chainworld.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - why Chain World should have been kept off of eBay, and what it has to do with games in general.]

Chain World was a good idea.

It wasn't marketable and it wasn't going to change the world. It wasn't even an entirely revolutionary idea: it was, in fact, a modified version of Minecraft. In a GDC presentation, creator Jason Rohrer anticipated Chain World would take on a life of its own as, one after another, players made their mark on a place that continued through time.

They would then pass that world on to someone else, via a USB stick, and that person would then explore what was left and create something for the next player. Down the line it would go, until the end of time, or at least until no one was able to run the thing anymore. It was the most brilliant of the several entries in the 2011 GDC Game Design Challenge because of its simplicity, its ability to be carried out, and the possibilities that were set forth as a result.

It was a good idea, and part of the beauty was the inherent mystery of the process: would I be one of the elected? Who was elected before me? How long would I live in Chain World, and what would be my purpose within it? Even if we didn't anticipate actually taking part in this game, we took part in the wonder. We took part in the hope. Maybe one day, we thought, it will happen to us.

Then, Chain World's first disciple put the game on eBay. For many, this was the moment when Chain World would find its true purpose: to help to raise money for a good cause. To show to the world that games and those who play them can in fact impact the world for good.

Games could make a difference. Games, and eBay.

But for those like me, who fell in love with the fundamental idea of the game as a simulacrum of religion, and who wanted to see it grow and flourish, not only in and of itself, but in the minds of those whom it had inspired, this was when the game went off the rails. Suddenly Chain World wasn't about mystery, anticipation, or hope. Instead, it became yet another marketable game, blending right in with our capitalist framework, a simple object sold to the highest bidder.

Of course, Chain World's immediate owner decreed that some wouldn't have to pay for the experience. Flowing along the tides of our culture, certain celebrities were granted access to Chain World without needing to reserve it, pay for it, or wondrously hope for it. The course of Chain World was determined by those in power. Those who were given this gift would pass it on to the obvious, the powerful, and the wealthy.

All of this seems irrelevant if one focuses on the good that came out of the sale of Chain World: $3,300 went directly to Gamers Give Back, a laudable and perfectly deserving charity that provides games and toys for hospitals, youth and children's groups. It's a good result, and we can know this because it was a quantifiable result.

But so many great things in this world aren't able to be measured or even known. Art in general is like that. It affects us deeply in ways that even we can't often articulate. We love, fear, desire, laugh, and think deeply about what we've experienced. These experiences change who we are first, rather than simply manipulating us in to doing good things. This is why our world so highly prizes the artistic experience: we can't help ourselves, because we know there's something deeply rewarding in it, even if that reward can't be predicted or even recounted.

These experiences - whether we're talking about Braid, Minecraft, Chainworld, Pac-Man, or Mario - exist because someone took the time to create something from within themselves, for others outside of themselves. When we play them, we take part in something greater than ourselves, and not being able to put our finger on it, that inherent mystery, is what makes those experiences joyful and profound. As a result, we become slightly better people; and slightly better people do slightly better things in the context of their real lives.

Charity auctions are great, and for those who benefit from them, they are profoundly meaningful. But self-awareness, empathy, and deep resonant joy are the things that lead to charity in the first place. If we are able to produce games (among other things) that help us to more fully experience some of these emotions, why would we want to sell them short?

Going forward, the real challenge of the game industry is to live up to those possibilities. Like film, music, and sports, video games are already filling those roles, and they have the potential to be known for it. When concepts like Chain World come along - concepts that do something so deeply rich and profound with the medium - we should be celebrating them, not exploiting them, even if it's for a good cause. Sometimes we have to exercise a little bit of faith in the art, the game, and humanity.

We have to trust that a good idea will never go to waste.

[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he regularly writes about video games, and a staff writer for Kill Screen's website. He lives in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@deadyetliving).]