My friend Rich’s dad died a couple days ago and Rich went home to bury him. I won’t pretend to know what that feels like.
A couple months ago he wrote a review of this game called “To The Moon.” The game is about a dying man and Rich reviewed it in the light of the fact that his father was on his own cancerous deathbed. When I read it I said that it was one of the most affecting game reviews I’d ever read. In retrospect, it’s doubly so.
Ironic that tonight I’ll be listening to a talk from Dave Eggers, a man whose own memoir of his parents’ deaths was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. He was able to take the loss he suffered and turn it into something that has spoken to a great number of people. I know that Rich will find the strength to do the same.
Richard, I didn’t want to say anything, for fear of saying the wrong thing. But please accept my sincerest prayers, and this, the epigraph from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
First of All:
I am tired. I am true of heart!
You are tired. You are true of heart!
In just over a week, industry insiders and professionals of all shapes and sizes will be flocking to San Francisco to partake in the annual Game Developers Conference. One of the people who will be attending will be Sherol Chen, who recently blogged about last year’s conference. She reported first of all on a session called “Bigger Than Jesus” wherein several leading voices gave examples of what it might look like to turn religion into a game or vice versa. (Patricia Hernandez recently spoke on the same subject for Kotaku. We reported on it here.) Sherol mused that it seemed to stand as an example of an industry searching for deeper meaning.
She also shared about a daily prayer meeting which takes place every year. A group of believers meet at 7:30 to share requests and to encourage each other in prayer.
It’s cool to hear the stories of believers finding each other to meet and seek God even as they’re in the midst of endeavoring to influence our culture by engaging the culture-makers at this “secular” event. If you’re planning on attending this year, be sure to get in touch with Sherol and her group.
To the best of my knowledge, there is exactly one book currently on the Christian market that deals with the intersection of faith and video games. That book is Halos and Avatars, a collection of essays edited by Dr. Craig Detweiler. When I first became seriously interested in the subject, his book became an invaluable resource. I recently contacted Dr. Detweiler and asked him a few questions. His answers include some of the most simple and illuminating statements I’ve yet heard on the intersection of faith and video games.
Through your career you’ve primarily been interested in film. What made
you want to edit a book about video games?
Movies were my first love, going back to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet,
I also grew up in the era of Pong and Asteroids and Space Invaders, so video games
have always been around, but they weren’t story driven when I was growing up.
When I wrote my first book with Barry Taylor, A MATRIX OF MEANINGS: Finding
God in Pop Culture, we covered music, movies, TV, sports, advertising, celebrities,
and fashion. The most common question we got from students, “How come you
didn’t write about video games?” So clearly, there was a strong interest and
definite need for a book on theology and video games. After a search on Amazon, I
discovered nobody had put together a book that integrated faith issues and gaming.
Rather than waiting for somebody else to step up, I decided to dive in. Halos and
Avatars: Playing Video Games with God is the result.
What was the process like of creating the book? How did all the different
essays come together?
Video games and virtual worlds are such an immense and diverse field. To play
through a single game may demand a fifty-hour investment, far more than a two
hour movie, so I recognized that I couldn’t possibly cover everything. I needed
younger writers, gamers, and thinkers to chime in. So I started asking friends,
colleagues, and students who were into gaming if they would consider writing
something. I let people choose their own subjects and interests and then I tried to
edit the essays into an overall shape and flow.
Three main themes or styles emerged. Some authors wrote about the process of
gaming itself, how games are structured. Several people wrote about specific
games (like Halo), while others discussed what happens to you while you’re playing
(as avatars). Thus, the end result—“Halos and Avatars”.
What are some things that you think every Christian should be aware of when it
comes to video games?
First and foremost, we must recognize the enormous creativity and passion that
goes into creating a game. These stories occupy a huge canvas and in many ways
are more ambitious than the average movie. So the universe created by the Halos
series or Assassin’s Creed or BioShock is worth studying in great detail. Second,
the cultural and spiritual influence of games is huge. All around the planet, young
people (and many adults) are competing against each other, whether in World of
Warcraft, Starcraft or Call of Duty. It can become an unhealthy obsession, but for the
most part, it is not an isolating activity, but rather a global, communal event. Third,
rather than viewing gaming as time away or apart from the world, it is increasingly
a way of being active in the world. Playing games is often when we feel most alive.
So how do we engage and embrace and think about that creative urge, rather than
denying, suppressing or ignoring it.
How should the church respond to the incredible popularity of a medium like
We need to develop a robust theology of play. We were actually born to play. In
the Bible, work arose as punishment for Adam and Eve. But look at what happens
when kids are left alone? They are constantly creating their own games like kick
the can, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians or dollhouses or playhouses. Video
games simply offer another way to play—so the old arcades become first person
shooter games or dollhouses become The Sims.
Pastors need to communicate via gaming metaphors. So if we want to teach people
why they should read the Bible, maybe we need to describe it as a walk through or
game guide for life. Instead of talking about “salvation” or being “born again,” the
next generation of ministers may want to talk about hitting the reset button or what
it means to respawn. Or if they want to talk about predestination versus free will,
describe what every gamer already understands—an intelligent designer built the
game and wrote the ending into code, but they offered ample free play within it. So
an ancient theological tension could actually be resolved quite clearly in a gamer’s
Gaming isn’t something to be feared, but rather a medium to be explored and
Do you play many games yourself?
Absolutely. I play with my children, letting them serve as the experts. So as
they’ve grown up, I’ve been introduced to new games or rediscovered old ones.
We thoroughly enjoyed racing each other on Mario Kart, navigating the jungle
with LEGO Indiana Jones, or engaging in a Super Smart Bros. Brawl. We’re just
now starting to get into the more complex stories and games, so I look forward to
exploring gaming together for years to come.
“This is a thought provoking and insightful article. It is also brave of Jordan to share his own struggles so openly. This should be read by parents everywhere to help them to understand how games, books, and films can open up avenues for spiritual dialogue. What a great read.”
That’s what a family friend, Dr. Marc Newman, said as he posted a link to my review of Dear Esther- which I recently wrote for Gamechurch. It was an encouraging comment, because it was a tough article to write. If you’ve read it already, you’ve seen how I had to expose and wrestle with my own feelings of doubt and spiritual “aloneness” in order to express what made the game truly unique.
“Sometimes it feels as though the sun sets in my life for a season. Sometimes I find myself in a place where I cannot sense the nearness of God. I cannot feel his comfort nor hear his voice. This is rarely activated by any specific event. Perhaps He simply answers me as I echo Paul’s prayer, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. After all, one way Christ suffered is by feeling the absence of his father’s love. Yet in that suffering, something new is born, and something beautiful is taking place. I see glimpses of it, as I saw glimpses of clarity in Dear Esther, but if the night season lingers too long, I find myself muttering, like the wanderer, “There is nothing to do here but engage in contradictions whilst waiting for the fabric of life to unravel.””
It also got me thinking. Talking about Dear Esther gave me an opportunity to be honest about something I’ve struggled with. But are there other writers who have been prompted by games to address things in their life that are tough to talk about?
I was reminded of this next article, written by Patricia Hernandez for Kotaku. It’s called “A Video Game Made Me Come Clean About Infidelity”. In the article, she explains how the game Catherine (Which was released last summer and dealt with the themes of freedom vs. commitment and chaos vs. order and told the story of a man-boy named Vincent who had the opportunity to cheat on his girlfriend.) forced her to confront an issue that had long been a secret source of anxiety.
“‘It doesn’t matter what the context was, Vincent!,’ I thought to myself. You are responsible for your actions, just like any other adult!
And yet I think back on my own situation, and it wasn’t as easy or simple as it sounds.
I don’t know exactly what led me to that unfaithful night in real life. I can tell you the context, though. I had been going out with my then-boyfriend for years. It was about as serious as these things can get – we spoke of marriage, the future house, kids, careers, the works. An engagement almost happened, even.
Really though, think on that for a second. 19. Marriage? I saw my future laid out neatly in front of me. Me, the kid that wasn’t even out of her teens.
I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And one night, I acknowledged that insecurity and uncertainty in the worst possible way. I cheated.”
This is a “Christian” website, and I’m assuming that the vast majority of you readers are Christians as well, so let me just point out what an incredible opportunity this is to extend grace to someone who has admitted that they made a huge mistake. Remember what Jesus said to the woman actually caught in adultery? “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Basically, please no critical comments. We actually linked to another of Patricia’s articles recently, one where she opened up about her own spiritual journey and search for truth. It’s awesome that she can be honest. But as Christians, can we?
I’m keeping my eyes open for more articles with the same honesty. I’m also looking for writers who will start dialoguing about the ways that games can affect their lives or influence the sort of real-life actions like Patricia talked about when she said this game compelled her to actually confess her infidelity to her ex-boyfriend. If you have any recommendations, tweet us a link or use the contact form.
One of the first issues that was ever tackled here in any depth was that of violence in games. This week we have a few new additions to the conversation. Before we begin, let me restate that here at Follow and Engage we are presently less interested in telling you what to think about the intersection of faith and video games, and more interested in bringing attention to the Christians who are using their own voices to engage the issue.
First up we have Richard Clark, writing for Gamechurch, continuing his series on “Disturbing” games (which we recently introduced.) He takes a look at the type of violence that is depicted in Far Cry 2, a game that puts you in the shoes of a violent mercenary working in war-torn Africa. In fact, Richard says, “If you are playing Far Cry 2 with intentions of clear heroism, of saving lives and making the world a better place, you’re playing the wrong game… Throughout the game, there are subtle nods to your inability to accomplish good as well as the dangerous nature of your bloodthirsty tendencies. ” You’ll have to read the article itself to understand his conclusion in it’s entirety, but essentially he argues that the game is masterful in it’s depiction of violence simply for the reason that it successfully communicates the depravity of attempting to use violence to achieve any real good. However, we must keep in mind that this is still both a game and an opinion for “Mature” audiences.
All too often the discussion of video game violence becomes centered around it’s desensitizing effects in children, not on it’s effects in “grown-ups.” Something that I’ve been wanting to share for a while is this article on the merits of violence as a tool to be used by Christian artists (not specific to games). It was written by Alex Wilgus for RelevantMagazine.com.
A highlight of the article is his examination of the way two Christian authors, Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy used violence to communicate truth. In that section he notes that “Violence acts as a sharpener to help an important message stand out from the common run of things. This sort of extreme content is actually beneficial in preaching the message of the Gospel to those lulled to sleep by the siren song of modernity, which tells us to eat, spend, consume, fornicate and get on with our fellows without offending anybody, and everything will be all right. When asked why she went to such extremes in her stories, O’Connor responded that when an audience does not hold the same beliefs as you do, “then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing, you shout and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.””
Ultimately he concludes that violence may no longer be effective in getting people’s attention. “Whatever should be done, it is clear the Christian artist faces a peculiar enemy today: the expanding boredom of the modern age, which has the power to wash out even the severest expressions, and violence is its latest casualty. It is the constant duty of the Christian artist to outwit this amoebic tendency to consume and excrete, to make retail of riches. She must forge new paths of expression and restore old ones. When the world builds for itself a Tower of Babel, then she must paint a pile of rubble, and then when it is knocked down and the peoples wander in the refuse, she must paint a glittering city with jasper walls and foundations of precious stone.” But the 67 debate-filled comments that ensued show that the issue is far from settled. Many people were quick to point out that even today violence and distasteful content are still being used to grab people’s attention, and what’s needed more now is discernment than a one-size fits all approach. It’s an interesting thought.
What makes the discussion about violence in games so poignant is peculiarly interactive nature of the medium, and the increasingly immersive experiences it creates. In other mediums, violence can be meditated on from a distance, in most games it’s up close and personal. Writing for Popmatters, Jorge Albor wondered if humanity could be capable of returning to the barbarity of the Roman Coliseum games, and if the desensitization caused by violent games might have something to do with it.
“I know this issue of violence in games is an ongoing and controversial subject, so much so that many of us just ignore questions of violence and morality all together. Regardless, when engaging in extreme digital violence, we brush up against our own moral boundaries. I have no qualms about playing The Darkness 2, and I would never suggest that those who love gore are morally bankrupt. However, I know that I have a personal moral line and that this line is not set in stone. My boundaries and opinions shift constantly and subtly. Given the pace of technology and the ongoing role of violent media in our culture, I fear that this line will be pushed ever closer towards Roman-era spectacle without my notice. If any form of violence in media raises moral questions, then we should confront these moral questions now and never let this subject rest easy.”
So could very negative content ever be a positive thing for Christians? It’s easy for us to accept it when it’s found in scripture. In scripture we can see both the depravity of man and the grace and holiness of God fully on display. But it seems to be another thing when that same depravity is depicted in modern content, where the grace of God is something that we are tasked with extending. It will be interesting to keep up with Rich’s series on disturbing content, and it will be interesting to hear what you all think of the subject.
Today on Engage we’re going to look at two articles that in my mind revolve around a similar topic, The Source of Evil. Earlier today at Gamechurch, Steven Sukkau had the epiphany that Skyrim may have been trying to teach him something about the nature of evil.
He first laments,
“Sometimes I wish evil had a face. I wish a Dark Lord sat in a dark tower looming over some forsaken waste, plotting the destruction of peace, love and clean socks. I wish all wars and pestilence could be directly attributed to his dark mind and his hordes of heartless minions… It sure beats donating money without knowing whether it will make a dent in poverty or hoping my facebook status will change people’s perspectives.”
Through the rest of the article, he tells the tale of a quest in Skyrim that perfectly illustrates the truth about the nature of evil. Evil is not that Dark Lord, it is something inside every one of us. He closes with the somber mediation,
“Evil doesn’t exist solely in foreign dictators or brooding demons, but in our own choices and attitudes. As a Christian I do not see myself as a doctor handing out the cure, but as a fellow patient on life saving dialysis. This moment in Skyrim reminded me that I can’t save the world by charging into haunted houses or assassinating tyrants. Before I attempt to save anyone, I realize I need to be rescued from the evil inside myself.”
Certainly we can get into talking about things like sanctification, the mind of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, walking by faith and not by sight, and all the other things that the Bible says are the rightful property of children of God. But a revelation of our need for a savior, well, that’s as good a starting point as any. In my opinion, games are at their best not when they simply draw me deeper into their own experience, but when they make me pause and think about something bigger.
Another article I read today took a distinctly different look at humanity.
Patricia Hernandez wrote an article for Kotaku entitled “The Rules of Religion, and Why The Next One Just Might Be a Game“.
You can read the whole thing if you want, but it’s quite long. Essentially, Patricia shares about some of her experiences growing up in an environment where Christianity was associated with fear of punishment. She’s understandably distanced herself from that, and has now sought to know God for herself, not limited by the constraints of the Christianity she was taught. Following this introduction is a lengthy look at the failures of real and virtual cults, but accompanied by the thought that most cults do seek to address real needs in people’s psyches.
Anyways, she launches from there and begins to explore the thought of what it would look like for a religion to be created based on game principles. (A process referred to as gamification). It’s sort of an interesting idea, maybe one I’ll spend more time discussing. (First thoughts, Christianity, misunderstood, is already “gameified” enough, with rewards for good actions and punishments for misdeeds. Thank God that because of Jesus it’s no longer about our efforts.) Ultimately though, her thoughts seemed to carry less weight in light of what I had just read from Steven earlier about the real nature of humanity and the real source of the evils we see all around us.
Patricia was candid about the glimpses of religion she saw growing up and still sees to this day. Undoubtedly it shaped her outlook on God in a different way than my upbringing and experiences have shaped mine. Yet I can, as someone who believes that Jesus is God and the only solution for the myriad evils that beset mankind from within and every side, see that Patricia has herself been effected by that corruption of pure religion which was recently sort-of rhymed about. She longs for something more and better than she’s currently encountered, and as intriguing as her idea is, something tells me that it’s not the answer the world needs.
Christian gamers, pay attention! I’ve recently been reading some posts from a blog I’ve just discovered: Cross Platform, run by John Hanan. The blog has a casual, easy-to-read feel about it, and is primarily a platform for John’s thoughts. He frequently talks about faith and games and even dives into larger topics surrounding the game industry, such as piracy and the idea of game-designer celebrity. Recently, John has undertaken the ambitious project of running a series on the “Fruit of the Spirit;” examining each individual fruit and sharing his thoughts on how each one can correspond to the gaming experience.
For example, here are the closing paragraphs of his most recent post, on “Peace“:
“The application of knowledge thus far has largely been about how we relate to others when we’re playing games. And while we can still strive for the worldly definition of peace with our fellow gamers – meaning, the absence of conflict with them – this new understanding of peace as a closeness with God is something that we can only apply to our relationship with Him.
“This means getting our priorities straight, first off. We need to make sure that God is first in our lives, not the game. This means spending time in the Word and in prayer, talking to God as much and more than you might talk to guildies in an MMO or friends over voice chat on Xbox Live. You have to get to know God and build a relationship with Him if you’re ever going to have a hope of the kind of peace that we want to display.
“That’s not to say that you can’t encourage your fellow gamers to this same kind of peace. While it may be uncommon, there are groups who hold Bible studies in-game in lots of different ways. Some gaming communities will meet outside of a game on a forum or chat room in order to build one another up in Christ. This is a good thing, but remember that your relationship with God needs to be your first priority. You can’t lead others into closer relationship with Christ if you don’t know Him yourself, right? ”
What I appreciate about John is his clear commitment to God before anything else in his life. I know that for anyone who wants to follow Christ, there is a need to constantly put our flesh in check and devote ourselves to disciplines like prayer and meditating on scripture. Gamers are not an exception. So for John to take lessons from the Bible that we’ve heard many times and then show how those lessons can apply specifically to games is a very interesting project, and one that I encourage you to check out.
This series especially is best read thoughtfully, and I would encourage you to ask yourself whether or not the Holy Spirit might actually be speaking to you as you read John’s thoughts. Through it all keep in mind the way the New Living Translation phrases the passage, as it says ” The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives…” This fruit is not something we need to create by trying harder, it’s something that happens naturally as we acknowledge God working in our lives. You may not find these posts revolutionary, but sometimes it’s just nice to be reminded.
The series isn’t over yet, but here are links to what he’s completed so far.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” -Galatians 5:22-23
Now a good way to try out some of that fruit is to take a few more seconds to Like us on Facebook, or Follow us on Twitter. Cheers!
image credit: Michael Basu
If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s an article I wrote for RelevantMagazine.com. It’s about the potential that video games have to be an incredible storytelling medium, one that Christians can use to influence our culture.
“Stories create readiness, they nudge people toward receptive insight. Peter Hitchens once said of his brother, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, “It is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time.” He mentioned poetry, but the same is true of stories.
“The reason stories matter to me is because I see a new medium rising, one with the potential to convey meaning in a more affecting way than ever before: video games. Authors try to describe how characters feel, films show you what they feel—but a good game can actually make you feel what they feel by not only drawing you into a characters perspective but making you personally responsible for their well-being.”
But I also mentioned something very important,
“Currently, in the world of games journalism, the conversation is ongoing over whether or not games should even be used to tell stories. “After all,” some say, “games at their core are nothing more than sets of rules.”
To bring some nuance to the discussion about games and stories, let me link to this week’s “When Games Matter” post from Drew Dixon at Christ and Pop Culture. Obviously I can’t say I agree entirely with his premise that “If you have a story to tell, videogames might not be the best medium for you.” Nevertheless, he has some illuminating things to say about the types of stories that games are capable of creating.
“So if a game is going to attempt to tell a story, it must do so in a way that significantly involves the player in its telling. This is why most game stories are terrible–because the mechanics (namely what you spend most of your time doing in game) do not add anything to the story itself–they are mere tack-ons or fillers to transition us from one piece of expositional narrative to another.
“When Will Wright says that “games are not the right medium to tell stories” and that games are more about “story possibilities,” I think the Sim City creator highlights what makes games special. The best games give us a sense that we are making our own story and our place in that story is absolutely essential. Games engage us most when we assume a key role in that story’s telling.”
For those of you who don’t play games, or for those who do only casually, let me fill you in on something. For the past several years, there have been two debates raging. The first is over whether or not video games can be a form of Art. The second is whether or not games should be used to tell stories. In both topics, the discussion has sort of calmed down into an uneasy tension of “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” What Drew highlights though is an important part of the discussion; that if games are going to tell stories well, they’re going to need to incorporate the gameplay itself to make the story truly resonant.
What does this mean for Christians? First and foremost I think it’s imperative for believers to be aware of what’s going on in our culture. (Hence, this site) Knowing that there are games that are exploring new storytelling possibilities (Like the upcoming Dear Esther) will help us make informed purchases. Modern Warfare and Uncharted aren’t the only series trying to tell immersive stories with games. Second, for any Christians interested in making great new games, it’s good to know about the current climate of the gaming industry so you don’t just charge in blindly with your latest, greatest idea.
Stay tuned this week for a couple more posts introducing the subject of game theory. Also, go like F&E on Facebook to stay up-to-date on all the latest Christian gaming insights.
Image above is concept art by Ben Andrews for the game Dear Esther