There is a trend in many video games to display the full extent and damage of evil, its power over us, and our difficulty in fighting it. Games showcase the struggle between light and darkness as it plays out in individuals and in the world, and these battles are anything but easy. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Sunless Skies, Resident Evil 3, Undertale, Spec Ops: the Line, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Last of Us Part II... the list could go on, because, to be honest, there aren’t many games that don’t explore the clash between good and evil, often through the lens of a very dark world that is falling apart at the seams.
What is important in games like these is the takeaway: in the end, who wins? Are the ‘good guys’ really fighting for goodness as we understand it from a Catholic worldview? Are their methods of resisting evil in line with what Jesus tells us in the Gospels? Are the antagonists really standing for something that runs counter to goodness? In a word, is what the game portrays as evil really evil, and what it calls good really good? Does the interplay between these two dynamics within a given game accurately reflect reality, our own experiences, and the destiny we are called to as sons and daughters of God? Does it lead us toward evil or away from it?
Over the last few months, I’ve been following the announcements of Diablo IV, a forthcoming game currently delayed by the pandemic. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a great title for Catholics to be interested in (after all, Diablo literally translates to ‘devil’). And indeed, the cinematic trailer first released at Blizzcon 2019 was, simply put, diabolical. It shows evil--and lots of it--as the demonic villain of the game is introduced for the first time. But what really struck me as I watched it was how Catholic it is: the way evil operates in this trailer is surprisingly accurate from a theological point of view, and, when stripped of its fantasy setting, actually contains a number of insights on spiritual warfare.
Diablo® IV - Blizzard Entertainment.
In the trailer (which has not yet been rated but contains depictions of graphic violence), a group of treasure hunters is shown breaking into an ancient underground lair. They are accompanied by a scholar who is able to open the sealed doors. They soon reach a forbidden room where a powerful demon named Lilith has been imprisoned. The scholar realizes they are in an evil place and wants to leave, but his two companions are already dead, their blood being used as a sacrifice to unbind Lilith. But a third willing sacrifice is required, and a demonic figure appears to tempt the scholar into participating by offering him knowledge. As soon as the scholar stops praying and surrenders to the darkness, he dies the same gruesome death as the others. Their blood is what allows Lilith to take shape and be freed. The trailer ends with the lesser demon greeting Lilith with the words, “Blessed mother, save us.”
What struck me first was how the unwitting robbers are lured into temptation by their greed. It is this sin which leaves them open to being manipulated by demonic forces, just as it is the scholar’s lust for power through knowledge that weakens his resolve in resisting evil’s demands. This isn’t so different from how we can become more vulnerable to Satan’s influence when we are living in a state of sin. Even making small concessions to evil and little choices against God can inhibit our ability to listen to God’s voice and put us in danger of falling down the slippery slope into graver sins. Resisting the small temptations we are met with every day might not seem like a big deal, but these little decisions form habits in us that strengthen us to choose God when much more is at stake. Frequenting the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, are also some of the best ways to fortify ourselves against the influence of evil because through them Jesus forgives our sins and restores us to a life of grace.
I found it interesting that the demon wouldn’t hurt the scholar while he was praying (prayers which use startlingly familiar language and don’t sound so different from many Catholic prayers invoking God’s presence, mercy, and protection). So long as the man held fast to his deity of light and goodness, the evil seemed powerless to do anything to him. It is only when the scholar surrenders freely to the darkness that the demons use and destroys him. This is also how it is when we are faced with evil and sin. We cannot save ourselves, and we certainly can’t do much in our own power against Satan. But when we turn to God and throw ourselves on his mercy, he protects us in his grace: “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14). Sin, evil, and Satan are formidable enemies, but they are nothing when compared to the power and goodness of God. Reliance on God is the most important foundation to spiritual warfare.
The trailer also includes obliquely Catholic references as it disturbingly demonstrates evil’s penchant for twisting and perverting the good. According to Catholic theology, Satan and demons are unable to create anything themselves. Instead, they only corrupt what is good. The Diablo IV trailer is packed with examples of this. Blood, which in the Catholic sense is seen as sacrificial and salvific, becomes the doom of the thieves as it is used to unleash their worst nightmare. The number three, so important in the Christian tradition, features prominently in releasing the forces of evil in a sort of mockery of the Trinity. And (most abhorrently, in my opinion) the demon finally freed from its imprisonment is a terrifying anti-Marian figure, a mother of evil named ‘Lilith’ after the demonic figure from Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature. It is she that the players will have to fight against in Diablo IV as they seek to bring light and life back to their fallen world.
It is easy to watch a trailer like this and come away with only the horrifying—even blasphemous—things (I know I was deeply disturbed when the Blessed Mother’s title was given to a demon). But the purpose of the trailer is to show prospective players the evil that needs to be fought. You’re not supposed to like Lilith, or anything about the situation presented in the trailer. It’s a challenge to the players to do something about it, to play the game and defeat the new evil force threatening everything that is good and sacred.
I think games like Diablo IV have value insofar as they force us to confront what evil really is, and they show us in a real way how it operates and may even be at work in our own lives. They pull out the evil we encounter every day and concentrate it in a form that’s impossible to ignore, forcing us to confront the sin and darkness we may be trying to ignore in our own life. They invite us to ask ourselves which side we are really fighting for and force us to reexamine how we live out those loyalties in our everyday life. In a sense, they allow us to practice working through the struggle of good and evil in a medium where things are more black-and-white than they might otherwise be in real life. With the right sort of messages and worldviews underlying them, video games can even train us to more clearly understand movements of good and evil and take a stand for what we believe is right. However, this doesn’t happen automatically. It requires extra proactivity on the part of the player—a willingness to think and pray about the content of the video games we play and apply these connections to real life.
Those are a few of the positive effects of playing video games that grapple with sin, darkness, and evil. But we can’t ignore the potentially negative effects games like this might have on us, either. If a game is going to do us good and lead us to the truth, it must portray good and evil in a way that truly reflects reality. Games that glorify sin or foster a fascination with evil can cause more harm than good, just as games that present a distorted view of goodness and love can confuse and weaken our understanding of the truth. In these cases, we must tread very carefully and ask ourselves: Is this game leading us toward evil or away from it? Does it make excuses for evil, presenting sin as something darkly attractive? Or does it cultivate in us a stronger resistance toward evil?
Answering these questions involves looking at our own circumstances and the spiritual, psychological, and emotional effects that a video game has on us personally. Then we must draw boundaries where necessary. For example, there might be some nights where we’re in a more vulnerable place in our spiritual life—perhaps we are struggling against a certain temptation to sin or experiencing a spiritual desolation that makes it difficult to hear God’s voice and easy to feel discouraged. At times like this, we may not be mentally prepared to be safely exposed to the workings of evil, even in a fictional setting. We should then act with prudence and probably stay away from playing a dark game like Diablo IV that we might otherwise enjoy.
Here’s a quick checklist to help you gauge your reaction to video games and get a sense for your own boundaries when it comes to playing them:
Pay attention to the way you experience the game during gameplay and afterward. Ask yourself:
- Does this game help me vent negative or aggressive emotions in a cathartic way? Or does it intensify and increase them?
- Does this game make me feel attracted to or repulsed by things that are evil or morally wrong?
- Does this game train me to objectify others or better respect their dignity?
- Does this game disturb or depress me? Or does it encourage and uplift me?
- Do I agree with what the game directs or permits me to do? Is the worldview it presents compatible with or opposed to my own beliefs?
When we understand our own limits and reactions to the darkness presented in a game, we are better able to assess when it’s a good time to play it and when it might be better to pick a game that’s a little more lighthearted. We also should consider that it might be better for us not to play a certain game at all. Even if there are really good things about a game, if it is doing us more harm than good, then those good things aren’t worth it. We cannot compromise when it comes to evil. There is no video game that is worth more than our souls.
Deciding whether or not to play video games like Diablo IV takes discernment, prayer, and an honest awareness of the spiritual and psychological effects the game may have on us. Judging by the trailers that have been released up to this point, Diablo IV pinpoints evil perfectly. It remains to be seen if that evil will be presented as something to surrender to or something to fight against...and if the game will present goodness as desirable more than it demonstrates evil.
Our guest blogger is Sr. Allison Gliot, a novice with the Daughters of St Paul. She is from Falls Church, Virginia, and has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of America. She loves video games, but not as much as she loves Jesus.