No matter what you believe, it is hard to walk away from viewing Mel Gibson’s highly publicized and somewhat controversial adaptation of the story that makes up the foundation for the Christian faith without being moved. A religious-themed film such as The Passion causes one to ask questions, gain perspective and see the spiritual side of a well-documented historical figure. But for some reason, the video game industry has failed to deliver anything remotely close to an experience like this within what many consider to be a more viable medium for engaging users in the act of introspection. If you actually play video games and understand the ever-increasing capabilities of the craft, then you should know that it would seem likely that a religious themed title could be capable of stirring up the same emotional, thought-provoking experience as was found within Gibson’s film. Unfortunately, a few horrible efforts at "modernized" games, rudimentary portrayals of kid-proofed Bible stories and "extreme" versions of Bible trivia have been the extent of what we’ve seen thus far from religious-themed interactive entertainment.
The question then is this: How can the pattern change? Companies like Left Behind Games, whose Real Time Strategy game (RTS) based on the popular Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins seemed to cause controversy within the gaming community. That being said, the game did spark many a forum topic regarding religion, which despite the assuredly good intentions of its creators, is about the extent of the impact it seemed to have.
Contrast that with other titles found today in the gaming industry that have managed to tell engaging stories while bringing to light important issues like environmentalism, the human consequences of battle and the scary prospects of nuclear warfare. Interestingly, an upcoming title from gaming powerhouse Ubisoft, titled Assassin’s Creed, seems like it will have a more thought-provoking religious context than products put forth by devout developers who claim one faith or another. The game takes place in the year 1191 in Jerusalem and you play as an assassin named Altair, who as the son of a Christian mother and Muslim father finds himself attempting to suppress the powers of both the Crusaders and Saracenes as the Third Crusade threatens to tear the Holy Land apart. While the game seeks to incorporate new stealth game play mechanics, the violent nature of playing an assassin will turn some people off, but looking a bit deeper, you can see how religious context and a rich story can begin to provoke thought more effectively than brash attempts from some "Christian" games.
With that in mind, I believe those looking to incorporate religious themes within their games must first understand the audience and the current state of the gaming industry. While I recognize the adventurous lives of the Apostle Paul, King David and various other biblically based characters might make for great gaming material, the object shouldn’t be to simply pull these characters out of the book and slap them into a video game Aside from leaving the door wide open for criticism and an immediate discrediting of the game’s technical and creative merits, it would seem that including these characters leaves very little room for the most important aspect of any game; good game play. I mean, if you were to play Paul in a video game, what would you do? Use the X button for healing snake bites while utilizing the Wii’s toggle controller to help shield your eyes from the blinding light on the road to Damascus? Um….no.
Even though this is a complex topic that deserves tons of evaluation and the well-thought-out execution of ideas, the conclusion for the time being seems rather simple: If game developers can find creative, original and fundamentally sound ways to tell a compelling story with religious themes, the gaming community will be far more apt to accept it and be impacted by its message. This isn’t about compromise, it isn’t about the commercialization of Christianity, and it isn’t even about conversion. It’s about creating an experience that can cause people to have the same reaction I had after watching The Passion, but when putting down a controller of a different kind.