Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Problem with Christian Games

As many of my friends know, I'm a gamer. As all of them (I hope) also know, I'm a Christian.

One should not have to be separated from the other, yet plenty of times I've heard criticisms from both sides... gamers who think Christians are "stuffy, narrow-minded, ignorant, weak-minded, delusional, etc.", and Christians who believe games are "of the world, full of temptation, cause laziness, too violent, a waste of time, childish, etc.", you get the idea. And I know I won't change the minds of members of these two extremes.

That's not why you're here today. You're here to engage in a discussion with me about so-called "Christian Games" and why they, frankly, suck. And don't worry, the paragraph above will come back into play soon.

Let's start by looking at some of the most recent releases in the "Christian" gaming market: Guitar Praise, Left Behind, and The Bible Game. These are the three most well-known and highest-profile releases from strictly Christian developers. All three also share one crucial detail: they're pretty bad.

Guitar Praise, probably the best of the bunch, is a Guitar Hero clone featuring all Christian music. Not a bad idea, and it was actually pulled off rather well, with one glaring exception: most of the gamers the developer was trying to reach prefer consoles to PCs when it comes to rhythm games, while this was strictly a PC/MAC release. Perhaps they were unsure they'd get permission to release on the consoles, what with the "controversial" messages of peace and love and hope? Doubtful, since Rock Band actually features Christian music as downloadable content. It was also apparently much easier than the secular games, and lacked the polish they had, but not bad, overall. In fact, the type of game GP is actually makes it the best "Christian" game out there; it's not trying to turn a real-time strategy game into a witnessing tool, it's not trying to force religious learning experiences into being fun. It's just a game, with a fake guitar, playing Christian music. The simplicity in the idea really helps its cause.

Not so for the other two of my examples.

The Bible Game (which I think should've just been named "The Old Testament Trivia Experience" since the New Testament is nowhere to be found and this just barely resembles anything that's an actual GAME) suffers on several fronts, but the biggest is the fact that it seems the developers actually forgot why they were making the game. Many of the mini-games that pop up between trivia questions actually have very little, if any, to do with the actual biblical content they're based on. It's a disconnect that doesn't help their already bland presentation and the fact that many of the questions are actually what I'd consider to be too hard for anyone except a full-on biblical scholar. And the fact that they never touched the New Testament, which in my opinion, actually makes the Bible... well, THE BIBLE. The Old Testament, or at least a large amount of it, is made up of the Torah, which is the Holy Book for Jews.

And finally, the worst for last.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a real-time strategy game in the vein of Civilization, Command and Conquer, etc, where you face off against the armies of the Antichrist. It's based off the Left Behind novels, which I love. But I cannot stand this game... the pacing is way too slow at the start, frustrating scenarios (protect a church without firing back at a tank that's... you know... attacking the church), one of the enemy types is "rock musician" (because surely, someone such as myself who enjoys rock music must be evil), the ability to kill people who won't convert (very Christ-like, you know) -- and I'm not talking about violent enemies on that last one, but neutral folks too.

So we've got three vastly different games... you'd think the only link would be their affiliation with my faith. Nope. The other link? None of them were willing to truly be like Christ... they're far too exclusionary, not nearly bold enough. I'd go as far as saying these games (Guitar Praise largely excluded) are videogames' equivalent of the Pharisees.

Let's look at Jesus for a second. Who'd he hang out with? Sinners. Prostitutes. Liars. Cheats. The general scumbags of society... and He didn't get corrupted, didn't forget who He was.

Who were the Pharisees? Religious folk who didn't want to associate with anyone else... they wanted to do nothing more than stand at a distance from the non-believers and simply shout at them that they were going down the wrong path, without being bold enough to walk WITH those people and bring them the understanding that they apparently so lacked.

Now let's look back at these games: made exclusive for a religious audience, to the point that they can feel judgmental to non-believers (especially Left Behind). When you want to learn more about something or get into something you're new at, do you want the people who know about it to welcome you or let you know right from the start that you're an outsider?

A lot of Christians -- especially talking heads in conservative circles -- believe that those who enjoy secular games are wicked, depraved, and surrounding themselves with sin and violence. They believe that the only way Christians can enjoy a video game is if it's "family friendly." NEWS FLASH: THE BIBLE IS NOT FAMILY FRIENDLY. It features murders, wars, sex (go ahead, read Song of Songs), and, oh, yeah, executions via torture. And as I said before, Jesus HIMSELF, who is to be Christians' example, was willing to surround himself with sinners so He might reach them, just as the Apostles did after His resurrection. Last time I checked, the best way to get people to learn about Christ? GOING WHERE THEY ARE AND TALKING TO THEM. You can't do that when you're in an exclusive club, or playing games that are only geared toward believers.

Let's look at some games that are doing it right: Dante's Inferno, Darksiders, and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. All three made by secular publishers, for the general gaming crowd. All three feature (gasp!) violence, but also stories with spiritual references and themes. Heck, with the exception of Darksiders (which features a more general apocalypse story than a Biblical one except for the names of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), they all feature content directly referencing or pulled from THE BIBLE. This is GREAT... it opens discussion between believer and non-believer alike, it plants a seed (you know, something Some Guy once talked about), and they're all good. I mean, really, really, good. Even Mass Effect, especially Mass Effect 1, dealt with discussions about such hot topics as God and abortion in a mature, responsible manner, and somehow also managed to have awesome combat and an epic story. IN SPACE.

The big difference between the first three games and the second three? The latter group is willing to let everyone experience their message, willing to take chances, and willing to deviate a bit into fiction while still containing messages that Christians wish to get across: that God is real, that Jesus saves (seriously, Dante's Inferno is a great example of having Christ in a game without ever referencing Him by name) and that these are themes that everyone can understand and process. Christian game developers need to be willing to come out of their shells and take some risks -- including possibly making games that aren't completely squeaky clean, and Christian leaders need to understand that believers can be trusted to play these so-called "wicked" games; if they're really believers, then fictional experiences won't shatter or shake their faith, and if a believer loses faith after playing a video game, then there should be questions over the legitimacy of their belief in the first place.

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