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.
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.
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.
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 (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 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.)
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.
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.
technically you can play through Deus Ex and its lesser sequel without killing or raping anything.
I will explain why Doom 3 is one the most overtly Christian video games ever made.
A great many people of faith believe the video-game business is so irredeemable that the best response is simply to bar the door.