- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, he attempts to understand why Christian-themed gaming is so maligned.]

Earlier this week gaming news outlets and blogs caught wind of a forthcoming, independent gaming release from hitherto little-known developer, Digital Praise.

Appropriating the form and function of Harmonix’s Guitar Hero series (itself perhaps inspired by Konami’s Guitar Freaks games) Guitar Praise offers the faithful - at least, those of the affluent, American, evangelical variety - the chance to play along with their favourite pulpit-rock acts, just as Jesus would have wanted.

In the game’s press release Digital Praise promise players that, once they lay down the $99.95 entry fee, they’ll soon be “rockin' with the best while praising the Lord!”

The gaming community greeted the story with exactly the kind of all-caps, spluttering incredulity one might expect. One droll commentator at Boing Boing quipped, “The game refuses to boot on Sunday mornings, so I hear.”

The story gained widespread coverage because, while there have been Christian-targeted videogames before, including such titles as 1992’s Joshua: Battle of Jericho for the NES, 1994’s Spiritual Warfare for the Gameboy and 1995’s Bible Adventures on the Genesis, such releases are still unusual enough to be ‘newsworthy’ when they do crop up.

The Evolution Of Games For Diverse Audiences

In part this type of coverage is a sign of gaming’s relative immaturity. Since the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes following the financial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, studios have been clawing over themselves to sign up blockbuster-size Biblical-themed projects in search of the Christian dollar.

But the older movie industry has always been adept at serving a diverse range of audiences, tastes and interests. Gaming is only just beginning to diversify in similar ways and we are unused to our hobby being appropriated by (or targeted at) minority groups as a way of spreading their word, exploring their history, espousing their worldview or promoting their agenda.

So when that does happen the news is reported in a way that the announcement of, for example, another Buena Vista Narnia film will never be.

It’s important to note that the seizure of cultural forms by minority groups, (be they Christians, homosexuals or even international terrorist groups) signals the maturation and diversification of a medium, not its stagnation or a scarcity of ideas.

So then why should a game like this attract such widespread scorn and derision from the wider gaming community? Digital Praise has shown only the smallest amount of game footage on its site but what’s on display already raises copycat concerns. Konami and Harmonix appear to own patents on many of the systems that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series employ (such as music staves that travel into the screen along the Z-axis rather than across the flat horizontal or vertical ones).

Has the developer put an infringing foot wrong in their interpretation of these fiercely-guarded mechanisms, they will likely feel the full force of litigious publishers already eager to protect their in-vogue investments from imitators.

As a more immediate problem (at least for the discerning consumer), the game looks technically and graphically simplistic - there are no 3D models to represent the musicians in the game, for example.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge an independent rhythm action title designed as a PC/ Mac game (which by definition won’t have undergone any of the stringent TCRs or quality testing that games for the core consoles must adhere to) by the same measures we use for Rock Band et al, but gaming’s consumers are rarely so understanding.

The Zoo Race Precedent

Take, for example, the merciless reaction to YouTube videos of Christian publisher Cougar Interactive’s Noah-themed game, Zoo Race, unveiled at the beginning of the year. A technical mess, Zoo Race showcased poor 3D modeling, patchwork animation, drab coloring, inexcusable texture pop in and ruinous voice acting.

But far from being mean-spirited, gamers understood that Zoo Race was not the homebrew product of a young churchgoer sitting at home learning how to code, but rather a bona fide, commercial project. Whenever a creation shifts from amateur interest to money-making product, the rules of conversation change and as such Zoo Race deserved all of the razor-sharp criticism it received.

But is the existence of products such as Zoo Race and Guitar Praise really such an issue? Surely they just service their niche in a harmless and lawful way, borrowing ideas from the mainstream and re-cloaking them in the language and vocabulary of their intended audience?

And if that is the case, then why should the gaming community at large have such a strong reaction to their existence? Isn’t it gaming for Christians just another curio niche like Hannah Montana’s is to 9-year-old girls, Singstar is to drunken students or Real Time Strategy games are to beardy, studious men?

Perhaps then what people object to, whether they realize it or not, is an ideological and theological issue with religious gaming, rather than any particular distaste as the idea Christian gamers might simply want games that explore their faith and service their community.

What Christian Gaming Might Mean

The word Christian is, in the strict sense, a noun. It literally means somebody who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. People get themselves in all manner of trouble when they turn the noun into an adjective to describe their work, community, bookshop, painting, tee shirt, video game or song.

A book or song cannot ‘follow Christ’. As an adjective the word is, in essence, a term of marketing targeting a product specifically at Christian people. As a result it is an objectionable label to have applied to a music video game which self-evidently cannot be Christian. Indeed, the terms use infers that the real Guitar Hero and its ilk are, in turn, somehow ‘Unchristian’, a damnation by inference.

Problematically people ascribe deeper, ideological significance to an object when it is prefixed by the adjective ‘Christian’. They might (quite reasonably) expect that, for example, a Christian book promote the teachings, moral stance or ethical position of Christ.

However, in many of cases this is simply not true or, at least, the product promotes only a very particular reading of those teachings. A ‘Christian Book’ is instead a book that is being marketed to a particular demographic. ‘Christian’ as an adjective is a label of marketing dressed up as a label of message, identity or instruction: something that the American market in particular has difficulty being honest about.

The problem is exacerbated when the Christian adjective is ascribed to more abstract, aesthetic and non-instructional things such as music, art or video games. Contemporary theologian Rob Bell explains it like so:

“Something can be labeled ‘Christian’ and not be true or good… It is possible for music to be labeled ‘Christian’ and be terrible music. It could lack creativity and inspiration. The lyrics could be recycled clichés. That ‘Christian’ band could actually be giving Jesus a bad name because they aren’t a great band. It is possible for a movie to be a ‘Christian’ movie and to be a terrible movie. It may actually desecrate the art form in its quality and storytelling and craft.

“Just because it is a ‘Christian’ book by a ‘Christian’ author and it was purchased in a ‘Christian’ bookstore doesn’t mean it is all true or good or beautiful. A ‘Christian’ political group puts me in an awkward position: What if I disagree with them? Am I less of a Christian? What if I’m convinced the ‘Christian’ thing to do is to vote the exact opposite? Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.”

This problem is not peculiar to Christianity. ‘Gay’ is a noun in the strict sense signifying a homosexual person. However, it’s increasingly used as an adjective in order to sell product to that specific niche, again a kind of marketing malapropism. So we have gay bars, gay car insurance companies and gay holidays.

Many Christians, like many gays, for all of their insistence they be accepted and integrated in seamlessly into society, still want to feel distinct and part of a subculture. And there’s always money to be made in providing content that explicitly appeals to that subculture with a simple and mostly meaningless marketing label.

Conclusion: Suitable Games For Everyone

When religions engage in this kind of spin it always feels a little insidious and it’s this that the wider world objects to when they hear of products such as Guitar Praise and Zoo Race. Indeed, the following text, used at the end of the Zoo Race shareware demo, demonstrates just this:

“Buy the fun game that the big name publishers refused to finance or even show you. Why wait? You can do it, because you are a fun loving creation of God.”

Post Passion of the Christ, big name publishers are only too happy to publish and promote ‘Christian’-targeted content if there's enough money to be made. In the case of Zoo Race big name publishers refuse to finance it not on ideological grounds but simply because it’s awful.

As games writer Kieron Gillen pointed out at the time: “F**king big name publishers. We hate those guys too. Clearly, it couldn’t have anything to do with the glitchy animation, complete lack of physics, my-first-Quake-level geometry and the fact the whole thing is completely batshit insane.”

Christians should not be demanding video games prefixed with a faith label, as if that cheap and easy classification provides some kind of invisible moral safety net for their and their children’s media consumption.

Rather, believers should simply be demanding good and beautiful games that delight in creativity, make people happy, present or explore the world in interesting ways and maybe, just maybe enable us to catch a glimpse of their God, from whom all good things are claimed to flow.