Gamemakers call on holy warriors

These Christian-themed video games are righteous (really!), creators say.

Published October 10, 2005

Most video game developers would love to have their products on Wal-Mart's shelves. But Ralph Bagley will wait until the giant retailer creates a separate section for inspirational games.

"I won't put it in Wal-Mart next to Doom and Quake," said Bagley, chief executive of N'Lightning Software, referring to two popular but violent video games rated M for mature audiences.

Bagley's Christian-themed games are all about fighting evil. In Catechumen, the object is to battle demon-possessed Roman soldiers "to turn them from darkness to light." In Ominous Horizons, the player "is called upon to once again free the world of evil and return the Bible to Gutenberg."

"The Bible is full of great game ideas," said Bagley, also a minister in the Church of God in Christ in Medford, Ore. "Christian history is so rich and so dramatic in some areas for the next 20 years we have all the game concepts we need."

The question is whether such games can compete with mainstream titles that have attracted millions of players and made the video-game industry a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

So far, they are a tiny niche without a major hit to compete with mainstream games, and few resources to develop and market their games. They rely instead on online sales, specialty Christian stores and word of mouth to build a following.

Developers such as Bagley can only dream of coming up with something to compete with the popularity of games such as Halo, which sold 1.5-million copies on its first day of release last year. They point to the Christian music genre, which has taken off in the last 10 years, as proof that they, too, can eventually make a mark.

"We're fighting an uphill battle," Bagley said. "But we're making up ground."

They also are trying to take advantage of recent controversies to gain some traction. Hidden sexual content in the ultraviolent Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game gave Christian and family gamemakers a platform to attack mainstream games,saying the games have too much violence and sex, and the rating system is flawed.

A report that summarized 20 years of studies on the effects of violent games on youth behavior also came into play as Christian developers pitch their efforts to provide more family-friendly fare.

Not so, counters the industry, noting that more than half of all games are rated E for everyone, almost 90 percent are suitable for teens and younger and its rating system works, despite the Grand Theft Auto incident.

To compete with an established industry that spends millions to develop a single game, Bagley says Christian developers will have to create games that match up with mainstream titles on technical quality, story lines and game play.

The Christian Game Developers Foundation was created about three years ago with the goal of helping fund the movement (donations to the group are tax deductible). It claims a membership of about 30 companies.

"We've always had a tremendous wave of support from Christian parents and grandparents and pastors and youth leagues," Bagley said. "Now we can actually put that to use and further the genre."

Rowland Hanson, founder and chief executive of b EQUAL, says Bible-based games are only part of the issue. He doesn't like how video games isolate players in back rooms from the rest of the family.

"Ask a parent to describe what's on these games," Hanson said. "I'm amazed at what parents don't know. It blows my mind."

Hanson, probably better known as the man who named Windows when he worked as a marketing executive for Microsoft, says b EQUAL is not a video game company, nor is it a Christian game company.

Rather, it's "a family games company . . . that creates an opportunity for the family to play together."

That means the DVD player and TV in the family room are the centerpieces for games such as Madagascar Animal Trivia, Time Troopers for history, and, coming soon, the Bible DVD Game, which will explore the Old and New Testaments.

"Not every family member is a Christian, but every Christian supports family games," Hanson said.

He concedes that if there were not a market for violent games, companies wouldn't produce them. But, Hanson says, the issues go deeper.

"I'm horrified by those games, understand, but I will defend their right to do it," Hanson said. "I believe in freedom of speech. Along with freedom comes social responsibility. Rockstar (maker of Grand Theft Auto) should be ashamed of themselves."

Grand Theft Auto and other ultraviolent games grab headlines, says Mike Salmond, who teaches digital media at Elon University in North Carolina, which is part of the point.

"Make it controversial and every teenager in the country is going to want that game," Salmond said.

But most games are, and always have been, appropriate for everyone, from Pong to Pac Man to Mario. Salmond also notes that the next generation of game consoles, starting with Microsoft's Xbox 360 in November, are intended more as entertainment hubs for the home rather than isolated game machines in bedrooms.

There are issues for Christian gamemakers to consider, Salmond says. If games are not entertaining, if the message becomes the point, it will be a tough sell.

"They've tried this with every medium," he said. "And it's never worked."

And, Salmond asks, what about diversity? Should there be games for other denominations?

"It's not on my radar because I'm a Christian guy," Bagley said. "I'm sure it's doable. If it's a high quality game, I don't see why not."

Another point raised by critics of the video game industry is what they see as a link between violence in games affecting kids' behavior.

Kevin M. Kieffer, an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Leo University in Pasco County, researched various studies that have been conducted over the last 20 years and presented his findings to the American Psychological Association over the summer.

Overall, he says, the studies indicated at least short-term changes in behavior from playing the games. But he also notes that each study could have a different definition of what constitutes "violence."

To add to the confusion, about the same time that his report was released, a professor at the University of Illinois reported that he found no relationship between game play and violent behavior.

Kieffer's definition of a violent game, as he continues his research, is that the player's purpose is simply to kill, maim or injure in order to advance. That describes Grand Theft Auto, in which players engage in carjacking and killing prostitutes and cops.

"Playing these violent games is different from watching violent media on TV," Kieffer said. "Actually assuming the role of the character who is killing, we know this desensitizes the child."

Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rates the games, bristles at the criticism of the ratings and the job her group does.

A hacker broke the code for the hidden sexual content for Grand Theft Auto, which had been rated M for its sex and violence. After the hack, the game was rated Adults Only, and some major retailers, including Wal-Mart, pulled it from their shelves.

The rating board now requires game publishers to disclose all hidden content, not just accessible common "cheat codes" that can assist players in the game or Easter eggs, which usually are playful elements added by programmers.

"We no longer can afford to take risks as an industry to leave content on a disc that could be exposed by a hacker," Vance said. "If it undermines the accuracy of the rating, it's just too risky for the industry."

Only 16 percent of the games sold last year were rated M, Vance says. The board's surveys show that a majority of parents are the game buyers and use the ratings system. And, she says, retailers do a better job of policing sales of video games by rating than they do DVD movies.

"Video games are very easy to control in your home," Vance said. "All you have to decide is not to bring it home, or monitor what your children are playing."

- Dave Gussow can be reached at 727 445-4165 or dgussow@sptimes.com


b EQUAL: www.bequal.com/

Christian Game Developers Foundation: www.cgdf.org

Entertainment Software Rating Board: www.esrb.org

N'Lightning Software: www.n-lightning.com