The Christ Image in Video Game Narratives – Toby Gibbons

The Christ Image in Video Game Narratives – Toby Gibbons

Then I will set over them one Commander Shepard, and she will feed them; she will feed them herself and be their Shepard.

Through the medium of videogames popular culture has discovered a new avenue for creating well loved and respected characters, be it super fast hedgehogs, Italian plumbers or gun-toting super marines. Videogame culture is rapidly creating its own set of cult characters and heroes, many of which contain attributes and storylines that can easily be read as messianic or Christ-like.

One such messianic lead character is Commander Shepard from the science fiction epic Mass Effect. Spread over three (soon to be four) games Commander Shepard is a human special agent working for the intergalactic alliance battling against an ancient race of quasi-deific sentient machines called the Reapers. Over the course of the three games Shepard assembles a team of disciples around her, travels the known universe, comes into conflict with the authorities, is resurrected and ultimately sacrifices herself to save the universe. During her missions Shepard has the chance to either save or exterminate entire species of space creatures, end intergalactic wars that have raged between races for millennia, and reconcile a rift between a race of nomadic aliens and a race of sentient machines. All the while combating her own sense of fear and calling in the face of a seemingly impossible task.

Whilst the story line begins to reveal similarities with Christ, it is in how players perceive Shepard that the real similarities begin to appear. Shepard is a fully customisable character. Players can choose Shepard’s gender, background, fighting style, clothing, appearance and skin tone. As well as aesthetically creating their Shepard, the game is based around the player making certain choices in game which affect the story line, not only in the current game they are playing but in the Mass Effect trilogy as a whole. Players also get to chose dialogue in all conversations Shepard has and how she reacts in situations which result in the player creating a Shepard with a personality far deeper than most videogame protagonists. For example, playing as a more violent aggressive Shepard will unlock actions and dialogue choices that are unavailable if a player decided to play as a calmer, peaceful Shepard. The way players play as Shepard affects how she responds to situations.

What does this do for the player? Speaking from my own play through, I can say I have had a completely different experience of Shepard to many others who have played the game. With Mass Effect 3, I was among the only 18% of players who made Shepard female, the 43% who played as a soldier class, the 64.5% who played as “good” Shepard and the 36% of players who chose to bring peace between warring factions rather than let one of the sides be destroyed.[1] Couple all of these different variables with the different dialogue choices, weapons available, mission choices and different pathways through various levels and you begin to see just how different each player’s experience can be.

I’d like to suggest that this continues the parallels with people’s experiences of Jesus. We all have a favoured Gospel, a different path to “knowing” Jesus and a different perception of who the man from Nazareth was. In my mind Jesus is a radical teacher and activist, to others he is a healer and yet to others, a mystic. That’s before we get to how we individually imagine Jesus’ physical appearance.

This is the experience many people have, myself included, when seeing how Commander Shepard is imagined by another. It’s like watching the Miracle Maker when your preferred Jesus as played by Willem Dafoe. Yes, of course it’s the same character using the same sources but it just doesn’t feel right, you know?

As a side note, the recent trend in videogames of allowing full character customisation has had the same affect on lead protagonists in games as the Historical Jesus studies and the liberation theologies have had on popular images of Jesus. It is no longer the case that Jesus and the videogame protagonist are exclusively white, Aryan, physically fit males. They can both be portrayed as Middle Eastern, disabled and transgender for example.

Why is it important to use Christ and messiah images, rather than simply depicting Christ as himself in video games? Rachel Wagner has argued that depicting Jesus literally in a video game comes with more dangers than it does positives. She argues that gaming allows for more creativity, exploration and interpretation than, say, a film would, and so there is more scope for misinterpretation, false depiction and mockery of Christ.[2] This does not mean that we should shy away from promoting Christ-like values in videogames though. Creating characters like Shepard with Christ-like qualities provides all of the benefits of depicting Christ without the potential dangers for misinterpretation or misuse of Jesus’ image. This creates an extra safety net for the Christ imagery of Shepard who is a character that can be taken in very unchrist-like directions; the image of Christ is not tarnished by the manipulations of the player.

But theologically, why does this all of this matter?

First we need to look at why people are playing these games and why they find the messianic characters so appealing. Jane McGonigal argues that gamers play because they want to belong to something greater than themselves. This desire to belong is a communal one and with Mass Effect selling over 10.5 million copies it is certainly a big community to belong to. McGonigal writes that this desire to belong to a gaming community comes from gamers placing meaning upon the game. This meaning comes from a belief that our actions are having greater consequences outside of our own experience which in turn feeds back into our personal experience.[3] The meaning gamers place upon Mass Effect could be any number of things but from my own personal experience it is the meaning placed upon the storyline itself. The sharing in the achievements of Commander Shepard is what gives this game its true meaning. By playing as Shepard gamers share in her successes and triumphs. From a theological perspective one could read parallels with the argument in Ephesians 1.13—“In him you also…”. By joining the Christian faith we can share in Christ’s triumph and gain greater meaning for ourselves.

But why are people searching for this meaning in a videogame? I believe that many people in western society are looking for salvation. However most people do not know from what they need salvation, and with our self help, individualistic culture people want to be able to save themselves. Videogames allow people to become their own personal saviour. Games create a world that needs saving, an obvious enemy that needs defeating and the messiahs needed to save it. By entering into these worlds gamers are able to save the digital world and perhaps by extension feel like they are saving themselves. A videogame saviour is far easier for people to place faith in because the player always remains in control. This goes double for a character that has been fully customised by the player to be a digital version of themselves. These games not only allow players to share in the triumph of the messiah but to actually be the messiah which they have created in their own image. This personal messiahship in gaming is important. As Clint Schnekloth suggests, the biggest draw of gaming is the ability for people to feel mastery of their situation.[4] Spending hours in-game perfecting the controls, game play mechanics and character development gives players a real sense of ownership and control unparalleled in modern day society. Schnekloth states that this creates the perfect environment to begin exploring these issues with players, if they feel in control and safe in their environments they will be more open to exploring ideas they had never considered before.

If that’s the effect of playing as the character what does simply viewing the character do to gamers?

In an article discussing Christ imagery in sporting advertisements Katie Edwards claims that the Christ image inherently contains values and characteristics that people hold and then subconsciously impose upon whoever is being depicted as Christ[5]. Edwards uses advertising aimed at males to highlight ways in which certain aspects of Christ’s story are highlighted—in this case his physical, masculine and naked form upon the Cross coupled with his victory and resurrection through pain and suffering.

This begs the question: what are the Christ characteristics game makers place on their characters? In the case of Shepard it is clearly Christ’s self-giving love and care for his disciples, shown most clearly in Shepard’s creation of a team and sacrificing her own life twice in order to save her friends. Whilst these Christ characteristics are being used to promote positive attitudes in gamers, there is a danger that these characteristics are being used to warp and distort. Edwards is nothing but critical of advertising’s use of the hyper-masculinity of Christ and its use to promote male dominance and physical prowess. There is also the risk of causing offence if we apply the Christ label too freely. Whilst I and many others are happy with female portrayals of Christ, as Alan Hooker points out others have caused uproar at any hint of the feminine within Christ most notably with the unveiling of the Christa statue in 1984 and Madonna’s consistent use of female religious imagery.[6] Therefore we must be careful not to celebrate every Christ-figure we see appearing in gaming culture uncritically.

The use of the messianic figure in videogames creates whole new avenues of theological discussion. Videogames allow players to explore the themes of salvation and personal saviours in a safer environment than they would find in church. The use of Christ-like figures also sets up ways to promote Christ without risking his misinterpretation or deliberate manipulation.

However the Christ figurers of videogames carry with them dangers as well as opportunities. As with all images of Christ they are open to misappropriation and manipulation and so must be handled with care. Just as gamers can chose to play Shepard as violent and abusive, so to can Christ be made to appear oppressive and exclusive.

Toby Gibbons is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham University, and has recently worked on the subject of messiah figures in video games with CODEC Research Centre. 

[1] http://www.pcgamer.com/mass-effect-3-infographic/

[2] Rachel Wagner, ‘The Play is the Thing’ in Craig Detweiler (ed.) Halos and Avatars, playing Video Games with God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,2010)

[3] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 97

[4] Clint Schnekloth, Mediating Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,2014) ,74

[5] Katie Edwards, ‘Sporting Messiah: Hypermasculinity and Nationhood in Male-targeted Sports Imagery’. In: Exum, J.C. and Clines, D.J.A., (eds.), Biblical Reception (Sheffield, Phoenix Press, 2012)

[6] Alan Hooker, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ in Katie Edwards (ed.), Rethinking Biblical Literacy (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 122

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