xBox Mormonism

7.2.08 | | 27 comments

In a departure from my usual critical film studies, I decided to make a foray into the realm of starting a discussion. It’s a new experience for me so be gentle.

As with movies, books, and music, I enjoy a good video game. Note that I said, “good.” I’ve known a few developers in my time and, having worked in the Disney animation studios, I have a deep respect for the commitment those long projects require. To them, it is an art form. Much of the attention paid to video games concerns the violence involved (and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of it), but like the aforementioned arts, I believe there is good mixed in with the bad. In fact, my wife (not a big fan of gaming) noted that I only really play games that have a good story. She’s right. To me, video games can represent a sort of interactive story experience.

Whether one likes games or gaming isn’t really the point. The point is two-fold. First, that with billions of dollars in revenue yearly, video games are here to stay. Secondly, as technology increases and games develop, they become much more complex. Just as movies have evolved from the kinetoscope fare of the early twentieth century, so too have games moved on from progenitors such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. I had the opportunity a few years ago to meet the lead developer of Assassin’s Creed for a demonstration of the game two years before its release. At the time, he took us through a virtual tour of the Dark Age, Middle Eastern city of Acre. His programmers, artists, and developers had done-painstaking research to recreate “brick for brick” the city as it had existed at that time (they did the same for Damascus and Jerusalem). The recent release Mass Effect has an AI system that is so complex that every single interaction with every single character impacts the outcome.

The point of all this is to set up my reaction to a game I recently had the opportunity to play. I had read numerous things — all good — about a game called “Bioshock.” All I knew was that it was a first-person shooter (which I tend to shun), but because of some trusted recommendations, I turned it on. I was blown away. Set in 1960, the game begins when a man named Jack (played by you) survives a passenger plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean and discovers a nearby bathysphere that takes him to an underwater city called Rapture. Until recently, Rapture had been an Objectivist utopia controlled by Andrew Ryan, a man with uncanny resemblance both physically and vocally to Orson Welles’s immortal Charles Foster Kane (from Citizen Kane). A Russian immigrant to the United States, Ryan had become disillusioned with the governments of both countries and created “a city where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small.” Of course, within moments of arriving in Rapture, one discovers that Ryan’s dream has become a nightmare.

I was amazed at first by the homage to famous Objectivists like George Orwell and particularly Ayn Rand (the name Andrew Ryan is a take on her name and Jack’s guide through the game is a mysterious man named “Atlas”). When my AP English teacher introduced me to Rand in high school, it was love at first read. I enjoyed Rand’s writing and, being a fiery teenager, was drawn to the principles of Objectivism. Of course, while I by no means reject them today, I do see where Rand manipulates her stories in such a way to prove her point rather than explore it.

That’s where Bioshock comes in.

I was skeptical of the game as I began to play it. First-person shooters are just that, right? Well, make no mistake, Bioshock is about trying to survive in a city where the citizens’ moral disregard for genetic tampering has driven them all to utter insanity. Living in – and being jaded by – Hollywood, I expected something between an anti-Objectivist and pro-Socialist message. But as one moves through the game and discovers the tape-recorded messages of its various denizens (doctors, scientists, artists, Ryan himself, etc.), it becomes clear that the story is exploring both the virtues and the flaws of Objectivist utopian ideals. I was flabbergasted by the complexity not so much of the plot, but of the philosophy. It took everything that I had wondered about Ayn Rand’s work (such as the role of children in a purely Objectivist environment) and examined it.

Take it for what it’s worth. Bioshock is a violent game, but also an extremely intelligent one. However, it derived its philosophy from literature. Somehow, this got me thinking back to a recent post about Mormon culture and what should and perhaps should not be passed on from generation to generation, culturally speaking. I began to think less in the context of books and more in the context of games. Cinematically speaking, the current generation of youth will probably come to know Scarface, The Godfather, and James Bond through the mediation of video games. John Madden is relevant not because he’s a Super Bowl winning coach and Hall of Fame broadcaster, but because his monicker controls the NFL license for video games.

So, after all that, this is what I’m interested in hearing. If video games are here to stay as a form of entertainment media (and they are), and they can achieve an artistic goal (and they can), what kinds of games could be valuable to the Latter-day Saint? We already do this with board games so why not video games? Development and marketing cost aside, if you could create an LDS-themed game, what would it be? Remember the ol’ classic, “The Oregon Trail?” Would you recreate the Book of Mormon war chapters as a tactical turn-based or real-time combat engine (a la Civilization, Warcraft, or Medieval: Total War). Would you prefer a puzzle-based game such as Myst, Riven, and Uru where a character travels throughout the scriptures? Would you prefer a story-based action-RPG set in newly-settled Utah, where one performs various missions for Brigham Young (as Porter Rockwell used to) as a way to learn church history? Would you incorporate the elements of online Co-op and multiplayer into some kind of missionary-training game. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that church-themed means just that. I don’t think Rainbow Six:Church Headquarters is what we’re after here. Simply consider, if you could capture some element of Mormon culture in a game, what would it be?

27 comments: “xBox Mormonism

  1. Pike

    Oooh interesting though. I love video games, heck, I blog about them (and seem to have developed a fairly decent following as a World of Warcraft blogger somehow), and I have found in the past that some video games have been uplifting and providing “life’s lessons” to me in interesting ways– Final Fantasy VI comes to mind as actually helping to lift me out of a personal funk with some of its messages.

    I don’t know if I would make a gospel-specific game so much as one that is rich in gospel principles, the same way I always envisioned I would make Disneyesque movies (the dream job which I imagine I will never get)– family-friendly fare to a large extent that makes you think. I imagine a game I made would be like that.

    That said, a Book of Mormon RTS a la Age of Empires would be amazing…

  2. bfwebster

    I’m a one-time game designer (back in the dark ages) and still a game player, primarily PC-based 4X games, with a few others genres (RTS, RPG, MMORPG, the occasional FPS) mixed in. I have Bioshock sitting in its box still; I’ve had too much going on to allow myself to get sucked in.

    Were I terribly ambitious, I would love to do a Civ4 mod based on the Book of Mormon. The social, religious, political and military setting is a lot more complex and (dare I say?) multi-polar than most people in or out of the Church realize. The general architecture and moddability of Civ4 is well-suited to such an effort; in fact, I highly recommend the independent “Fall from Heaven II” mod for Civ4 as being a better game than Civ4 itself.

    I would argue a 4X rather than an RTS (as per Pike), since much of the interaction is religious and political, with colonization going on regularly. But that may just be a matter of personal preference.

    On the other hand, “Rainbow Six: Church HQ” is certainly an intriguing title. . . . ..bruce..

  3. William Morris

    I am not a gamer.

    I think a Book of Mormon game or mod could be quite interesting; however, you run into the same issue that Book of Mormon film and novels do — what do you use as a basis for the material culture?

    I’d rather see something that’s obviously Mormon but has not pretensions at all of being historical.

    For example, an alternate Mormon history RTS/RPG based on Lee Allred’s “For the Strength of the Hills” could be very cool.

    Or what might also be interesting is a game based on trying to establish the United Order.

    Taking things further: are there any sim-type games that include concepts of morality and spirituality? It would be interesting to explore Mormon concepts of free will, agency, transmission of righteousness, etc. in a game setting where you play God. Having to call prophets, create sacred texts, decide when to send divine intervention and when not to, etc.

    And the final sort of weird one that occurs to me is one based on the Three Nephite folk doctrine/stories. It would deploy a Thief-style engine, except instead of using stealth/covert skills to steal/kill, you’d use it to do good deeds.

  4. Eugene Woodbury

    “Taking things further: are there any sim-type games that include concepts of morality and spirituality?”

    Yes, there are games that operate in this metaphysical space. I’m thinking specifically of the “dating-sim,” a class of software products developed and sold almost exclusively in Japan. (Why the Japanese would go to town in this department yields readily to armchair social anthropology.)

    These games cover the gamut, from “true love” to eroge (erotic + game). There are a handful of importers/localizers that specialize mostly in (NC-17) eroge, but this otherwise seems to be an untapped market, or rather one that leaves American software distributors just scratching their heads.

    I don’t know about “spirituality,” but even in eroge, the player must make a series of “moral” (or “immoral”) choices to reach the “goal.” In other words, make “nice guy” decisions, and you’ll end up with a “nice” girl on a “nice,” BYU-approved date.

    The logic engines that drive these games could easily be repurposed for other scenarios. But what scenarios, and where’s the market to justify the steep development costs? That’s the question we always seem to return to.

  5. William Morris

    Well, Eric did say “development and marketing cost aside.”

    That’s why the best bet would probably be a mod.

    You know, somebody could have developed a really cool Book of Mormon-themed MUD 15 years ago without much cost [time and hosting], but, alas, the time of MUDs seems to have passed.

  6. William Morris

    I should also add that there are WoW clans that are Mormon-oriented as well as Second Life activity. Or so I have heard — I don’t do much gaming, but when I do, it’s either an old-school MUD or one of the free Linux FPSes.

  7. LdsNana-AskMormon

    I am with Eugene on the element of choice and consequence being included in games that would appeal to the LDS community in particular.

    As the initial consumer of games for my kids, you can appeal to me as a Mormon mother, on issues of accountability, integrity and choosing the right kinds of friends, etc… So, values based within the plot of a game would be high on my list.

    I like the sounds of a project such as this.

    tDMg
    LdsNana

  8. Joe Pemberton

    You’re right to focus on story (charcter development, plot arc, conflict, resolution, etc) as the foundation of any good game. I don’t care for blatant LDS themed games. (Spare us from Lex D doing video games!)

    Why not focus on quality games with universal appeal? Thats the way to reach beyond an inward-gazing culture!

    A question of my own, admittedly for another thread, how can true principles be applied to gaming that do not reward addictive gaming behavior. World of Warcraft is a perfect example of a game somewhat rich in story but obese on brimming over with addictive qualities.

  9. Joe Pemberton

    (Sorry for my poorly composed post. Commenting via iPhone is convenient but not ideal.)

    The storyline is the first key point. And your second point is also right on; that the interactive nature of games, when done well, can be more immersive than film. It’s rare, but it happens. Bio Shock was recently featured in a news piece on the “survival horror” gaming genre that is supposedly threatening the horror film genre. In these games you don’t just ‘suspend your disbelief’ and let a director lead you through a story. You progressively choose to put yourself, via your onscreen character, into the situations. I’m not a horror fan (give me sci-fi!) but I’ve experienced this playing Riddick (more suspense than horror) alone in the house in the dark. I had to get up and turn the lights on because the atmosphere created by the story, imagery and audio design were so well calculated.

    Okay, so it’s bad form to write a comment longer than the original blog post, but I’ll risk it…

    I wanted to highlight the immersive nature of game play that is possible. A game that has both great game play (it’s fun) and a great story line is Portal. It’s also short by console game standards, only about 10 hours of game play. Portal is from Valve, makers of one of the best story-driven games to date, Half Life. Portal is a great first-person puzzle game that is held together with a fantastic storyline. The player is told she is to test out a new portal device in a controlled lab environment. She is put into seemingly impossible situations that get more difficult as you advance through a series of trials, each moderated by a condescending artificial intelligence. As you advance through each test you learn that the AI is intent on making you fail, or worse. At the risk of posting a spoiler, (stop reading!) the game begins with puzzles that challenge you, and eventually you find yourself completely immersed in the story until you actually feel the fear of being threatened and the anger of being betrayed.

    I can imagine the game designers coming up with an original and compelling game dynamic and set of challenges and then thinking, “how can we take this to the next level?” In infusing the storyline Portal turns from a light, one-off kind of game into one that emerges with a darker plot in which you are completely and surprisingly immersed. Imagine starting to watch Enchanted and 30 minutes in finding yourself deep in the middle of Blade Runner.

    Portal: http://orange.half-life2.com/
    Survival Horror: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_horror#References

  10. Anneke Majors

    OK, I’ll bite.

    I hate video games. Really. I see very little social good come out of them, and a lot of social detriment. I think the mere fact that they require such a time commitment is what causes most of the problems. If most games were of a different format – I don’t know – more along the lines of Wii bowling or Rock Band – things that involved a lot of people and were short-lived – I think I’d be more inclined to look upon them amicably. But most of the games that people play (and certainly the ones you’ve mentioned) require hours and hours of immersion, hours that should be spent, as Elder Oaks warned, focusing on “better” things.

    I’ve seen the effect that World of Warcraft, for example, has had on the dating habits of single young men. I’ve seen online games replacing real-life interaction completely.

    I don’t think any sort of gospel theme would redeem the antisocial tendencies that gaming provokes sufficiently to satisfy me.

  11. Eric Thompson Post author

    Wow. Hm. Okay, where to start…

    Good points from Anneke, and I mean that, but they are not without their counterpoints.

    I got into gaming courtesy of my next door neighbors when I was a kid. The boy my age had Lime’s disease (sp?), and while we spent plenty of time climbing trees, riding bikes, and digging in the dirt, there were times when we had to stay inside for his health and other reasons (see: Montana, winter in). I have numerous friends at Berkeley (biophysicists, chemical engineers, and that sort) that I met and keep in touch with through HALO tournaments. As social as a YSA conference is (and I’ve been to a few), it probably has nothing on E3. Gaming has become a culture all its own, and it’s far from anti-social.

    I love Elder Oaks. The man’s stern counsel is what led me to my wife, so I won’t dispute him. But like with all things, I think there is a measure of moderation that can be achieved. Video games can suck the hours out of a day. So can fishing, reading, and playing Cribbage. As I stated in the post, video games aren’t going anywhere. As an LDS culture, we seem to have grasped the usefulness of TV, film, and the internet, even though those the misuse of those mediums also come with dire warnings from the General Authorities.

    I think there is a stigma that rightfully exists with video games. However, I don’t think it has to. I know a struggling couple who have found therapeutic value in Wii tennis. Cursor games such as King’s Quest and Kids on Keys helped me learn how to type and type quickly (useful as a writer). There seems to be the potential for good somewhere in this medium. With online gaming growing in leaps and bounds, I wonder if there aren’t genealogical possibilities. I wonder about Myst or Riven type games that use the scriptures to create puzzles that utilize and enhance cross-referencing skills to solve them, and all of it pointing to the atonement (I would call that game “Isaiah”). With more singles meeting online than ever, online gaming could help keep dating focused on wholesome activities such as the aforementioned bowling.

    Merely a couple of possibilities, but ones that could perhaps get us to think about carving out our own Deseret in the virtual frontier.

  12. Joe Pemberton

    Contrasts.

    Look at the qualities of a game like WoW.

    + Some of the best times I had with 3 of my brothers was connecting in-game for World of Warcraft quests. We live thousands of miles apart but our regular connections were very real. Nothing anti-social about them.

    But I see the dangers of this kind of game — a “massively multiplayer online role playing game” or MMORPG, as they’re called.

    The following are aspects of MMORPGs that make them objectionable, in my view. And they are the reasons I stopped playing. Okay, and because I got bored watching my character run, fly and boat for 45 minutes so I could play for 15 minutes with my bros.

    - World of Warcraft requires an inordinate amount of time. When a character reaches level 40 you can look at the amount of time you’ve played and count the time in DAYS, not hours. It’s disgusting, and irresponsible of gaming companies to build in the kind of virtual economy and skill development that amounts to the babysitting and micromanagement of a game character to do well in the game.

    - To do progressively difficult quests in the game it can take hours of “farming” for materials and experience points so you can advance your abilities or buy gear for your next quest.

    - There is no real story progression, just enough story nuggets to not require a plot and enough to keep the organic development of your characters’ skills semi-interesting.

    - There is no conclusion. The game will never end. You don’t beat this game, you’re either addicted, or you stop playing when you get bored.

    - This game cost me $225. (I paid $45 for the game in the box. I then paid another $180 over a one year period to continue playing. Yuck.)

    - A fascinating aspect of gaming, that I’m sure gaming companies are working hard to perfect, is the nature of these virtual economies and micro reward systems at work. They keep people attached for hours and days at a time. The addiction reminds me of gambling, which is an elaborate system of rewards that give just enough so that you’re willing to keep on losing.

    So, what’s my gaming diet like now?

    + Me and my kids will gather around the computer and create creatures in a game called Spore (by Maxis, makers of The Sims, which is another endless, plotless, time-wasting game).

    + Or I’ll go to a friends’ house every few months for an 8pm to 2am game night where we’ll down softdrinks, eat pizza and Red Vines and play Halo with a crew of a dozen guys in their 30s. This is very social. I highly recommend it in moderation.

    + At work we sometimes pull out Rock Band on Friday afternoons. We’ve even tried to setup sessions with rival companies — you know, like you might do with a softball game. It’s a very social game and a great way to connect people.

    + I sometimes keep casual games (puzzle games, matching games) on my mobile device. They’re great for entertaining a 5 year old who’s been too long in a doctor’s office.

  13. Joe Pemberton

    William, if I post anymore on this topic I’m going to formally request a position as guest blogger. Laugh out loud.

  14. MoJo

    It’s disgusting, and irresponsible of gaming companies to build in the kind of virtual economy and skill development that amounts to the babysitting and micromanagement of a game character to do well in the game.

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    I have yet to have a gaming company reach out of my computer monitor and take me by the throat, pull me inside its game, its economy, to force me to take on a character and play my life away.

    I make a lot of not-so-great choices in the way I spend my time, in the way I go about my life (we all do), but the devil doesn’t make me do anything.

  15. Robert Pemberton

    Hey, I’m Joe’s brother and one of the ones mentioned meeting him online. I remember our first Games we played together as a family: Myth II, an RTS made by Bungie. It was great to talk with brothers all over the country while playing games with them…it reminds me mostly of that one christmas years ago when we all sat around playing knasta (spelling? – that one card game that requires at least 2 card decks?).

    Anyway, I went to college to get a degree in art largely because I wanted to do something that tied all my interests together. I studied 3d animation, 2d animation, photoshop, etc. etc. and dreamed of making the perfect games. Here are my ideas.
    1)educational
    -Advanced imaging of the internal organs, circulatory, skeletal, etc systems of the body.
    You’re piloting a nanoShip (a la “inner space”) and learn the correct names and uses of organs, veins, vessels, etc etc via and story driven because you are trying to save someone’s life (perhaps the main characters spouse/child) and need to aid the body in the healing process from the inside.
    2)Physical conditioning
    -Although the Wii and Wii fit seems to have taken this on, i envisioned something much more fun.

    Excersize equipment tied virtual reality:

    Warm up bikes that let us ride on the tour de’france with Lance and the crew.

    A hang gliding rig (accept it doesn’t hold up your middle so YOU have to) where you can fly over any one of the worlds great vistas (grand canyon, pyramids, the himalayas (spelling?), the great wall, etc etc. I don’t know about you, but I can spend hours in Google Earth just looking at the way this world is made. something that got my physically fit while doing it would make me happy.

    There were other ideas I had, but alas, time and LIFE have directed me in other directions. Perhaps I’ll come back to it some day. With time and funding, interactive educational/physical fitness games could be absolutely amazing.

    I agree with the great social aspect of gaming. I look forward to the days I can see my brothers online. With the advent of VOIP in game, its like an extended conference call for free :)

    With things like “grand theft auto” out there, I really think we (the LDS community) ought to be pushing as much wholesome media into that channel as we can muster.

    To further some other points about “time wasters” I can point out something as innocent as Scrap Booking. I have watched several of the girls I’ve dated and later, my wife, be sucked into the scrap booking subculture in Salt Lake. The “virtue” or geneology (thats what scrap booking IS, don’t you know?!) becomes a time wasting and money wasting vice.
    1)there are $1,000+ scrap booking camps out there where they teach you the fine art of cutting and pasting foam artwork. We must scrap book or we are not good mormons. Seriously, we’re so blessed. *rolls eyes*

    2)Hours and Hours making the perfect “western” themed page (pick a theme, any theme)all for the sake of Cute… We’re talking 2 hours of work for 2 pages where we can fit maybe 3 pictures.

    This is as far from family history as Nascar, and more expensive too. Moderation in all things comes to mind.

    :D

  16. MoJo

    I don’t think it’s helpful for the conversation to devolve into what is whose time wasters, because they all fulfill some human need (creative or educational or both or just relaxation).

    I do think it’s significant that we have the luxury of being able to indulge in one’s choice of “time wasters” and I think it’s important for people to have such “time wasters.”

  17. Joe Pemberton

    Mojo, I would hate for this conversation to devolve that way… Sorry if I came on that strongly. This has a lot of parallels to many other things (you don’t make roller coasters unfun because a few riders are addicted to riding, etc).

    Everyone has personal choice. But where do the game developers/publishers have accountability? I think there are ways they can take responsibility that way.

    A simple and effective example is that if you’ve played the Wii for 30 minutes or so, it asks, “Why don’t you take a break?”

  18. William Morris

    I do think Joe’s point about WoW is interesting — and ties back in to Eric’s original post. To what extent are the story lines of various games of value or not? And how do they relate to gameplay?

    I don’t game much so I don’t know. I do know that I experienced on a bit lesser scale an addiction to a text-based MUD for awhile. Granted, it was way more interesting and clever and funny than WoW and I did do a lot of exploring that was fun, but at some point it came down to the grind and gaining experience points so you could level up.

  19. Eric Thompson Post author

    I love the idea of the anatomy adventure/puzzle game. My wife always laughs when I tell her that I never bought text books in college because they lack plot.

  20. Joe

    Many children connect with their fathers through hunting, others through baseball. I’m sure some connect through religion. I’ve connected with my kids through video games. But it’s more than that.

    My oldest son has not only become a very admired player [on his server] in World of Warcraft, but I’ve watched him as he’s coordinated and led groups, often with men and women much older than him, on successful quests. Yeah, he spends a lot of time playing, but no more than the time I spent building plastic models and model rockets at his age. He still does plenty of things with friends and even plays in a band.

    My youngest son prefers first and third person shooters. He loves watching me play and helping. Yeah, it can get irritating, but he also picks things up I would have otherwise missed. On top of that, he and his younger sister do drawings of game characters, write stories and have even designed games (not very good ones, but you have to start somewhere.)

    My youngest daughter has a different set of games, but loves to know that I know what she’s talking about with, for example, Roller Coaster Tycoon. Again, she does drawings, writes stories and so forth.

    * * *

    As for William’s question about story line. I’m not big into deep story lines in video games. Partly because they’re usually not very good, partly because they interrupt the flow of the action and partly because if I want story, I’ll read a book, watch a movie or write.

    Two of the three children above are the same way; for my youngest son, though, likes games with good stories and takes the time to watch cut scenes and all that.

  21. Anneke Majors

    Just thought I’d let you know – there was an interesting little article today in the BYU Daily Universe – a sub-article, I guess, to the front page story on MMORPGs – about the Mormon “island” on the online game “Second Life.”

    Apparently, there’s a whole community and a virtual Book of Mormon exhibit. The article interviews a retired man who lives his “Second Life” as an 8-year-old Mormon Boy online.

    Interesting stuff. I thought the illustration of virtual characters chatting at the feet of a virtual Christus statue was a little weird, but… interesting.

  22. D Andrews

    If you follow the link you’ll find a recently-created modification, kindly hosted by the LDS gamesdesigner and artist James Fullmer, of Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion 1.6.

    It’s entitled “Title of Liberty – Total War” and is a based on the Nephite-Lamanite wars. I created it to provide a video game for LDS youth which would help them understand a little about the history and geography (at least in basic terms) of the Book of Mormon.

    There’s a video preview up too…

    http://www.bookofmormonbattles.com/TOL/tol.html

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