Ancient Jewish students had a blessing that went along the lines of, “May you be covered in the dust of your master.” Essentially, may you literally follow in their footsteps.
That’s the impetus for Lightside’s Journey of Jesus: The Calling, the follow up to the popular social gaming hit, Journey of Moses. As CEO Brent Dusting said in an interview for Time.com, players can finally “walk in the Messiah’s steps, in an authentic experience of Israel in Christ’s time.”
It may be the greatest story ever told, but is it the greatest religious facebook game ever played?
[pullquote align="right"]“I met a prostitute who was ‘looking for love from men.’ She still feels empty, she says.”[/pullquote]I met a prostitute who was “looking for love from men.” She still feels empty, she says. I click on some nearby flowers and my toga-wearing avatar runs over to fulfill my command. “Click,” more flowers. Using my precious energy (literally the life-force that lets me play the game) I gather a few more to finish the sidequest. She rewards me with experience and gold coins, just enough for me to level up, which in turn refills my energy meter. Once the energy is depleted, however, I have to stop playing and wait 24 hours… unless I’m willing to pay.
Thousands of people are playing the game, tagging along with Jesus as he walks on water, heals a demon possessed man and eventually makes his final sacrifice on the cross (I never made it that far). But during my time I saw Jesus’ baptism first hand as an ancient Israelite, I met with his disciples as I explored the beaches of Galilee and combed the Judean countryside for quests. One quest has you collecting fishbone needles to mend ripped nets so the disciples can go fishing, or chopping trees and amassing wood to repair a broken boat. But like the thousands of players trailing our digital lord, I could never shake the fact that every action, whether it’s picking flowers or swatting bugs, requires a unit of very finite energy. Thirty actions is not a lot of game time. That’s thirty axe swings or pomegranate picking, usually not enough to complete a single side-quest.
While the main story is mostly a dry retelling of Jesus’ life using cuddly, kid-friendly characters, this is not what bothered me the most. I could stomach the disturbingly lifeless narrator who stands in for the voice of God or the campy, lifeless animations and even the Netflix advertisement in the corner of the screen during my conversation with the Son of God.
I could handle the goofy retelling of my most sacred religious texts, but what upset me was the business model; taking a story of grace and redemption freely offered and freely given, and wrapping it in the tightly monetized model that feeds on the addiction of players.
The game takes the questing hook of role playing games with leveling up and grinding, but limits these actions with scarce energy, essentially locking players out of the game once their energy is exhausted. The first day I found I could play well over 20 minutes before reaching my limit. But as you progress in the game, more energy is required to complete quests, until I found myself with barely five minutes of game time per day.
I understand that without a steady income, nobody could make video games. The developers at Lightside are providing a service and just as I pay my dentist or tip my waiter, the coders and artists earn their pay by bringing Jesus’ cartoon journey to my browser. Still, had the game been offered up with a donation system, or a reasonable one-time payment, I wouldn’t have minded throwing a few dollars their way.
But as it stands now, the business model of Journey of Jesus creates an atmosphere of anxiety with tightly controlled energy and bombards the user with advertising that feels antithetical to the gospel. The constant fear of running out of in-game actions, the badgering of “buy energy” or “invite friends” or “visit our advertisers for in-game rewards” detracts from the message and gives the impression that grace and redemption are quantifiable objects rather than freely offered gifts.
I don’t know whether the over half a million people playing Journey of Jesus right now are learning about Jesus Christ or deepening their relationship with Him. But what I can say is that Journey of Jesus wraps mundane, albeit addictive, gameplay in a questionable pay model feeding off of addiction and the nauseatingly cute depiction of my deepest beliefs. The Bible is full of instances where good came out of evil: Joseph, sold into slavery, rising to power and saving his family from starvation, or Jesus’ death on a cross. But Journey of Jesus is a failure from an innovation and adaptation standpoint, miring the gospel in the crass consumerism of the freemium pay model and rudimentary gameplay.
Maybe something good is coming out of Journey of Jesus. Maybe people are talking about faith on Facebook, and maybe the developers are only seeking the means to continue doing what they love. But as it stands now, I am more inclined to turn over some tables than reach a high score.