So far in my Expository Coding series I’ve been explaining the convictions behind my project to write Bible-teaching computer games. In this article I’m going to begin to explore what such a game might look like in practice. The evidence would suggest that making a genuinely great game that is simultaneously a genuinely Christian game is an incredibly hard thing to achieve, with many pitfalls along the way. Let’s start by exploring some of those pitfalls, and then look at my approach for overcoming them.

I Don’t Play Games to be Preached At

There are many people out there who consider the very concept of an explicitly Christian computer game to be fatally flawed. “Surely,” they say, “the whole reason I play games is to relax and have fun, not to learn, and certainly not to be preached at.” But to say that learning and having fun are mutually exclusive is simplistic in the extreme. Anyone who’s ever played LucasArts’ classic adventure game “Day of the Tentacle” will remember the scene where one of your characters, Hoagie, gets stuck in a hotel 200 years in the past with America’s founding fathers.
They’re all busy drafting the Constitution, and by talking with them you can learn all sorts of useless trivia. For instance, I learnt about George Washington’s penchant for chopping down cherry trees, about his wooden teeth, and about John Hancock writing his signature extraordinarily large in order to impress the ladies. Okay, so maybe it’s not all true, and teaching history probably wasn’t forefront in the minds of the designers, but the truth is that I did learn. What’s more, far from making me groan as though I was back in the schoolroom, it was tremendous fun and instilled an interest in that period that’s still with me to this day. I’m sure that we learn a massive amount by subconsciously soaking in information in this way from games and television and what have you, not to mention their cultural values. A Christian computer game that does this well could have a wide-reaching influence on a large number of people, with them genuinely enjoying playing it and without them feeling preached at.

Morality is Boring

An overreaction to the first problem, however, has lead some games designers to put less emphasis on Bible-teaching, worrying that it will feel preachy, and focus instead on promoting Christian values and morality. On the one hand, I don’t have a major problem with games like this, so long as they’re well made. After all, it’s probably better that our young people are playing something based on a Christian worldview than something that reinforces our culture’s distorted value system. On the other hand, they make me a little uneasy, since they just seem to be perpetuating one of the most pervasive fallacies about the Christian faith: that it’s first and foremost about rules and regulations, and being a “nice” person – and ultimately that’s pretty boring. The Bible, on the other hand, is clear that no amount of Christian morality will save you if it doesn’t flow out of a relationship with Jesus Christ. In the book of
Colossians, for instance, Paul reminds his readers of the pre-eminence of Christ, the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). He shows how his ministry is shaped by seeking first and foremost to proclaim Christ (1:28), toiling and struggling to make sure that people are mature in their relationship with him. He goes on to warn of any alternative teachings based on “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ” (2:8), and berates those who insist on asceticism and the worship of angels, but without holding fast to Jesus, the Head (2:18-19).

So you see, the goal of all authentic ministry is way more exciting than encouraging people to be more like Ned Flanders – it’s about introducing people to the person of Jesus Christ, and helping them get to know him better and better. A game that focuses on the awesome character of God is automatically going to be more engaging than one which just tells them how to behave.

Are You Worthy?

One of the main obstacles that stands in the way of people growing to know Jesus better, of course, is the sense that they have no need of knowing him better. Only people who know they can’t earn their own way into God’s good books are going to truly cry out for a saviour. My relationship with Jesus is constantly blighted by a sense that I don’t really need him – absurd as this is. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest danger areas in making a Christian computer game, since typically the aim of most games is precisely to earn your way to the finish line, proving your worthiness for all to see. That’s what the glamour of the High Score Table is all about, and it’s in direct conflict with the Christian message we’re wanting to promote. One Christian game even made it their official tagline: “Are you worthy?” It’s clear that a good deal of thought is going to have to be put into the game mechanics to make sure that our dependence on grace is not undermined, as well as other Biblical doctrines such as God’s sovereign control over the outcome of events.

Point & Click Bible Games

You may have guessed from my earlier reference to “Day of the Tentacle”, but I actually believe pretty strongly that a genre with great potential for solving some of these issues is the Point and Click Adventure Game. If you don’t have a clue what I mean by that, a good place to start would be the Monkey Island fansite The International House of Mojo, or the ScummVM project. These intensely story-driven games give the writers plenty of scope to teach in a more subtle way, as well as making it possible to feature a less-than-perfect lead character. LucasArts has a long tradition of rather weedy protagonists, like Guybrush Threepwood, Bernard Bernoulli, and (if your memory stretches that far back) the somewhat second-rate reporter Zak McKracken. Such down-to-earth characters allow you to easily convey the fact that there’s nothing remotely worthy about them, and to keep the spotlight firmly on God.

I’ll confess that I may be biased by the fact that I just really love adventure games, but I can see enough reasons to at least give it a try, and pray that God can use the results to bring glory to his name as people come to know his son more deeply.

One Response to Knowing Jesus Better Through Point & Click Adventure Games

  1. […] the merits of another in typical game form. I think the fact that Ebenezer is an adventure game helps with a lot of these issues, but it’s still an open question for me whether other genres of game might work too. What do […]

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