Prince of Persia, Prince of Peace

i met Grant Shonkwiler at GDC 08, while daring him to beat my Yars Revenge score on an inflatable couch at the Autodesk party. Grant was a Full Sail student in Florida. We started talking about our favourite documentaries. His favourite was Invisible Children, about child soldiers in Uganda. My favourite was The Devil’s Miner, following two young boys who work a silver mine in Bolivia. Hmm. Not your usual Tuesday night fare. Something was clearly up with Grant Shonkwiler. It wasn’t too tricky to spot that Grant was a Christian.

Grant Shonkwiler

There was something fishy about Grant Shonkwiler

A week after the show ended, Grant asked me if i’d be attending the Christian Game Developers’ Conference in Portland. My answer came freely and easily: Hell no.

There are many great philosophical questions that come part and parcel with Christianity, chief among them being the problem of pain (how can an infinitely good God allow needless suffering?), and the problem of video games (how can an infinitely good God allow crappy Christian video games, which cause needless suffering?) i’ve been stewing over this last problem for most of my professional life, and i haven’t come any closer to the answer than anyone else.

Full Spectrum Messiah

The first question i should ask is this: “Can there even be such a thing as a good Christian video game?” Or does this form of entertainment inherently excuse itself from Christification? Is creating a Christian video game like creating Christian porno? i’m not sure. There’s a whole lot of evil done in video games, evidenced by the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Superman 64. But there’s a whole lot of good too: helping a frog cross a busy highway, defeating the spectral forces of Satan by eating Power Pellets, and rolling people up into a big ball of garbage so that the King of the Universe can shoot it into the air and set it on fire to replace the stars he broke during a drunken bender.

Pac Man's Blinky

The power of Christ compels you, Blinky

Most RPGs and adventure-derived games have you travelling around doing heroic things, from the classic “defeat the dragon that’s terrorizing our village” scenario to the simple fetch quest – “bring me item A and i’ll give you item B”. These acts are not accomplished out of the goodness of the player’s heart by any means. Most often, they’re required to advance through the game. Aside from that, any Protestant worth his salt (and light) will tell you that Christianity is not about doing good deeds. It’s about salvation through Christ, who defeated death. And salvation, naturally, begets good deeds.

Christ’s defeat of death is one parallel i see between Christianity and video games: Super Mario has that resurrection thing down to a science.

Dead Super Mario

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither goombas nor koopas, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

You could argue that Christianity in video games can only exist alongside depictions of evil, and that a Christian game must give the player the choice between the two. i disagree. This type of thing has been tried in secular video games, and i think it paves the road to failure.

In Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, there are two possible outcomes for the player: the dark Jedi path or the light Jedi path. Ditto Peter Molyneaux’s Fable. You can become either the virtuous, radiating hero, or the horned evildoer. To pursue either of these paths, you’re presented with a series of moral choices throughout the game:

Oh no! This little girl’s kitten is stuck up in that tree! Do you:

a) Climb the tree and rescue the kitten
b) Kick the little girl in the face and set the tree on fire

Really? Is that the best we can do? i remember how the marketing machine was in full force around the launch of Fable, touting its revolutionary and sophisticated decision tree that forced the player into making tough moral decisions. Ahem.

Fable

Fable (emphasis on the “bull”)

The reason why this approach wouldn’t work in a Christian video game is that if you know you’re playing a Christian video game, and you know that the best possible outcome results from making all the “correct” Christian choices, then these moral crossroads become pointless and boring. Maybe it’s more fun to kick the little girl in the face? You’ll never know, because this is a Christian game, and Christians don’t kick little girls in the face unless they absolutely deserve it. You’ll robotically opt for the morally right choice in all instances if you want to see the game’s best ending or the most compelling content.

So do you throw in more difficult moral decisions for which most people don’t immediately know the Christian solution? The trouble with that is most Christians don’t know the Christian solution to certain so-called grey areas, and they wildly disagree amongst themselves when it comes down to these minutiae of the faith. One need only look to the scads of Protestant denominations for evidence of this.

One problem here is that to create a Christian game where the player is choosing between good and evil, your game must include evil. That means that, as a developer, you have to cook up all sorts of different ways for the player to sin. And to keep the moral decisions more interesting, you would actually have to tempt the player to sin in your game. The player must feel that there’s some salacious content he’ll be missing out on if he chooses not to kick the little girl in the face, or not to gamble his family’s savings away at virtual poke, or not to get it on with the attractive female alien character. So a Christian game developer would himself be sinning, both by developing this alternative content and by tempting the player to virtually sin.

What Would Jesus Frag?

Another approach i’ve seen is what i call the “Christian Veneer” tack. That’s where you take a derivative secular game and give it a Christian coat of paint. This is the approach taken by the Left Behind crew in their first game, which was essentially a violent real-time strategy game set during the chaos of the (not necessarily Biblical) Rapture.

Left Behind

Left Behind suggests that violence in Christian games is okay, but boobies are right out

We saw a little more of this in the early days of console gaming with Wisdom Tree, who took side-scrolling jump-and-avoid games and inserted Biblical sprites. In one game, the player controls Moses’ mother Jochobed as she protects baby Moses from Pharoah’s baby-hunting soldiers. (a side note: Jochobed is also my favourite German candy bar.)

Bible Adventures

UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A = Wrath of God

i see Christian music groups doing this too. They’ll write what is ostensibly a love song and insert a bridge where they sing “God” or “Jesus” or “Hallelujah” a few times. This structure allows them to remove the Jesusy bridge for secular radio play.

i question the value of a so-called Christian game that pays lip service to the faith. How much Christianing are you getting done by playing a game like Bible Adventures? Do these games inspire or incite you to live out the tenets of the faith? My answer is “no”. The Christian Veneer approach is just a method of shoehorning Biblical elements into an established form of entertainment to make a buck while gamers ease their guilt from enjoying an otherwise God-free hobby.

Overboard Like Jonah

Another ill-advised attempt at creating Christian games is the Ridiculous Allegory approach. That’s where, instead of applying a Christian coat of paint, the developer steeps the game in Biblical nonsense, infiltrating every nook and cranny with references to the Good Book until it reeks of holiness. Examples of these games include The Bibleman Videogame Adventure: A Fight for Faith, in which Bibleman must stop the Wacky Protestor, and ‘Ominous Horizons: A Paladin’s Calling’ and Catechumen, both of which have you taking up the Sword of the Spirit and slaying evil demons in a maze.


“Imagine an animated world where there is no God.” Um … i think we’ve found one.

i’ve never felt good about this approach. This is laying it on too thick. i don’t even like it this thick when i voluntarily go to church to be preached to. i mean, i like peanut butter and all, but not if you’re going to slather the whole jar onto one slice of bread.

I’ll take “God” for 500 Alex

The final approach, and the most promising one in my opinion, is Christian trivia, but it’s not without some obvious problems:

1) Trivia is boring.
2) Educational games are boring.
3) Please can i just play Madden already?

i’ve found a way to solve all three of these problems, which i’ll detail in a future post. After many years of careful thought, the game that i’ve arrived at teaches Christian concepts, encourages righteous living, includes fun and mystery, and basically rocks the socks off of Christian games that have come before it. i don’t dare produce the thing without sufficient funding, though. If i have one beef with Christians in the entertainment world, it’s that they scrimp on production values and embarrass the rest of us.

On that note, i’ll leave you with some more quality Bibleman viewing, and some further reading.


John 11:35 – Jesus wept.

Further Reading

MrNasty asks What’s a good Christian FPS?

bishuseDec replies:
technically you can play through Deus Ex and its lesser sequel without killing or raping anything.

Doom 3 Gets Religion

I will explain why Doom 3 is one the most overtly Christian video games ever made.

Playstations of the Cross

A great many people of faith believe the video-game business is so irredeemable that the best response is simply to bar the door.

11 thoughts on “Prince of Persia, Prince of Peace

  1. Mark

    I’d like to see some simulations out there like “Run World Vision”, “SimGod” etc. Toss plenty of humour or excitement in and you may have a compelling game, maybe no God of War but compelling enough to spend some time on.

    Reply
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  3. Donald Harris

    Man you bring up several good points its hard to figure out a place to start. One thing I was thinking about in making a Christian game is to take the Christian out of the game. By that I mean don’t make it a main focus on purpose like with Bibleman but perhaps your player character is a Christian and he is struggling with his beliefs and how to be a proper Christian. I think that is the most REAL way to look at it. Its never an easy thing to do and no one is perfect at it.

    Reply
  4. Facebook Indie Games

    Mark’s charity sim idea is pretty interesting. Of course it’ll be more interesting if it’s not overtly Christian and gives the player a sandbox where they can make awkward choices about what causes within a country to support, what dodgy governments to do deals with, how to balance advertising spend vs. direct help, deal with crises, and so on.

    There are a lot of political sims that could play with competition and conflict within Christianity. A strategy game where you start with a church of five people meeting in a house and try to grow it to a mighty mega church with global reach and thousands or millions of followers. Compete with other churches, make political alliances, recruit Christian soldiers, all to maximise your “souls claimed” score. Of course you can’t be a succesful Christian denomination without doing some seriously unchristian things, and that’s the fun of this game — how much will you compromise your values to gain the souls of your followers?

    Reply
  5. Harrison Lemke

    This was an interesting article. My question is – why can’t a “Christian video game” be approached in the same way as Christian art, where it doesn’t necessarily exist to preach or moralize, but rather to examine and explore philosophical issues from a Christian perspective? I don’t know if you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus, but I think that you could view it as a Christian game, in a sense – I found it to spark a lot of thought about the nature of evil. Obviously, the game has you actually committing heinous acts – but if approached from the right angle, I don’t think that kind of thing makes something “unchristian”. To depict something isn’t to endorse it, although it can be misconstrued that way.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i see your point. Unfortunately, Christian audiences aren’t known for their grasp of subtlety.

      And can anything really be called “Christian” if it makes no explicit mention of Christ? A game like Shadow of the Colossus may (superficially) explore morality, but many world religions comment on the nature of evil and draw similar conclusions. The Golden Rule is nearly universal. What makes something Christian is Jesus, is it not?

      Reply
  6. TR

    Not that I like to be argumentative, but I disagree with some of the ideas that are in the above article.
    I like this article, but it’s not totally my view of things.
    I agree, as I see it, it is hard to make Christian-themed video games, or any other video games, based on a religion’s morality.
    I think the reason why it is hard is because a lot of religious people want a [religious] video game to be friendly to all people, including kids who are as young as three years old.
    So, if you make a video game with Christ as a character in it, then some people will want the game to be only pg or G rated.
    So, in my view, you end up with video games that have no violence + no dirty stuff + end up looking like a “Veggie Tales” movie, with Jesus as the hero.
    Most Christians, + people of similar religions, are pretty much like anyone else. Morality is a choice, so most Christians decide for themselves what to get into, such as: g-rated, pg-rated or X-rated films.
    Most Christians are not “yes or no” puritan, boring people. They, like most people, whether they are religious or not, also enjoy things like: Tintin comic books, Asterix comic books, Roger Moore’s James Bond films + some watch “Reservoir Dogs”, etc.
    By “most Christians”, I mean most Christians over 18, by the way.
    So, if you want to do video games that have Christian themes or other religious themes, you’ll probably have to use characters that are not main characters in the bible, or, if you do use those characters, you’ll probably have to make the games with just [subjects that are safe for five-year-olds], and no subjects that are more taboo than that.

    So, yes, you probably can’t make Jesus a main character in your “horror film-type” video game. Many, many people want him to stay squeaky-clean in games.

    But, you probably can make a game and say that it has a Noah-type hero in it, and then give your Noah-type hero a game that looks like the films: Thunderball, or Pirates of the Caribbean.
    I think that that type of game will sell well to most western Christians + most of the other people in the West.
    That is my idea, on how to put religion-friendly ideas into video games.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Thanks, TR. It would be a really interesting experiment to make a Christian video game for adults, with adult content (no explicit sex or gratuitous violence, obviously … but sex and violence to a degree). The degree is the tricky part. There’s a spectrum of tolerance among Christians for certain types of adult content, and that tolerance varies not only along religious lines (ie United Church tolerance vs. Brethren tolerance), but it also varies geographically by subject matter (Canadians in general are more tolerant of sex and less tolerant of violence, while that tolerance is reversed in America).

      It’s thought-provoking, though. The whole topic has been on my brain’s backburner for many years, and i keep returning to this article to ask myself if i still believe my thesis.

      Reply
  7. jal11180

    People, you have the perfect template for the perfect Christian video game and it is already from a secular source. If any of you heard of the Dynasty Warriors/Warriors Musou series, from Tecmo Koei/Koei Tecmo why not simply do that, but from the perspective of Israel circa 3000 B.C./B.C.E. to about 90 A.D./C.E.? You could call it Kingdom Warriors and you could preach the Gospel in a way that people would like.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      3000 BC predates the gospel by… you know… 3030 years. i’m not sure that the stories of the Israelites warring with neighbouring peoples is the most uplifting or edifying content the scriptures have to offer.

      Reply

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