Spinks wrote of her feelings about a quest with some religious significance here. My thoughts on it are probably more than a comment could reply, so I’ll post them here.
First, some disclosure. I am an ex-christian, raised pentecostal/word of faith. I started out as what people would call a “fundy.” I moved on some from that when I discovered apologetics and theology, so I’m halfway informed on the faith, to the level of an educated layman. However, I simply cannot believe in it anymore, based on several things I wont go into detail over. I am well disposed to it though, and currently I’d be considered more of an agnostic.
That said, I think most MMOs have little to no idea of how to display true religion in a game, because they borrow trappings of religions, but don’t understand the stories or theologies behind them. They may put crosses on their paladin’s armor, or may talk about holy crusades, but it is ornamentation-they never go into why the cross is a symbol, what holy means, and why crusades happen or are even thought of as good things.
Religion is full of immense meaning for every little thing. Nothing is really trappings, each action or gesture has significance in terms of theology-it reflects a system of how people relate to God and he us.
Take communion. To many, you go up once a month to the altar, eat a piece of saltine cracker, drink a tiny cup of grape juice, and that’s it. But that little ritual for christians is a stark reminder that the suffering and pain of God in the cross is life to you, in a far greater way than just eating or drinking is to our bodies. Why? For a lot of reasons which are part of the theology of Christianity.
Most MMO designers simply dont think of religion on those terms. They see the rituals, and they adopt them, and they may use some of the language, but it’s in the same way that a tourist tries to go native. They, unless they are thoughful, will simply not get enough of the realities to seem like one.
This is when they try to be favorable. Unfortunately unfavorable depictions of religion are the norm, and one of the jokes for japanese RPGs is that if there is a church in the game, 99% chance its going to be the bad guy or its leader the endboss.
-Make an effort to say why the Gods in MMOs do what they do. In spinks post, she was irate that only one paladin was saved out of many despite that she herself is an undead. If you do something like that you need to say why. That’s called theodicy-justifying how God works in a world where evil exists. Unlike christianity, you have much more freedom to do so, since you can invent your religion out of whole cloth.
-thoughtfully study religion. This doesn’t mean you need to accept it, but you need to understand it beyond ned flanders and richard gere buddhism. You need to make an attempt to see why things are done in the way they are, to make a religious universe that seems plausible. You also need it to destroy a lot of the caricatures the modern secular, educated person thinks of when he things of religion.
-Know when to keep mystery. You don’t need to explain a lot, or try to make everything in game relate to it. You can keep the creation of your world misty or allegorical, what matters is how your gods actions show their character. One tale or legend can do better than a whole database of lore, and things like even the design of a church can help. If you try to make everything, you wind up with bad dungeons and dragons design: “roll 2d10 for the amount of worshippers in each parish.”
-lastly, and PLEASE: be positive. The average religious believer these days is not johnny jihad, or a person who wants to throw all gays back in the closet and make you give up your birth control. At heart, most really are quiet people that do obey their faith and don’t do much but make noise.
Imagine a game which pretty much described all atheists as immoral idiots who lapped up whatever inane drivel richard dawkins or charles darwin wrote in their books, and secretly plotted the death of all religious people on the earth. Pure nonsense, right?
But I have constantly heard christians being spoken of as just that, and when I believed I had such told to my face on the net, despite the only crime most of us did was chat in a christian irc room.
If you want a villain, please don’t caricature religious people. Please also don’t treat any religious npcs as simpletons or fools, unless you justify it as part of the human condition where anyone can be such. It’s not just bad stereotyping, it leads to poor characterization and bland plotting.