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The Escapist on faith and philosophy in games April 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, Judaism, mainstream games.

The newest issue of online gaming publication The Escapist focuses on religion and philosophy within gaming. The articles vary from thought-provoking to curious to strangely silly. The two articles that I found the most worth reading were “Jesus was not a gamer” by Joe Blancato, and “A Lack of Faith: Why Christian Games are Doomed to Fail” by Lara Crigger.

“Jesus was not a gamer” pokes a bit at the tendency we have to pray to whatever god/God we know of for help in winning games, and then dives into a survey of how religion and games have mixed historically around the world. The article gives some fascinating examples. I finally have some clue as to what a dreidl is, and while I had heard of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet before, I didn’t realize that the rules had actually been reconstructed. (The article links to a Flash version of the game, but at the time of writing this it seems to be down.)

Interestingly, Blancato looks for a gaming connection to Christianity and finds that there seems to be none. He attributes it at least partially to Christianity’s underground beginnings, but isn’t that the exact circumstances in which he says that Judaism invented the dreidl? I don’t know how deeply the two situations are parallel, though, so maybe I’m misunderstanding.

“A Lack of Faith” is, initially, a pretty harsh criticism of the current state of Christian games. But looking past the nasty subtitle and the Left Behind: Eternal Forces abuse, Crigger actually dives into what I believe to be a fundamental challenge for Christian games, or faith-based games in general. Are Christian games willing and able to create a deep and meaningful look at what it means to have a crisis of faith? The article takes a close look at the story of Job as an example of what a truly challenging faith story looks like, and holds that up as a measure. Ultimately, Crigger is advocating what (I think) I’ve been trying to cheer on via this blog all along – for games to create a deeper and more meaningful representation of what faith is, how it turns your life inside out.

One thing I’d mention is that I think the article doesn’t do justice to just how hard that goal might be to achieve, especially in a Christian context. Crigger brings up this core question from the look at Job:

If by being good, you can entirely avoid misfortune, what distinguishes righteousness from commerce, a mere business transaction between you and God?

Certainly struggling with this question is what makes the book of Job so challenging. Unfortunately, in a slightly different light it’s also what makes creating a compelling Christian faith story so challenging as well. Both game rules and computer systems are excellent at creating representations of predictable, mathematical relationships. But if we try to embody a story of faith with a living and incalculable God in the rules of a game, how do we distinguish righteousness from commerce? How do we keep our representation of prayers from being “mere business transaction(s)” in an economy of game mechanics?



1. Khurram Ahmed - April 6, 2007


You might be interested. If not, sorry for plugging myself.

2. joshg - April 6, 2007

No problem. I do remember reading that article back when it came out. I thought it was an interesting contribution as well.

3. Khurram Ahmed - April 6, 2007

The question at the crux, I believe, is one that has bothered theologians for millennia.

Do you – does the game designer, does the game player – believe that God has knowledge and control of particulars. I think a passage in the Bible goes something like, ‘God knows when a single hair on your head moves’.

If someone works with that as part of their core beliefs, then they must surely believe that God plays a role when a Hail Mary pass is thrown. God can surely give an athlete the strength, the clarity of purpose and mental fortitude for a moment, i.e., inspire the athlete.

And let’s not forget the name Hail Mary has some religious connotations.

Anyway, my point is this. For Christian game designer designing Christian games, to incorporate doubt and crises of faith, would be seen as yielding to temptation.

In conjunction, let’s not forget what Jesus’ response was when Satan tried to tempt him a second time by suggesting that Jesus throw himself off the temple so the people milling about below could see a miracle…

4. joshg - April 6, 2007

6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies[a]? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Luke 12:6-7

Yeah, so I think it’s fair for someone to acknowledge a belief that God helped them achieve a victory – even a sports or game victory. I’m a bit jaded towards the single-winner, many-losers mentality of competitive sports, though, so I’m liable to agree with Blancato’s closing remark:

Does Jesus care if we win the big game? Probably not; if anything, he cares how we play the game.

Your point about incorporating doubt into Christian games being seen as ‘yielding to temptation’ is essentially what Crigger sees as evangelical Christianity’s standard viewpoint as well. The difference is that she sees this as unnecessary and getting in the way of a true portrayal of a deep faith.

I would tend to agree, although maybe setting the two things up as opposing each other isn’t necessary. After all, look again at the story of Job. He didn’t have to yield to temptation to be put into a situation where his faith was challenged – God put him in that situation. Perhaps we can be designing games that avoid the ‘business transaction’ model of spirituality, and instead create a situation where even a player acting morally within the game world is thrust into situations where their faith is questioned.

I also don’t think doubt and crisis of faith is the only mechanism worth exploring to portray faith within games. There are many questions of “why?” and “how?” that are worth exploring which are more about digging into the wisdom that a faith offers to come to a deeper understanding.

5. joshg - April 6, 2007

I should also mention that Jesus’ response to the devil’s third temptation is probably one of the more misused and misunderstood verses in evangelical Christianity. When he responded with, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,'” he was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16 which is speaking about not testing God’s patience by worshipping other gods. So really I think it reads as either “That would be trying God’s patience by leading the people into false worship,” or “You’re trying my patience with this nonsense, so scram already,” depending on how you feel like relating Jesus’ divinity into the interpretation. =)

6. Karl - April 6, 2007

I followed your Escapist post to get here. I’ve skimmed a number of your posts and like what you are working towards.

I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to reveal a new way to conceive of the world through games by doing various kinds of world modeling. However, my conclusion thus far is that gaming is tuned to particular play patterns that seem to work best in the medium, usually simplistic things like running around and killing people. Until game AI’s develop human-like intelligence and communication, I don’t think that games will do what I am imagining. In contrast, I think that a book can carry out more sophisticated paradigm modeling and do it more easily. So, I’m a bit of a pessimist but I’m hoping for someone to prove me wrong.

As to Christians creating meaningful games, I think that it’s hard to do because most Christian organizations are pretty anal about communicating their message to the point where it harms the game design. The game developer needs a vision and they also need freedom to create. It’s hard to do that when they need to continually check to ensure that the design lines up with the statement of faith of the organization and worry whether the game will offend their Christian supporters. Under such conditions, the best they can hope for is a game that Christians inside the culture will enjoy. There won’t be acceptance from the larger culture unless there is more freedom inside the game.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that the Left Behind game was made. I like it when people try new things. I don’t know the game aside from reading articles, but it seemed like they really tried. I think that their eschatology is hokey, but I thought that it might make a fun(ny) game. It’s too bad that it didn’t work out.

7. Nate - April 9, 2007

“I think that their eschatology is hokey, but I thought that it might make a fun(ny) game. It’s too bad that it didn’t work out.”

Has the game been released yet?

8. joshg - April 9, 2007

Yep, it’s been out for a few months now. Non-religious press have given mediocre-to-poor reviews overall, but that’s largely based on the game’s implementation and technical flaws. I looked at the game’s demo and commented on some of the ways it reflects faith issues within its game play a few posts ago.

9. Nate - April 12, 2007

Wow, those reviews really are bad. I guess I’m not particularly surprised; it seems about ballpark for a cheap, rushed franchise tie-in game, which is the feeling most of the Left Behind material gives me. And when you look at how many even big-name franchise games with huge budgets, turn out mediocre at best, and spectacular embarassments at worst, the odds weren’t kind.

I’d still like to see a full-on nonviolent-confrontation simulator, rather than a hybrid wargame-with-persuasion-mechanic. Or a post-disaster repair-infrastructure game. Or a unite-warring-factions social simulator. Or a SimCity with gift economics. Or something with elements of all of the above, and a decent story.

Can we get a Katrina: The Aftermath game? Or Iraq: Deescalation?

I’d mention the TV show Jericho, since it’s begging for a game conversion, only it’s really really bad too…

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