(The following talk was delivered at the Christian Game Developers Conference (CGDC) on July 17, 2015.)
UNDERSTANDING THEOLOGICAL CONTENT IN CHRISTIAN GAMES
At first thought trying to understand the magnitude of the Christian message and attempting to honor one’s belief and commitment while making games can be daunting. However, the task can be simplified into the following statement: “God is almighty, humankind is broken, and God offers restoration.” We will break this up into three parts, and will conclude with ideas of possible paths to take in the future.
However, I want to start with two questions that might already be on your minds:
First, what is a Christian game? Spiritual principals can be found in all sorts of works, and do not necessarily mean that they have the name “Christian” on them. This work includes schoolteachers, factory workers, firemen, parents; we are all called to a place that suits our talents and interests. This leaves room for allegory, educational, projects for fun or profit, reenactments of Biblical stories, etc. A game might not be listed as a Christian game, but could be endorsed as having Christian principals.
Second, does character behavior need to be pristine in a Christian game? The Bible deals with murder, adultery, theft, blasphemy, etc. Jesus is the Incarnate; He came to a broken world to live among us. Jesus went to people who had these sins in their lives, but He brought the message of redemption, and some sort of change happened. They either repented or suffered the consequences of that behavior. The Pharisees didn’t like this and neither will Christians that live in ivory towers. A game that restricts choice loses its relevancy in today’s culture. How to deal with this issue takes careful thought and planning from the developer. I don’t presume to control the creative elements of game design, just to promote thought on foundational principals of the gospel.
I see two perspectives: the game developer who wants autonomy and freedom to create as they feel led, and the consumer who wants assurance the game they purchase, perhaps for an underage child, will be appropriate for Christian entertainment and mentoring. The first group would resist a “standard,” and want to decide appropriateness themselves. Because of the wide interpretation of appropriateness, the consumer could have trust issues with this kind of freedom and desire a rating standard. What to do to that would help these two groups come up with something workable for both?
For the most part, we will be looking at game development from the creative end of the process, then we will see if there is a way to help market the game from a evaluation standpoint that would assist in public goodwill and opinion.
Creators of games should rightly have the freedom to tell their stories, but responsibility comes with this right. If a developer is going to put the name Christian on the game, they are in the role of caretaker of the Word.
Now let’s get down to the heart of our discussion.
God is Almighty
God is more vast and beyond the reach of our highest speculations. What we do know about Him comes from the Bible, history, nature, Jesus, and the witness of the Holy Spirit. Scripture describes His characteristics as being all powerful (omnipotence), all knowing (omniscience), all present (omnipresent), purely good (no evil), and in love. God as Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One person, three different essences. This is non-negotiable. This should be honored and NOT altered in any Christian game.
Humankind is broken
If a developer wants creative license this is the place to do it. Human behavior runs the gamut from heroic and inspiring to base and full of all kinds of destruction. How deeply one delves into the underbelly of society should depend upon the target audience (age/maturity development and morality factors), the storyline, and intended goal. By goals I allude to the earlier definition of a Christian game as leaving room for allegory, education, reenactments of Bible stories, etc. The storyline should be true to its intent and offer insights or character-morality growth potential, instead of using gore and violence to shock, glorify, and sensationalize sin. We do not need to be knocked over the head with evil to have fun in a game or to learn life lessons. Many developers in the secular world succumb to the lure of monetary rewards from games that depict violence for the sake of violence. Is this what we are really about? I can’t help but think this doesn’t pay in the end. It certainly brings a bad reputation to the industry.
From online comments I have read, many Players want games that explore the human condition, revealing subtle insights without being preachy. If the goal is to bring fun and wellbeing to others, this would not be offensive.
The game developer, Michael Herrera, gave me some great suggestions of what to include in story development. I want to share them with you:
•Games that depict the sinfulness and failings of Man should also include Christian responses/justice for such (i.e. murders punished, thieves caught, lies exposed).
•Developers should consider modeling forgiveness as part of their gameplay. This would be a unique quality that takes a higher path than just relying on monetary solutions or resorting to violence/punitive measures. We forgive because we need forgiveness.
•While healthy competition is an important part of games, it should not come at the expense of encouragement, compassion and/or mercy. We value these elements for we are broken and need mercy.
•Games naturally contain obstacles for Players to overcome. Consider allowing these obstacles to become opportunities to overcome human failings. Sometimes the most interesting obstacles are those that are internal (e.g. racism, sexism, bigotry, pride, etc).
•Because life is messy, developers should consider offering moral choices that are both good AND bad so that Players can learn to deal with: consequences, temptations, grace, and repentance/renewal. Otherwise, the game risks being either Pollyanna-ish or dark, filled with despair.
Michael Herrera also presented several themes he sees that would be useful in Christian games: Games that teach (1) the difference between love and lust, (2) the importance of forgiveness, (3) how to give back to others from the abundance God gives us, (4) how to reconcile our Free Will with obedience to Him, (5) how to value God’s grace and hope over the enemy’s shame, guilt, and despair, (6) the power of prayer, (7) how to practice Charity and serve one another, and (8) the difference between miracles and magic. These are not all inclusive. Brainstorming with others would produce many other themes.
A word should be said about our industry. Although good teamwork can be exhibited in the characters in games, it also has a place in interpersonal relations with teammates and other developers within the industry. Different or conflicting opinions should be valued and people respected. Diversity should be embraced in Spirit-led Christian games. Forgiveness offered for infractions. We do this through love. Love covers a multitude of sins. God loves us. We are on shaky ground when we despise someone God loves and died for. Unity and Diversity would be a great goal for the future.
God offers Restoration
Jesus came to pay the price for our sin. If we accept His death as a substitute for ours, we can receive grace and forgiveness for our brokenness. We can be restored to an intimate relationship with God, the Trinity, in the present time and in eternity. We can only see glimpses of what this means now. What a gift it would be for a developer to portray what this could look like. Humans do not have adequate language to describe or imagine such a place because we have not experienced it. We use words that best describe our most precious materials such as gold, silver, rubies, pearls in an attempt to describe what we cannot visualize.
There will always be people who do not accept redemption, and they will suffer the consequences of that decision. In our present culture, we do not like to talk about justice or judgment, but it is part of the gospel message. Interestingly, many people think of justice as being from an angry God who wants to exact punishment on us. However, that isn’t His way. Careful study will show more merciful actions; God’s good order of justice, healing and peace that restores right relationships. To learn more about this in action study the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions elements of retaliation, restoration, and distribution.
The main idea is to not glorify acts of sin or retaliation. This is not the message of the gospel. Our society has such a poor grasp of what it means to be a child of God. The extent of His love escapes us. What higher calling would it be for developers to learn more of His ways and to present them in story form to this generation?
In review, we hold fast to the belief that God is Almighty. Our responsibility as Christians is to protect the boundaries of our core Bible-directed beliefs (standards) in the holiness of God and creation. How has it been done in the past?
Church Fathers have been hammering out these issues for centuries, and many of them have given their lives for this work. The primary way was to agree on a set of beliefs essential to the faith, and write them into a creed. The first of these was the Apostle’s Creed from approximately the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. which was widely accepted for centuries because it was simple and free of most anything controversial. Another important creed was the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. Both of these creeds are still in use today and is the most common set of guidelines across denominational lines, serving the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist Churches. The Baptists have a non-binding Faith and Message Statement for point-in- time beliefs. Sorry if I have left any out.
For those who don’t want to accept a creed, the 10 Commandments can be a starting point for a standard of behavior, but doesn’t include references to the Trinity. They extol holiness and denounce sinful behavior. This would put the spotlight on those games that glorify lying, cheating, stealing, killing that make most Christians flinch.
Because many people are uncomfortable with the word “creed” I would like to say a few things about it. Herbert McCabe gave a wonderful insight on creeds:
“As usual with such formulations by the Church, which are all, in a way, attempts to say who She is, and which come out of long-drawn-out arguments and discussions about the identity of the church (‘what is it that makes Christians Christian?” etc.), they are better at shutting off blind alleys than explaining the true way, better at excluding ways of talking than at giving an account of the best way of talking. And this is just as well because there is no best way of talking. I don’t think any Council of the church has ever said ‘This is the only way to express the fundamental truths of the gospel.’ They have frequently said ‘These other ways have turned out to be no good, dead ends.’ The pronouncements of councils normally say, ‘No Through Road Here’ rather than acting as signposts or guidelines or maps.”
Another statement has been “Creeds are in brief what the scriptures are in length.”
Looking back to Humankind is Broken, humanity is always changing cultural norms, perspectives, and exploring issues and possibilities. This is normal and not to be feared. God works with each present culture at their point of understanding. Continuity between generations comes by learning from the past and holding firm to those lessons learned.
To finish our thesis statement, God offers Restoration, life is a cycle of birth and death. We learn, explore and make decisions during this time. Our games reflect this exploration and can be a reflection of life circumstances. And they can be fun. Christianity believes humanity can be restored and without blemish again, although we only have the hope of something we have no memory of and yearn for.
A Starting Point
So where do we go from here? Let’s talk about creativity and continuity. That ‘s working with the technology, culture, and desires of our present time, but holding fast to some form of continuity of beliefs from the past–from our church Fathers and from scripture itself. To create our own understanding of the scriptures would be to repeat the mistakes of the earlier heretics–it has the potential of doing harm for a long time to come.
We need a paradigm shift in understanding the role of theology education in developing Christian games. Most of us think we already have that covered, but if you look at other fields, continuing education is a must. Professors at my university are recommended to read up to 20 books each year. The medical profession must maintain their license–40 hours every two years in one state. Many developers here today have degrees in game development or garage technology. Would it be a stretch to add continuing theological education to their portfolio? It could be formal or self-taught. I have a degree in Christian Studies, and I find myself missing gaps of knowledge that would help proclaim the gospel. My desire is to learn more of the joys and provisions God has for us. We live in a world where a person can see all the negatives and struggles, and miss the promises and good things God has for us.
What is theology? Michael Patton (bible.org) says, “Most simply put, theology is the study of God…Because theology itself provides a foundation for your philosophy and worldview, which in turn sets inclinations for your heart, actions, and decisions in all situations.”
Earlier, I told online comments I have read where many Players want games that explore the human condition, revealing subtle insights without being preachy. These basic principals of life come from theology. And I believe most of you would have a place on your team if you had a extremely knowledgeable person approach you, and say he would help for free (and not get in the way) to make your project really hit home with the Player. You have such a person: Jesus. I know that would frighten the socks off most teams. It would me, but I would get over it.
John 14:16 says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper (like Me), that He may be with you forever; … 16. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… 26.“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (NASB)
An overriding principal of the Holy Spirit: He will not witness to what isn’t true. That will keep you honest. He is the one who will bring the message home to your Players. It is not bad to have your game come alive and anointed of God, is it? You are even more frightened? Get over it. He allows us to be partners in His work.
So how can we learn more of this theology?
A place to start would be a forum for learning and discussion. With this in mind I have started a blog where different topics can be explored. I invite everyone here to join an ongoing conversation as an informal way of learning theology. I will be twisting arms of our peer group to contribute in the writing of the blog. Perhaps there would be a way to discuss the blog article on Facebook.
The blog site is http://blind alleys.christiangamedev.com/ You will find a copy of this talk there.
Let’s turn now to the other side of the coin–public trust and public opinion. Let’s consider a rating system. I know I have lost several of you, but hold on for a moment. It might be pretty simple to do. Let me explain. The software industry already has ESRB that rates for age and content. It would be fairly simple to parallel a Christian-content rating alongside the different categories of ESRB.
Content could be under two categories:
Does it reflect Holiness? High or Low, based upon scriptural boundaries such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. The developers could state what criteria they used. Uniformity among developers would be a plus.
Does it offer Redemptive Value? High or Low. In other words, are there consequences to sinful behavior that portray God’s good order of justice, healing, and peace? Does the character have a change of heart?
As far a public opinion goes, remaining silent in the face of disgusting games will have an adverse effect on public opinion. A simple statement that the game in question did not meet the Christian Guidelines for the Gaming Community would help, referring to the rating system. Who would release a statement like this? You tell me, this is just the starting point.
Because of Freedom of Speech, little can be done about an enforcement mechanism, but the Christian Community can distance themselves from such poor choices. Offering a mentoring service might be considered.
Well, that is my part of the talk. We have a panel of developers here that will make comments or help with questions/comments. I turn it over to Michael Herrera at this time. Thanks for being such a great audience.