Politics and Religion in Video Games

At 9 AM ET on Friday morning, Ubisoft released a set of trailers revealing more information about the upcoming latest installment in the Far Cry series: Far Cry 5. After several teasers were released in the previous two weeks, people were already aware that the game would be set in the United States for the first time, in the fictional setting of Hope County, Montana. However, some of the details learned on Friday morning did not seem so familiar, either to the Far Cry series or to video games more generally. In particular, one of the central tenets of Far Cry 5 will be the sociopolitical ramifications of a militant religious cult.

A series known already for its compelling villains – Vaas Montenegro from Far Cry 3 and Pagan Min from Far Cry 4 – it wasn’t all that surprising that the story trailer for Far Cry 5 (which can be found here) would try to sell itself by focusing on this iteration’s core antagonist: a religious cult named Eden’s Gate, led by fanatic and patriarch, Joseph Seed. But this villain, far more than others before, will be hitting close to home, and not just because of the Montana setting. You don’t need me to tell you that American culture is steeped in politics and religion, and though Eden’s Gate may seem one step removed from mainstream politics and religion due to the fact that it’s a cult, the anti-government flavor of Eden’s Gate might appear far more familiar than many might like to admit.

In some of its past games, Ubisoft Montreal has been particularly prescient with its thematic content. For example, in 2014’s Watch Dogs, Ubisoft crafted a game that raised serious questions about cybersecurity, as well as people’s vulnerability in their reliance on technology. In the 3 years since the game has been released, cybersecurity and information hacks have been a near-constant fixture in the mainstream consciousness, crescendoing in the recent hacks that occurred at several points during the 2016 United States presidential election. However, one of the main criticisms of Watch Dogs when it was released was that, although it raised an important and ultimately quite relevant societal problem, it did not require its audience to truly engage with and think about cybersecurity at any real or meaningful level.

In the development of Far Cry 5, which started back in 2014, Ubisoft Montreal seems to have been quite prescient again. Unlike cybersecurity, the anti-government and freedom-of-religion politics are two things that have a long tradition throughout American history and have recently reemerged as a deeply relevant issue in the sociopolitical consciousness of the US. In preparation for the development of Far Cry 5, Ubisoft Montreal’s development team took a two-week trip to Montana in 2014 to learn about the geographic environment, as well as about the people of Montana. While on this trip, Dan Hay, director of Far Cry 5, said that he learned the three ‘F’s that people from Montana ascribe themselves to: freedom, faith, and firearms. Those will be the tenets that Far Cry 5 builds its world around, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more culturally relevant take on American society. These three core tenets, which many Americans believe strongly in, might prove to be especially divisive and controversial, particularly because Ubisoft Montreal plans to take them to their most extreme in the form of their in-game cult, Eden’s Gate.

At the most basic level, Seed wants to protect himself, his family, and his followers from intervention that he sees as government infringing upon their ability to live life as they see fit, a sentiment likely to be shared to some degree by many Americans who believe government’s role in society should be diminished or checked more than it currently is. This is not a small number of people, and it will be interesting to see how Ubisoft Montreal approaches these topics in their final product. Will they – like in Watch Dogs – only scratch the surface of its central sociopolitical theme? Or will Far Cry 5 take a step forward on this front and immerse its audience in a more complex approach to these questions of freedom, faith, and firearms, with the chance that some people might be offended?

Whether you agree that video games should be taking on such controversial topics like politics and religion in any meaningful way is a separate conversation, but if Ubisoft plans on embracing these difficult sociocultural questions that Americans – as well as many people around the world – are dealing with on a daily basis, my only request is that they do them justice and really make me think about these issues. If it’s done well, Far Cry 5 may be a gateway to games becoming the newest medium for contributing to these difficult and controversial conversations about relevant societal topics. In my view, if video games can continue to be compelling and enjoyable in the ways that we’ve already seen in 2017, while giving me a new, though-provoking perspective on a hot topic in society, I’m more than game to see what Far Cry 5 and its successors have to offer.

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