Zeroing in on Controversy

by Shawn Bruckner 

"When I was playing Final Fantasy Tactics, I was surprised, and, yes, offended, by the portrayal of the Catholic Church as, in Martin Hallerís words, 'devil-worshipping despots.'" - Peter Beattie

"I want to see more RPGs get rid of their 'mature' content in favor of strong, moral stories that can be shown to any audience." - John Michel

The same debate which is now rampant in several other forms of media has reached the media in video games in force. And, as usual, the debate continues to suffer from a tendency to "zero in on the controversy."

Since Final Fantasy Tactics is currently under the microscope right now, I'll use that as an example.

Many people writing in have said that they are Christians, and thus being, were offended by the portrayal of the Catholic church not as a moral institution, but as a war-mongering devil-worshipping institution. Well, I'm a Christian as well, but I found no real reason to be offended. I will admit that the similiarities between Final Fantasy Tactics' church and the Catholic church are undeniable, but you really have to look at the historical significance of the Catholic church and understand that it is the only religious institution to have had that kind of power in Western history. Thus, any use of a religious institution in a game, movie, book, or any media with such power is going to automatically have some similiarities.

Continuing the analysis from a historical viewpoint, the Catholic church of the Middle Ages (not the Catholic church of today; there are significant differences) wasn't always exactly the most moral institution at times. It is true that the Catholic church of the time was probably the only real civilizing influence in the world at that time, but this church also preached superstition. It hunted, tried, and executed "heretics." It had members within it which abused its power, like in any institution that has that kind of power.

Now, consider what kind of Church the plot of Final Fantasy Tactics called for. You begin to see yet more similiarilities.

In the end, the use of the church in Final Fantasy Tactics asks a question that comes from the history of our own world: What if the Catholic church of the middle ages didn't actually worship a just, loving God, but instead an angel of death? What if the force that held the Western world together for nearly 1000 years was not at all moral?

Final Fantasy Tactics shows us how lucky we are that the Catholic church of the time was, for the most part, a moral institution with some flaws, rather than a devil-worshipping instution lying to its people. It presents an interesting historical case, and shows how dependent our ancestors were on that very large religious institution. Look at the number of wars that occured the middle ages with a civilizing influence. Now, imagine if the Catholic church had made a grab for power and didn't preach the morals that it did. Our past would be even bloodier yet.

Of course, the other important thing is, while the Catholic church of today holds much of the same organizational structure, it is a much different institution today. This Catholic church would never think of hunting down "heretics." It doesn't preach so much "superstitution" anymore (myself, though, I am not a Catholic, and thus I do disagree with much of the Catholic faith). The Catholic church of today is a very respectable institution, much more so than its Middle Age counterpart.

So, by zeroing in on the controversy, we have missed that the comparison is to the past Catholic church; we have missed that a plot which calls for a powerful church within a medieval time using a feudalistic system is going to be very similar to the Catholic church because the Catholic church uniquely held that position in our own history. As well, we have forgotten that religion is a system created by man for worship. God did not create the Catholic church; His creations did by interpreting His word in the Bible. Thus, portraying a religion in a dark light is merely to shine a light on human flaws, which nearly every story ever written does.

In the end, what do we truly want? We want our game designers to be creative, but when they entroach on controversial issues, we can't look past the controversy to see the point they are really making. Really, we look at religion and bad language as being controversial within video games. However, most RPG use creatures which come from mythologies and religion, and we don't attack them when they use "demonic" creatures within their games. And let's just face it: the only reason no one is complaining about violence in RPGs is that there are far worse portrayals of it in other genres.

We ask for more realistic storylines, things that aren't your "Leave It to Beaver" happy 50s everything-is-always-so-hunky-dory plots. We get them, and then we criticize the designers because they portray a person of a different race by a stereotype, or they portray a religion in a negative light, or they use a little bad language.

This is stupid. We tell designers they can't portray reality. Yes, people kill other on the streets today. We have a rise in devil-worshipping and other dark religions. Far more people today swear.

But as designers, as writers, as producers, as artists, aren't we supposed to show what society is becoming today? Really, if we change TV, video games, art, and literature to be happy hunky-dory little stories with no questionable content whatsoever, society is going to improve? Hell no. We need to be aware of what is happening in our society today, or else it will continue because we will ignore it. And since there is an increasing number of people not voting and not watching the news, we need to communicate it somehow.

In the end, it is us giving in to our own human flaws that is creating our problems today, not TV or video games or art or literature. It is us becoming immoral. And we are attacking the people that are showing it to us. This isn't about influence. This is about hiding the truth of our society so people can have a false sense of security.

So, I implore you, as gamers, as readers of literature, as movie-goers, as appreciaters of art, stop zeroing in on the controversy; put the pieces of the puzzle together and look at the whole picture. The problem is that when we get offended, we concentrate on how offended we are and don't bother to look any further. And this is sad.

Truly, we need to see more. We have poor out on the street, yet how many of us turn the channel when we see an ad asking for charity to help these people? We know about violence on the street, yet we turn away and say we can't do anything about it. I'm guilty of it as well. I'm not afraid to acknowledge my own failure in these areas. It saddens me every time I think about it, but in the end, because I want my time to myself, or I get lazy, I do nothing about it.

So, when a game is showing us problems that exist in our own society today, we should be commending the designers for having the courage to present it to us. Attacking them for doing so is merely counterproductive.

And, if you look close enough, in most RPGs, you see in there the hope we have to improve, to grow beyond it. That is the other element we need to see. But, since we only look at the controversy, we again miss this very important element.

If it is the media that defines society, then maybe it is time we started looking with objective eyes, and see that isn't really so bad. And if it is society that defines media, which in the end makes more sense, then it is up to us to improve both. Besides, we can do both and cover both possibilities.

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