Christian games in the past haven’t enjoyed much success.It sat on the stand, unopened and unused.
A second glance confirmed what I thought I’d seen: a mint condition edition of Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land.
When we were younger, my older brother subscribed to the Gamesmen newsletter, which arrived, thrice-folded in an envelope, boasting about the graphic breakthroughs of the Commodore 64 and informing us via a spiky red attention-getter that the Sega Mega Drive was “coming soon”.
In pouring over those catalogues, I’d noticed Exodus on numerous occasions. The illustrated front cover showed a buff and rugged Moses, triumphantly holding a staff while a meteorite tail exploded into the rock face of a mountain.
The lack of a Biblical basis for the artwork did not deter the glimmer of hope that here, finally, was a game mum and dad would surely approve of- a Christian computer game.
Now, 20 years later in a book exchange selling overpriced and outdated computer games, I walked away from Exodus, driven largely by not wanting to pay $8 for a game that was probably on three floppy disks.
Oh, and the fact the game itself looked atrocious.
Given a choice between it and watching the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on SBS, I’d probably side with old Jim and his pupil-less gaze.
And thus the question was thrust into my brain like the pit spikes in the original Prince of Persia- why are Christian computer games so terrible?
If you search “Christian” within the SMH’s Digitial Life or even Screen Play sections, there’s a good chance it will relate to a quote from the Australian Christian Lobby having a gripe about violent computer games. That might be the automatic connection you make between Christ-followers and gaming.
But Christianity isn’t large steeples, big Pope hats, rosary beads, finger pointing and confessional booths. To an extent, Catholicism has probably done to the term “the Church” what the Left Behind game series has done to the term “Christian computer games”.
Firstly, yes, Christians play computer games. In fact, members of the online group Gamers for Jesus have a Bible study before tearing each other apart in Call of Duty 4 or True Combat Elite.
They certainly break the mould of Christians as Bible-toting, grey-suited fuddy-duddies, who would use the word fuddy-duddies and not bat an eyelid.
Owen Good’s insightful article, Christian Game Developers Want to Leave Bad Games Behind is a report on the Christian Game Developers Conference (CGDC) last year. (Yes, such a conference does exist.) He quotes guest speaker and pastor of the Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, David McDonald: “If you made the Left Behind game and you’re in here, look, I’m called to love you but, epic fail, right? Class A bed-pooing there.”
McDonald says he doesn’t think games can evangelise or disciple. “When somebody sits down and says, ‘Let’s make a video game to make better Christians,’ they’re in trouble,” he says.
It would seem then, that good intentions are no excuse for a terrible game. Born again gamers know this as much as anyone.
Helping Noah gather animals, zapping heathen zombies with some sort of “conversion ray” and guiding Mary and Joseph on a remarkably agile donkey are just some of the attempts to translate scripture to interactive media. Attempts, it would seem, that have failed on the popularity and financial front.
And so I’ve been content to shoot people point blank, pilot space ships, build empires from the ground up, collect coins, fit blocks, keep rhythm and collect map pieces as the mainstream computer game world fed it to me.
In a strange way, poor Christian computer games insulted my faith. I could turn the other cheek on being called “Jesus boy” or having mates dig me for not saying grace before eating a Whopper, but seeing a dismal cartridge/CD featuring Bible characters- now, that hurt.
In his 2007 piece, PrayStation: The Six Most Misguided Christian Video Games, Seth Brown of Cracked苏州美甲培训学校 labels Super 3D Noah’s Ark (don’t ask) as a “typical first-person slaughter fest with a tiny religious hat on”. “This reinforces the recurring theme of this list, which is that religiosity and fun exist at opposite ends of the spectrum and that you pretty much have to choose between one and the other. That can’t be true, can it? Isn’t there a story where Samson kills an entire army by bludgeoning them with the skull of a dead animal? Where’s that game?” he writes.
Good point. Where are the games on the numerous Biblical wars? Where’s the Age of Empires or Civilization-style game getting the Egyptians to the Promised Land? Where’s the stealth game that sees Jael, Heber’s wife, creep into Sisera’s tent and drive a tent peg into his skull? Where’s the Lego game retelling the walls of Jericho?
The thing is, these are stories with endings and meanings. To provide the option of an alternative could miss the entire point. Still, there’s a rich history and background there with oodles (another Ned Flanders style phrase) of potential to lift the sector profile.
I’ll admit my gaming repertoire is very limited compared to those of many reading this. There are probably Biblical references within thousands of computer games I don’t know about. It’s not like modern media has shied away from it.
Indiana Jones consulted the Bible in The Last Crusade, as did Ethan Hunt in Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible movie (Remember the Jon Voight line: “They stamped it, didn’t they? Those damn Gideons.”)
Who’s to say Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, Professor Layton, Guybrush Threepwood or Fantastic Dizzy (well, maybe not) couldn’t encounter a problem requiring the player to flip through the pages of the Good Book?
Some might say the profit margin of games with a Christian theme would be small. But with the R18+ rating being given the green light and metro-nerds everywhere celebrating their new found freedom for graphic debauchery and dismemberment, it might be time to look at the other end of the scale.
When it comes to movies, stand up comedy and computer games that seek to “push the envelope” with language, sex or violence, why limit the potential audience? Very seldom do you hear of a game running into trouble because it wasn’t gory or explicit enough.
The Avengers movie (which contained several Biblical references) is pretty much a squeaky clean film that has become a juggernaut (geek pun intended by association) at the box office. Clearly, clean material can make money.
There is a perception that when Christianity is marketed though, it becomes tainted. The Chaser’s “Hill$ong” sketch comes to mind. It would appear to be a difficult line to walk for a Christian game developer.
Perhaps it’s time Christian game developers re-thought their approach. It’s not about being deceptive or “tricking someone” into playing a game with a Biblical theme. In keeping with design themes of the Almighty, freewill makes humans human. They have to want to play the game.
In his 1966 book, The Gospel According to Peanuts, Robert Short explores how lay preacher and cartoonist Charles Schulz (think Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, etc) wove a spiritual theme throughout his artwork. Short would probably agree that if Charles Schulz were a modern day computer games designer he’d cringe at the overt attempts to thrust God down the throats of secular players.
“If the Church fails to use the divine imagination given to it, to see the unseen, to see ‘sermons in stones and good in everything,’ to see ‘that all that passes to corruption is a parable,’… it will constantly be embarrassed by a world capable of far more imagination than the Church itself,” he writes.
Simon Parkin at Gamasutra seems to agree: “Christians should not be demanding video games prefixed with a faith label, as if that cheap and easy classification provides some kind of invisible moral safety net for their and their children’s media consumption.”
“Rather, believers should simply be demanding good and beautiful games that delight in creativity, make people happy, present or explore the world in interesting ways and maybe, just maybe enable us to catch a glimpse of their God, from whom all good things are claimed to flow.”
The recent trend of pushing players into moral decisions in-game (such as Heavy Rain) shows gamers are willing to take on a deeper gaming experience. Would a similar tact work where questions of spiritual circumstance are posed?
Player desensitisation due to computer games is an old argument. Here’s a theory though: could the plethora of violent titles and gameplay be desensitising gamers to the games themselves? In other words: are we just getting bored with the same old thing?
Joshua Topolsky, founding editor in chief of The Verge writes for the Washington Post about his recent trip to E3. “Finally, one thing I found surprising and more than a little disappointing was the increase in graphic violence in games, as well as developers’ apparent inability to think of anything more than a gun to place in the hands of lead characters,” Topolsky wrote.
“There were a handful of games that explored a space outside the run-and-attack mechanics of many titles, but few tried to tell adult stories without gunshots and stabbings.
The world has become scared to acknowledge God. Do that, and you have to acknowledge sin and eventual judgement, which is as uncomfortable as the itchy, high-hitched trousers your mum used to make you wear to Sunday School. And yet we have greater acceptance in some areas, such as school chaplains being given the OK by the High Court (although the funding model needs a tweak).
Could innovative, soul searching, conscience nudging, mortality-facing games with Christian themes take gaming to another level? I shall be keeping my eyes on the Gamesmen catalogue to find out.
– Ash Walmsley
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