By fighting the antagonists in the game, the player implicitly fights the kind of religious movement and ideology the followers of Comstock represent. In this game world, religious practice and ideas cannot be separated from Comstock’s racist ideology. Accordingly, the question becomes in what way the game expresses a specific critique of religion and, if so, why it is present in the game.
3.1. Critique of What Exactly?
It has been shown that religion in Infinite is constructed as fundamentally linked to racist ideology. Both religion in general and, in particular American evangelical religion, are used as the basis for constructing a fictional religion that transports racist narratives and in and of itself represents an enemy against which the player fights. An initial interpretation of religion in the game could be that Infinite presents a critique of the specific religious movement of evangelical Christianity, which is presented as a medium for the promotion of racist ideas and deeds. Such a critique could be constructed as Evangelicalism as a nurturer of racism. But this interpretation of Infinite’s perspective on religion is too limited. Through an analysis of religious motifs and narratives in the game, one also needs to emphasize what the designers chose not to show as well as themes they left untouched.
The game’s inclusion of elements from evangelical Christianity are striking, inserted into the game to construct a religion in the game world that can be easily recognized as iconic touchstones of religion by its players. Baptism, worship, preachers, gospel songs, candles, discussion of god and angels, prophetic visions, and the punishments of the sinful—these iconic elements present a basic framework for the player to realize that she and her avatar have been put into a game world that relies heavily on religious themes. Although evangelical motifs can be found throughout the game, it is interesting which parts of Evangelicalism are absent in Infinite
. Two most important parts of American evangelical Christianity are the Bible and the symbol of the cross (Hankins 2008, p. 1
). The Evangelical Christians frame the Bible as the true word of God, a holy text which needs to be interpreted in the right way to give meaning for the practitioner’s daily life. It is studied in bible classes, consulted to give spiritual guidance and inspiration, and its themes are discussed and disseminated through sermons at church or other religious events. In evangelical thought, the cross stands for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is not only a reminder of his deeds and his status as the Lord and son of God but also a hopeful sign for the coming end times in which the faithful will be rewarded.
Infinite relies on numerous evangelical motifs in the construction of its game world; however, neither the Bible nor the cross are clearly depicted in the game. There is no single character dialog, note, clue, or other aesthetic or narrative marker which mentions the Bible directly. The only hints to the Bible can be found in the books that lie around in the Welcome Center the player visits at the beginning of the game. But these texts do not display any symbols, such as a cross or the word “Bible” that could indicate its significance. One can find an emulation of a style of language that could stem from the King James Bible on the murals or banners adorning depictions of the prophet, but specific quotations from the Bible are noticeably absent. The only biblical reference is presented when Comstock dies with the words “It is finished”. A similar observation can be made for the cross. It is only alluded to as a symbol on the garment of the faux-Ku Klux Klan in the game. The violet hoods are adorned with a long golden dagger which points downwards, resembling the icon of the Christian cross. Apart from this vague allusion, no sign of the cross motif is present in the game.
Another important part of Evangelical Christianity is the figure of Jesus Christ. The entire evangelical narrative landscape depends on his life, words, suffering on the cross, and his resurrection. The evangelical conversion of the born-again experience is a personal turning towards Jesus as one’s savior. Infinite sidesteps the topic of Jesus by only mentioning god on select occasions. Terms such as Christ or Jesus are never mentioned, and the worship and prayers that are usually reserved for Jesus in Evangelical Christianity are, in the game, turned towards Comstock, the Founding Fathers, or a vague god figure.
3.2. Critique of Mainstream Religion as an Economic Risk Factor
Through a careful examination of the religious motifs that are absent from the construction of religion in Infinite, it appears that there is a deliberate omission of specific religious markers from a religion from which other symbols are easily extracted to build parts of the game world. The question is, why the designers chose not to include other markers, such as the Bible, the cross, and the figure of Christ into their otherwise critical construction of religion.
The interpretation proposed here points towards the economical foundations of the digital games industry, a highly capitalist venture, the mechanics of which are increasingly debated by gaming journalists and scholars (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009
). The digital games industry is one of the highest grossing entertainment industries, with an estimated annual revenue of 26 billion dollars in the European, Middle-Eastern, and African market and 27 billion dollars in the North American market (McDonald 2017
). Digital games that are produced for a mass audience tend to incur high development costs. There have been speculations as to Infinite
’s development costs; industry analysts have estimated 100 million dollars (Goldberg 2013
). Even if those specific numbers are incorrect, mass market games have frequently cost upwards of 50 million dollars to develop and often involve teams of hundreds who are responsible for the design of this entertainment product (Superannuation 2014
). For example, Infinite
’s design team consisted of over 200 employees (Plante 2014
With those numbers in mind, it can be argued that a development studio and the publishing company which funds the development will do everything they can to ensure that the revenue of the sold product will surpass its production costs. For this production model to work, nothing in the development process can be left to chance. Game production must necessarily take into account what will appeal to players and critics as well as how to market a game to attract the largest possible audience. The higher the production costs, the bigger the target audience must be. An expensive game will be oriented towards a mainstream audience, one which comprises a range of tastes, social contexts, as well as political and religious backgrounds.
In the case of Infinite
, the story of its long and arduous development indicates how important an above-average economic success was for the development studio. Journalistic coverage of the work at Irrational Games reported very high expectations from its publisher Take Two. Several industry commentators speculated that an overall sale of 11 million game copies would not be enough to fulfil investor expectations; subsequently, this was seen as a possible explanation behind the sudden closure of the development studio in 2014 (Alexander 2014
; Handrahan 2015
). From this perspective, it seems reasonable to assume that, in the five-year development period, those responsible for the game wanted to maximize the likelihood of a success and tailored the game accordingly to appeal to a broad consumer base, consciously avoiding any content that might offend potential customers. Accordingly, Infinite
was obliged to cater to an audience which potentially included those who would take offense at the game’s depiction of their religious beliefs as underpinning the narrative’s antagonists. The evangelical landscape in America is vast. Roughly one quarter of the population of the United States considers themselves as born-again Christian (Hankins 2008, p. 44
). From an economic standpoint, developers were unable to neglect this part of the population.
The analysis of Infinite’s construction of religion has demonstrated that, although evangelical symbols are used to denote religion in the game, the negative representation of religion does not focus exclusively on Evangelicalism. Negative and off-putting depictions of religion are largely centered on the Church of Comstock’s cult-like aspects (in the popular sense of an allegedly dangerous, non-mainstream religion). The game presents no direct critique of a mainstream evangelical family which goes to church on Sundays, potentially are members in one of the big mega-churches and uses its social facilities, listens to Christian pop music, stands for mainstream conservative family values, and upholds a personal relationship with Jesus. The core beliefs of Evangelicals are left untouched by Infinite’s negative and stereotypical depiction of religion. When evangelical religious motifs are depicted in the game, they are often connected with the notion that they are being misused by the prophet Comstock and his followers. Mainstream conservative Evangelicals who play the game can observe that, even though familiar themes like baptism, worship, and god are invoked, their beliefs are not the target of ridicule. Mainstream conservatives can see the cultic followers of Comstock as appropriate enemies which need be stopped in their plan to destroy the world.
On the other hand, a more urban liberal demographic is also being catered to. Well known liberal critique and fear of conservative American Christianity nurturing racism and nationalism can still be applied while playing Infinite. Here the ultra-American jingoistic and xenophobic society of Infinite’s Columbia can easily be interpreted as a mirror of contemporary America when viewed through the eyes of those who are already highly suspicious of religiously conservatives. In more cynical words one could say that Irrational Games found a way to appeal to different tastes.
refrains from taking a critical stance on mainstream religion; it also is reluctant to position itself in the political debate it presents to the player. As mentioned above, the game depicts the workers’ revolt against racist oppression as negatively as racist oppression itself, an attempt to withdraw from a political statement that could estrange either side of the argument (Alexander 2014
; Smith 2016
; Pérez-Latorre and Oliva 2017
). Religion is simply another cultural dimension which is openly depicted in the game but with an attitude that seeks to avoid any conflict with a possible audience.
is not the only example of a game which tackles the subject of motifs from American evangelical religion and the theme of dangerous cults. Recently, Ubisoft Montreal released the game Far Cry 5
(2018) that also plays with themes of evangelical religion, putting the player in the setting of rural Montana in which a religious movement terrorizes the inhabitants of the fictional Hope County. This group, called Eden’s Gate (an allusion to the already-mentioned so-called doomsday cult, Heaven’s Gate), is depicted in association with iconic Christian symbols such as small-town churches, cardinal sins, and full-body baptism. Before the release of the game, discussions arose regarding the game as a commentary on current social-political events, such as the recent rise of nationalism and xenophobia in America, which has been partly attributed to the political activity of Evangelical Christians and other conservative groups. However, following its release, game journalists quickly determined that Far Cry 5
was not a critique of American evangelical religion as a supporter of racism and bigotry but a stereotypical depiction of new religious (end-time) movements (Kuchera 2018
). The game plays with clichés regarding brainwashing and lunatic doomsday cults which disturb and destroy local communities.
Simultaneously, Infinite uses recognizable evangelical motifs to establish a religious atmosphere for the player but avoids any critique of traditional evangelical religion. The ultra-nationalistic attitudes of Comstock and his army are not fostered by evangelical belief; rather, they are the doings of a cult which distorts American values and religion. The same could be said for Far Cry 5: motifs of rural churches and baptism as well as any potential association with violence and repression are not tied to a critique of evangelical values. Instead, they are presented within the game as a result of the teachings of a deviant cult that stands against conservative American Christian values.
As such, one can observe two examples of how prominent publishers of digital games have attempted to modulate their products to cater to stereotypes already understood by a large audience. Such games appear to criticize aspects of American culture and religion but only superficially. Instead of a commentary on any possible connections of evangelical or overall conservative Christian religion in America to contemporary societal problems, they present to the player the phenomenon of new religious movements, which have already been established in the popular discourse as something deviant and potentially threatening.
Certainly, it would be of use to analyze other mass-market games as to their usage and critique of religion or specific religious traditions to uncover additional or complementary mechanics of the depiction and non-depiction of mainstream religion. On the other hand, it could be also interesting to analyze if smaller studios, with a smaller audience and lower game production costs, use similar methods by which to treat religious topics or whether they have more leeway in the critical presentation of mainstream religious traditions.