The intersection between video games and Christianity occurs once you realize that a video game’s ability to communicate with a person is not confined to just its cut-scenes and characters. You can use the actual interactions in the game and the consequences of the player’s actions to communicate a value system to a person. However, only placing dogma, scripture, or prayer in a game generally renders those things meaningless. Christianity can best be communicated through games by engaging the player in the morals of the text.
To offer an opinion on how a game could do this, I exchanged a few e-mails with the Youth Director of Grace Episcopal Church, Mac Brown, in Charleston, South Carolina. He taught courses in religion for middle to high school students before working with Grace Church and will begin his training to become a priest once he finishes his current duties. Make no mistake, Mac is a serious gamer who mostly prefers Xbox Live and FPS games. He likes to play Call of Duty 4 on Hardcore Team Deathmatch or Social Slayer on Halo 3. Based on his personal experience, Mac often incorporates both video and moral games into his youth group sessions: A typical church lock-in or mid-week meeting will incorporate games like Halo 3, Wii Sports and Guitar Hero.
When asked, Mac is dismissive about the idea of teaching religion directly through a video game. “What do we mean by religion? Are we trying to impart certain dogmatic practices and procedures, or should the goal be to teach underlying morals and values,” he asks, pointing out that in Christianity, Jesus gives only a few of the former, but teaches plenty of values and morals. Attempting to communicate dogma instead of morality is where most religious games run into problems.
An example of a game that tries to shove dogmatic doctrine on the player is Left Behind: Eternal Forces. The game is set in a post-Rapture setting where the player helps fight the war against the Anti-Christ’s forces while converting non-believers. The primary criticism levied at the game is that the murder of non-believers could be forgiven through the game design. One protester argues, “The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one’s foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people.” The game encourages the notion of prayer as a way for forgiveness of sins, yet it completely falls apart because there is no real sense of guilt or sin being communicated. In the game, the mechanic blandly boils down to “Prayer fixes your health”. The concept of prayer as a redemptive or meditative act, thus implying that the player’s character is indeed guilty or has sinned in some way, is never approached.
Simply dumping religious quotes on the player won’t communicate much either. A prime example is the match-three puzzle game Walls of Jericho. By mixing in Bible trivia that pops up while playing, the religious quotes become a gameplay burden. Other than the name and graphics, there isn’t much that even relates to the Bible. Nor would simply setting a game in the Bible starring David or Gideon in a God of War style be much of an improvement. David Fifield, game developer, points out, “Taking those stories and putting … your skill, reflex and wit as the determining factors would remove God’s intervention … and potentially place the glory on the Bible hero (or the player) and not on the God who ordained the course of events.”
When he mixes religious games into his usual lectures, Mac approaches these games differently, to make it more engaging for his students. In one of his games, he “divided the group into two teams. Each player on the team took a turn; they could either choose circle or square. If one team chose the circle, while the other chose the square, then the circle team got 20 points and the square team lost 20 points. If they both choose circle, they both lost 20 points and if they both choose square they both received 10 points.” Mac doesn’t explain the rules of the game to anyone, simply letting them play with the system while rewarding points. The point of the game is that if both groups try to always claim the circle in order to get 20 points, neither team will ever earn any. Only by working together can either group achieve any kind of score – to win the game, groups must cease viewing the other team as an opponent and instead treat them as a potential ally.
Part of the reason video games struggle to teach the kind of morality Mac imparts through his games comes from the lack of coherent consequences for the player. Any time you punish a player for something that they do, you impose your values onto them: GTA IV wants you to think that killing people is inappropriate, so the cops will start arriving when you commit a crime. Henry Jenkins defines this concept as environmental storytelling, which is a broad term encompassing a variety of techniques that games use such as rule interaction, placing details around a level, and using environmental spaces to evoke a desired response. The player learns that there is a consequence for certain kinds of moral behavior in the game space. For Mac’s games, the key is not to teach with punishment alone, because that only encourages people to avoid things. He seeks to influence students into certain kinds of behavior, and to encourage them to think about why that behavior may or may not be appropriate.
Another example of a game Mac uses to communicate a moral lesson, instead of mere religious practice, is based directly on the Parable of the Talents. The lesson follows the parable of the manager who gives his servants money, one works to double it, one works to triple it, and one hides it because he is afraid of failure. To recreate the parable, Mac decided to have each group represent one of the servants: “I divided them into groups and gave everyone different types of candy and different amounts of money. I asked each group to try and trade, buy, sell, in order to get the best business deal. When time was up each group would show me how much money and candy they had, and I’d tell them if they got the right combination. All day I had been dropping hints about my favorite candy. In the game, any deal is better than no deal.”
The point of the game is to make people realize why hiding yourself away and not investing into the world isn’t profitable. The Bible conveys this idea through stories and parables, while Mac’s game encourages students to act out the experiment and come to the same realization firsthand. In order to win, students had to swap candy several times, barter with money, pool resources together – simply put; to win, they had to deal and interact with the other players. Mac notes that the winner, a student suffering from autism, won with twenty dollars and the right candy bar.
Another issue that religious games face involves establishing which morals to develop and how it can be accomplished. One gaming website, Christ Centered Gamer, creates two distinct categories for their reviews. One is the usual rating for graphics, controls, and game design, but the other evaluates ‘Appropriateness’. This category grades games on violence, language, use of the occult, sexual content, and the cultural, moral, and ethical values that they encourage. The last category can seem ambiguous: Call of Duty 4 was awarded an 8/10 for morality while Fallout 3 received a 6/10, and Grand Theft Auto IV earned a 5/10. It might be inane to simply stuff Bible quotes into a game, but it’s equally a waste to blankly label violence or magic as evil or offensive without any contextual consideration for how the game presents these concepts. Why is shooting Arabs in COD 4 less reprehensible than killing another living being in a nuclear wasteland in Fallout 3? If I shoot someone in GTA IV, I’m sent to jail and given a brief fine. In Fallout 3, depending on the circumstances, I can commit awful acts and get away with no punishment. Which game better communicates a sense of morality?
Mac is adamant about the need for consequences that fit whatever morals the game designers want to instill in the player. He thinks that if videogames are going to be used to teach, the consequences must extend into the real world as well. Xbox Live already threatens the loss of privileges if vulgar, racial, or otherwise inappropriate language is used. Oddly, Xbox Live seems to be one of the few and best examples of how the videogame industry can actually enforce a moral goal by punishing bad behavior in the real world. Otherwise, the player can reload from an earlier save and undo the mistake.
Ultimately Mac’s suggestions for games aren’t so different from the issues developers are constantly struggling with. “I do not want a video game where you have to pull the trigger to raise Jesus from the dead. Games need to investigate difficult moral situations that have realistic consequences, so a player can begin to engage those questions. We need to be simple. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to try and feed a starving family or control how two warring societies come together than to run around a sandbox and quote scripture?”
L.B. Jeffries is a law student from South Carolina who spends too much time playing videogames or screwing around on The Escapist forums instead of studying. He writes reviews, articles and a weekly blog for the videogames section of Popmatters.