Evangelicals and alternate realities

Try to imagine reading novelist Jonathan Dee's New York Times Magazine essay -- on Christians who develop video games -- before last November's presidential election. Dee is an elegant writer, but his topic has a Parachuting Into Red State America flavor, especially because he misses some basic connections. He refers, for instance, to Adventures in Odyssey as "a long-running Christian radio serial" set in an "imaginary and ruthlessly idealized Midwestern town." But he doesn't connect the dots to Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who made such a splash in the Times with his concerns about SpongeBob SquarePants' political activism.

The larger missing element, though, is any hint that evangelical Christians have created games other than Adventures in Odyssey, Catechumen, or Eternal War: Shadows of Light (pictured). As reported by Mars Hill Audio in 1995, Wired in 1997 and Cornerstone and the BBC in 2001, Rand and Robyn Miller are evangelicals who developed the video games Myst and Riven. (Perhaps a few GetReligion readers are among the 12 million people who have bought these games.)

Rand Miller told Cornerstone that the brothers emphasize storytelling:

. . . the good storytellers who have mastered their craft can tell a story and reveal truth in it as well. Like Jesus, the ultimate storyteller. He told parables that, on the simplest level, people could appreciate. Some of his listeners might have turned aside and said, "He's a good storyteller." But those who went to a deeper level with the same stories would think, "Whoa. That hits me down deep." Jesus changed peoples' lives because He told stories that contained the truth.

. . . We can become skilled at many things--writing, storytelling, photography, painting, making movies, cabinet-making--but that might be simply craftsmanship, which isn't necessarily the same thing as art. Craft has to do with technique and talent and practice, but crossing over from craft to art involves mastering your craft to the point you can imbue it with truth.

The line between the two is not always clear. But as you get better at what you do, you're able to communicate truth, and I don't presume to think I've come very far down that road. I think with Myst and Riven, Robyn and I learned our craft very well, and in the books even attempted to weave in more truth, but it was a bit like shoehorning it in. C.S. Lewis was a master. His stories are awesome at so many levels, and they reveal truth to children and adults. Robyn and I struggled so much with technique, and that can take away from your ability to weave in the truth. But that's what I strive for. That's what a musician strives for: to master their instrument to the point where the notes on the page go away and they're able to express something through the instrument without technique getting in the way. That's when you go from craft to art.

Dee's report mentions that the C.S. Lewis model is on the minds of some of the Christians he interviewed. As with the "Jesus per minute" ratio in contemporary Christian music, however, some Christians in gaming seem to measure their work by how many Bible verses they can work in:

Can a message be so buried as to be functionally absent? An electrical engineer and gaming enthusiast named Tim Emmerich started a Christian Game Developers Conference three years ago in Portland; as attendance has tripled to about 100, the debate over how much religion to put in a religious game has grown quite lively. Some adopt what Emmerich calls the C.S. Lewis approach; others, like [the Rev. Ralph] Bagley, take a more scriptural tack. N'Lightning's two games (its second release is Ominous Horizons, wherein a player is transported to 14th-century Germany in order to recover the original Gutenberg Bible, stolen by agents of the Devil) are among the most successful in the genre, with Catechumen having sold about 80,000 units to date. "Each game is loaded with Scripture," Bagley said. "They're not preachy games, but I believe the word of God gets into men's hearts and minds, and it doesn't return void."

The Christians in Dee's essay engage the questions of violence, how games influence their young players and the gaming industry's confusing policies about imagery (occult images are common, "religious" ones are verboten). But they also undermine themselves with this sort of corporate-speak: "We all look at it like we're working for the same conglomerate," [Peter] Fokos [of Digital Praise] says. "Which is God."

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