Recently, Gamechurch editors Drew Dixon and Richard Clark attended the Game Developers Convention in San Francisco, CA with one thought on their mind: they wanted to find signs of God’s grace in the game industry. For a long time, Christians have been skeptical if not outright dismissive of videogames as anything that could be beneficial to relationships and general human thriving. Clearly, Gamechurch has known better, but we thought a trip to GDC would be a good time to investigate further, from within.
Sadly, I forgot my GameChurch lanyard so I am wearing a Farm Heroes Saga lanyard. Considering what is draped around my neck, I am tempted to think that God isn’t really up to much in the videogame industry aside from giving people over to their free-to-play addictions. Half the sessions I see listed in my GDC schedule are about game-monetization strategies. I know God’s grace is evident in this industry, but we may just have to look a little harder to take notice.
This morning I talked to Jennifer Schneidereit, one of the lead developers of Tengami, a beautiful and contemplative new adventure puzzle game for the iPad. She said that one of the motives behind Tengami was to create a product that players enjoyed but found easy to put down. She intentionally created a game that would encourage players to slow down and consider their journey through life–something that many games actively discourage with a mess of complicated features and unnecessary graphical enhancements. Perhaps the areas of this industry where God is most at work is through unsung heroes like Jennifer.
Truthfully though, the place where I see God most at work in the videogame industry is in a game that, sadly, I will not be playing this year at GDC: That Dragon, Cancer, a game about faith in the midst of a family’s battle with cancer. The game will not be shown at GDC because last week, Joel Green, the son of developer Ryan Green, passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. In an interview with Eurogamer, Ryan was asked how That Dragon, Cancer would be affected if the worst were to happen:
A lot of players don’t want to enter our story. Because he could die, right? And who wants to play a game about that? But I want people to trust that I am going to tell a good story regardless. Because, as difficult as it is, I am living in a good story.
I know its weird, in a post about GDC, to talk about a game that no one will be playing at the conference, but when I think about what God might be doing in the videogame industry, I can’t help but think about Ryan Green, who is determined to share his family’s hope with the world, no matter how painful that story might be.
God’s “presence” in the game industry is such a weird, nebulous topic in the first place, the kind of thing that pragmatic evangelists and culture warriors talk about with one another in closed-door Christian-only rap sessions. But I think it’s a question worth considering, first and foremost because the question has been blown off and explained away implicitly by so many in the Christian church. Unlike so many other artistic industries, videogames have been dismissed as a bunch of fun-loving and clever programmers at best, or a cabal of socially irresponsible misanthropes at worst. Neither of these are true.
Well, they’re kind of true, though maybe not the way many in the church imagine it. When I worry about the depraved nature of videogames, I don’t worry so much about the M-for-Mature stuff that our children are playing, filled with blood, gore, profanity and the occasional naked body part. This year, I, like you, worry more than anything about monetization
Drew, it’s everywhere. Walk the show floor and you’ll see games whose primary selling point is the ingenious ways they can exploit the player. Every artistic talk has an undercurrent of capitalizing on the art itself. “But how will it sell?” seems to be the operative question at the Game Developer’s Conference this year, at least based on this single first day of attendance.
It’s kind of odd, but I think the highlight of my day was a game called Amphora, in which the player takes the role of a spirit that helps a young girl and her family accomplish mundane and trivial tasks. You place a doll in her crib. You cause a kite to fly in the air and give the girl the string. You hang clothes on a clothesline. I loved this game because it teaches the player to see even the most mundane of miracles as miracles nonetheless.
That’s a lesson I want to take into GDC as we seek to answer this question. God isn’t going to be all that evident in the big AAA games or the giant corporate announcements. My bet is we’ll see evidence of Him in the little stuff: quiet conversations between colleagues, games that no one has heard of, and Christians in the industry living lives of beauty and integrity. As you’ve pointed out, we’ve already seen the impact something small can make through the unassuming life of Joel Green.