"Inspirational" Games

So, I've recently noted that iTunes categorizes all music by overtly Christian artists as “Inspirational”, and sheer inaccuracy of that description has gotten me thinking.

There are very few overtly Christian artists that I listen to on my own time, because I've never been particularly taken with that style of music, but even a rudimentary examination of motives will show that most “Inspirational” music is music for a worship service, so of course it's a little repetitive, and musically simple, it's designed to be sung along to from the get-go.

Except, “Inspirational” is very clearly a genre of music. Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band (look up “Banjo Boy”, it's amazing) are an overtly Christian band, but they're folk and bluegrass, not “Inspirational”.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that when you (or I, for that matter) hear about “Christian Games”, you probably think of this:

I think the picture says it all.

And yet, what about games that aren't hamfisted? When was the last time you played a game that was about generally Christian worldviews that wasn't awful? Or, even worse, when was the last time you played a game about Christian worldviews at all? The only thing I've ever seen is games that are supposed to represent events of the bible, and make them “fun”. There's a complete gameplay-narrative disconnect.

And yet, a game about the power of forgiveness, the tendency of mankind to drop the ball on their own, and the magnitude of a sacrifice of one person of amazing virtue (all Christian themes, though not exclusively so) could be amazing, as long as whoever is making it realizes it doesn't need to be a first person shooter where David travels through bible stories, and upgrades his sling stones with faith points. It's rather difficult to imbue mechanics with narrative significance (mechanics in this case referring to the most basic building blocks of a game, in the MDA sense, if you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find more information here), but the game world in which you operate in can abide by certain rules consistent with a Christian worldview.

At the moment, the only Christian principle Super 3D Noah's Ark reinforces is that if feed animals, they don't bite you to death. That's... uh, good... I guess?


Sestren said...

I find that RPGs featuring an engaging story generally have, at the very least, one person of amazing virtue making an extraordinary sacrifice. Mankind dropping the ball is evident in any post-apocalyptic scenario. Forgiveness is probably the least common of the three, though there are modern examples (Disgaea, say).

In most of these instances, the virtues expressed originate in the human element. Christian worldviews, indeed what it means to be a good person, are in a lot of games. The problem is that they exist of their own accord, with or without god.

In addition, if god is part of the story and not simply tacked on, he usually ends up as a villain. Xenogears (Deus), Shadow Hearts (God), BoF: Dragon Quarter (Origin), and Chrono Cross (Fate) pin players against deities who desire either the annihilation or complete control of the human race.

I suspect this to be the result of cynical writers. [I'm reminded of a one-panel comic of a woman writing a letter, the caption of which read: "Dear Mom and Dad, thanks for giving me such a happy childhood. Now I'll never be a writer!"] It's possible that the many evil deities portrayed in games are in fact catharses.

So yes, overtly Christian games need to suck less, but to do this, non-Christian games need to accept the possibility that god may have something other than the apocalypse on his mind.

William said...

Well, Xenogears is an interesting example, because it's a little more complicated than that.

Xenogears, if you give it a ton of credit, (which you could argue it doesn't deserve, but I tend to say it does) is about gnosticism, both rejecting and affirming it, in a way.

God in Xenogears is, at worst, utterly unconcerned with human affairs. The bad guy is the jilted lover who rejects all things physical, and becomes a nihilist because of it. Lots of people (Solaris, the Ethos) abuse the concept of organized religion to manipulate people, as the Hollywood Hack critique of religion goes, but God (the Wave Existance), who DOES exist, is simply unconcerned with those events.

Elly, the Christ figure, shows up to guide humanity to a more meaningful way of life, both rejecting the exclusively spiritual approach of Krelian and the Wave Existance, but also freeing humanity from the clutches of Deus and the Gazel Ministry by shattering that illusion.

Really, the reason why I think stories about triumphing over God appear so often in games is because it's a Joseph Campbell thing. God is the ultimate father, and a coming of age story where the son has to defeat and/or surpass the father is a reliably satisfying story.

(In that sense, Xenogears is about Fei beating his own father, and making Elly his lover as opposed to his mother. Very Freudian, but I suppose the line does go Freud - Jung - Campbell, so that only makes sense.)

Natalie said...

It occurs to me that a lot of these games would probably bill themselves as "promoting Biblical literacy" or something of that sort, which is not the same thing as one that promotes Christian, or even Biblical, worldviews. They're both arguably valid objectives for a game to have, but they're very different. You could do a strategic sociomilitary simulation in the style of the Total War series set in the Dark Age that educated the player on the rise of Israel, and the dealings of Palestine with the rise Neo-Assyrians, and promote "Biblical literacy" without saying anything about values. But I wonder how many people who sit down to make Christian games really even make this distinction?

Anonymous said...

What is a "Christian worldview"? Would you agree or disagree that generally, "Western" worldviews are already influenced by Christianity and Judeo-Christian values? Do you have different expectations for games from Japan? They made some sort of video game based on the recent Chronicles of Narnia adaptations; what would you call the worldview in those games? Inspirational, or ham-fisted? I could probably think of about ten other questions, but that will do for now.

Natalie said...

I think a Christian worldview is, generally, any worldview that has as its most important tenets some subset of the important concepts in Christian theology. William suggested three non-exclusively Christian "themes" that do certainly relate to important concepts in Christian theology: the power of forgiveness, the tendency of mankind to drop the ball on their own, and the magnitude of a sacrifice of one person of amazing virtue. I might suggest the following: that forgiveness is given before it is earned (and perhaps cannot even be earned), that there are no truly "good" people, and that being "good" is not the most important thing about a person. I think, tentatively, you could use those as the thematic underpinnings of a good game narrative without requiring that narrative to be an allegory of some Christian story (which isn't inherently bad, but seems unnecessarily limiting to me).

I do think that "Western" worldviews are already influenced by Christian and Judeo-Christian values. For instance, I would say that humility being a virtue and pride being a vice is a pretty ubiquitous value in "Western" worldviews, but that this was not the case pre-Christianity and for an appreciable length of time post-Christianity. So I would offer that as an example of Christian or Judeo-Christian influence on the "Western" worldview. On the other hand, I don't think "Western" worldviews are the same as Christian or Judeo-Christian worldviews, or likewise for values. I don't think that grace is an important "Western" value, but it's arguably the most important Christian value.

I don't have any expectation for Japanese games, really, because I don't interact enough with Japanese media to have any real expectations at all as to what it means to be "Japanese." The same goes for "Eastern" worldviews and values.

I don't know much about the Chronicles of Narnia games, but just from knowing the general format of the games I'm skeptical that they have much of a worldview at all. I would argue that those movies have a Christian worldview because the central challenge of character put before the characters is whether to trust in their own skills, abilities, and best evaluation of the total situation or whether to trust in the skills, abilities, and best evaluation of the total situation of Jesus*, who has never been wrong or let them down yet but appears to be on the verge of doing so for the first time now. I think that is an important, recognizable tenet of Christian theology**. I'd be kind of surprised, though, if the games actually put that challenge to the player, let alone in a meaningful way, because it doesn't seem like a challenge that makes for very good gameplay.

* I don't personally think there's a colorable argument for the Aslan of the books not being the Jesus of the books. He has all the right character traits, he says all the right things, he does all the right things, what's known of his background matches up, and (if you care about such things) Lewis has said that he is Christ as Christ appeared in the world of Narnia. The movies are lacking a lot of this, of course - he isn't explicitly the son of the Emperor Over Sea, for instance, and some of his more pointed statements aren't or haven't been said yet. If the Aslan of the movies isn't Jesus, then I don't think the movies have a Christian worldview, because the "Christian worldview" that I see in them depends on the figure of Jesus specifically (see below). For what it's worth, I think the argument that Movie Aslan is Jesus is better than the argument that Movie Aslan is not Jesus. His actions, speech, and character traits are consistent with that of Jesus, but also consistent with any wise and benevolent magical king. And there's nothing especially Christian about a dying god who doesn't stay dead. But there is something distinctly Christian about an unchangeable law of all existence that traitors of all kinds belong to an accuser, which is fulfilled by the one figure in the story who has committed no treachery, as proxy for a despicable character who has done the sacrifice no service, in apparent satisfaction of the accuser's wildest dreams, and which when fulfilled in such manner irrevocably alters the nature of all existence, after which the sacrifice does not stay dead. Or at least, if there's another religion that features that version of the "dying god" motif, I'm not aware of it.

** Its Christian character hinges on Jesus specifically being the alternative choice, and not somebody else - the choice between trusting oneself and trusting X, who has never been wrong or let one down yet but appears to be on the verge of doing so for the first time is not, as far as I know, exclusive to Christian theology. I doubt that it's in Christian theology at all.

Brian Rubinow said...

I realize I'm very late to the party here, but I found this and figured you'd be interested: The Six Most Misguided Christian Video Games