Video games are a good fit for theological exploration

Naked and crying, the child Isaac wanders in the dark recesses of his basement and his memories, recalling a life of abuse while fighting to survive the terrors of his escape from a zealot fundamentalist mother bent on his murder.

In this modern day retelling of Old Testament's The Binding of Isaac, tears are the boy's weapons, his childhood nightmares the monsters. It is a dark examination of fanaticism and child abuse. That this modern-day The Binding of Isaac is a video game shouldn't matter. But to many, including massive video game publisher Nintendo, it seems to.

"After a long internal debate Nintendo has decided NOT to allow The Binding of Isaac on the 3DS," the game's creator Edmund McMillen wrote on Twitter last week. "As many assumed the reasons were due to the games 'questionable religious content.'"

The Binding of Isaac made a splash last year when it hit PC download service Steam. In it players control a weeping child as he explores the basement under his home. While a player's rapt attention is required to maneuver Isaac with one hand while attacking nearby enemies with the other, it's hard to escape the mournful undertone of the game's inspiration.

The enemies Isaac faces are the stuff of his nightmares, blinded doppelganger, bleeding hunks of living meat, flies, floating twins bound together by a chain-like umbilical cord. Each decent through the labyrinth of Isaac's basement is interrupted by memories of an abusive childhood. One scene depicts the stick-figure child panting, eyes wide, as he lays locked in a chest. Another shows his mother pushing away his affections with her foot.

But the blood, the disturbing imagery of an abused child facing his sorrowfully short life, isn't what stopped The Binding of Isaac from reaching a broader audience. It was its inclusion of religion.

The game opens with the tale of a mother hooked on Christian television who hears the voice of god telling her to kill her child. Like the Old Testament's Abraham, the mother is willing to obey. But before she can dispatch her child with a butcher knife, Isaac escapes into his basement, into himself.

It's a graphic game that does the trick of delivering its dark message not with advanced life-like graphics but instead rudimentary stick-figure sketches.

While Nintendo declined to comment for this story, their decision to bar the game follows a long history the company has of editing out or removing "questionable content" from games on their systems.

Last week's decision doesn't surprise Joshua Wise, editor in chief of The Cross and the Controller and a theologian. He says that most game publishers and developers believe it doesn't make business sense to handle religion in a way that might offend a religious group.

By their very nature video games can allow their players an opportunity to actively engage in the interpretation of the subject matter in a way that few other mediums enjoy.

"I understand their trepidation, but censorship of that type is simply something I don't agree with, especially if games are to be understood as valid expressions of the human experience; in other words: art," he added.

The problem is that video games have a history of treating religion as a platform for extending an ideology, mindlessly attacking organized religion or simply using the imagery of religion as a backdrop.

"I know there are people out there who are very wary of religion and gaming coming together...," Wise said. "But there are fascinating stories to be told in the context of faith and religion without forcing a viewpoint on the player."

What's most disappointing about this latest decision by Nintendo is that it reinforces the belief some developers have that making a game that examines certain topics just isn't worth the risk.

But by their very nature video games can allow their players an opportunity to actively engage in the interpretation of the subject matter in a way that few other mediums enjoy. Where The Last Temptation of Christ can introduce an audience to a new viewpoint, a game like The Binding of Isaac allows an audience to explore that idea.

Wise hopes this decision won't stop future developers from creating meaningful games that examine religion in meaningful ways.

"I know there are people out there who are very wary of religion and gaming coming together...," Wise said. "But there are fascinating stories to be told in the context of faith and religion without forcing a viewpoint on the player.

"We should be more willing to having games that leave themselves open to these kinds of discussions."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Vox Games.

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