Faith in games

The Penny Arcade website presents a show called Extra Credits, which is about the construction and analysis of video games. While this show was off to a strong start, later episodes have lost the initial qualities now the creators have had to delve into topics on which they can hardly be called experts. The Christmas 2012 episode, on Faith in Games, is a low point of their careers. I am not going to list all the faults of this episode, as many of the commenters manage to pinpoint its inaccuracies adequately (especially concerning the origins of science, scientific progress, the comparisons of science and religion, and the out-of-context quoting of Einstein). Instead, I want to knock down the whole premise of this episode, which is “while video games deal with the lore and mechanics of religion, they do not explore the heart of religion, which is faith.”

What is faith? Faith is the conviction that something is the truth despite a lack of evidence. Religious faith is the belief in a deity without any objective proof that that deity actually exists. The key word here is “objective” — “Faith” is inherently a subjective principle, as the belief which it supports cannot be transferred to others by objective means. I will not further explore what my ideas on beliefs in real life are, as it is not the topic under discussion, and I already wrote an extensive dialogue about it elsewhere. I want to discuss whether or not the concept of faith is found in video games.

From my perspective, faith is actually a very common concept in games. It is one of the basic driving forces behind a great chunk of all games’ story lines. Do you remember this story? For centuries the country has suffered under the tyranny of its rulers. The people live in poverty and fear. But the old prophecies speak of a hero from far-away lands, who will free the country of its oppressors. You are that hero.

I do not know which game that reminds you of, but there are many for which this is the basic premise. A land in need. Old prophecies that predict the coming of a savior. The player fulfilling the hero’s role. Usually in this story line the player explores the country, fights evil forces, meets adversity, and acquires new and advanced powers which allow him to fulfill his destiny. You can make some obvious comparisons with the New Testament, but apart from the prophecies such a story line more or less copies the standardized Hero’s Journey, which is at the core of 80% of all stories told.

Where is the concept of “faith” in all these stories? It is in the prophecies. They are really common in such games — either in the form of books, scrolls, a priest class, or mystic sages that guide the hero on his quest. Game developers need a way to progress the story, and usually that is by something like “to defeat the dragon, you need the sword of Whatchammacallit, which is hidden deep in the dungeon of Sumthingorother.” How does the player know that the sword is there? Because it is in the “sacred books,” or the “wise mystic” told him. Really, most of the time, that is the driving force behind games.

And the player believes the old books and mystic sages. Why? One reason is that he has no choice: the game does not allow him to say “You know what, forget about gathering the Seven Orbs of InsertNameHere, I will just attack the castle with my bare hands.” The most important reason, however, is that it is a premise of all these games that the prophecies in them are meant to represent truth. They are just a cheap storytelling device to impart upon the player a sense of destiny and some knowledge that nobody within the game could have.

So, from a meta-gaming perspective, the player knows that the prophecies are true within the confines of the game. This means that the player’s character rightfully has faith in such prophecies. The player knows that the deities that created these prophecies — the game developers — do exist. Within the confines of the game world, the hero character may not know this truth. But he has no mind of his own. The game can hardly require the player to forget about this meta-gaming knowledge while controlling the hero’s actions.

This is how faith is found in many games: knowledge, imparted by old books or revelations, which the hero is supposed to accept as truth, only because of the “mystic origins” of this knowledge. And the hero readily places his trust in this knowledge, because his controller — the player — is convinced that the knowledge represents clues on how to continue the game. This conviction arises from the implicit understanding that the game developers want him to accept this knowledge in the game as truth.

Granted, while very common, this is not an interesting incarnation of faith in games. Faith becomes interesting when it leads to conflicts, doubts, and uncertainty. How can such interesting aspects of faith be implemented in games? They cannot readily be part of the personal player experience, as the player has all this meta-gaming knowledge that cannot easily be removed from the in-game hero’s actions.

One way would be to observe the evolution of faith in others. Quite a few games do this: we may observe characters choosing actions based on faith, or losing faith when the player shows them the light. Usually, such implementations of faith are not very interesting. They could easily be replaced by any other driving force, like a lust for revenge, a need to protect a family, the adherence to a code, or simple curiosity and a need for exploration.

It would be much more interesting to let the player interactively experience faith. And actually, as interactivity is the only advantage that games have over other art forms, if a game desires to convey some insight into faith, interactive experience is how it should try to do it. Very few games manage to do this. A major example is found in the game Planescape: Torment, in which the character Dak’kon has a strong belief in the mystic knowledge imparted by the Circle of Zerthimon. He can teach the player about the circle, and the player is quite willing to accept the mystic origins of the circle as by exploring it, he can gain new powers. (Slight spoiler follows until the end of the paragraph) Interestingly, later in the game the player may find out that the circle was actually constructed by a previous incarnation of himself, with the sole purpose to bind Dak’kon in servitude to himself unto death. Thus, Dak’kon’s faith was actually misplaced — and consequently, the player who followed him in this also had his faith misplaced.

Now, few players will view the lessons in faith that Planescape: Torment brings as more than just storytelling. But it is definitely possible to see them as a commentary on faith in real life. I would welcome more games that dare to diverge from the beaten path in this regard. I have envisioned a game in which the player who follows the mystic insights that the game brings is actually led to his doom, while the player who decides to dump all the visions of those mystics by the wayside finds victory in the end. However, without the game actually telling the player that he should ignore the mystics, this would be seen by players as cheating — the basic tenets of storytelling in games require mystics to speak truth.

In short, while many games are drenched in faith, almost all implementations of it are really simplistic, as the player has no need to doubt the in-game truth behind them. There is no need to ask the question “But what if faith in these prophecies is misplaced?” As such, faith as used in most games is just not interesting. Perhaps that is why the Extra Credits crew did not even recognize it.

Addendum (January 20, 2013): The Extra Credits team posted a video response to the reactions they got in the comments section as their next episode. By Jove, don’t these people realize how condescending and sometimes even insulting they are? They are blatantly redefining what they mean with the term “faith” (and getting it wrong once again), and tell their audience that if you did not get it the first time it was entirely your fault as you were not smart enough to grasp their clever misdirections. I will not delve deeper into this, as, again, there are plenty of discussions in the comments that do that sufficiently well. In the end, I can only conclude that either the Extra Credit team does now know the difference between an axiom and faith, or has no idea of what the scientific method entails. I expect the answer is “both.”

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