Of Demigods and Warring Elementals

Do parents need to be concerned about a strategy game set amid a pagan pantheon?

When my children were younger, I had one of those moments in which I sud-denly wondered if I was being The Bad Dad.

I was reading aloud from a book of mythology, with all the trappings of paganism on gaudy display: misbehaving gods and goddesses, magic, the occult — the whole package.

For an adult like me, this is simply part of our mental wallpaper. But what does it mean to children who believe in God the Father, his one and only Son and the Holy Spirit?

Where does the “god” Zeus or witchcraft or magic figure into the equation?

I started to stammer an explanation about how the word “god” meant different things to some people, and that these are just made-up stories. There was only one God, and Jesus Christ is his one Son. Anything else is just fiction.

My kids processed this idea as quickly as I said it, then urged me to return to Odysseus and his journey. When I’d finished for the evening, my son, about 9 years old at the time, said, “I can’t believe anybody ever believed that stuff was real. Everybody knows there’s only one God, and he’s not like those guys at all.”

I haven’t worried about my children encountering paganism and magic in stories since. Kids aren’t stupid; they know stories are stories. They don’t stop to parse the complex and evolving symbolism of dragons and wizards, for instance: They just like dragons and wizards. As do I.

For parents who find fantasy problematic, games are going to be a minefield. Not only are computer and video games often saturated with pagan, magical and occultist elements, but these elements are often in the direct control of the player.

And it’s not just the obvious titles, like role-playing or action games. Any turn-based or real-time strategy (RTS) game with fantasy elements will include things some may find objectionable.

It’s hard to imagine two better recent examples than “Demigod” (Stardock, PC; $50) and “BattleForge” (EA, PC; $30). Both are superb real-time strategy games with unique elements, and both are filled with paganism and the occult. Each is rated T for Teen: “Demigod” for partial nudity (for a skimpy costume on a female character), blood, suggestive themes, alcohol references and fantasy violence; “BattleForge” for fantasy violence, animated blood and some PG-rated language.

Since these are strategy games, which are played from a partial top-down perspective that renders all the figures quite tiny, none of these content elements are as obvious as they might be in a first-person game, but parents should use caution.

“Demigod” blends aspects of chess, real-time strategy, role-playing, action and arena fighting games. Most strikingly, you only directly control a single unit: one of eight “demigods” fighting for the right to be “god.” Each of the demigods has its own powers and style. You may control a giant walking tower with a huge hammer and archers and trebuchets set into his body or a vampire summoning fallen soldiers to fight as his personal bodyguard.

Two opponents face off at opposite ends of the map. At the beginning of a game, each side controls a citadel, which is his core base, as well as a healing crystal. He shops for artifacts, fortresses and towers for defense, portals and various kinds of flags that provide bonuses, and “war points” used to buy upgrades.

Once the battle starts, units pour out of the portals. Under the complete control of the computer, these units attack the enemy: destroying his defenses, capturing his flags and gates, and, ultimately, knocking down his citadel. Meanwhile, you control your demigod, who is a formidable fighter who can sway the course of a battle with special attacks and powers.

More important is the way you manage the complex system of upgrades, items and enhancements. Your demigod, units and structures can all be enhanced in myriad ways, and managing these upgrades is the key strategy element of the game. For a strategy game in which you control a single unit among hundreds of fighters, it’s remarkably complex.

“BattleForge” is a more traditional kind of RTS game, but one with its own twists. It’s an elegant mash up of the “Magic: The Gathering” trading card game and the “Warcraft” RTS series. The setting is fantasy boilerplate, with elemental powers divided among “Frost,” “Fire,” “Nature” and “Shadow” types.

Rather than mining resources and creating structures to deploy your army of spells and fantasy creatures, you simply play cards from a customizable deck. Cards require two kinds of resources to play — power and orbs — which are generated by capturing and controlling power wells on the map. The more spots you control, the better cards you can afford to play.

The real heart of the game is in building and using your deck, which allows you to cast spells and summon creatures to fight in real-time battles.

Outside of actual game play, there is an elaborate lobby and community element. You can try out all of your cards on a test arena, summoning enemies to fight in order to hone your tactics. There’s even a marketplace where you can buy or trade cards.

Should parents be concerned about games like this? If they object to things like Harry Potter, magic and stories about “gods,” then absolutely. Both “Demigod” and “BattleForge” draw on these elements as central pieces in their gameplay, and that’s a subject of reasonable concern for many Catholic parents. My own children view these elements with detached interest from the perspective of a secure and grounded faith. The idea of fantasy games as a “gateway drug” to the occult seems as likely as them offering up a hecatomb to Apollo after reading The Iliad.

Not all fantasy is benign, but not all magical elements in storytelling are dangerous, either. Parents need to step in and look at each item individually to see if it’s right for their kids — and to always use these moments as a teaching opportunity to draw them back to the truth of the faith.

Thomas L. McDonald is

editor-at-large of Games magazine and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.