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Looking back at old news, and a rant about “projects” May 23, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, Islam.
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Since it feels like this site hasn't dealt with a faith other than Christianity yet, I thought I'd link to an old post from Water Cooler Games on a group making Islam-themed games. The Islamgames site seems to have disappeared, and I didn't get to play the games, so I can't offer any new opinion on them other than to refer to Ian Bogost's take on things.

It's interesting that one commenter felt that the Islamic theme was superficially added after the game was made – it had no real relevance to the gameplay itself. It sounds similar to the phenomenon I've seen before in some Christian games.

(Big dump of personal opinion on how this comes about after the break.)

It's a phenomenon that I think I can relate to, in some degree, looking back on my upbringing as a Christian and my friends at the time. It's not uncommon for a young Christian kid to at some point feel convicted (or perhaps just pressured) to get rid of media such as music, books, movies, or games which are seen as a bad influence. I won't suggest that this is either good or bad, as it can go either way and it's pretty relative to one's personal situation.

So what do you do if you've listened to a certain style of music, or played a certain type of game, for months or years and really love it, but suddenly are trying to clean out bad influences? For many, the answer is to find an alternative which is stylistically similar but with a positive message. But if that alternative can't be found, the next step for those who are ambitious enough can be to create your own alternative. Unfortunately, what this often means is that the person trail-blazing new ground in Christian media isn't deeply interested in creating art for art's sake, or even for the sake of exploring how to express their beliefs and thoughts sincerely, but rather how to get a "safe" version of what they used to enjoy. The result of this is a carbon-copy of the original influence, but with only the superficial elements changed.

It's sort of the artistic equivalent of knowing that someone is being your friend only because they want you to "get saved". The result, even if they're a really nice person, is that you feel like a project. And Christian music and book stores have seen a lot of missionary "projects" pass through their doors.

This is why I often find myself battling cynicism when I look at the current state of Christian gaming. I know there are good people out there making these games, people who I view as brothers and sisters through a shared faith, and I want them to do well and continue creating and exploring new ground even if their methods aren't mine. But as a gamer, as a music lover, as a bookworm, I don't want to feel like a "project". Make something because you love making it, because you believe that it's something worth making even if it never leads to a single person converting to your belief. Make something because it's in you and you know that it's meant to come out. I know I've seen the results of this in the work of my favorite Christian musicians and writers, because it shows. I want that same creative integrity to show itself when I play a faith-based game.

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Comments

1. duchess - May 24, 2006

Thanks for the link to the Water Cooler Games article. I enjoyed it, so much that I googled for more articles and found the following Slate article: http://www.slate.com/id/2124363

2. Nate Cull - May 30, 2006

As always, I find your thoughts on this subject fascinating. I started thinking down this road in the early 1990s and it began (continued) a process of deconstruction/reconstruction of my faith which is still ongoing.

Which is to say: is there such a thing as Christian art as opposed to non/anti-Christian art? I think so, but like all of life, I don’t think the boundary between ‘Christian’ and ‘unChristian’ lies in the form itself. Er. That is to say, I do think the form of a media or a genre shapes the thoughts that can be communicated within that genre. Christopher Alexander’s ideas on architecture and ‘The Quality Without A Name’ come to mind. But…

Here’s the question that I looked at in around 1993 and couldn’t get a good answer to, then:

What are the *mechanics* of ‘the Christian life ™’?

Which is to say, what are the rules, what is the score? What is the nature of reality and is reality shaped in any particular direction? (Which is the same as asking ‘is there an inherent morality to the universe?’) Since gaming, more than any other artform I think, is about *actions* (you can passively experience a painting and you can skimread through a book, but stop paying attention to a game and you lose), what would the essential signature of a Christian approach to game design be?

Which reduces down to: what is the essential signature of Christian theology, as applied to lived experience in this world? No abstract speculation allowed: that’s the special requirement of thinking of things in gaming terms. Take away everything that’s not immediate and obvious in its physicality, and what’s left of Christian faith?

It startled me that at the time, I couldn’t find a usable answer to that question even in a Christian Bible College – I didn’t think it was that big of one, but apparently it is.

I suggest that non-violence, for want of a positive term, is at the core of lived Christian experience. Which suggests that ‘Christian gaming’ would involve something other than combat simulations.

I think there’s more to the idea of Christian non-violence, though, than a mere negation of violence, or even of self-sacrifice, or of morality. I think a sense of shared humanity is close to the core of it. The Christian concept of ‘salvation’ is not an individual thing.

A related question I struggle with at the moment: How much of what I consider to be my ‘Christian faith’ am I willing to let go of, in order to discover what the Christian God is actually doing in the world today?

Is there a significant difference between the Buddhist concept of ‘compassion’ and the Christian concept of ‘agape’ or ‘caritas’? Because those words currently come the closest to explaining what I think the essential irreducible core of the faith is – the bit that would need to be modelled in a gaming system.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I’m halfway through my life and still haven’t much of a clue just what caritas is or how one gets it. Sometimes it looks indistinguishable from bloody-minded obsession, sometimes it looks like weak self-indulgence, sometimes it looks like distracted dreaming, and most of the time it looks like sheer unattainable lunacy.

3. Nate Cull - May 30, 2006

Here’s some follow-up questions:

What is it about any particular game that strikes one as compatible or not compatible with Christianity?

Is it explicit religious symbology? The inverted crosses and pentagrams in Doom? Does adding crosses to a game make it Christian?

Is it the depiction of graphic violence? Is seeing dismembered corpses non-Christian? Is killing simulated beings non-Christian? With blood or without? If the blood is green or yellow and the beings are obviously non-human, does that make it safer? Does the fact that enemies are portrayed as irredeemable (and sometimes literal) demons make the mandatory violence of videogames justified, or does it make for thinly-disguised military propaganda? Should we be rooting for the blue-eyed Aryan humans or the ugly vaguely Asian-looking Orcs to win? Is it more acceptable to be shooting enemies or attempting to convert them to one’s ideological cause?

Can we love a genre for its own sake even if we violently disagree with some of its foundational assumptions? I tend to find ‘spacey shoot-em up’ games less disturbing than tactical shooters, but the space novels of E. E. Doc Smith were hugely influential in setting the parameters of the early videogames, going back to Spacewar. And reading Smith’s Lensman stories now I’m startled by how chillingly fascist-like they are. (Norman Spinrad does a great send-up of Smith in his novel ‘The Iron Dream’). And yet they’re fondly remembered as exciting escapist fantasy from a ‘more innocent era’.

Is Missile Command a more Christian game than Space Invaders? What is the canonical Christian response to nuclear war, or alien invasion, anyway?

(I thought Orson Scott Card made a good commentary, speaking from a vaguely Christian viewpoint, on the morality of gaming-as-war in his ‘Ender’s Game’ series, particularly in ‘Speaker for the Dead’ – but I find him ambiguous now. I’m not sure what his position actually is, and I’m certain I couldn’t summarise it in one sentence.)

4. joshg - May 30, 2006

Which reduces down to: what is the essential signature of Christian theology, as applied to lived experience in this world?

To me, the most natural way to answer that is to look at what the lived experience was of the “heroes” of our faith that we find in Scripture. What did Jesus do? What did the prophets, the apostles, the (good) Hebrew kings do? What did Abraham do?

Of course, what makes this approach complicated has little to do with game design, and everything to do with modern Christianity. Far too often, we spend more time trying to explain away why we seemingly can’t do what Jesus did, theologizing based on our lack of experience rather than our Biblical model. And when God actually reaches down and does something, we want to write it off as emotionalism, mass hysteria, or deception, instead of searching for what God is doing.

There’s also the difficulty, which I’ve written about before, in creating a game relating to a faith centered around the biggest wildcard imaginable – God. Still, I think God’s made it clear enough what we’re asked to do, that it’s possible to illustrate the active part of our faith through a game’s system of actions.

I don’t know if I’d agree with a central theme of “non-violence”, to be honest. How can that theme capture the heart of a message such as Matthew 11?

or the really controversial-sounding KJV version…

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

Certainly compassion and love are central to the Gospel, but those are not passive. I am very against physical violence, but in the emotional and spiritual sense sometimes our faith demands force in its compassion.

5. joshg - June 1, 2006

Also, I’d put my vote towards Defcon being the best response to nuclear war, Christian or otherwise.

(I’m pretty sure it’s the response that would most suit the author of Ecclesiastes.)

6. Nate Cull - June 3, 2006

Heh, Defcon does look amusing.

“Certainly compassion and love are central to the Gospel, but those are not passive.”

I am wondering why that’s almost always a standard reflex
response from Christians who see the word ‘non-violence’. Did I say ‘passive’ anywhere in my comment? Did you read that, if I did not say it? Is it taken for granted somewhere that the only form of action is violence, or that renunciation of violence somehow also carries with it also a shunning of one’s fellow man, a withdrawal into isolation, a lack of empathy? Where do these ideas come from, and why are they so deeply embedded in English-speaking culture that we don’t even have a word for the concept of ‘treating every person like they are my friends’, and we have to resort to exotic loanwords like ‘satyagraha’ or ‘ubuntu’?

Well, I suppose we have words like ’empathy’, ‘solidarity’, ‘compassion’… but as a whole, the language of [ peacefulinterventionmaking ] is mostly abstract and general, while the language of violence has thousands of distinct, tactical signifiers. Punch, kick, throttle, stab, hold, execute, designate targets, take ground, insertion point, extraction point, rendezvous…

“I am very against physical violence, but in the emotional and spiritual sense sometimes our faith demands force in its compassion.”

Yes… and it’s what that would look like, in concrete realities, which I find myself struggling to visualise. Even before trying to look at the completely separate task of translating a process into a stylised game mechanic, let alone artwork and implementation. Designing a wargame is hard work, but at least starts from the point that a war is a very physical, obvious thing and has plenty of examples, recent and historical, and a whole media library of analysts.

An [ unwar ], though…. what does that even look like? What are the field units? How are they deployed? What’s the tactical and strategic doctrine? A force deployment of the heart, of the spirit, an army of compassion… assuming these things are not just *words* but are objective realities… does it even take place in 3-D space?

I mean, there are similar concepts like ‘psychological warfare’… and it’s interesting to note that Paul Linebarger, one of the fathers of US post-WW2 military psywar doctrine was a Christian, and also wrote science fiction, and his interest in the study of psywar was in minimising casualties… but from what I can tell, the field today, if it even was something different in Linebarger’s era, is about information control and outright deception to suppress the intelligent decision-making capacity of an adversary. Which doesn’t seem to me to be what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he says ‘we don’t fight against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers’.

John the Revelator has Christ imaged with a sword coming out of his mouth. What’s that about? Violence as communication? Or communication as something that supercedes war?

7. joshg - June 5, 2006

You didn’t say “passive”, but the word “nonviolence” itself has no active implication. By definition, all “nonviolence” means is an absence of violence. It speaks nothing about whatever active component you choose to replace violence with. So, yeah, I guessed you would’ve meant more, but I don’t think that word really does a good job of conveying what you’ve got in mind.

And, to be honest, I don’t think Christianity always demands nonviolence. If a man threatens to kill your family, does “turn the other cheek” mean to stand by and allow him to do so? Despite my Mennonite heritage, I choose to disagree. There are times when evil must be resisted, or else you are simply handing greater power to that evil. I still believe that more often than not, that nonviolent pre-emptive resistance can be a better option, but I’m not someone who’s going to vow to never lift a finger if someone tries to hurt someone I love.

Besides all of that personal baggage I have against the word, I still think there’s something inherently violent, in a non-physical sense, about the kingdom of heaven that Jesus speaks about. When the Scripture speaks of the spoken word of God being a sword that divides even soul and spirit, it speaks to me that there are revelations God brings which can tear apart who we believe ourselves to be.


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