In video games stories, violence is motivated by greed, family, survival and yes, religion.
In the fictional world of Mass Effect 2, the assassin strikes with both grace and extraordinary violence. He takes out the two guards and then kills his target. When she's dead he leans over her body, crosses her arms and begins to pray.
The classic scene illustrates the deep, spiritual element of the assassin Thane and also shows extraordinary violence.
Shepherd: "Can we talk? I came a long way to talk to you."
Thane: "One moment. Prayers for the wicked must not be forsaken."
Shepherd: "Why? Do you really think she deserves it?"
Thane: "Not for her. For me."
In a recent study conducted at the University of Missouri, I examined how video games portray organized religion. I suspected I would find organized religion portrayed badly. What I saw was a bit more nuanced. While the specifics differed in each game, the commonality I saw was a tie between religion and violence.
We also don't purchase games to watch people pray and be kind. We purchase games to be entertained, and conflict is entertaining. There are types of conflict that don't translate well to a console game format: I couldn't imagine an entertaining video game on the U.S. monetary policy. Violence translates visually into something that entertains. Given the history of religion, it's not surprising that violence appears.
Religious imagery like that scene above is not uncommon in video games but it's rarely discussed. There is a lengthy history involved in the depictions of religion in console games -- one that includes Link from Nintendo's Legend of Zelda using a shield with a giant cross, Cecil from Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy IV (II in America) who undergoes what could be described as a conversion experience, and more subtle images, such as characters praying to idols in order to "Save Your Game."
In many games, religion works as a motivator. There's a good god(dess) who needs the video game hero to defeat evil, and to do so, the hero must kill a lot of bad guys. And there are games where you must defeat the world's god(dess). Other times, it's part of the character's story, like in the case with Thane from Mass Effect 2. As the player, we like Thane's religion. We find it compelling because it's part of Thane's personal story and it doesn't keep him from doing the violence that he must do to save the galaxy.
In a way, the findings reflect some of the more popular games available now, of which there are quite a few that focus on the Crusades and themes related to the Knight's Templar. Go to the local video game store and you'll see a host of religious messages represented in the narratives: the Knights Templar in "Dante's Inferno" and Assassin's Creed, Norse myths in Valkyrie Profile, Greek myths in God of War, and recently Hinduism in Asura's Wrath. You'll notice there aren't any games on the Quakers.
My impression isn't that video game makers are trying to indoctrinate us (or our children). Video games have evolved from the days of the Atari; it was, after all, difficult to tell a deep narrative in "Space Invaders." As game technology has increased and censorship decreased, so has its ability to tell a story. And now, game developers are tapping into the great conversations of Western civilization. The role of religion in games, as in the real world, can't be ignored.