use their artistic freedom.”
Video games bring people together even in exceptional times
At times, video game players come face-to-face with prejudices.
“Finnish Lutheran society values hard work, and playing games may appear undesirable, lazy or childish. Online gaming is also associated with the harassment and slander of female players,” Rautalahti explains.
However, research points to positives. Playing video games enhances skills needed in professional life, such as abstract thinking and goal-orientedness. For example, the Finnish public broadcasting company Yle has written about the topic (in Finnish only). In the context of Finland, video game companies are significant taxpayers.
Game companies quickly seized the opportunity, as the telecommuting spring created a void in people’s hobby activities, resulting in a phenomenon known as #PlayApartTogether: games are a good way of doing things together over remote connections.
“Digital games became a part of everyday life, and related notions became increasingly positive. I personally played games with my colleagues for the first time. The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the importance of keeping in contact and creating digital spaces where people can meet, and in addition to do so through a range of narratives and characters. Research in the humanities has a lot to give to how to better understand human activity in digital environments and how to advance this field further.”