Electron Dance
1Jul/11Off

Why Do Christian Games Suck?

I found this amusing video while doing all sorts of crazy research for the Where We Came From series. From the blog Gaming After 40:

I had no idea how many "copycat" Christian games were prowling around out there. Discuss!

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  1. In many cases originality is an issue. There’s no excuse for blatantly copying successful products and trying to shove a theological message on top of it or remove material some may find offensive — that’s not going to make a good game, ever.

    I think the primary hindrance is one also found in Christian books and films, that theme can supplant all other elements of a given medium. Entertainment products must entertain first and while theme is a crucial element of story telling, it flourishes best when expressed subtly by compelling plot and interesting characters. Games involve a whole host of other criteria that is never considered with as much importance as the all important aim of communicating a faith-centered message.

    I’m a Christian myself. I think the message of the Jesus is the most important message in the world, but I still don’t think we should be ham-fistedly trying to shove it into movies, games and books without proper consideration of its use within a given medium. If any entertainment product is going to be “Christian” it should utilize a perspective of the faith in a way that furthers the medium through a synergistic marrying of method and message. Dogma is an outlandish comedy with a lot of heart because it plays off of the more fantastic parts of religion (primarily Catholic) and because it assumes God is real, he’s not as much of a jerk as we think and we ultimately benefit by believing in Him. Formula: comedy with heart = religion can by silly but God makes us feel warm and fuzzy; that formula appropriately uses the subject of faith and religion in story-telling.

    Christian game developers have yet to find a way to appropriately utilize a perspective of faith to make a better game — I don’t know that they ever will. I have a great deal of passion about my faith and I think there are a number of ways to express it, primarily through written and spoken word (essays, books, sermons, discussions, etc), I just don’t think games are one of them, not yet anyway.

  2. I’ve always been interested in the whole concept of religious games, but have never had the opportunity to play them. The “Left Behind” game (or is there more than one) is still on my list of things I’d like to have seen. I don’t know that slapping in religious narratives/messages is always more ridiculous than the narratives so many games already have… I guess it’s just that both are often stilted and awkwardly done.

    Funnily enough, I made a “religious” game over the last couple of weeks where I was trying to integrate religious content (kind of) with the mechanics of the game. It’s called Let There Be Smite! and you can have the experience over at http://www.pippinbarr.com/games

    As to proper religious games… probably only a matter of time before something on the order of America’s Army gets put out by one of the super rich mega churches, though obviously the army had the advantage of being the industry so many games are already based on and thus had a tailor-made genre. Still, stands to reason a good religious game will hit the world sooner or later.

  3. They don’t suck. They are hilarious!

  4. Jordan, it’s interesting you see games as auto-fail when it comes to religion. I think Dale’s analysis (in the video) is valid up to a point. Most games used to be obsessed with fighting and death and Christian entertainment, probably trying to match the pull of the successful mainstream games might have felt there were no option but to ape their mechanics and their rather dodgy moral frameworks. (This problem continues today as most shooting games cast you as a mass-murderer as has been pointed out time and time again.)

    But things have changed with a healthy indie/homegrown environment in which experimentation is occurring. I think if we were ever going to see a religious game that could be considered interesting on its own merits, I think that time is now. It could be taken seriously since there’s plenty off-the-wall and surreal games being generated right now that would have been laughed at a decade ago. The hardcore shoot-in-the-face and blowing up shit narrow-minded mentality has peeled away.

    I’m an out-and-out atheist yet I was tempted to pick up a copy of Bill Williams’ book Naked Before God that I mentioned a few weeks ago. This is a religious book but I get the feeling Bill’s life struggle with CF was transformed into something honest yet still committed to faith. The reviews on Amazon are all positive. So I’m open to the idea that a religious-themed entertainment can work beyond its apparently narrow remit. I actually have a hankering to see what those Left Behind movies are like. I think I’ll probably hate them, but the temptation… Dogma, of course, I enjoyed.

    Mr. Pippin Barr, I had no idea you dropped by here now and again. Sorry I’ve not been around of late, the ED writing is research-intensive right now and I’ve stopped a lot of my blog commenting even if I am reading. But – I love your game! GuruQuest left me feeling a little nonplussed but this one made me laugh. There’s a beautiful comic timing to it. I applaud this! Also, I think it’s probably a whole lot better if your visitors don’t read about it in advance (thinking of your “spoiler” post). It reminds me of a story I wrote 5 years ago called Best of Five.

    And I share your faith that a decent faith game will arrive one of these days.

    And then Gnome, you’ll eat your words =) Unless it’s a comedy-based game. And then you won’t eat your words, probably just some fine moussaka.

  5. Oh my… moussaka. Can’t really stand the thing. Better eat my words.

  6. Can I have the moussaka, then?

    You know, a lot of people see some of my games as Christian or somehow religious – particularly The Museum of Broken Memories and Alphaland. I’m agnostic, of course, but many of my favourite artists (Blake, Tolkien) were deeply religious. The difference to most “Christian artists” being that their beliefs informed their work, but their work was not propaganda.

  7. Interesting discussion thread!

    I’m a huge J.S. Bach fan, so I can’t help but point out here that so much great art and culture has sprung from religious devotion. I had the fortune of performing Bach’s three-hour St Matthew Passion in my younger days. You could really *feel* the devotion that fueled the music. And what music!

    I wonder if the question is not ultimately about the medium of videogames, but rather our broader society and what it means to be religious these days (or specifically Christian, if we’re comparing to Bach). Like, can we imagine such a piece of music being written these days? Maybe. As a parallel, I think about somebody like Steve Reich, who has been strongly influenced by Judaism. Or someone like Arvo Pärt (see his stunning “Passio” for contemporary music that is acutely devotional). But something still seems different between Bach’s age and ours. Is it even possible to be so single-mindedly devotional in this age? And we should note that Bach was supported by a number of institutions, from his family (many trained musicians themselves) to the aristocracy. Is the same kind of religious cultural output possible in such a different world?

    And what about the social culture around game development? I’ve always defined a heavy individualist, rationalist ethos behind game dev culture (for better or worse). It just doesn’t seem that so many of my indie peers are very religious – especially here in Scandinavia.

    Geez, lots to think about! I feel like I need to talk to a cultural historian now…

    By the way, it seems like Babycastles did a Bible-themed exhibit a while back:
    http://bushwickbk.com/2010/09/14/at-babycastles-god-mode-for-indie-gamers/

  8. Also: I think one could convincingly argue that Kurzweil-inspired Futurism is indeed a kind of religion (i.e. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/us/24bcstevens.html). In that sense, some existing computer science cultural output could indeed be viewed as religious, especially when it draws from eschatological notions like the Singularity.

  9. Also Joel, how do I give myself a custom icon thing-y like you and Pippin? :p

  10. @Jonas: Almost sounds like you think a faith game will always be equivalent to propaganda. Is that true or an over-harsh analysis of your comment?

    @doougle: You ask complex questions. There’s no doubting religion is still going strong but how deep that commitment goes these days is unclear. And there’s a strange conflict now between religion as a permanent and unchanging thing – showing its strength in the face of a crazy, churning world – and religion as something that can move with modern times, adapting to what it means to be a citizen of today. This almost suggests that a game based on the rigid variety of belief might come across as out-of-time in the context of digital artefacts. (Not sure the Babycastles exhibit was going to do the “genre” any favours.)

    I’m sure there must be plenty of religious game devs around. Physics and biology, areas where I might expect to see less demonstrable faith, still have a number of strongly devoted Christians in their scientific ranks.

    If you want to talk about “modern religions”, let’s chat about free market theory and economics some time.

    For an icon, go to gravatar.com, sign up with the e-mail address you put on your comments. You can upload an icon to be your avatar which all WordPress sites will use to represent you. It’s not exclusive to WordPress (I use my gravatar on Stack Overflow as well)

  11. I don’t think all games that engage with religious philosophy or use religious imagery will be propaganda – but “faith games” probably always will. I think that the truly religious artists cannot separate their art from their beliefs, whereas the rest are usually fanatics making advergames for their favourite metaphysical club.

    One of the best Christian works I’ve ever read is The Lord of the Rings, and it doesn’t mention God (or sinning or salvation or Jesus) once.

  12. Oh, crap. For some reason I thought the internet would magically tell me when this comments thread was updated – why did I think that anyway? I see that I can subscribe to the RSS so… well, whatever.

    @HM Super glad you enjoyed Let There Be Smite and got a chuckle out of it – I really like the idea of kind of “comedy-conceptual” games… not out and out jokes along the lines of something like Super Press Space To Win (etc.), but something amusing that amusingly makes at least some kind of observation about life/games. As such, my next game is about dancing to the song from Zorba the Greek.

    @Doug Geeze, make it all hyper academic, why don’t you? :) Really interesting point on the “where’s 2011 Bach at?” though. I’m pretty much utterly disconnected from the literal experience of faith and religion, but your thoughts on people’s relationship to modern day religion, and HM’s point about the current environment for making things more generally, are great.

    Is faith/religion-oriented art literally “smaller” these days somehow? Or is that a trick of perspective? Objects in the mirror may be smaller than they appear?

  13. Well, I have the luxury of posting on the topic after such a game was released: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It’s clearly not impossible for such a game to exist.

    I’m inclined to think that people will avoid partaking of such games, simply because of its religious overtone. It’s one thing to be preached to at church, it’s another to take it home with you. Now, such games may or may not give any focus on doing so, but people will expect them to.

    Besides that, it gives it a somewhat out of style archaic feeling. The focus in our collective work seems to be shifting from the past. I’m not sure of course, but more and more, movies and literature are focusing on the present. For instance, the last cowboy movie I recall seeing involved an alien invasion. Noble-focused WW2 games have shifted to the gritty WW3 games, nevermind the lack of any ‘shooter’ involving Korea or WW1. On the other hand, it might just be that we’ve lost the people who carried these stories. Western flicks disappeared when all the frontiersman passed on in their old age.

    From a production point of view, I’m fairly sure taking creative license with biblical stories is considered blasphemy. Also, as I mentioned above, whilst it may or may not be true, studios are unwilling to put resources into a game that no one would want. Besides that, a triple A game based on religion would have all sorts of possibly negative media reports.

    Oh, and on the subject of a religious composer, have you ever heard of Kitaro? His work is brimming with spirituality, though not necessarily religion.

  14. Hello no-more-the-lurker mwm!

    I’m not familiar with El Shaddai simply because it takes place in the strange foreign lands of Console away from my PC home territory. From what I can tell, though, it seems to be not precisely the kind of religious game we’re thinking about because it sounds like a familiar game structure (has combat!) using a religious story as a jumping off point for narrative. More faith-inspired than actual faith game. Someone else might jump in here (well, if they’re watching the comments that is)…?

    It’s an interesting assertion that artistic focus is moving forwards in time (relatively speaking). I’m not entirely convinced because there have been a number of notable data points over the last decade that have dug into the past: Deadwood, Carnivale, Red Dead Redemption, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, although you might argue some of these are too recent for your particular line of thought. Merlin is also very popular in the UK, but I don’t watch it.

    But you offer some bigger talking points than perhaps a thread on religious games can handle! There is a shift in approach most definitely – Deadwood vs The Searchers, for example – and there’s a rather unpleasant Jack Bauer “dirty realist heroism” that’s in vogue in the shadow of 9/11 – and that shadow has impacted an enormous swathe of Western culture since then.

    If we’re going to get a decent faith game, it’s probably going to emerge from the indie stable. I couldn’t possibly imagine a mainstream developer funding such a thing.


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