The notice popped onto my screen and I felt a momentary tinge of shame: Christianity had been founded in a distant land. How could I write on how Gods and Kings, the new expansion for Civilization V, treats religion if Elizabeth I of England just snatched Christianity away from me? Only a few turns later, I had accumulated enough faith to found my own religion. In the game, faith is an accumulating resource like gold or culture; you can save up more faith by building shrines and temples, and once your civilization has banked enough faith, a Great Prophet appears in your capital, allowing you to found a new religion. As you might imagine, Gods and Kings, through its reliance on a system that saves up faith like deposits into a heavenly vault, essentially represents religion as little more than another method of asserting tactical and strategic advantages over other civilizations in the game.
Then again, expecting the most famous turn-based strategy game franchise to deal with religion in a thoughtful way is probably unrealistic. The goal of Civilization, generally speaking, is not to establish a peaceful co-existence where other cultures are respected and fairly treated. Instead, religion in Gods and Kings offers certain kinds of modifiers that can influence the player’s strategy; examples includes 100 gold for every city that converts to your particular religion, combat bonuses for troops battling nearby cities that follow your religion, and happiness bonuses for cities following the religion. It’s also telling that spying is the companion component to religion–now players can distract neighboring countries with the good news while James Bond sneaks in to steal some technology.
While Civilization’s version of religion may be overly simplistic in a social and spiritual sense, this doesn’t prevent the expansion from adding an enjoyable level of strategy to the classic Civilization formula. After all, Civilization measures many ephemeral qualities of life (like culture and happiness) for the purpose of determining the success or failure of a player’s strategy. Despite my initial disappointment with the game’s representation of faith, I found myself being drawn into the imperial opportunities offered by producing missionaries to convert nearby cities. I began seeking out those in my own empire, but soon ventured into the territory of my neighbors, who often took great umbrage at my empire’s proselytizing. If I angered them enough, it might provoke a war, which meant that my missionaries’ actions needed to be backed up with military might.
The connection that Gods and Kings draws between a strong religion and a strong military prompts worthwhile reflection on human history vis-a-vis religion. Considered on a macroscopic scale, the history of religion is easy to align with Civilization’s portrayal. Religion, and Christianity in particular, has been used to justify political oppression, war, and racial and ethnic prejudice. Civilization, with its top-down and impersonal view of society, suggests that leveraging Christianity in the service of political conflict comes more easily when we’re disconnected from the individuals whose lives are impacted by that conflict.
As my religion continued to expand across the globe, I realized that what was most foreign about religion in Gods and Kings: its lack of a personal human connection between the faithful. There are no stories of religious life and change, no sense of relationships or charity toward strangers. In other words, if we look at religion primarily as a political or sociological development, then everything that is most significant about religion is lost. The constant striving for supremacy in Civilization drowns out the quiet urgings of Christ: love God and love your neighbor. The paradox of religion in Civilization is that its absence of human connection allows us to recognize that it is through human relationships that God’s most extraordinary work in the world occurs.
To an extent, Gods and Kings gestures to the emptiness of its characterizations of contemporary religions by giving the player the option of giving their belief system a customized name, removing any semblance of affinity between how the religion exists in the game and how it exists in our lived experience. In the midst of our greatest moments of virtual inhumanity we see the real dangers of withdrawing such that individual human beings cease to hold value in our understanding of the world. While the fun of strategy may compel us to take just…one…more…turn, in the end Civilization can remind us that the Christian life is not one of lording over but of reaching out.