Thursday, January 10, 2008

An Open Letter to the Christian Entertainment Industry


My childhood exposure to Sci-Fi was spotty at best. While I got some of the classics, such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, a lot of science fiction was unavailable to me due to the confines of a religious upbringing. Fortunately I was lucky enough to hear Dimension X reruns on the radio, which exposed me to authors such as Ray Bradburry, further feeding my geekery and forging my current interest in Old Time Radio.

Christian Sci-Fi and Fantasy, 90% suck

Aside from those few isolated sources, most of the Sci-Fi I got to read was the sort you find in Christian book stores. Stephen Lawhead was the high water mark for living Christian Science Fiction and fantasy writers. The Christian market was so desperate for decent science fiction that the Dune series, as anti-Messianic and anti-religion as you can get, was sometimes sold at Christian book stores and Becka Book sales as an "Allegory".

Many of the Christian schools and Churches I attended banned things like The Lord of the Rings and even Narnia. LOTR I could understand, as one of the heroes is a wizard, but banning Naria and allowing Dune convinced me that whoever was making these decisions never actually READ any of the books.

Christian Computer Games, 100% Suck

Christian Computer games were as neglected and barren a landscape as Christian Science Fiction. I vividly remember a Nintendo cartridge that featured "Bible Heroes." The people who made these games never took inspiration from things like the epic battles to take and hold Canaan, or the political intrigue around the succession of Kings. No, all the really cool source material was left by the wayside.

The Bible games were not exciting or engaging, but insipid and boring. Yes, you got to play David, son of Jessee, but you didn't play a game where King David is going to war or fighting the rebellion lead by his own son. No, you played a 12 year old David running around collecting lost lambs and putting them in a pen. The game ENDED just before the battle with Goliath, where it really should have been starting.

All of this came flooding back to me courtesy of some podcasts. It seems the sidekick from "Charles in Charge" has gone as far to the right as Kirk Cameron and created the character "Bibleman."

Bibleman, an apparent staple in Christian themed superhero media now has a video game.

Why Christian Computer Games Suck

I want there to be something about this that surprises me. I want to see some progress in the media, but by and large even the GRAPHICS have failed to evolve much since my own high school days. The premise is insipid, the agenda onion-skin thin, the voice over work sub-par even for a video game. The game play looks dull, uninspired and repetitive.

The mentality behind this is all too obvious to me. These abominations are brought about by prejudice and misconception. This is not an attempt to create an engaging and interesting game. Bibleman is an attempt to graft in-your-face, Christian concepts onto a Christian parent's stereotype of a video game. The models for these games are not the ones that actually sell, but the cartoon image middle aged, highly offended, Evangelicals have of video games. They're an attempt to make a preachy game based on a stereotype and the result is sad, campy and pathetic.

I have some respect for the people who tried to counter the violence of Quake with a paint ball game. The implementation may have been poor, but the idea was sound. I have no respect for the people who created the Bibleman video game. If you're going to have a game where kids are running around killing people anyway then go all out and make a GOOD video game based on the Old Testament.

Fixing the Problems with Christian Computer Games

Anyone about to make a Christian Computer game needs to go out and PLAY SOME GAMES. Don't look at screen shots your pastor circulated in his last "Why Rockstar Software is evil" flier. Play some popular games for 5 to 10 hours each and talk to some enthusiastic gamers. Ask them what they like about games and what keeps them interested in a game.

Tone down the Cheese. Having crosses everywhere and the heroes calling out "In the Name of Christ" every 30 seconds gets real old real fast.

Jack Chick is not a role model. I hate to break it to you, but Jack Chick tracts never converted anyone. His over the top stereotypes only serve to annoy and offend the very people the tracts claim to target. All they really accomplish is allowing the Christians who distribute them to pretend they're evangelizing without requiring them to actually interact with human beings, you know, Witness.

Don't resort to stereotypes. Here are some examples from actual Christian media:
  • A main villain named "Wacky Protester" whose goal is to draw souls into Hell.
  • A supercomputer with an annoying voice that's easily recognizable as a bad stereotype of a new Jersey Jewish girl.
  • An "Evil teacher" out to spread "Humanist" values

None of these are credible villains. They won't be taken seriously by someone playing the game. Using them or characters like them just violates the next rule:

Don't use it to preach. The goal of a Christian game should be to create something that kids can play instead of the games you find objectionable. If you use it as a platform to constantly preach and teach moral lessons then the kids will get bored. A moral THEME is just fine. Take a look at the "Light Side / Dark Side" theme of "Knights of the Old Republic" as an example.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minster who went into television production because he hated what was already on the air. He set out to create something he approved of. His morality, humility and integrity permeates every second of the programming he produced and has reverberated through programs like "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" that are based upon what he created. At no point in anything he produced did he start preaching about Jesus on television, even though he started producing childrens' programming during a time period where he could have gotten away with it on PBS. He did not TALK ABOUT his faith, he simple LIVED HIS FAITH and the result has been a source of peace, love and acceptance that will hopefully reverberate for generations. Don't create Christian entertainment the way Jack Chick produces comic books. Create it the way Fred Rogers produced television.

Use it as Inspiration, but don't force it to be the central theme.

You may think the people behind the Diablo games are trying to corrupt your children in some kind of demonic plot to bring more souls to Satan. It may come as a shock to you that they're not. Game designers are just using spooky and scary cultural source material to get a good adrenaline rush going. Do the same with the Bible. Isiah's actual description of what Angels look like is pretty far removed from the winged cherubs in white we inherited from the Romans. The Old testament has two different descriptions of Angels, handsome messengers often robed in light and three story tall walking nightmares who look like they could use a city bus for a game of catch.

Medieval art gives us the fanciful notion of demons being bat winged freaks with Pan's legs and goat heads. It stands to reason they'd look a lot like their unfallen brethren. Depicting them as such would make them a lot more frightening than the current Hollywood and comic book images.

Game ideas

Here are some ideas. If you use them I ask for a credit in the game and a small percentage donated to an animal shelter or rescue group. I'd prefer The House Rabbit Network, but I'm not picky. (Well, aside from ruling out those hypocrites at PETA and their 80% kill rate, but that's a different story)

A resource management game based on the conquest of Canaan.

You have all the elements for Starcraft style game play. You need to gather resources, fight enemies and keep a large civilian population in check. By this point God had stopped feeding the people with manna and Moses wasn't around to extract water from stones. The key is to keep divine intervention to a minimum. God is present in the game, but he's not making it easy for his chosen people. Read the Bible. He made them do most of the dirty work.

A Persistent Multi player Online game based on Judges I and II.

You have rampaging bands of invaders, no centralized government, false prophets and priests of Baal running around and the occasional "Judge" sent by God to clean things up, Samson being just the most famous of many.

If you MUST do the End Times...

Take a good long look at the book of Revelations. You'll notice that the whole "Twinkling of an Eye" event happens AFTER the fall of the Antichrist. The notion of "The Rapture" sparing all the good little Christians from the End Times is a deliberate misinterpretation of scripture. It's a tool for tempting Christians to be prideful and arrogant about their fate, when the reality is we're going to get just as much of a smack down as everyone else.

Suck it up and deal, then use it to make a survival game about Christians living in a dissolving civilization under totalitarian rule. Don't lay it on too thick though. Yes, have a few characters refuse to believe the Antichrist really is the Antichrist because "I would have been Raptured if he were" but if something like that gets referenced more than once every hour of game play you're laying it on too thick.


feldspaar said...

Dear Matthew,

Your post gave me pause for thought. It is sad but legalism is everywhere: some people want to be entertained and other people want to force ethics through. Why can't something be Christian and entertaining?

Trying to be an open-minded Christian is a challenge. The best bit is that God shows His humour even in the Bible. When Jonah flees his calling on a ship, it's the sailors who end up praying to God. When Jonah gets round to praying, God sends a massive fish to keep him in its mouth.

God is very cool - and that's just reading about Him!


Anonymous said...

Diablo isn't satanic? Mmm, extreme red lights there; Diablo means Devil. You are protecting the Devil and you are trying to use the WORLD'S methods to create a game and then calling it "Christian".

You are wrong. You are doing it the incorrect way.

You deny the pre-trib rapture probably because you are so wordly.

Your "philosophy" is very dangerous you look at the Bible through the eyes of the world. It's very questionable behaviour; I stand in doubt of you.

1 John 4:5
They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.

I don't know if you are saved; only you and God know that. Either you are very worldly or you are not saved; I don't know. But if you are saved; I'd exhort you to clean your life up. If you are not saved; get saved and then sort out your life.

Anonymous said...

Have you actually READ Jack Chick's stuff? I think you're really off-base with your nasty comment there.

Matthew Miller said...

Yes Anonymous, I HAVE read Jack Chick's tracts. I was raised to pass them out. There were Halloweens in my youth where they were bundled in the bags of candy my family gave out. I even gave a copy of "Big Daddy" to my high school chemistry teacher.

I know my statements about Jack Chick's deeply flawed, hate mongering tracts are accurate from personal experience. They are largely offensive, often inaccurate, rely heavily upon stereotypes and are NOT effective means of evangelism.

If you are passing out Jack Chick tracts, you're doing worse than wasting your money and time, you're actively harming the reputation of the religion you claim to profess.