You may have heard of the popular computer game World of Warcraft (WoW), which recently released its fifth expansion, which adds more quests, dungeons, and other content, in November. WoW has over 10 million players and there are few signs of this slowing down, which is impressive for a game originally released in 2004. What you might not have known is that there are complex economic and social structures in place everywhere in the game. But do these systems mirror real life in any meaningful way? I’d argue that making profit in WoW’s auction house reflects on one’s understanding of a free market since it employs similar principles. One Manhattan College professor recently likened playing WoW to a religious experience since it “tests a person’s’ ethics and values, and also gets them to think about things like environmentalism and moral issues.” I’m not sure if I’d attend a WoW church service, but the game is a great example of a virtual economy and being kind (or unkind) to your neighbor. (more…)
In the video below, Ralph Baer, the “father of video games,” explains why he still invents at 90 years old. “What do you expect me to do?” he asks. He likens invention to the work of a painter. Would someone ask why a painter doesn’t retire? It’s what they love to do! Indeed, it is a calling.
In The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Fr. Robert Sirico writes,
Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, encourage the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, and changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurs, we would face a static economic world not unlike the stagnant economic swamps that socialism brought about in central Europe.
The same can be said about inventors like Baer as well. Like them or not, video games have been a huge source of wealth creation in our country over the last 40 years. Not only are whole teams of programmers required to create a single game, but modern games even employ actors, composers, writers, artists, and so on. In many ways they are (or at least could be) the culmination of culture up to our present time, and it all started because Baer invented a fun little gadget and managed to market it some 40 years ago.
I remember as a child of the ’80s, we actually had a Magnavox Odyssey 2 growing up. A child today would likely find it bizarre that I could find any enjoyment from such primitive sound, graphics, and interface, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Yes, looking at it now, I can vividly remember the feel of the controller in my hand, the excitement of a child in wonder at what, at the time, was such amazing technology and a source of fun and competition with my brothers. It may not be impressive to many today, but inventions like this and the people who invent them ought to bring us to awe before the God who created heaven and earth and such fascinating and creative creatures as the human race, capable of wondrous invention after the image of the God who created them so fearfully and wonderfully unique.
Danny O’Dwyer of Gamespot has created an interesting video on religion in video games. As a self-described atheist, he examines the reasons why video games “haven’t reached the point where Islam can be portrayed without a suicide bomb.” The video also looks at various instances of religion in existing games and includes an interview with his Muslim friend Tamoor who works in the game journalism industry. You can watch his 15 minute video below.
Danny’s article over at Gamespot has an interesting quote that touches on truth: “I believe ignoring an entire culture out of some fear of offending their faith is a fantastic way of promoting intolerance.”
Author and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.
Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration. Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line. The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion. In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses. The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart. The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.
The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective. Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.
Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls. In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”
The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology. One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking Christianity. He posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:
As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.
It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.
The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.
Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.
Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.
Zelda is a work of fiction. Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:
Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.
I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian. As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now. What do you think? Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?
I made a mental note of it awhile back when I heard that there was a “Christian” version of the immensely popular Guitar Hero video game franchise in the works. Wired recently reviewed Guitar Praise – Solid Rock here.
Reviewer Eliot Van Buskirk notes that Guitar Praise “inhabits a gentler world where a bad performance gets you mild clapping and gentle suggestions instead of the raucous boos and catcalls that accompany failure in Guitar Hero.”
There are two conditions that would have to be met before I would consider purchase of this game.
First, this song from Sonseed would have to be included:
Zap! (For some reason hearing that song always reminds me of this SNL skit [video here]…and since we’re closing in on Christmas, even better.)
And second, I’d have to receive a standing offer to play Guitar Praise on stage as part of my church’s praise and worship team.
On a more serious note, this is a great example of how “evangelical” culture is so often derivative of popular culture (in a bad way) and dated (also in a bad way). Somehow I don’t think “Christian” Guitar Hero is what Andy Crouch has in mind for fulfillment of the call for Christians to be “culture makers.”
It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.
For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,
Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.
Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.
The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.
And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.
There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.
The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).
The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.
These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.
During a recent family trip to visit relatives, we settled down for a night of wholesome family entertainment to watch “Inside Man” (well, maybe not all that wholesome; it is a film about a bank robbery, after all). This post has almost nothing to do with the plot of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t fret. It is a film worth queuing on your Netflix, however, and I recommend it despite the fact that I don’t much care for Spike Lee films.
In any case, at one point in the film a young black kid is playing a video game on a portable game unit. We get a closeup of the game, wherein Matthew (played by Amir Ali Said), is controlling a car full of gang members about to do a drive-by shooting. As the car approaches the target, instructions flash prominently on the game screen, “Kill ‘dat [N-word]!!!” Matthew, good at following directions, manipulates a few buttons, thereby moving one of the gang members to shoot the mark in the head, thereby pasting “cherry pie” all over the outside of the building.
There’s an interesting conversation between Matthew and one of the bank robbers at this point in the movie, but I want to pass along what happened in the real world later. After the film ended, I asked our relatives if they knew what real video game Spike Lee was parodying. They answered negatively, and I said, “It’s the one the kids are playing in the next room.” Sure enough, some of our family’s kids, as well as some neighbors, were huddled around a console playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
This game was originally released with an ESRB rating of “M” for “Mature,” then was readjusted to “Adults Only,” after the political brouhaha, and then re-released as “M”. In any case, there is a great deal of violence in the game, and at least some of the children playing it in my family’s house were well under even the “M” age rating (17 years and older). The parents had no real knowledge about the content or the themes of the game.
This situation is no doubt repeated innumerable times all over the country on a daily basis. That’s why it’s nice to see some recognition in the debate about censorship of video games of the necessary role parents play. NPR’s Future Tense has noted the release of the 11th annual video game report card by the National Institute on Media and the Family.
According to the report card, the latest installment reflects a change in focus, in which the institute “acknowledge[s] the strides” taken by retailers and the video game industry. This year, the challenge is put forth to parents: “Simply put, parents need to step up to the plate and the experts need to conduct more and better research.”
Indeed, the report card grades “Parental Involvement,” as an “INCOMPLETE,” saying, “Parents could be, and should be, doing a lot better, but at least part of their failure can be attributed to the confusion created by the game makers.” The cacophony of voices clamoring for the authority to be passed on to some other institution makes the institute regard lack of parental involvement in the context of such extenuating circumstances. That’s why parents don’t get a failing grade this year.
All this finally reflects the truth of the matter, I think, that parents bear the primary and ultimate responsibility for the education and moral formation of their children. In this day and age, that education and formation is conducted within a world pervaded by use of technology. It’s our calling and challenge as parents to make sure that we use computers, video games, and other technologies prudently.
Already available in English, Japanese, Italian and Polish, the game will now be accessible in French, Hungarian and Chinese by the end of next week, vastly increasing the forum for the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) ‘Food Force’ www.food-force.com – designed to teach youngsters about the problems of global hunger and what humanitarian organizations do to fight it.
The English, Japanese, Italian and Polish versions, which were launched over the past 18 months, have totalled over 4.5 million downloads to date, making Food Force a major success story in the educational gaming sector.
My review of the game is here, along with other PowerBlog commentary on socially active video games.
Today’s WaPo has a story about Incident Commander, “a training simulator that gives players a lead role in managing crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.”
In “A Computer Game for Real-Life Crises: Disaster Simulator’s Maker Gives It to Municipal Emergency Departments,” Mike Musgrove writes about the video game software, which was used by an Illinois paradmedic just days before he was called into duty following Hurricane Katrina.
According to Musgrove, “Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, game developer BreakAway Games Ltd. released the final version of Incident Commander free of charge to municipal emergency departments, part of an agreement with the Justice Department, which invested $350,000 in game development.” The game company itself devoted the remaining $1.5 million in money for the game’s development.
An article in yesterday’s NYT, “Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time,” by Clive Thompson, gives a good overview of the current trend in the video game industry, especially by nonprofits and activist groups, to create “serious games,” a movement which “has some serious brain power behind it. It is a partnership between advocates and nonprofit groups that are searching for new ways to reach young people, and tech-savvy academics keen to explore video games’ educational potential.”
“What everyone’s realizing is that games are really good at illustrating complex situations,” said Suzanne Seggerman, one of the organizers of the third annual Games for Change conference in New York. “And we have so many world conflicts that are at a standstill. Why not try something new?”
Of course, serious simulations are nothing new in the gaming world, and even predate the advent of video media. An argument could be made, for example, that games like Axis & Allies and Risk, while focusing on military aspects, are in some sense serious (albeit limited) teachers about the realities of war policy and foreign affairs. And games like Shadow President, released in the early 1990s, are relatively complex and immersive political simulations.
Related PowerBlog Items:
“Video Games Can Save Lives and More…”, Thursday, June 1, 2006.
“Speaking a Language They Can Understand”, Wednesday, February 15, 2006.
‘Your mind makes it real’, Tuesday, November 22, 2005.
“Game Review: Food Force”, Thursday, May 12, 2005.