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?
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.