Why Are There No Good Bible Games?

May
11

Why Are There No Good Bible Games?

Several months ago there was a quiet buzz about a Bible-based MMO that would be released online. Based in the time of Abraham, the game featured Age of Empires-style building and resource management. While novel in concept, the game received below-average reviews. While it is still active and seems to have attracted some attention, it is far from a mainstream success. This, unfortunately, is considered to be one of the higher quality pieces in the relatively small library of games based on Biblical stories and imagery. We have games like Assassin’s Creed where killing (admittedly crooked) clergy is encouraged, but there are very few successful games where religious figures are examined by allowing players to experience their stories. Bible games, such as those created for the NES by Wisdom Tree, have traditionally been pretty awful, but does it have to be that way?

Bible Adventures Why Are There No Good Bible Games?

Bible Adventures was a lackluster NES title based on Bible stories.

Some would cite the lack of marketability of religious content to gamers as an obstacle to creating Bible-based games. A scene from the Simpsons episode “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” comes to mind, in which Bart, Milhouse, and Nelson were looking through trading cards at a swap meet. They grew increasingly excited at the prospects of finding seemingly rare merchandise (“Woah, a Methuselah rookie card!”) until Ned Flanders revealed that they were educational Biblical trading cards (“Religion?  Learning?  LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!”) Others would argue that creating content based on one religion or another would risk not only alienating consumers of different faiths, but also potentially offending non-religious consumers. Clearly, religious or even semi-religious content holds its own risks, but perhaps the way we look at including it in mainstream games should be reconsidered. In this article, I don’t wish to suggest we make toys or simple games out of elements of people’s religions, but rather create exciting and marketable pieces of interactive media that treat Biblical content with respect for source material, meaning, and the rights of people who don’t want to be forced into any particular belief system.

The world of consumable media is certainly no stranger to religion, as evidenced by the throng of Biblical movies and specials that play on major networks around holidays. I myself fondly remember watching The Rugrats Christmas and Hanukah specials as a child and still try to catch The Ten Commandments when it’s on in the weeks surrounding Easter and Passover. Children today have VeggieTales, which presents Bible stories in a positive and non-judgmental way. These pieces effectively educate viewers on religious themes while keeping the content palatable as typical entertainment: The Ten Commandments was the highest grossing film of 1957, won an Academy Award for visual effects, and is regarded by the Library of Congress as “culturally significant.”

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Doing it right

These pieces of media also avoid spoon-feeding religion to the viewer in a forceful or invasive way. Viewers of The Ten Commandments can enjoy the special effects, the artful telling of the story, and the performances of skilled actors such as Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Yvonne De Carlo, and Vincent Price without feeling judged or forced into a belief system. As someone who attended Catholic School from kindergarten to college, I can tell you that forceful or judgmental religious lessons cause many to turn away from religion entirely. Religious children’s series Psalty the Singing Songbook particularly comes to mind…

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Forceful messages like those found in some Christian children's programming and elementary religion classes can cause turn people away from religion in the long term.

If it is possible to make a non-invasive and successful religious movie, then could it be possible to do the same with a video game?  I would argue that yes, it could. However, some guidelines would need to be followed.  While I am loathe to entertain the parallel of film and video games, implementing some of the design elements of successful religious films could help developers avoid the design disasters that were the Wisdom Tree games.

1. Treat the project like any other game: This one is very important. The game does not need to be created by religious zealots. Hire talent like you would for any other project. Find ways for people to become personally invested in creating the game even if they are non-religious. Make development about making a good game rather than pleasing the Bible Belt. Even the most religiously cynical artist or programmer has to admit that the content in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is pretty hardcore.

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Christian bands like Demon Hunter prove that the Bible is not only hardcore, it is indeed: metal.

2. Emphasize historical content: I once took a course on Biblical Archaeology that brought incredible insights into a lot of religious narratives. Additionally, my copy of the Bible is the Oxford Study Bible, which is filled with historic footnotes and maps that put everything in a real-world context. The stories in the Bible did not occur in a historical vacuum; in fact, many occurred in eras that already capture the popular imagination. Early Old Testament (OT) stories occur during the time of Mesopotamian cultures. Exodus deals heavily with Egypt, and even the accomplishments of Alexander the Great are mentioned in the Book of Daniel. As such, the OT is full of historic battles and epic imagery ripe for the mainsteam game market.

3. Carefully pick content that translates well into gameplay and would appeal to mass-market sensibilities: Not everything in the Bible would make a good game and as such, developers of Bible games would need to go through the book with a fine-toothed comb to find gameplay-friendly stories. As evidenced by movies such as The Ten Commandments, Biblical narratives can be full of human drama that is very mass-market-friendly. Imagine a game based on elements from the Books of Samuel in which the life of King David is described. A story of family drama, betrayal, war, and royal jealousies, the books contain a ton of dramatic content beyond the popular “David and Goliath” story. If envisioned as a God of War style game, Book of the Kings (a title taken from the Latin Vulgate Bible version of the Books of Samuel) could begin with David’s battle with Goliath as a “hook.” Similar to battles with the Hydra, Colossus of Rhodes, and Poseidon in the God of War games, David fighting Goliath could quickly engage players in the game and entice them to play more. It could even be the game’s cover art. The rest of the game could explore then-king Saul’s jealousy for David, attempts on David’s life, David’s fleeing from Saul, the eventual crowning of David as king, and the military conquests that followed. The game could be a very in-depth character piece describing David’s growth to the position of king, his famous character flaws and human weaknesses, his musical and poetic talents, and his faith. Designed well, the game could potentially be very compelling.

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Slap a title on that and you have good cover art

4. Be respectful and faithful to the source content – Video games are a medium that allows user input. In many genres this can be a great strength for the gameplay and give a sense of freedom to the player. It can be fun to be the villain and explore taboos that one would never even consider in real life. This is wonderful in games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, but that kind of freedom probably wouldn’t fly in a Bible game. There should be no opportunities to teabag other players, for example. By today’s gameplay aesthetics some may consider this lack of moral freedom unfortunate, but players as Moses don’t need to be given the opportunity to drown Israel in the Red Sea. David can sleep with Bathsheba, but not blue aliens. Giving the player too much narrative freedom runs the risk of diminishing the meanings of some of the stories: players shouldn’t get to decide whether Adam and Eve eat the Apple but they can decide what special attacks Samson can use on his enemies. The emergent narrative of the user playing the game can change, but the embedded narrative of Biblical events must stay the same. If this seems heavy-handed and linear, it is, but Japanese role playing games have been getting away with it for years.

5. For some stories, treat Biblical figures as the “most important tertiary characters”: Thus far I have been sticking with the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible stories for this article. This is for two reasons: to allow the examples to be marketable to as many consumers as possible and because those stories are the ones that would be more game-friendly. However, what if a game decided to tackle some of the OT/Hebrew Bible stories of prophets or even venture into the New Testament territory of Christianity? If we have been considering The Ten Commandments a precedent for handling more first-hand accounts of characters where the player gets to interact with the Biblical figure, then maybe a movie like Ben Hur could help us deal with these less action-oriented individuals. For the uninitiated, Ben Hur is based on the 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur is betrayed by a close friend to Roman officials and becomes a galley slave. Judah eventually frees himself and returns for revenge. In the film, the betrayer dies in a chariot race and Judah reunites with his mother and sister, who have in the meantime contracted leprosy. During the film, Judah also encounters Jesus Christ, is deeply affected by his teachings, and ultimately performs an act of kindness towards Christ while the latter is carrying the Cross. In return, Jesus heals Judah’s mother and sister. The film cleverly gives insight into Christian teaching while focusing on a fictional character for action and adventure elements. Jesus is in many ways the most important tertiary character of the film. This is not unheard of in gaming media either; an apparent draft of the Halo movie was to revolve around soldiers in the Halo game trilogy reacting to the actions of the games’ main character, Master Chief John 117. Again, this does not have to be a method employed for New Testament stories only, as there are many famous parts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible that could be positively portrayed in this way. Planning a Biblical game in this way, creating a set of events and characters to occur in parallel with major Biblical events; could better motivate developers to focus on traditional good gameplay and historicism than running into the developmental stigmas of a straightforward Bible-to-gameplay translation.

6. Be educational but not judgmental: Where many previous Biblical or religious games fail is in their preachiness. They fail in that they say something is right and another thing is wrong. This is the difference between positive programs like Rugrats specials and VeggieTales versus more forceful ones like Psalty. From experience, I can tell you that this is the difference between spoon-feeding elementary school Catholic school religion classes that had disastrous results for some kids and more progressive high school and college religion classes that allow people to explore religion at their own pace. This is not to say that faithful meanings should not find themselves into these works, in many ways that’s kind of the point of making games based on the Bible. However, these meanings should be part of the story, and not the point of the product. They should be portrayed in a positive light but not required for winning the game. If the book of Exodus and the forty years in the desert was made into an Oregon Trail-like game, for example, players could get extra Manna and quail for making certain moral choices, but could still find other (albeit scarcer) sources of food without these choices. The point of these games would be more so to explore the events of the story in an interactive medium rather than to force belief. Messages of faith can and should be present given the source material, but should not be so overtly present that the game is actively preaching to the player like in the Wisdom Tree games. There are many examples of literature, such as The Grapes of Wrath, with subtle religious themes that don’t become books of religious lessons. Even a scene towards the end of Story Mode in the latest Mortal Kombat game has heavy Christian overtones (“Elder gods, why have you forsaken me!?”), but its not shoving anything down the gamer’s throat.

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Shows like the "Rugrats Chanukah Special" managed to be educational, non-forceful, and entertaining with Biblical themes.

7. Don’t shy away from violence: It is impossible to deny that the Bible is violent. I’m sorry, that’s the way it is. The worst Bible games (looking at you again Wisdom Tree) try to deny this by sugarcoating Biblical stories and packaging them for children. While this is great in children’s books like the wonderful Beginner’s Bible, it takes the conflict out of games. Games are by definition systems of conflict between players or players and some sort of system and a smart Bible game will preserve that. The aforementioned Ten Commandments and Ben Hur films wove stories with both Biblical elements and Hollywood action. The violence does not need to be of the early 1990’s “buckets of blood for the sake of buckets of blood” variety or unapologetically realistic (because really who likes to look at entrails?), but it should exist if appropriate. The tales of David and of Sampson are good examples of this and the violent and dirty elements are actually integral to these stories.

8. Allow players to decide if they want to explore the content further outside of the game: A video lecture by The Escapist’s Daniel Floyd on educational games encouraged a brand of learning for video games called “tangential learning.” In this concept, facts or information is not directly given, but hinted at in a piece of media. The example he used was the Square’s decision to name a character “Sephiroth” in Final Fantasy VII. Most players would just think “hey neat name and great character” and not take a second look. Some players, however, might look information on some of the sources of words and names from the game and discover that the Sephiroth is actually an element of Jewish mysticism. By putting in a pattern of educational references, beginning with an overtly famous one (naming a character after someone from Greek Mythology for example) and then using more obscure ones following the same pattern (naming a character after someone from the pantheon of Taoism), Floyd argues that you can create in immensely effective educational system of meaning in your game. While making a game about King David or Moses might be a little more overt, that doesn’t mean that religious messages in the game need to be. David is another good example here, in that many of the Psalms are attributed to him as part of Judeo-Christian tradition. The Psalms are used in many elements of both Jewish and Christian worship and feature many elements of the faith of both religions.  They occur in many discussions of the life of King David, especially tied to his musical and poetic talents, however, they may or may not find their way into the David game. A throwaway line about David composing something like the Psalms may find their way into the cutscene script, and it would ultimately be up to the player to explore the Psalms for themselves. As stated before, the David example could be an exploratory character piece outlining his life, flaws, and faith, but not in such a way that the player doesn’t have a choice when given the really heavy religious or prayer-based content.

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David is an example of a complex Biblical character. His religion is an important element of the story, but can be left for the player to explore on their own.

Ultimately, making a Bible game would still be a risk. Many people, if told that something is a Bible game, would scoff at the thought of playing it. However, realizing that the stories in the book are also historically based and feature many powerful and evocative scenes could form the basis for an extremely successful number of games. Again, any religious content should be dealt with judiciously, it should be a meaningfully alluded-to element of the stories to remain faithful to the source material (to not offend religious gamers), but not force anything on the player that they don’t want forced on them. In all likelihood, someone would probably still protest to the content, but the same is true of video game violence. If an Atheist parent doesn’t want their child playing the game, limit the child’s exposure to the material – simple as that. If games with very slight religious elements like Dante’s Inferno (despite its bastardizing of the source material) can be successful though, then maybe the envelope can be pushed with religious content as it was in the 90’s with violence. Like other topics such as politics, sex, and violence games need to address these elements of the human experience if they are to develop as a meaningful form of media.

 

 

About Chris Totten

Chris Totten is a Washington DC based video game professor. Besides confusing his friends and students by discussing games in terms of things like “Behavior Theory” and “emergence”, he is a regular “expert” blogger and occasional features writer for Gamasutra.

20 Comments

  • May 11, 2011 @ 6:36 am

    there isn’t much however we have more giving the devil a spot in games.

    all I just have to say is that, when i finally become a game designer…this is one of the projects I’ll take on. I have the ideas in my head right now

    Reply
    • May 11, 2011 @ 7:47 am

      It’s funny, as I look at the ideas in the article I’m thinking the same thing. I’d really love to make the David game. I’ll keep that one in the hopper.

      Reply
    • Devin
      Jun 8, 2013 @ 4:19 am

      Should do a kickstarter…

      Reply
  • May 11, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    Lots of interesting issues here, so i will just pick one point of conversation to comment on.

    One problem I see with the adaptation of Christian literature is the fact that it is still practiced and believed in to varying degrees by a population that wields a lot of political power. Not so much with Greek mythology, Norse Mythology, Pagan Mythology… notice that when it is essentially “safe,” we call it mythology.

    Religion, however, has a lot more sticking points. Nobody who plays God of War really gets worked up about whether or not so-and-so god has these particular attributes, attitudes, and powers. But when you dramatize a scene from an active religion, people are going to ask– can this character really perform this feat because of his faith?

    And woe be unto thee if you actually tried to make faith-based powers or abilities or events into an actual mechanized system in the game (which is kind of what games are all about). You can do this with pagan spellcasting and norse berzerker rages, but those are “safe” from questions of “do you really expect me to believe that this is possible, because this is based on the same book that i believe is Truth.”

    I’m not saying its a bad idea- any historical literature is ripe for sourcing games. We’ve been doing it with other “dead” religions for a while. I just think it will be a very different beast when you try to do it with something that some people actually still believe in.

    Reply
    • Anonymous
      May 13, 2011 @ 7:13 am

       yes, an inordinate amount of ways to offend people of faith without intending to.  It’s like the rule about not talking about politics or religion with someone you just met or at the dinner table.  Too easy to get into a controversy where people get angry and upset and rail against you, perhaps unfairly.  Whoever ends up doing it has to do a masterpiece, as in better than games of it’s genre with a little bit of groundbreaking besides the religious bit being the groundbreaking.

      Reply
  • May 11, 2011 @ 7:12 am

    I like the idea of a game based on biblical themes – in fact, it’s part of the reason Assassin’s Creed made me leap with joy, even though it only glimpses at it for a bit and ultimately goes down a rather sci-fi story line.

    But I think one of the big problems is the way we perceive the bible in pop culture and the way we perceive mythology. Mythological games can be awesome fun, so why can’t biblical ones? (it might seem sacrilegious to say that we should view the bible as mythology, but in this case I think it would help produce some worthwhile content).

    Another thing I think needs to be factored in is that often biblical games, movies, anything, can be very centred on what is believed to be “core christian values”, so other interesting avenues that could have been used like pantheism, anything sci-fi-ish, many things to do with real life science too (especially evolution), they get tossed out of the ideas wagon for “conflicting” with Christianity. Perhaps this is because you sort of have a rift between conservative christian thinkers, and progressive atheist thinkers, who in the end can be just as narrow minded and thus lose a lot of great ideas that might have been picked up in a greater scope.

    Anyway, that david and goliath idea sounds rad. I reckon a game pitting the player as a roman foot soldier (or maybe a fictional role like altair was in assassin’s creed, only romanised ;)) during the events of the biblical era, and questioning (while leaving the answer and conclusion to that question up to the player) whether everything is really going OK. This could include the crucifixion of jesus to appease the jewish population, the conflicts with the zealots, the persecution of christians under Nero, heck, there’s a lot of fertile ground, yet interesting and action packed. I admit that’d be a game with more focus on Roman history than Christianity, but it might be a good way to avoid portraying jesus as supernatural while still having him “written in” ;) (once again, the player’s character can be made to ask the question whether those miracles were really true, or just a hoax from a wannabe messiah).

    Reply
    • Anonymous
      May 13, 2011 @ 7:24 am

      the old testament is ripe with military strategy material for a strategy game that’s either very detailed or can go with a final fantasy tactics type of a game with the storyline progressing as battlefields are cleared.  I might be wrong but i think if a “religious” game is done right, the values come through in your experience without the slideshow/preachy/overly expository approach.  Despite being very old and very revered, It’s a book with a storyline, themes, and characters, and we already know that if done correctly, the EU gets a great experience depending on how well the story and gameplay bounce off each other for the player.

      Must stop typing.  Like topic too much.  Great post Mr. Totten.

      Reply
  • May 11, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    OK I will bite again.

    Another inherent problem of bringing the bible to games is in the fundamental trait of interactivity in games. They aren’t slideshows; they are not lectures; they are not didactic. These values are in direct opposition to the institutions that have organized themselves around an exclusive interpretation of the bible: churches. There are dozens of sects just within protestantism that have built walled fortresses around their differing viewpoints around the ideas in the Bible, and by and large they are not in the business of holding exploratory conversations with their members or offering them a buffet of ideologies to experiment with and explore their ramifications. T

    here are exceptions of course, but most churches exist to defend a predetermined view of the scriptures and pass them on to younger generations, and insulate them from other possibilities through a culture of exclusive membership and the repeated practice of sitting silently as the official keeper of the flock tells them stories and then interprets them for the group. I can’t think of a culture that is more structurally opposed to the exploratory, experiential, and interactive nature of games.

    So for “good” games to come out of the Bible, they’re going to have to come from outside this power structure. Perhaps that is why there are not more of them– those predisposed to make good games probably don’t have the same motivation to draw exclusively from the christian bible as much as those who would make bad games out of it.

    Reply
  • May 12, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    yeah, me again. Felt this better expressed my point about the predispositions at work: http://ow.ly/i/bqR7/original

    Reply
  • Jherd12
    May 12, 2011 @ 17:50 pm

    Assassins Creed has a good religious story line to it.. Presented through three games. Its not fully based on today christian or catholic bibles but it is a game with a religious background to it. 

    Reply
  • May 12, 2011 @ 19:19 pm

     A good game needs good gameplay. This is pure and simple the essence of a good game. A good Bible game would be a game with good gameplay that communicates a scriptural story or ideal.  For a game to be a Christian game, it merely has to have the essence of the Christian struggle in it.  The Book of Eli is a film that illustrates the power of the Word of God – for both good and evil purposes.  The difficult part – therefore – would be finding someone who is capable of producing quality gameplay, while simultaneously respecting the message, ideals, and teachings of scripture enough to produce a product  that would be mainstream in its appeal but Biblically sound in its message.

    Reply
    • Anonymous
      May 13, 2011 @ 7:10 am

      I think many people would find it extremely fascinating to see a
      ‘fallout-ish’ or factioned approach to certain biblical storylines,
      where you could go for good karma or bad (choosing between good and
      evil) and see the outcomes of playing either side.

      I’d guess that it would make any game of that sort beyond controversial
      (Jesus losing in a video game storyline=blasphemy to a fundamentalist)

      Reply
  • Jladen
    May 13, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    If anyone is working on such a Bible game and is interested in incorporating historical information based on the extensive archaeology that has been done in the area of “Bible lands and Bible peoples,” please consider contacting the Biblical Archaeology Society (bib-arch.org). This project could be very interesting.

    Reply
  • Mike Bonsteel
    May 13, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    Good article on a topic that is tricky to handle.

    I believe the “tangential learning” aspect of games (glad to see a reference to Mr. Floyd’s work) would be integral to anything even quasi-religious in nature because religion, in general, tends to divide people much like other topics that you mentioned. If, however, the Ben Hur approach of incidental religious characters could be used, I think the product could certainly be marketable.

    One thing I don’t understand is how Japanese games, movies, anime, etc. can include all manner of religious iconography (Castlevania, Ghost in the Shell) and references (the aforementioned FFVII as well as Tales of Symphonia) and nobody bats an eyelid. Do they think the developers don’t know what they wrote into their products? “Silly Square-Enix, you just include random religious themes and names for the heck of it, don’t you?”

    Again, perhaps the best approach (in the West) is indirect. If an IP could be developed which is religious in tone or theme but not overtly so, the resulting game could be more palatable for the masses. Take the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings series for example. Definitely religious in nature (you will rarely find two more overtly Christian authors in their genre) but crafted so as to tell a tale that engages the reader (or viewer, in the case of the movies) while imparting a message that has greater significance for those in the know. Frankly, I think the Space Trilogy would make for an excellent game series, even with its heavy religious overtones.

    Maybe its a few years out, but I could see this coming to fruition sometime soon. Yes, the Wisdom Tree games were terrible and, yes, the public will generally turn up its nose at religious works, but religion is a vast resource of exciting stories, interesting locales, and, of course, important values which should not be overlooked when designing games.

    Reply
    • pineapp
      Apr 11, 2013 @ 20:09 pm

      Well, the Japanese can put religious references in their games because it is not that “touchy” of a subject there. Think about it, one mistake by a politician, or anybody quite frankly in “AMERICA”, is all it takes for some pastor to boycott it. After that the media takes over and the snowball effect occurs. Its just too much religious sensitivity in America and ignorance of past “Christian” mistakes, yes mistakes, and misinterpretations. i.e. A Christian can do NO evil.

      Reply
  • Q Tip Ras
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 20:21 pm

    >>Why Are There No Good Bible Games?>Because “Good” and anything religious are mutually exclusive.

    Reply
  • Cal
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 20:48 pm

    This is a very interesting topic that I’ve been unable to discuss with my usual game dev cronies (partly fear, partly lack of understanding – although I have tried to initiate it – I got few takers). 

    Although I haven’t played them yet (own them but too busy actually making things) games like the Axys series and Adam’s Venture seem to be able to bring together high production values with sensitivity to the subject matter. I disagree with the comments that say you can’t mix religion with entertainment – as with the film examples cited there are many examples of art and religion working in unison. The early church and most churches now in fact, depend on art in the form of books, tapestries, etc. to tell Biblical stories.I have for a while been planning and writing a graphic novel about Christianity, philosophy and history from a ‘western’ POV.

    My company makes video game art – bambooraven.com. If Chris or anyone of a similar view would like to talk about collaboration, please drop me a line. 

    Reply
  • Dec 22, 2011 @ 18:41 pm

    Thanks for introducing a little ratoniality into this debate.

    Reply
  • Aug 6, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    I am ever ready to help you creat this bible game because in a thousands of games round the world, we see that bible game surpose to be the multiple game ever creat. Please let creat bible games

    Reply
  • G92Terran
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    Very great precautious information to know before making a bible game. I am currently reading the bible thru and thru on which parts can be used for in video games and write it out like in a gameplay layout including the multiplayer aspect of it to keep the game alive and not for its story only. This is seriously some good info to know and I will continue to refer to this whenever I come up with new ideas. Thanks :) Be blessed.

    Reply

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