Christian mechanics

Mechanics of salvation

In computer games, everything you can do can be broken down into separate mechanics. For example, in Mario, the first mechanic you learn is moving forward. Next, you learn to jump. These two combine to a mechanic of jumping onto blocks. I’ve never actually played Mario, but the concept is foundational to most games. A set of mechanics works together to produce skills to interact with the game system. When you beat the game, have you really beaten it, or just allowed it to teach you the right set of moves? Anyway, a more in-depth look at mechanics can be found over here: [external link]
The Youtube channel Errant Signal recently reviewed a game called Shrouded Isle. Errant Signal is a serious review channel of artsy type games that usually are trying to make a point, and not merely be a fun experience. In this case, Shrouded Isle is something of a critique on organized religion, where you play as the leader of a village/cult that is waiting for the return of their god, and you attempt to keep everyone in line so you won’t all be destroyed at the immanent arrival of the deity.
The authors are liberal Canadians, and not really into organized religion, so it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of mock-christianity. But they do present their view with admirable skill. The review gives the following example: random event – a teen-aged girl starts wearing ostentatious jewelry. Do you discipline her (+5 discipline points) or let it go and see what happens (no idea what the result will be)? This encourages conservative gameplay (as opposed to risk-taking, not as opposed to liberal), making otherwise unpalatable acts feel like an achievement that gets you closer to your goal. The game is designed to give an example of how cults (or organized religion, no distinction made) can turn from an apparently good goal of devotion to God into a controlling, stagnant death trap.
If you should choose to watch the review for more details or to play the game yourself, be warned that it gets quite dark, including the required sacrifice of a villager every so often.

This leads to one of my biggest problems with designing a Christian game. If I want to make a game that encourages trusting God, what mechanic reinforces that idea? A branching story where you can choose to do morally pure things or be evil, leading to an ending where you are appropriately and biblically rewarded smacks of the moralistic Sunday school books of Mark Twain’s time. There might be a way to do that well; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic had that same system where you choose to be good or evil and the mechanics pushed you one way or the other. If you force choke someone for looking at you funny, your morality meter moves to the dark side, making dark side force powers more efficient to use. If you refuse to take a reward from a poor person, the meter moves to the light side, making light side powers more efficient.
But the Christian life isn’t a morality meter. It’s about trusting God, repenting from sin, having a clean heart, and obeying His commands. But in a computer game, how do you model that? What’s the incentive to not click the “Share the Gospel” button? How interesting is the game really going to be if you trust God by holding down ‘X’? What exactly is the game mechanic of salvation?
This last one is a real question in theology: what is the mechanic of salvation? We know that salvation comes by faith alone, not of works to keep any person from boasting. So, is faith, repentance, confession, submission, or baptism required? Are you saved by the Holy Spirit before you accept Jesus as your savior? If there is no work required from me, then what must I do to be saved?
One possible solution is the mechanic of literally not doing anything. This mechanic works in match three games: after a few moments of not making a match, the computer highlights one for you. Often, Christians are told to wait on the Lord. I have laid in bed for hours waiting for the Lord to show me the way, but usually I either fall asleep, or get bored and then go do something. Besides the fact that it might not be much of a game if the must successful tactic was to not touch your computer but just sit there until you win, I have serious questions about that sort of waiting on the Lord.

I want to make a reverse Shrouded Isle. In SI, there is a tension between wanting to win the game, and not wanting to be a bad person. In Unshrouded Land, the community worships the True God, not the one that asks you to kill a sinner four times a year or he will not save you in the end. The community tends to turn away from God, and your job is to make choices that help people turn back to God. For example, when a teen-aged girl wears outlandish clothing, you can rebuke her (a chance of turning her focus back on God instead of self, a chance of angering people), ignore the incident (she may continue to allow the things of the world to draw her away, but you won’t be stoned by an angry mob), or celebrate her freedom of expression (will this encourage her towards idolatry or win her over to worship God?) So the tension is between being light to people turning away from the light, but not in a way that causes them to turn against you. But also don’t compromise.
This doesn’t seem like a great simulation of the Christian life. God doesn’t ask us to restrain our exhibition of faith in order to remain palatable to the tastes of modern culture (though we tend to do that regardless of what He requires). Still, it doesn’t have to be an accurate simulation to be a good game that gets to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, the heart of the matter is the heart of the person, and that’s hard to put in a game. What is the mechanic for identifying the internal motives of each person? How do you tell in real life? With those questions in mind, this is shaping up to be a different kind of game. Like SI is a critique of religion in general, UL is a critique to us Christians about how hard we try to make some sort of balance in life between pleasing God and pleasing man, and even make pleasing God a motive for pleasing man. Whatever choices you make in the game could have essentially random consequences without affecting your standing with God. Of course, that adds another hard-to-implement system – how to measure standing with God when we have been freed from the Law?

In conclusion:
Reasons I don’t want to make a Christian computer game

  • Christian mechanics aren’t about getting your stats bigger (salvation, pleasing God, living by faith, etc.)
  • Making a game that just preaches Christian morals is more like propaganda than art or a game (good propaganda, but nevertheless…)

Reasons I do want to make a Christian computer game

  • The finest examples of computer games, either as purely games or artistic expression, are anti-god. This either means that they should be shunned like television and movies, or it is a tremendous opportunity for someone to declare the Gospel
  • Possibly, I just really like computer games and this is the only way I can justify spending time and money on them

A few ending notes:
This comes across like I’m against balance in life, but I believe that we should be balanced in our balance: there are times to be extreme and times to be balanced.
The statement about shunning all movies and television is supposed to be an ironic look at separating from the world, which at some times and for some people has shunning an entire category of entertainment. I have not come to a final conclusion on this subject, and there is merit to the saying “When in doubt, throw it out.”
I’m not really endorsing Shrouded Isle or Errant Signal, though I enjoy the commentary from the latter. If you choose to check these out, feel free to make judgmental comments right here.

— October 17, 2018

What Do You Think?