Plowshares into Skyhooks: The Evolution (Intelligent Design?) of Bible Games: By Aaron Gotzon

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HA note: Aaron Gotzon is a homeschool alum and one of the regular contributors to The Ontological Geek, a website that examines videogames through various critical lenses. The following was originally published on The Ontological Geek on April 24, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

*****

Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong. – The Book of Joel

Frequent readers will note my intimate familiarity with the Evangelical subculture. It wasn’t until I grew out of my larval form that I recognized just how sub that culture was. To me, it was normal to repudiate the machinations of the secular, decry the subversive whims of a liberal media, and lionize such defenders of the faith as the Billy Graham Crusaders, the Gaither Vocal Band, and Randy Hogue.

In TobyMac, Switchfoot, and Relient K, we had our own music; a pro-family, pro-social answer to every genre of song – many Christian acts of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, in fact (the heydecade of the movement) consisted of popular secular tunes repurposed to affirm our social agenda. We had our own cartoons, some of them actually rather clever and technologically groundbreaking. We had huge rallies in stadiums of millions, and popped out “world outreach centers” like sneezes: some of which have passed on into obscurity, some remain a force with which to be reckoned, and a certain quite famous one in my hometown is under scrutiny for harboring some dark practices within ostensibly benign, if radical, quarters.

We had hit novelsmajor motion pictures. We refitted holidays to eliminate pagan (or even neutral) elements, and had our own youth organizations, like AWANA, as a cultural counterpoint to the Deistic-in-theory American Scouting movement. It might be said that, for some, or even many of us, the Boy Scouts weren’t conservative enough.

And, of course, we had our own games.

This impulse was borne from the Pauline commandment to “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

“Worldly” was a slur.

The 1980s: BibleBytes, and Kidware Shareware Adware Underwear

The gameplay and presentation in "Noah's Ark" are similar to that of the American Super Mario Bros. 2.

The gameplay and presentation in “Noah’s Ark” are similar to that of the American Super Mario Bros. 2.

The concept of the Christian computer game began with the uprising of modern Evangelicalism with its soon-to-be-realized theocratic tendencies and its reconstructionist emphasis on the budding culture war between the “old-time Religion” and the open secularization of the West. Focusing on the Family meant meeting the public mainstream culture point for point: in politics, in art, in hobbies and entertainments all alike.

As with certain evangelical leaders (Dr. James Dobson), internationally recognized conservative think tanks (Focus on the Family), and popular, still-running radio programs (Adventures in Odyssey), the “Christian” game was born in Colorado. BibleBytes was founded by the Conrod family with the express mission of bringing computer games into the mainstream with overtly religious messages. This being the early 1980s, videogames weren’t met with the scorn we witnessed in the early-to-mid 2000s, for example, on the charge of being unspeakably violent (and certainly they’ve earned that distinction, regardless of how that makes you feel personally). Instead, this was an answer to the emergent popularity and rampant growth of infant gaming, another tit-for-tat appropriation of an aspect of modern culture and integration into the fledgling Christian subculture.

BibleBytes was successful in marketing the first Christian games on the era’s microcomputers, which included those manufactured by Radio Shack, Texas Instruments, and Timex.

The overwhelming majority of Christian games produced during this period were developed by BibleBytes, and ported to the appropriate hardware platforms, including the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, as those became widely available. The games were released in multiple volumes and iterations as a collection rather straightforwardly entitled Bible Computer Games.

Today, BibleBytes continues to operate as the dreadfully named “Kidware Software,” selling primers on programming basics designed for children of homeschooling families. They’ve since stopped supporting the old software, and no longer develop or distribute new games.

The wave of Bible games had begun, but it had yet to swell, until…

The 1990s: The Tree of the Knowledge of Dreams and Piracy

Like BibleBytes before it, the role of Flagship Developer of Bible Games fell to Wisdom Tree – the company formerly known as Color Dreams – during Our Most Awkward Decade.

Color Wisdom Dreamtree has several notches on its Belt of Contributions to Gaming History, the first being its development and distribution of the first-ever side-scroller for “IBM Compatible” (as the parlance went) PCs. The next two honorable mentions aren’t nearly as honorable, though they’re certainly not unimpressive: Color Dreams managed to develop a workable hardware bypass for Nintendo’s 10NES chip, the silicon gatekeeper of the Japanese company’s famously strict licensing rules. Later in the decade, they’d also publish the only unlicensed SNES title ever, Super Noah’s Ark 3D.

Wisdom Tree’s first release after their rebranding was Bible Adventures, for the NES, a three-in-one-pack featuring the following:

  • Noah’s Ark, a platformer wherein the goal is to gather up all of the animals by picking them up. The animals are presented as being hoisted above Noah’s head, and they can be stacked one atop the other, making Noah only slightly weaker than Superman (which I don’t remember from the Bible). The gameplay and presentation are similar to that of the American Super Mario Bros. 2.
  • Baby Moses, in which the player takes on the role of Moses’ sister Miriam, attempting to deliver him safely to the palace while evading guards after Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew firstborn be killed. Miriam, like Noah, transports her charge by holding him directly above her head. Intriguingly, she is able to throw the infant prophet around the screen with no penalty damage to the child. She is, however unable to use the invincible slave-spawn as a bludgeoning weapon.
  • David and Goliath is similar. You’re still picking up animals as the psalmist shepherd and stacking them over your head. Except this time, once David succeeds in carrying enough sheep to safety, he is transported to the front lines of the Philistine war armed with a slingshot, with which he eventually defeats Goliath in the final stage by landing the perfect shot right in the giant’s forehead.

The Bible Adventures compilation was ported to the Sega Genesis as well, with virtually no changes to either graphics or gameplay.

Wisdom Tree would continue to release games throughout the rest of this decade, many of them with elements borrowed heavily from other more popular titles, like Zelda expy Spiritual Warfare for Game Boy, NES, and Sega Genesis. Sometimes, the games would be outright clones and re-skins of titles Color Dreams released before they re-styled themselves as a Christian developer, like top-down puzzlers Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land and Joshua: Battle of Jericho, both of which used the same gameplay mechanics and level layouts as the secular Crystal Mines, with different graphics reflecting the biblical theming.

Perhaps the most bizarre was the aforementioned Super Noah’s Ark 3D, which could only be played by loading a licensed cartridge on top of Noah while it was connected to the SNES console. It was an actual level-for-level clone of the popular Wolfenstein 3D by id Software, with Noah replacing the meaty muscled bloody guy (did he have a name?), a slingshot for a weapon, and various animals standing in for Nazis. A widely-spread rumor claims that id Software gave the source code of their Wolfenstein game to Wisdom Tree as a revenge on Nintendo for releasing an inferior port of their popular game, making it a point to tone down the violence (Nintendo was known for being especially particular about games for their system being Family-Friendly). The details surrounding this bit of corporate intrigue have never been released, and the facts remain unclear to the present day.

Technically, Wisdom Tree is still active, selling their own games and those of even smaller developers on their website, on which they promise to make their entire past library available for the current versions on Windows, eventually.

So, you know, if you ever really, really wanted to pay $22.95 for a videogame called JESUS IN SPACE, now’s your chance.

The 2000s: Cacti and Catacombs

One of the only explicitly Christian games to enjoy significant mainstream success and recognition was Catechumen.

One of the only explicitly Christian games to enjoy significant mainstream success and recognition was Catechumen.

So far, the formula for most Christian games, as codified by Wisdom Tree, was to adapt well-known stories from the Bible into playable adventures, most often by taking an existing secular game and copy-pasting kitschy religious imagery (the standards, mostly; bearded men in dresses and plenty of camels). In the early 2000s, the standard began to shift from adaptation to symbolic imaginings of the Christian journey and comic-style portrayals of spiritual warfare.

Arguably, one of the only explicitly Christian games to enjoy significant mainstream success and recognition was Catechumen, a first-person shooter which tasked the player with a journey to travel down into a Roman-inspired catacomb to defeat a demonic horde ensconced therein. Along the way, the player character increased in spiritual power until finally gaining enough strength to banish Satan himself from his lair in the bottommost parts of the caverns. The quality of the action, progressive gameplay, and “mature” theming drew many gamers from both inside and outside of the Evangelical community.

Cactus Game Design entered the scene a little later in the decade, bringing yet another more adolescent-oriented shooter offering, Saints of Virtue, to the range of Christian games available to consumers. The player journeyed into the center of a young man’s heart in an attempt to purge it of sinfulness from the outside in, gathering items representing the different pieces of the “full armor of God” along the way. These were accompanied by verses explaining different facets of the Christian inner life, and at times could be oddly introspective in its rather personal, if clichéd and Totally Rad! ™, exploration of the meaning of the modern Christian walk. The weapon in the game was the “Sword of the Spirit,” which was not used as a typical bladed tool. Instead, the player was able to fire bolts of lightning at the (quite scary) enemies, masks which took the names and traits of various sins or follies.

The Saints of Virtue characters would come to be used again in Cactus’ Magic-like trading card game, Redemption. Instead of draining the opposing player’s life points, the objective of matches in the card game was to come into possession of the opponent’s so-called “Lost Souls,” claiming them for the Kingdom of God with biblical hero characters, while at the same time defending their own souls with evil characters. The game worked well, and became pretty successful for a few years, hosting national and local tournaments and gaining a cult following even among those Christians not expressly invested in the culture of Evangelicalism.

The latter portions of the decade saw a trilogy of Left Behind games, based on the popular and long-running series of novels sets after a premillennial dispensationalist’s idea of the Rapture, which faced some controversy from the mainstream regarding various charges of cultural insensitivity and (of all things) violence.

Other than this briefest of debacles, and a few rhythm games, which were basically Dance Party and Guitar Hero but with contemporary praise and worship music, the rest of this decade saw no noticeable influence of explicitly Christian games on the mainstream.

The Present

We’re now well into the New Tens, and, as it turns out, they’re suspiciously absent of any noteworthy Christian games. Many of the old developers are either closed completely, or sustaining themselves by repackaging, reselling, and sometimes halfheartedly supporting or updating their old titles. It seems that, by and large, the Evangelical subculture has given up on appropriate games into itself. This may reflect the poor quality of the early games, the lack of significant commercial success of the newer ones, or the Evangelical movement’s withdrawal from the impulse to create a new, “Christian” world in lieu of being participatory in the new one.

It’s true that religious themes abound in modern games, as interactive media matures and becomes able to comment on more and more aspects of culture, layering complexifying narratives over dynamically evolving artistic structures and play mechanics. As with BioShock Infinite and Fallout: New Vegas, these new representations of Christianity and other religions seem to refrain rather cautiously from commenting on popular religion specifically, choosing instead to focus on general themes, patterns from history, or minority faiths (Mormonism is a popular one, and by some accounts New Vegas managed a nuanced and respectful portrayal of the Latter Day movement).

This advancement of a more subtle religious theming has allowed the faithful among us to project our journeys onto the adventures we undertake in our gameworlds of choice, without the exclusivity implicit in playing a “Christian game.” We’re allowed to think about the spiritual paths we choose, even as we consider the paths we undertake when synched-up to player characters. We’re allowed a wider discourse, incorporating gamers of other faiths, or no faith, to engage with us in our universal quest for personal, immediate, and transcendent truths. We’re allowed to put our problems, like violent impulses, misogyny, and all those sundry troublesome –isms, on display without fear of retribution from a community which once sought to burrow in and ignore or downplay the difficult issues which come along with being human, indeed, being fundamentally worldly.

There may well be something profound to be said of a freedom in Christ, but it seems like today’s secular games offer us a lot more freedom (even to be in Christ more fully and honestly, should we so choose) then would Christian games, had they gotten the chance to become as successful or ubiquitous as our more familiar, religiously neutral engagements.

Perhaps the central impulse of the Christian subculture of the past twenty years was slightly twisted: being “in the world, but not of it,” does mean rejecting ties to historical barbarism, checking destructive primal urges, and striving to create a more balanced, peaceful social order. All great ideals, but if we want to achieve them, we do have to be “in” the world. We don’t get to opt-out of the realities of earthly life before we’re through with it. Before we’ve managed to accomplish being in it, even if we choose to identify with an otherworldly ideal. Even if you suspect that your Real Home might be elsewhere, this is definitely where it is now.

So, “worldly,” perhaps, shouldn’t be a slur. Succeeding in embracing the world, loving it, being Home-for-Now, might be the first step toward transforming it into something better, toward making the “world” something not to be rejected, but to be cared for and nurtured. Something to be proud of.

So, yeah.

Anyway, go play some games.

“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” – The Book of Luke

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A note: for some fun, check out the Angry Video Game Nerd’s three-part series on Bible Games. He covers just about all of the Wisdom Tree titles of the 90s in detail, with his typical humor (which means the videos aren’t safe for work, obviously, and screw you for watching YouTube at work, you lazy ass).

3 comments

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I’m a pencil/paper/funny dice guy myself. And the “Just like Fill-in-the-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” has been going on decades before “game” meant “video game”.

    The first was “Revelations” in the mid-Seventies; the Christian radio ads for it promoted it as a Christian alternative “to those games about Dungeons and DEMONS and The Occult”. (Guess who they were talking about.) Well, I tracked down a copy at a Jesus Junk store and took a look. Can you say “Milton Bradley’s Chutes and Ladders or Candyland with Bible verses?” (I was able to contain my laughter until I got safely out of the store, then busted up like I hadn’t since I first experienced Blazing Saddles or Fabulous Furry Freak Bros.)

    The most famous Christianese tabletop RPG was “Dragonraid” of the early 1980s. And it wasn’t even written as a game but as a “SCRIPTURE Memorization Aid” by a guy who deliberately kept himself ignorant of actual FRP gaming to avoid Worldly contamination. (You can guess where this is going.) Surprisingly, it was actually a playable game — sort of D&D as if it were written by Ned Flanders. According to my DM (who was also a game collector), it was two or three generations behind state-of-the-art at the time.

    This was SO much like Christianese bubble culture: A bowdlerized and sanitized Christianese knockoff of pop culture, a consolation/booby prize for those forbidden to have The Real Thing. “Just like Fill-in-the-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

  • Wow…never played any of these, but I did have Redemption cards. We never played with them though. We just built up massive collections of the cards that looked the coolest. I think mine are still in my jewelery box at my parents’ house.

  • I don’t remember my family owning any Christian PC games, but we had a lot of the good educational ones. But some of our friends had one computer game, I can’t remember what it was called, where you’re a futuristic knight fighting robot demons that have enslaved a city. You have to beat them with Bible verses. Also the Sword of the Spirit. It was kind of fun (though not as good as games like Zoombinis and Amazon Trail), but pretty ludicrous. I told my husband, a PC gamer and board gamer, about it, and he laughed hysterically.

    Our daughter isn’t quite old enough to play computer games yet, but we’ve talked about which ones we have that we think will be appropriate for her. None of the ones on our list are Christian.

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