originals\ Dec 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Five popular video games with religious & spiritual meanings and symbolism


There are many franchises that are obvious in their religious nature. Most recently, BioShock Infinite deals with the rebirth of a man through baptism, who goes on to build an extraordinary floating city in the sky, albeit with some demons of its own. Even other franchises like Final Fantasy have had religious undertones.

Contributor Liel Leibovitz shared his list of five games that don't necessarily scream 'religious undertones' or in fact, maybe weren't even designed to have any. 

Let's take a look.

Super Mario Bros

Super Mario

From the ancient Egyptians to Friedrich Nietzsche, the idea of the eternal return of the same has fascinated many of humanity’s brightest minds. Simply put, it is the notion that time isn’t linear but cyclical, and that the universe keeps recurring an infinite number of times in more or less the same way. It’s a key concept behind Hinduism. It’s also the basis for the Super Mario universe, in which the same landscapes and the same foes occur and recur and recur again. The pleasure we feel is that of recognition, which makes the frequent deaths we suffer at the hands of Bowser and his enemies tolerable.

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

How to contemplate nothingness? You don’t have to be a Zen monk; this radical game succeeds by offering the very opposite of what video games have traditionally offered—inaction. With only sixteen massive creatures to find and slay, much of the game is spent riding through beautiful landscapes, meditating on nature and on the violence to come. Little else is known. Nothing else happens. It’s a true minimalist masterpiece of great emotional and spiritual value.

The Legend of Zelda


One of the most intriguing proverbs in the Jewish tradition holds that everything is foreordained, and permission is given. You may ask why one might need permission—or, indeed, action—when the universe is entirely prescribed, but that would be missing the point of great theology and great games alike. The Zelda franchise, the apotheosis of this line of thinking, consists of a series of puzzles with very specific solutions; and yet, players have absolute freedom to roam the dungeons, devise plans, try and err, and find their own way into the one true answer. This space of possibility, as game designers call it, allows for free will even in a universe which, like all video games, is governed by precise algorithms. And Zelda makes free will fun.

Little Big Planet


This charming platformer allows players to build their own levels, but something is missing—these levels all stand empty before the arrival of Sackboy, a little sock puppet guy and the game’s protagonist, who runs through them and suffers all the abuse they have to offer. Without him, our creations, as convoluted as they may be, are never complete, and it is his presence that allows us to play the game in full. Sackboy is not much of a theologian, but he would have dug the fundamental Christian idea of grace: God loved mankind so much He gave them His only son, and its that gift—more, even, than our own actions—that continues to redeems us. The same tension is at play in LittleBigPlanet. Salvation has never felt so whimsical.

Max Payne

Max Payne

Why do bad things happen to good people? Just ask Max Payne, a stand up cop whose wife and daughter were both murdered by crazed junkies. It was all downhill from there: he was framed for a murder he didn’t commit, fell in love with all the wrong women, and, in three terrific games, shot his way through hellish landscapes. He’s cynical and tough, and his inner monologue is so tortured as to sometimes be comical, but Max Payne, like Job, remains on the side of the angels, doubt be damned. Hallelujah for that. 

Liel Leibovitz is a writer for Tablet magazine and Author of “God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit “(2014). Leibovitz is also teaches at New York University and is a video game scholar
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Mike Splechta GameZone's review copy hoarding D-bag extraordinaire! Follow me @MichaelSplechta
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