“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.
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
Follow and Engage is relatively new to the conversation over the intersection of faith and games, and when we started, our original purpose was to bring more attention to the ways that other Christians were already engaging the world of video games. One website that has been bringing it’s own unique point of view to the conversation is The Cross and The Controller, run by Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Wise. TCaTC is a “video game review site where professional theologians and seminarians dissect games both on theological and gameplay grounds.” What makes TCaTC really stand out among other Christian-ish gaming sites is the way Josh and his team are able to look at AAA gaming titles and analyze the heavy philosophical and theological themes that are lurking just below the surface. In this first part of the feature, I asked Josh to recommend a few of his favorite articles from the site so that you can see for yourself the type of thinking that marks their work.
First, one of my favorite articles ever was written by Joshua Wise himself on the subject of “The Dark Knight and the Cloud of Unknowing.” I really don’t want to ruin this for you, so let me just tease you with a quote: “The Darkness that shrouds God is a deeper and mightier darkness than that of Sin and Death, for its true form is light. It is to us darkness because we are too weak to see it. It goes into the lesser darkness of Sin and Death, and destroys them.” Seriously, go read it.
Next, editor Ben Wallis takes a look at the psychology of play as expounded by D.W. Winnicott in his research on “transitionary phenomenon.” If that sounds interesting to you, you won’t want to miss “Team Fortress 2 and Reality,” particularly his conclusion where he postulates “Transitionary phenomenon is all about exploring the universe and building meaning out of what we find in our exploration. That search for meaning inevitably involves the biggest questions of why the universe exists and what life is all about. It is no wonder that some of humanity’s most spectacular works of art are religious.”
The site has an interesting dichotomy, in that regular contributor Michael Elliot is an athiest. However, his contribution are always thoughtful and respectful looks at religion in games. I was particularly intrigued by one such entry, “Dragon Age Origins: Fantasy and Atheism,” where he mused about encountering an athiestic character, “Now, being an atheist one would assume that I would be completely receptive of this stance. But while this kind of tired and ancient complaint was certainly familiar, I found it completely baffling. How could anyone doubt the existence of the Maker? What sense can this world make without God? Wait… what the hell am I saying?”
Also, Michael Elliot briefly explored the history of depictions of “Islam in Western Games.”He chronicles the several instances where “parts of Islam have been included in video games, only to be edited out at the eleventh hour, or sometimes even after the game was released,” in order to appease certain adherents who were offended by the fact that their sacred religion was being used in a medium that many see as both flippant and secular.
Joshua Wise also reviewed Bastion, one of last year’s indie darlings. He pointed out some interesting things about it’s depiction of deities. “Of the two cultures portrayed in the game, one has turned the gods into decoration, while the other continues to worship. This dichotomy of two cultures is fascinating, and not one we see often in gaming.”
(Editorial Aside: I also just wrote an article entitled “Redemption and Restoration in Bastion” for Gamechurch. Read it here if you missed it. -Jordan)
Finally, Drew Walden wrote a very personal and challenging reflection on whether or not he was completely wasting his time by using it to play games. “My next 100 Xbox achievements are not going to help the homeless on the street get their next meal. The engrossing story of Jade Empire is not going to sooth the sorrow of little girls sold into slavery in Mumbai’s red light district. My meandering pontifications on free will and video games seem trivial compared to the harsh realities plaguing our modern world.” The thought really hit home with me, as I wrote recently on the same subject.
If you enjoyed these articles, check back soon for an interview with the man behind the site, Joshua Wise, as well as for an exciting announcement about something new they plan on starting soon.
Jon Collins of Kaio Interactive wants to tell great stories in games.
Faith and storytelling go hand in hand. That’s the premise of a new article I’m writing for RelevantMagazine.com. It’s a brief overview of the history of Christian storytelling, with the conclusion that video games may be the next predominant platform that Christians can use to create truth and beauty in people’s hearts by means of story.
Of course, many would disagree. Some say that games and stories should have nothing in common. Games are about rules and variables and multiple outcomes. Stories are about scripted events controlled by the invisible hand of the author or filmmaker. My friend Josh Foreman argued as much in an article he wrote for Gamasutra, appropriately titled “Why I Hate Stories in Video Games.” Referring to the non-interactive nature of cuscenes, he says, “This undermines the Agency that is at the heart of the medium. This implicitly says that our medium is not legitimate. That we need to be more like those other well-established art forms like film and literature.”
While there is certainly an ongoing academic dialogue over what games should and shouldn’t do, there have also been some Christian developers who have decided that they aren’t as interested in the academic opinion of the day as much as they are interested in creating fun, quality games that tell good stories, just because they can.
One such developer is Kaio Interactive, headed up by Jon Collins. Jon and his team are in the process of designing a brand-new game called “Codebearers: Continuum.” Continuum will be based on the award-winning Codebearers books by the Miller Brothers, a fantasy-adventure series marked by exciting and allegorical storytelling. By working with the Miller Brothers, Jon hopes not only to create an uplifting game for young people to play, he actually hopes to encourage young people to read more. (The game will be launched in tandem with a parallel novel.)
Personally, I’m excited to see how this project progresses and I was eager to get to know the man behind the game. I recently asked Jon a few questions in order to put together this profile.
Talk about yourself, how long have you had a desire to make video games?
I’ve been shifting my career in the direction of Game Development for around 7 years now; having been attending the Christian Game Developers Conference in Portland, Oregon since discovering it in 2004. I’ve been in IT since the 80′s and been playing games since I was at school. In the early 2000’s, as I had a young family, I started to feel that although there are so many great games in the marketplace, for the most part there seemed to be an absence of content which wasn’t at odds with the values of Christianity. So I started making the annual commute from England across the Atlantic to the conference in Portland to meet like-minded developers and companies involved in the business. We tested our feet in the water while back in the UK, but really felt God was pointing us to set up shop near Seattle, so we relocated here at the end of 2010 to build Kaio and work on some great projects.
Do you see the games you make impacting people for Christ, if so, how?
We’re hoping that our first Action-Adventure title ‘Codebearers Continuum’ is going to do just that. Based on the award winning ‘tween’ fantasy fiction by The Miller Brothers, the game will tell a story that weaves in & out of the plot of their book (a follow-on from their original trilogy) which is due to be published at the same time as we launch. By this simultaneous launch we hope gamers will pick up the book & readers will pick up the game, both are going to have some great allegory in them and tell a story which will encourage and build up.
We want players to come away from playing our games not just thrilled with playing a great game, but also encouraged and built up. Whether that is simply by portraying a classic “hero story” or something more deep and spiritual about God & Christ, that will be different from game to game. We do know that games that glorify the negatives aren’t something we want to focus on. Because of that approach, we picked The Miller Brothers to provide the content for our first major title as their fiction has a proven track record among fans of doing just that.
What do you think are some reasons that many Christians are hesitant to embrace the medium of video games as a valid story-telling platform?
I’ve heard so many reasons from people around the world on this, sometimes it’s because they simply don’t know there are Christian themed games or it’s because what’s come before has arrived too late and technology & game styles have moved on so that the Christian content looks pale in the context of the AAA titles played currently and so they discount the medium. That’s why we’re shooting for the moon with the Codebearers game. We know we might not make it all the way to the Sea of Tranquility but we’re hoping to get pretty close.
Whether or not Continuum will be a major step forward for storytelling in Christian games remains to be seen, but what’s exciting about this project right now is that the team at Kaio is giving the community an opportunity to be involved. They’ve cast the vision and now they’re raising funds to turn their dream into a reality. Check out their page on Kickstarter for more information.
I spent the New Year’s visiting my friend Tanner the photographer in Seattle. Tanner just launched a project of his own; a year-long endeavor to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking through photography. Spending a few days travelling gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned already from running this site, as well as a chance to look to the future and imagine what this next year might hold. I wanted to take a moment and share some of my vision for Follow and Engage in 2012.
On New Year’s eve, Tanner hosted a huge event to promote his project. A 10,000 square foot warehouse, 60 huge prints of his work, 11 musicians performing throughout the night; he went all out to raise awareness for something that he’s deeply concerned about. Working with him in the days leading up to the big night, I had a realization that what I’m doing isn’t so different: I’m raising awareness too.
I’m raising awareness for something that I’m deeply concerned about. That is, that the Christian church at large has severely neglected to reach out to the gaming community. 183 million Americans play video games and Christians in general should be more interested in the medium than they currently are. It has enormous influence in people’s lives already, and as gaming experiences continue to grow more immersive, that influence will continue to grow too.
One of the ways I plan on raising more awareness this year is by pushing to have articles published in prominent Christian venues. It was encouraging to have a piece published just before the end of the year by RelevantMagazine.com, (If you haven’t seen it, check it out.) but I believe that’s just the beginning. I’m praying for more open doors and more influence and I’m praying that God would help me to be faithful with what he’s given me now so that he can give me even more in the future.
You know, I wrestled with it over the holidays, this whole games thing.
I mean how awesome is it that my friend Tanner is doing something to prevent human trafficking? That’s something that everyone cares about, myself especially. Compared to freeing people from literal, physical slavery, oppression, and abuse, games somehow seem unimportant, petty. Wouldn’t my time be better spent elsewhere?
But I started thinking about why I got into this in the first place. It wasn’t out of some sort of desire to rationalize my own gaming fixation, (I actually had to coax myself back into playing games). It was out of a sense of calling. Long story short, I remembered that this whole gaming thing wasn’t just something that I cooked up because I was bored, it was actually something that I believe God himself led me into. It might not be the easiest path, because it means doing something that most Christians don’t yet understand, but I have to trust that God has a plan, and he has me doing this for a reason.
If you, as a friend or simply a stranger with a piqued curiosity, are interested in supporting my efforts, there are a couple ways that you can help.
One. Easy, follow @followandengage on Twitter! This will help you with:
Two. Keep up with what I’m doing, check back regularly! This in turn will enable:
Three. Tell everyone you know. Retweets, Facebook likes, personal recommendations, etc. We’re creating awareness together! Especially when I have articles published elsewhere, if I can get a lot of support in the form of comments and social media sharing, it will make it much easier to get republished.
Something else worth mentioning is that I plan on completely redesigning the site in the near future, moving to a much more aesthetically-pleasing, picture filled theme. I actually want to buy a premium theme for around $40, but am a bit low on funds, if you’re interested in helping me purchase it, well, I’m sure we can work something out…
Finally, if you’re still here, go check out the newly redesigned “Resources” page. I think it’s starting to capture the heart of what I really want this site to become, a resource for Christians interested in engaging the world of video games.
As always, much love to you all. Have a wonderful weekend.
Photo: “The Shack and Road” by Tanner Wendell Stewart