The problem of Christian video games
Making Christian video games is hard. Even before you’re out of the gate people will assume it’s going to be rubbish, it’s nigh on impossible to raise funding, and that’s quite apart from the not insignificant design challenges involved. Designing a game with a message that doesn’t instantly alienate half the world is no mean feat.
Sadly, it’s not a challenge that has been very successfully met very often. As one person put it, the approach of many Christian video game developers thus far has generally been “a recipe for boring the player, distorting the scriptures and satisfying no-one”.
Here’s my vision for how things could be different. The approach I’ll outline below is what underpins the adventure game I’m developing: Ebenezer.
What I’m seeking to achieve: Games That Really Preach
One of the problems with a lot of Christian Video Games is that they really make you feel like you’re being preached at. They dock you points for your lack of Bible knowledge, they penalise you for making poor choices, and generally they seem to fulfil the role of a very strict Sunday School teacher. Games are supposed to be fun – people play them to relax – and yet Christian video games often seem downright tedious. Frankly, whatever message they’re trying to convey, I’m just not listening.
Ironically, I want to contend that the problem isn’t that Christian video games are too preachy – it’s that they’re not preachy enough! True preaching isn’t just about conveying information or telling you what you’re doing wrong. True preaching seeks to win your heart for Christ by engaging your mind; it makes you feel how awesome Jesus is in your very bones as you see the truth about him expounded from God’s word. As a friend of mine put it: “Preaching is the honey that lures you in, not just the nutritional report that proves it’s good for you.” True preaching never leaves you unchanged, but is designed to provoke a response.
It’s my fundamental conviction that Biblical preaching is God’s main means of working in the world, and when it’s done well it’s truly exhilarating – there’s nothing tedious about good preaching.
So that’s my primary goal in making Ebenezer – to win hearts and minds for Christ and call people to respond to the message of his word. It doesn’t matter whether they’re followers of Jesus already or just looking into Christian things, I want them to see the Bible come to life and hear its call upon their life.
A secondary goal – a nice side-effect of doing that – is to give people confidence in the Bible. To show them that it can be understood, and that once you begin to understand it it’s really pretty exciting. There have been so many bad Christian video games over the years that I think a lot of Christian developers have lost confidence in making their games explicitly Bible-based. But if preaching the Bible is how God works in the world, then that’s a real shame. Not least of all because there are so many awesome stories in the Bible that are still barely known in the wider world.
Why do it through a game? Taking People on a Journey
A good gaming experience takes you on a journey – it doesn’t assume where you’re at when you start to play it, it gets you thinking and makes you engage with the theme it’s exploring. A recent game that did this brilliantly was Braid by Jonathan Blow – it explores all kinds of ideas about forgiveness, about wiping the slate clean, undoing stuff you really regret. To my mind it has a lot in common with the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although the two take a very different approach. Because of its interactive nature, a video game has the unique ability to draw you in and then really make you question your motivations and your actions. Through a great twist at the end, Braid really makes you stop and think in a way that Christian game developers could learn a lot from.
Because of this great ability to take the player on a journey, I think a game can reach a whole host of people who would never think to open a Bible for themselves – people who are visual learners, people who aren’t big readers, people who don’t think of themselves as religious, and many more besides. There are lots of people who would refuse to ever cross the threshold of a church building but who would probably be willing to play a well-crafted game that engaged with them where they’re at.
Another great aspect of video games is that they give you an opportunity to explore at your own pace and ask questions – you can be really leisurely and chat to all of the NPCs and ask them what’s going on and get them to explain everything, or you can just whizz through and do the bare minimum necessary to beat the game. My favourite example of this is from Day of the Tentacle: 200 years in the past, there’s a room being hired by America’s founding Fathers – George Washington, John Hancock and the like. As somebody who knew absolutely nothing about American history before playing the game, I really enjoyed chatting with them and asking stupid questions. Even if a lot of the facts are totally made up for comedy effect, I still learnt a surprising amount through the experience, and in no sense was that information thrust down my throat.
Who are you trying to reach? Games With a Broad Appeal
Everyone likes a good story, so if it’s done well then a story-driven video game should be accessible to anybody – of all faiths and none, young and old. In my opinion, something like a Bible Quiz game is never going to reach a broad audience, however well made it is, because it simply assumes too much about people’s prior interest – if you know nothing of the Bible, you’re going to have a miserable time playing it. But if as a developer you treat your players with respect and seek to engage with them where they’re at, then I think people will be willing to give you a hearing.
It’s also important never to forget that you’re making a game – it’s supposed to be fun – so you don’t want to take yourself too seriously. Adventure games like Monkey Island worked brilliantly because of their sense of humour – it’s the same with Valve’s Portal – a bit of humour is a really crucial counter-balance to all the thinking you have to do in a puzzle game. Of course we need to treat God’s word itself with the utmost respect, but there’s a lot of scope for doing that whilst injecting humour into the way you tell the story. Monkey Island itself is like that – the story itself is actually pretty dark and serious, but the the details of it are done in a way that makes you laugh, and that really gets people on side.
Age-wise, admittedly my game Ebenezer probably has a minimum age requirement due to the puzzle solving element and so on. However, besides that, the beauty of a story-driven game is that it needn’t be limited to one narrow demographic. As long as people can relate to your story, they’ll keep playing.
An Appeal to Christian Game Developers
So my appeal to potential developers of Christian video games is this: don’t just dive in and create a derivative clone of an existing game only with Biblical characters substituted in. Set your mind to crafting an experience that the player will never forget, that makes them question their reality, or at least makes them stop and think for a moment or two. As I said at the start, making Christian video games is hard, and I don’t think there are any easy answers as to how to do this well. But I’m convinced that it’s possible, and I’m convinced that it’s worthwhile. Don’t give up!
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