Dancing for Jesus

eFocus is the anti-E3. It’s small and comparatively quiet – dancing girls, rock bands and fire twirlers tend to be absent – so it’s possible to have a conversation without shouting. Most of the attending companies are small and eager for attention, so there’s no half-assed display with a big sign and a monitor cycling expansion pack screenshots. It’s an event that showcases cool, upcoming products, like the NIC that (I think this is what they said) reads your thoughts to determine which packets are important and makes your gaming faster, and thus merits its $100 price tag.

In other words, eFocus is a singles bar around closing time. The girls can be pretty hot, sometimes there’s desperation in the air and hustlin’ skills earn you much more than a big name on a badge. More importantly, there’s free drinks. As we rolled in, I maneuvered onto Contributing Editor JR Sutich’s wing, and we began to prowl. In between checking out new games and thought-reading hardware, we fed outrageous lies to cute female PR reps (“JR used to be an East German swimmer. And a woman.”) because they’d believe it, or they’d pretend to believe it, and that was good enough for us.

When we stumbled on a dance pad in the middle of the floor, the logical thing for me to do was give JR a hearty shove in its direction. I mumbled “C’monishllbefun” as he stumbled toward the table and the waiting representatives, concealing my intentions to make another man dance for my entertainment. They looked at us somewhat askance, giving the half-filled glasses we were carrying a rather suspicious look, for make no mistake, Captain Morgan was the Third Man in attendance that evening.

Something seemed amiss as the rep scrolled through the songs to begin the demonstration. I’d never heard of any of them, which forces me to admit to a quiet interest in rhythm games. Sometimes, I go home, shut the blinds and show off my dancing skills when I am absolutely, positively sure I am alone. This is my secret shame. I’m no connoisseur of the rhythm genre, but something about the song titles just seemed off. I didn’t have time to share my thoughts before he was on the pad, bouncing up and down to a cheerful-sounding synthesizer and guitar opening that lacked the Pocky-covered intensity of a typical Dance Dance Revolution track.

Lyrics scrolled across the screen, and clarity came upon me with strange and terrible speed. The words were not the mangled Japanese-English or nonsensical techno lyrics so common in this genre. No, I’d thrown a friend and colleague head-first into the den of piety. A quick glance at the sign above the booth confirmed my suspicion: Digital Praise. And even I was socially aware enough to realize that stumbling up to a Christian game publisher with a drink in each hand was a bit of a faux pas.

Obviously, there was only one thing to do. Mumbling, “Do what you want to the girl, just leave me alone,” I attempted to make good my escape. The crowds were tightly packed around us, though, and making matters worse, JR had finished his song. He turned to me with a Cheshire grin and gave me a “Come on! It’ll be fun!” as he dragged me toward the waiting dance pad. The rep was eager, now, either hoping for unbiased journalistic coverage or because turning the tables on two drunken idiots was hilariously funny. I prefer to think it was the former.

I had fantasies of the liquor giving me some kind of crazy dancing skills, but these were the desperate hopes of a man facing a firing squad. I have no rhythm, and my normally terrible dancing skills had a layer of fine Caribbean rum over them. I was about to make a tremendous ass out of myself. Halfway through my complete and utter failure at a Christian dance game, I wondered if this was a penance of some kind and I slinked away to attempt to regain my dignity.

It was a classic clash of cultures. The gaming establishment and its audience treat Christian game publishers as bizarre outsiders, aliens from another world where people use the word “spirituality” in a serious sense. While the “Are games art?” debate rages endlessly in “our” circles, these same outsiders seek to make games that are spiritually enriching. Disagree with their conviction all you like, but few publishers seek enlightenment in addition to fabulous cash prizes.

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Musing on the difficulty of being an outsider in an industry that’s indifferent, if not actively hostile, to the very values you hold dear, I contacted Digital Praise and arranged an interview with one of the founders. Call it the aftereffects of an angst-filled adolescence, but I always like talking to the outsider.

Peter Fokos is one of the founders of Digital Praise, and serves as their CTO/Creative Director. He has an insider’s pedigree, with stints at Activision, Disney Interactive and even The Learning Company. When The Learning Company shut down their Fremont office, he was left looking for work. Around the same time, he tells me, “I had read a Wall Street Journal article about Christian games. [Being] a Christian in the game industry had been a challenge, as the games had become progressively [more] violent and obscene, so the idea of working on Christian games was very appealing.”

He looked to an existing Christian game company first, but they lacked the resources to offer him a position. His wife suggested starting his own business and, he admits, “I was rather skeptical at first, but God kept opening doors for me [that] I didn’t think would open. I also asked two friends I knew from my church to join me: Tom Bean, our CEO, and Bill Bean, our VP of Sales and Marketing. After much discussion and prayer, we formed Digital Praise.” What they saw was “a glaring hole in the game market. While Christians have been expressing their faith through other media, such as books, radio, television, music and movies, other than Bible software, there was very little quality Christian software. With my background in the game industry, I knew it could be done, just no one had done it yet.”

Entering into the Christian software market wasn’t easy, he says, adding, “There are a number of challenges. First is that most people have never heard of Christian games, and if they have, they do not have a high opinion of the games they have seen. The second challenge is getting our products into stores. Christian bookstores have only sold Bible software. They were not aware of Christian games.” By contrast, “Mass market retailers understand games, but they look at revenue per foot of shelf space. Christian games do not get special treatment in these stores. We need to sell through just like the rest of the games. Thankfully, we have overcome these challenges.”

After their games won some awards, it got a lot easier, and Digital Praise’s games had another advantage that soon got them shelf space. “Christian bookstores that have put our games on the shelves have found that they bring in customers that may not have been visiting their stores before. And mass market retailers have found that our games can hold their own alongside the traditional games on the shelves.” When I asked if they’d run into any resistance – as I anticipated their audience was the same people frequently quoted decrying videogames to the press – he said that they had not. “Christians read books, watch movies, listen to music and play videogames. The difference is, they are more selective of what they choose to read, watch, listen to and play.”

The inspiration for the dancing game I played, Dance Praise, was simple, he says, “My daughter, Samantha, is home-schooled. We wanted to find a way for her to get some exercise on rainy days,” but they wanted something that would be fun. “We looked at some of the dance games on the market, but didn’t like the way they portrayed women or the music they used. Samantha suggested that we create our own dance game using the music our entire family enjoyed: Christian music.”

They explored the idea, looking at “a couple of the other dance games on the market, but [we] decided we wanted to do something more than just dancing to a beat. Dance Praise displays all the lyrics of each song. The difference between Christian music and secular music are the lyrics, of course, so we felt that they had to be in the game.” In seeking to turn the game into a group-friendly activity, they “added some unique features like Shadow Dance, where one player creates the dance steps and the second player has to match their steps. We also added an Arcade mode, so you had to think about which steps you should hit and which to skip, [as] some steps had negative consequences for you or your opponent. We also added a duet mode where you dance along with another player and work together to get the highest score.”

I asked if there were any special considerations they needed to make in the game’s design, considering their audience. “First of all, we need to design a fun game,” he said. “If it’s not fun, then any message we hope to express will not be heard. We don’t approach a game idea by deciding if it’s appropriate. We start from the view of the message we want to communicate and go from there.” That’s not to say their religious views aren’t a factor, he tells me. “We believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. If one of our products uses the Bible or a Bible story as part of the game, then it needs to be correct. Even if there are no direct Bible references, it has to be in line with what is written there. Many of our people go over the game designs, and we even have our pastor look at some issues when we have a question.”

With the design complete, they needed music and a distributor. “Our distributor into the Christian retail market is EMI CMG,” Peter says. “They also happen to hold the license to many of the top Christian artists in the industry. Our CEO, Tom Bean, also happened to meet Joey Elwood of Gotee Records. Both Gotee and EMI were very helpful in securing the music rights for the game. They play videogames, too, and were very excited by what we were doing.”

The rampant cynicism of the gaming industry doesn’t seem to dent their morale at all. “We have actually received a lot of good press,” he says, though he adds that there have been some cynical remarks. “But for the most part, people are curious if there is anything to this.” I asked if those cynical remarks got to them, and he responded, “No, it does not bother us. We would be bothered if no one was talking about us at all. We are more concerned [with whether] we are doing everything that God wants us to be doing.”

They don’t even consider themselves outsiders, he continues, “We have published nine games in the last two years. Our games are in many traditional retailers like Circuit City, CompUSA, Office Depot, Fry’s, Apple Stores and Amazon, so no, we don’t feel that we are outsiders. We may be a niche market right now, but we are praying that it will grow. I have faith that it will.” These outsiders-but-not see “a lot of great games out there. There are some bad ones. We are just trying to bring a new perspective to games. There are a lot of people out there that want the games they play to reflect their values.” Digital Praise tries to do just that.

In 1972, Shannon Drake was sent to prison by a military court for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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