For any successful popular culture venture, you can probably find a Christian version. GodTube anyone? Firm Believer exercise tapes? Occasionally, though, you'll find pockets of Christians trying to work within a non-religious industry, where their faith is there without an overt evangelistic emphasis. Because these examples are less obvious (think Bono, maybe), they tend to fly under the media radar, what we often call a "ghost."
Enter Kotaku, the premiere site for gamers, with a solid story on Christian gamers who are interested in more than "Left Behind."
There's a little bit of stereotyping at the beginning, but once you get past that, Owen Good does a nice job looking at the reciprocal, conflicting feelings Christian gamers have about the industry.
Still, my friends, this how not to start an article.
Heading north on Interstate 5 toward Newberg, Ore. last week, I wasn't sure what exactly I'd encounter at Christian Game Developers Conference 2011. Would it have a show floor? Would they be showcasing new games? Would there be a Kinect-enabled Bible study game with 1:1 praying-hands control? Is a third sequel to the Left Behind series this community's Half-Life 2: Episode 3, and would we finally see a trailer for it?
The idea is cliche, starting with "you know how you always thought of those people as crazy lunatics? Turns out, they have two eyes, a nose and a mouth!" It also seems that this journalist has never heard of, oh, that highly theological little computer game called "Myst," a truly historic work that for quite some time was the bestselling computer game -- ever.
Yes, sometimes you have to reveal a stereotype to show how a group defies it, but this is a little over the top. But move past this and you'll find some compelling reporting, hooked on a conference at George Fox University.
"I really get annoyed when I see preachy games," said Kelly Lawer, 20, of Portland, attending the conference as a gaming enthusiast and an aspiring professional. The mainstream's aversion to an overtly religious game "isn't an issue because of hostility toward my religion," she said. "It's an issue because it's boring."
Lawer decried "Bible-tract gaming" that stereotyped characters (especially atheist antagonists) and all but hand-held players through what few moral choices they really presented. She had an sympathetic ear in David McDonald, pastor of the Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., who said he begged to get his speaking gig at CGDC 2011.
"If you made the Left Behind game and you're in here," he joked during his talk, "look, I'm called to love you but, epic fail, right? Class A bed-pooing there." There was a lot of chuckling. The Left Behind series is probably Christian gaming's most visible commercial success, but also its most controversial, as a real-time strategy game taken from the series of End Times novels.
Uh, "Left Behind" outsold "Myst"? Like to see the numbers on that. Then again, "Myst" wasn't a "Christian game." It was a brilliant, genre-shattering game created by Christians.
Anyway, conference organizer Chris Skaggs explains the gaming world's sometimes tense relationship with Christians.
He is, however, concerned that the industry's mainstream is at best insensitive to the Christian community and, at worst, hostile to it. He described a story involving an American animator, a believer, working for a U.K. studio, assigned to render some particularly violent sequences for an "open-world GTA-like game." The animator asked off of that project and to be reassigned to another one, was branded as a troublemaker and dismissed. Worse, he was blackballed in the industry.
Skaggs didn't name the developer or the studio. The story is basically unconfirmable. But it's instructive that Christian developers feel that, if they do get a mainstream gig, they will have to go along to get along throughout it, even when they're assigned tasks that conflict with their values. Hence the value of CGDC as a support network in addition to a professional one.
The reporter also puts the whole video games world in the larger context in the mainstream entertainment industry and its struggles to handle religious images and themes (and products).
"Christian," as an adjective, arrives with a lot of freight in the secular world, especially as branding within entertainment media and markets. For example: Christian TV programming, Christian radio, Christian rock, Christian books and bookstores. To the secular mainstream, it's all assumed to mean insipid edutainment, ulterior-motive prosleytization or oogity-boogity intolerance. So Christian game developers, simply by identifying themselves as such, are up against that assumption of intent.
It's not terribly shocking that Christians would take an interest in the video game industry, but it seems a little less apparent, since many Christians fear sex, violence or other potentially questionable elements found in some games.
However, Kotaku takes it a step beyond the usual "Here's a Christian version of Twitter" story.