As one studies the religious video game, s/he can be bombarded by many different convoluted messages that may not be understood without a good grasp of which religion created the game. Many of these religious videos games use symbols in order to portray their message without directly stating that message. Clifford Geertz builds upon the idea of the symbol in order to create a definition for religion itself. He states that “Religious symbols formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life” (90). This is exactly what we see in the religious video game; a Christian game may have a cross located, a Jewish game the star of David, or a Buddhist game could have a character meant to be Buddha. Each of these stated symbols is supposed to help the player form a link between the symbol and a particular style of life
To define symbol more broadly, Geertz asserts a symbol is “any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception” (91). “Semiotics… is a general theory of signs and symbols, especially the analysis of the nature and relationship of signs in language, usually including…: syntactic, semantics and pragmatics” (Turner 20-21). Syntactics is the “formal relationships” of symbols, or their definition; semantics is the relationship of the symbol and what the symbol is supposed to refer to; and pragmatics are “the relations of signs and symbols with their users” (21). The two most important of these branches relating to religious video games is the semantics and pragmatics of the symbols.
First, the symbols must be analyzed for their semantic meaning, or to what meaning the symbol is referring. The symbols used in religious video games would hold no bearing if they did not signal the player back to the religion. As Geertz defines religion as “a system of symbols,” each religion has their own set of symbols which are meant to evoke certain emotions in viewers. As mentioned before, the star of David, or a six-pointed star is meant to symbolize Judaism; a crescent moon with a star in the middle represents Islam; and the image of a cross-legged elephant with human-like arms is meant to symbolize Ganesha, a god of Hinduism. Without some sort of pre-knowledge of what these symbols represent, however, means that the study of religious games must look to the pragmatic use of symbols in order to assert how these symbols are meant to affect the player.If a group is trying to proselytize using video games, the use of symbols should be used carefully in order to portray their message. For example, in Devil World, a maze-game similar to Pacman, the main character has to cross over white crosses. When he does this, he obtains a white cross to carry which enables him to kill enemies with bursts of fire. There are multiples symbols here: first, the cross itself points to Christianity and the Christian faith; second, when the player obtains the cross, s/he gains a new ability to protect him/herself; and lastly, the cross has the power to destroy enemies. Pragmatically, these last two symbols, which are more symbolic actions, can actually portray an evangelical message to the player. Other games may use “concrete” symbols as decoration on the game, such as in “King’s Call,” the first camera shot shows a tree stump with a trinity symbol carved into it, or three pointed ovals linking in the center. This symbol is not clickable nor is it pertinent to playing the game, but its purpose is to refer the player back to the religion it traditionally represents, Christianity.
The careful observation of the symbols used, their location, and the manner in which they are used is imperative to video game studies. The use of religious symbols in an unusual or perverse manner, such as having an image traditionally perceived as Jesus shooting lasers from his eyes, may suggest that the designer of the game is attempting to make fun of a religion or religious tradition. When symbols are used in actions, such as using the cross to shoot fire, this can also be pointing towards deep religious connotations, either positive or negative. Studying of religious video games requires the observer to be extremely well versed in traditional religious symbols as well as the manner in which those symbols are traditionally displayed or utilized. Works Cited
Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” Interpretations of Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 87-123.
Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, and Ritual.” 1982.