Questionable Religious Content
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Ed McMillen recently attempted to get his blood-soaked, hyper-violent action game The Binding of Isaac published on the 3DS and was refused a license by Nintendo. The game, which is available on Steam, features a naked little boy who is trying to escape a mother that wants to kill him in the name of God. The game is full of blood, monstrous creatures, and dark themes, yet Nintendo didn’t have too much of a problem with any of that, by all accounts. Being a violent M-rated game is just fine … but you can’t talk about God.
The reason that Isaac has been refused classification isn’t for the violence, but for “questionable religious content.”
To which I say … oh fuck you.
I’ll tell you right off the bat that I am not a religious person. In fact, I do all I can to avoid that kind of thing, which is pretty hard as a British man living in the middle of Mississippi. Perhaps my being in a state where half the population wants “life” to begin at conception and for miscarriages to be treated as potential murders has embittered me a little toward the Christian set, but I have to say that I am pretty fucking sick of religion being treated with kid gloves. There are some that would want you to believe that wealthy, white, numerous American Christians are somehow “persecuted” in a society where religious lobbyists have the power to influence law, and where a politician can say that the Devil has enslaved the education system and still be considered a credible presidential candidate. You mean to tell me that these people need protection? That they can’t weather a little criticism when they’re currently in control of everything?
That’s the message that Nintendo sends when it refuses to publish a game with the balls to shine a light on a true Biblical story. Let’s remember, folks — that “questionable religious content” comes from widely held religious belief. It couldn’t exist without it. The game is based upon a story in the Hebrew Bible, known itself as The Binding of Isaac, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. In the Biblical story, God eventually pulls a swerve by revealing, “nah, just kidding brah,” and the son then spends the rest of his life happy in the knowledge that his dad tried to murder him. That, my friends, is a fucked up story, and I think Ed McMillen’s game is a fine way of examining out just how fucked it is. It is true that there are many interpretations of the Biblical story, and that it is indeed a troublesome tale for many Christians, but the fact of the matter is that it’s in the Bible, and it deserves to be examined, debated, and talked about. It should especially be pointed out how the Bible does not portray Abraham as a villain at any point, instead only attempting to highlight just how loyal and faithful he is. Never mind the fact that, if a woman drowned her child and claimed God told her to do it, NONE of us would applaud her for having so much faith. Such a woman would quite rightly be condemned. People gloss over so many of the messed up things in the Bible, though, despite how much we’d despise anybody who emulated its more violent, morally dubious, and hateful stuff in real life.
Point is, the Bible was written during a period so utterly alien compared to our own modern world, and yet people still take moral and medical advice from it. A game like The Binding of Isaac simply took a Bible story and applied its message, literally, to a more contemporary setting. By doing so, it exposed just how twisted it actually is. While I won’t deign to speak for what Ed McMillen’s ultimate message was, I still applaud the studio for at least making us think about some of this stuff, no matter what conclusion we come to. The Bible is a source of so much confusion, anger and pain in the world, and everybody has a right to examine why. A videogame is no less valid a means for exploring such a subject than any other medium. Yet, for some reason, games are always excluded — accused of “cheapening” any discussion they attempt to address.
The point is, whatever way you slice it, the hypocrisy of Nintendo is pretty damn evident. The “questionable religious content” is based entirely on actual religious content. It’s an accepted Biblical story with a dark twist, but Nintendo is so frightened of people being offended, or so willing to distance itself from anything that dares to treat religion with anything but reverence, that the game has been barred from the 3DS eShop.
In an even more grotesque twist, a statement by creator Ed McMillen reveals that there’d have been less of a problem if the game were outright blasphemous. Simply making a cheap gag about Jesus doing something silly would be fine, provided it doesn’t make a serious point. Nintendo’s concern is simply that religion, as a real and grounded concept, existed in the game. If it was just God being sick on a homeless person, apparently that would be better. It’s only when a game is trying to make a real point that it becomes a problem, and I find that disturbing. A joke without a motive is okay, but to actually criticize a religion, to throw up legitimate questions about a belief system … that’s off-limits. I don’t like that one bit.
The game industry as a whole sends a really ridiculous message when it backs away from religious commentary. It’s an industry where beheadings, total body disruption, overt sexuality and jokes about poo run rampant, but where everybody gets suddenly very timid and serious whenever religion is brought up. I hate this idea that you can cut off heads, you can shoot old people in the face, but you can’t ever mention a real world religion. That is an absolutely bloody ludicrous position for an industry to be in. If I had to choose between murdering a person or criticizing a Biblical story, I know which one I’d pick as the lesser of two evils. Yet the videogame industry has it the other way around — depictions of extreme violence are acceptable, depictions of religion being imperfect are not.
We had similar bullshit with the last Medal of Honor game, as well. There was a huge stink about the fact that the game’s multiplayer would feature Al Qaeda as a playable team. Oh fuck, videogames have referenced the real world directly! What a terrible fucking crime! The mainstream media got ahold of it, people flung mud and got into a massive uproar, and eventually Al Qaeda was removed from the game … except it actually wasn’t. They just changed the name from Al Qaeda to “Insurgents.” Same content was still there. They looked the same. The environment was the same. They were still Al Qaeda soldiers, but apparently it was alright because they weren’t explicitly called that anymore.
That’s so fucking childish. That is so pathetically infantile. This idea that you can say whatever you want, but you have to be passive-aggressive about it. This idea that a videogame cannot directly reference a religion or a real world event unless it’s using “fictional” names and places, with thinly veiled allegories. If you want to be critical of religion, you have to invent your own fictional one and criticize that so no real religions feel upset. You want to talk about racism, it always has to be between fictional races — aliens and elves (so many fucking elves) — rather than black and white people. You can say what you want, provided you say it in a surreptitiousness, backhanded, thoroughly indirect way.
It’s rare that a videogame has the balls to reference a real religion. Catholicism is brought up in games like Dante’s Inferno and the last big Castlevania, and I’m always impressed when I see it. The thing is, I shouldn’t be impressed by a game that dares to mention a real religion as opposed to an invented one. It shouldn’t be such a big deal, but it still is, because we’re all worried about a social and political majority getting its fragile little feelings hurt.
That’s the kind of scared, kowtowing, ultimately childish attitude that Nintendo encourages by barring “questionable religious content.” What it really means by that is, “content that dared to criticized a real religion, rather than one you made up that’s blatantly based on a real one, but it’s okay because you didn’t explicitly call it that thing.”
Which is just stupid.