On a cool December morning a few weeks back, I sat down in front of my computer and turned on my webcam, ready for my first Skype interview with Chris Skaggs and John Bergquist of Soma Games. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how Soma Games came to be, it would be well worth your time to read it at their website. The most recent history is that they’ve now published two well-received mobile games, G: Into The Rain and Wind-Up Robots, the latter of which was just featured as the “Gaming App of the Day” at Kotaku.
As the interview began, we introduced ourselves and made small talk. (Apparently it was a beautiful day in Oregon. Which was surprising; it was raining in San Diego.) Chris asked me what I was hoping to accomplish with Follow and Engage, and I was eager to explain my mission of exploring the ways that Christians are interacting with game culture. I began the interview by turning the question back to him, asking about the current mission of Soma Games.
He replied, “Well we have two words, “invite” and “mystery.” We want the stories that we tell in these games to create a mystery as well as an invitation for people to find out more. It’s remarkable actually the kinds of contacts we’ve made in the secular world with people who are like “This is really interesting, what’s going on here?” And next thing you know, you’re telling them the gospel- but they’re hearing it now in a place that they’ve never expected it.”
Now, something that Chris and his team seem to be very big about is not just making overtly Christian games, but rather making games with universal appeal and filling them up with Christian themes. I asked about that, and John took point.
“Chris’s best talk on this was recently at Serious Play Conference. This whole idea of putting moral compasses or even moral issues in a game, that’s what the whole talk was about.”
Chris chimed in: “That’s right, “Using Games to Recalibrate Your Moral Compass.””
John continued, “And so we were watching the Twitter stream, and eventually a couple people started calling him “the Tolstoy of gaming.” It’s this whole idea of what CS Lewis and Tolkien did in their novels and their stories to bring in concepts and ideas and scriptures from the Bible in ways almost just to surprise people. We’re made in the image of God, so we’re going to have things that spark our curiosity, our interest, or our emotions, and we want put those into the game so that it kind of awakens something in somebody. Something that makes them think, “Wow, I want to know more.” It’s almost like these Easter eggs, you know, where you’re just going about your day and you see a flower, and it just awakens something in your heart and you just go, “Whoa what is that?” and you don’t even have to be a Christian for something like a trigger to go off in your heart and allow God to speak to you. So in putting those things into our stories and into our games, that comes naturally to us because we’re constantly telling stories, and we can’t help it. And it’s almost like we write our stories and then look at them and realize “Wow this game is spiritual, it’s all about spiritual warfare.” Some of it’s intentional, but I would say part of it is just who we are. Tolkien didn’t set out to tell a biblical story, but you can’t deny it has those themes.”
Chris elaborated, “Tolkien didn’t realize that he’d written such a “catholic” story, not in a denominational sense, but in the sense of how he kept using often overtly Christian imagery. Such as when Gandalf is facing down the Balrog and he says “I am a servant of the secret fire.” Tolkien never meant that to refer to the Holy Spirit, but he later realized that it was nevertheless a very Christian image.”
John concluded “You know, one thing is, while we have decided to focus on allegorical tales, I don’t mean for that to sound as though we don’t appreciate or think that there’s a place for overt tales. We’re not prejudicial or anything like that, it’s just not what I feel what we were called to, and you know I think that there’s gotta be room for both.”
Chris had mentioned that he isn’t prejudiced against Christians who just make Bible-adventure games. But at the same time, in the short while that I’ve been doing this, I’ve encountered some Christians who claim that anything beyond such games are unbiblical. Now obviously it would be easy to just get into a never-ending argument, but I wanted to know how- in his own mind and conscience – Chris could say “No this isn’t a waste of time.” I found his answer thought-provoking.
“Well for me it’s actually really easy, and it all depends on what you think the nature of art and media is. And so one of the things that I think that we have to understand is: “Is there such a thing as a Christian carpenter? Like was Jesus a Christian carpenter? Did he carve something like a little fish into every stool and bench and table that he made? And I think we can all say pretty likely that that wouldn’t be the case. -I mean, I guess it would be a star- You know, we all live lives that engage the world all over the place, and if we draw this really sharp line between the secular and the sacred, all we’ve really done is cut a lot of the world off from our life. You know, Jesus says that a city on the hill cannot be hidden, and he doesn’t say should not be hidden, he says cannot be hidden, and so if we are living our lives, whether that is as a carpenter, or a gas station attendant, or a video game manufacturer, that aspect of our life has to show through. And the thing is, the world wants to see the light that we have. It doesn’t mean we have to all be preachers. It doesn’t mean that every work of art has to teach a didactic lesson about the Bible. You know, part of it is, you have this conversation: “Is any video game a Christian video game? Is any video game going to heaven?” And the obvious answer is no. There are no Christian anything, there are just Christian people. And so part of the conversation is a little off the real topic, because the goal is to show people the light of Christ wherever they find it. And so if I have to quote something, I have to quote Assisi, who said: “Preach the gospel at all times and use words when necessary.” you know, he’s talking about how your life has to shine through- it’s not just about the scripture verses you’re quoting. He’s talking about the way you love people, and you know that’s how Christ said the world would know us, by the way we love one another.”
I was curious to know how Chris and his team saw their work at Soma Games as well as the work being done by other Christian developers impacting the game industry. I asked how he saw their games making a difference.
“Well because quality is really a core value for us, we need to make sure that the product we’re producing is up to par or better than the rest of the world and I think that’s one of the things the Christian industry has missed often, and not just in gaming, but all over the place. Often they’ll create an inferior product, and often because they just don’t have the money, but they sort of want the weight of their good intentions to carry it forward and so as a statement of principle, we just decided we can’t do that. We have to have games that are competitive at their level. What we want is for the weight of our work and the quality of our work to give us a seat at the table. So that’s why we go to conferences like GDC or Serious Play. These are secular conferences, but we want very much to have a voice in that space to say “The gaming industry doesn’t have to be about beating up hookers and stealing cars. It can be about good things.” That is good for everybody. It’s not only about evangelizing, it’s about making the world a better place, because that is where his kingdom comes, that is where his will gets done- whether you’re a citizen of that kingdom or not. There were people who enjoyed the Pax Romana who were not citizens of Rome, but that peace changed their lives.”
Finally, as I’m still very much an industry outsider, I wanted to get Chris’s insider perspective on how Christian gamers can impact the industry without necessarily becoming developers.
“You know, it’s interesting, when Tommy Tenny made One Night With The King, he was giving this big presentation to this big church, and he was talking about a common thread that I’m sure you’ve heard regarding movies, which is basically “It’s terrible that we don’t have more Christian movies…” And everyone has heard that, yet he made such a good point when he said “Now who of you in this audience has bought One Night With The King?” Of course you have a few hands but really not that many, and he points out “And that’s why.” Hollywood makes movies that will sell, and yet the Christian audience does not vote with their pocketbooks. And so EA and Steam, those people will support Christian games when they see that Christians buy games. So if you want to change that, just demand it, it’s like any other product. That doesn’t mean you need to be belligerent and cranky and rude about it. But again there’s a thing here, because you don’t want to support shlock. Because at the same time, Christians have shown a remarkable willingness to buy mediocre products, just to sort of support them. But you want to support excellence when it’s there. If you want to change the market, that’s how the market’s changed. I don’t want to say that it’s like a moral obligation, but if they do want to make change, it’s real simple.”
I asked Chris if he had any closing thoughts that he would like to share. What he had to say was personal and challenging.
“Yeah, Jordan, and this is just an encouragement to you. One of the things you described when we started this conversation is that you found that there were really very few outlets like what you wanted to do, and that is certainly the truth, but let me encourage you to find the people that are, and make allies with them. Because one of the things that we see happening is that there is a lot of fracturing, and a lot of everyone sort of doing their own thing. Even though there’s only a few of them, the value of collaborating with the folks that are out there is huge. I would encourage you to share thoughts with them, because that creates community and then increasingly, when people go to do a Google search for Christian gaming, they’re actually going to find that there’s a body of work out there.”
If you’ve been to their website, you’ve undoubtedly seen a phrase, just beneath their logo: “Terribiliter Magnificasti Me Mirabilia.” I asked what it meant. Chris replied with a smile on his face: “Well that’s one of the mysteries now isn’t it?”