In an earlier post I offered my thoughts on how to make a Christian game, but why make one in the first place?
In the discussion forums at my favorite gaming website, www.boardgamegeek.com, one sees from time to time an attempt to identify good Christian-themed strategy board games. In those discussions, a few things generally happen. The first is that it’s quickly conceded that probably less than 10 such games exist, maybe even less than 5, depending on how you count. (And this of course is one of the motivations for Belltower in the first place). The second is that someone questions why the world needs Christian board games in the first place. I think the concerns that they typically go on to express are legitimate and worthy of consideration:
- Christians exhibit a tendency to go overboard in trying to offer a Christian alternative to everything: Christian movies, Christian fiction, Christian self-help, Christian death metal, etc. But “secular” games aren’t intrinsically unpalatable for Christian consumption, so why do we need a genre of games that is specifically Christian? Why can’t Christians just play non-Christian games?
- Unfortunately, many of these Christian alternatives are of inferior quality. God isn’t glorified by mediocrity. A terrible song or book or movie isn’t magically made good simply because it mentions Jesus.
- Sometimes, attempts to communicate the Christian message through certain creative outlets come across as forced, or as heavy-handed. Better to tell a riveting story that has Christian overtones than to tell a bad story that has an overt Christian message. Christian creative expression can come across as “preachy” if not done just right.
- It’s too easy for Christians to insulate ourselves and our kids in a Christian bubble, and while this may protect us from some of the corrupting influences of the popular culture, it can also keep us from actively engaging with non-believers.
Now I’m mindful of all of these concerns and receptive to many of them, but this post isn’t about arguing with them or responding to them. With respect to a response, I’d simply suggest that a truly excellent non-preachy Christian game would avoid most of these concerns, and that’s exactly what Belltower seeks to produce. But I’d instead like to devote this post to a positive case for Christian games, by showing the benefits that games in general can provide, and showing how these qualities can be used advantageously in Christian games. My argument is not that we need alternatives to non-Christian games as an acceptable form of entertainment for Christians, but that games have intrinsic benefits that can be highly congruent with the Christian message.
1. Games communicate story
While most family strategy games don’t exactly tell a story, many good games have commonalities with narratives – structural elements such as arc (i.e. having a beginning, middle, and end), atmospheric elements such as background and place specificity or “local color”, mood elements like tension or surprise, and so on. Certainly there are limitations, and the analogy breaks down most glaringly at the level of character development. A novel or film may give the reader perspective into the character’s thoughts and motivations using rhetorical tools that simply aren’t available to a game designer. However, even here, at its weakest point, the analogy can be salvaged. A great writer will show rather than tell, and will reveal his characters by watching what they do in a situation, rather than over-utilizing his omniscience to tell us exactly how they feel. Games, which are all action and no internal monologue, work at this level, and you can detect a narrative emerging as you watch the way that the decisions that an individual player makes will accumulate and coalesce into a strategy. And this underscores a way in which games offer something that is in some ways better than novels or films: they make the players themselves the characters in the story, and give them creative control over how the story unfolds. To be sure, most people don’t role-play when playing a strategy game, but a good game will nevertheless create a shared narrative experience between the players.
Additionally, a well-themed game will allow the player a glimpse into the situation of the person/country/whatever that he represents. It is this ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes that makes a good story resonate – that in the highly particular experience of this one character or one situation, something universal is revealed. A well-themed game, will, to a certain extent, give you this ability.
Christianity is intrinsically a story-driven faith. The defining element of Christian faith isn’t a set of religious tenets, but a historical event (the Resurrection). As recounted in the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples didn’t preach about detailed theological precepts, but about an event that was of profound significance and that they themselves had witnessed. And the faith is still communicated through stories to this day. I believe that this is not accidental, but is reflective of the reality that we’re hard-wired to learn through narratives, which makes sense of why Jesus communicated so much of His moral teaching through parables, or why Sunday School lessons are about David and Goliath or Ruth or Peter rather than about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians or the prophetic pronouncements of Joel or Amos.
A game that lets you enter the story can help bring the story alive, and even if that only happens in a small way, there’s value to it insofar as it strengthens your ability to connect to the story. Moreover, some of Belltower’s games may explore subjects that aren’t fundamentally story-based (e.g. a game about archaeology); but the very act of playing a game about the subject hangs a story onto it, increasing the players’ immersion in the subject and perhaps improving the likelihood that they’ll connect with it.
2. Games sharpen the mind by promoting critical thinking
Here is the point where I’d like to be able to cite studies that show that playing games leads to better performance in school, better job placement, better overall mental health, and so forth. I’m not actually sure if there have been studies that have shown this, but anecdotally, my experience has been that games cultivate critical thinking, and critical thinking is one of few skills that are universally applicable. There are few endeavors in life where the ability to acquire information, evaluate its reliability, interpret it, and arrive at a logical conclusion, is not beneficial. And I believe that sharpening the mind’s critical capacity in one enterprise is portable to other areas as well. For example, learning a complex violin piece unlocks mental pathways that enable expanded capacity for math and science learning. (Ok, I made that statistic up, but it sounds like something I heard somewhere once). Games can be an excellent tool for this. You have to evaluate a complex game state, assess the motivations, intentions, and capabilities of the other players, account for the possible influence of random factors, and make decisions about how best to act in a way that will be most likely to result in a winning outcome.
Critical thinking is of vital importance for Christians, and for non-Christians who are interested in evaluating the truth of Christian claims. The Christian gospels were written 2,000 years ago, in a different language, on papyrus pages that have not survived (though copies of the original manuscripts have), and they present remarkable claims about an individual who lived in a completely different kind of society than many of us have experienced. Understanding and evaluating these claims requires critical thinking — we have to assess the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the plausibility of the events recorded, the transmission and preservation of the text (and our ability to recover the original). And for believers, we need to wrestle with these questions to be able to give a steady defense of the claims about Jesus that we believe to be true and that we have staked our lives on.
3. Games permit structured exploration of counterfactuals
One of the most enjoyable elements of story-rich games can be the ability to ask “what if?”. Surely every teenage boy that has played Axis and Allies has used the game to “what if?” various strategies that the powers might have used, to see whether a different outcome emerges; structurally, the game is built around this very conceit. And of course, war games as a genre excel at this. (No, I’m not saying that A&A is a war game in the conventional sense!) But games with multiple paths to victory give the player space to ask “what if?”, not just with the history, but simply with respect to the previous session. “My conquest strategy didn’t work last time; what if I focused on a trade strategy this time?” Good games are built for repeat play, which allows counterfactual elements to be prominent.
This mirrors well the development of critical thinking that believers and non-believers alike need to cultivate to engage questions about the Biblical text and the Christian faith. Questions like “why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”, “why is there evil in the world if God is good and all-powerful?”, “why did Man sin if he was created perfect?”, etc, have confounded people since time immemorial, and at the heart of many such questions are issues of counterfactuality — did it have to be this way, or could things have been different? Christian games can permit structured exploration of some of these questions in some settings, and can also help identify which questions might be worth considering.
As a publisher we have to carefully sift through the counterfactuals that our games explore and exercise good judgment, being mindful not to cause other believers to stumble in their faith, or to go beyond the limits of good taste. For example, I mentioned previously that our game Disciples has a mechanic where one player takes on the role of Judas, and this player can choose either to end the game by betraying Jesus to the Pharisees, or to instead play and score just as any other player. Though the question “did Judas HAVE to betray Jesus, or could he have chosen not to?” is one I find interesting, in practice this mechanic might be uncomfortable for some people, and out of sensitivity to that concern, it may be necessary to frame this as a variant rule. On the other hand, in our game Evangelists, players will travel around compiling eyewitness testimony to aid in their composition of the gospels. Some believers may also be uncomfortable about this, if they happen to believe that the gospels were dictated verbatim by God to the authors, or that God directed the composition of the gospels (which I also happen to believe) — the game may be perceived as alleging that control rested in the hands of the evangelists. In this case, I would NOT be willing to change the content of the game, because I think it accurately reflects the process by which the gospels came to be. If it allows more human agency than the actual process entailed, I think the counterfactual nature of the game is nevertheless useful and important, but it’s crucial to see that the counterfactual being posed (“what if the gospels were completely different in content and emphasis?”) isn’t the *message* of the game; it is, rather, a conceit that makes the game, and its true message (“the gospels were composed through the compilation of eyewitness testimony”), possible. Because what it pushes back against is the skeptical view that the gospels are works of *fiction*, composed many decades after Jesus’ death by anonymous authors. The game is, by its very existence, advancing the argument that the gospels were a product of the early Jesus movement, and that the events recounted therein are result of compilation of eyewitness testimony, and not of the output of creative writing.
4. Games provide enrichment or reinforcement of familiar stories/subjects
As a family that home-schools, we have greatly appreciated the ability to pull out a game with a subject related to something our children have been learning about. When they have learned about, say, construction methods in ancient Egypt, playing, say, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, is a nice way to reinforce and expand on the lesson. It’s great to see the excitement when they recognize the names of people or places or events that they’ve learned about. You can see the connections that form in their minds, and this is an important part of the learning process. Games can promote this while also providing an enjoyable experience. And this is important, because if children (or adults, for that matter) associate learning with drudgery, they’ll be less inclined and less equipped to press on to learn new things; they’ll do the bare minimum that’s required of them, and resent even that little bit of effort. So enrichment isn’t only educationally useful, it’s also a beneficial way to cultivate a positive view of learning.
If, as Christians, we believe that Biblical principles and stories are, of everything that our kids will learn, the ones we most want them to retain, then it’s important to reinforce those lessons in a fun and intellectually engaging way. That’s why I think Biblical trivia games are somewhat misguided; trivia games don’t really teach you anything, they just confirm what you already know (or don’t know0. And, it seems to me that being queried on whether you know Romans 8:28 is using basically the same mental process as the act of memorizing Romans 8:28 uses in the first place. You can’t achieve total fitness with a workout program that consists exclusively of bicep curls, and I think the mind works this way as well; it learns more effectively when challenged to engage a subject in different ways and from different angles. So playing a game about, say, the apostle Paul writing letters to the churches scattered throughout the Roman empire, could help flesh out the picture of what kind of documents the epistles are, and why they were written, and why their contents are important. To be sure, the hard work of repetition must still be put in if one wants to memorize what Romans 8:28 says, but enrichment that leads to an understanding of what might have motivated Paul to communicate to the church in Rome that God works all things together for our good, could help deepen the appreciation of the text, and turn it into something more than an isolated maxim that we can cherry-pick and turn into a “life verse”.(*)
(*) Ok, I’ll confess that that’s a little harsh. My point isn’t to denigrate having a verse that has special resonance for you, but simply to observe that too often we read verses in isolation without acknowledging or appropriating the context of the surrounding passage (to say nothing of the literary and historical context of the text itself), and this leads to a superficial understanding of the verse, which we exacerbate by repeating that verse in cognitive isolation from its context.
5. Games allow us to explore unfamiliar history/settings
I believe that one of the reasons students (and yes, adults) often approach learning unenthusiastically may be due to the perception that it is obligatory. We are more apt to learn when we are motivated to learn about subjects that interest us, than when someone else tells us what we are required to learn about. But to find subjects that we’re interested in, we have to first have broad exposure to a variety of subjects! Games are a great tool for this; even thinly themed games can make contact with interesting areas of history, can visit remote parts of the world, can reference interesting works of fiction, and this can provide an impetus to want to explore a game’s subject more deeply with personal study. And the more we broaden our knowledge about history, foreign cultures, and so on, the more well-rounded and intellectually agile we become.
Cultivating a habit of self-motivated study is of crucial importance to Christians. We can’t adequately nurture our faith by merely attending church on Sunday and listening to the sermon; it’s essential that we take it upon ourselves to constantly strive to study more and know more. But what should we be studying? What subjects excite us or interest us? It is in this area that the vision for Belltower is most strongly articulated. Certainly all believers are familiar with the famous stories about, e.g., David and Goliath, Moses, Daniel in the lion’s den, and so on. But there are many areas of Biblical history and church history that are perhaps not as well known to many believers, or subjects of active research (e.g. Biblical archaeology, textual criticism, theology, etc) of which many believers may be completely unaware. Games that tackle these unfamiliar stories and subjects will, I hope, be a motivation for believers and non-believers alike to seek deeper knowledge. To facilitate this, my intent is that each game will include, at the end of the rulebook, a section on “where to go next”, with a few brief paragraphs of background information about the game’s subject and a few suggested books that the motivated individual could look up.
This was a long post, but I hope it has convincingly argued that the beneficial effects that games can have – immersing us in familiar or unfamiliar stories, sharpening our critical thinking, permitting exploration of unfamiliar subjects or interesting questions – are benefits that will help to cultivate a fully actualized Christian life, and for these reasons, the development and publication of Christian games is a worthwhile pursuit.