Link, hero of "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Walker," gazes at the heavens.
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Before “god mode” or “god games” there were “God games” — low budget, PC floppy disks that married evangelical Christian thought and scripture with simple game play. The boundaries between the holy and the secular were simpler then. You had your “Heaven Quest” on the one hand, your arcade shoot-em-up on the other.

Today, the lines have grown fuzzier. Some of the most successful religious games are more subtle in their messaging. “Secular” games, while remaining faithful to the usual cast of characters — aliens, elves, soldiers and athletes — have grown ever more complex and all-encompassing in scope; triggering questions of reality that are almost theological in nature.

Will firing up the game console ever be considered a sacred act?

Covert Christian gaming
“Eternal Wars: The Shadow of Light” is not the type of game Ned Flanders of the “The Simpsons” would buy for his do-good sons Rod and Todd. Built with the “Quake” game engine, “Eternal Light” is a first-person shooter: You are an angel named Mike sent by God to battle assorted demon spawn. The prize: the soul of a troubled teenager.

For Mackenzie Ponech, president of the development company Two Guys Software, the purpose was to deliver a Christian message, but not at the expense of game play.

“We focus on building great games without shoving the bible down your throat,” he said.

Evil tastes righteousness in "Eternal Wars."

While some Christian games remain focused on edutainment or tacking on a Bible-related story to a popular arcade classic, Ponech and a small number of other developers are at the forefront of a new trend in Christian game development: sophisticated game play, bigger budgets and a less overt message.

At the Christian Game Developers Conference last month, one classroom handout illustrated the evangelical challenge: “The game is a smart vehicle. It satisfies a game player’s technological expectations, while subtly (and effectively) delivering God’s message.”

And God’s message, among these sophisticated developers, is open to wide interpretation — game content-wise — with some notable limits, of course.

“No sex,” said Ralph Bagley, president of Christian game developer N’Lightning. Nor, said Bagley, can a Christian game contain gratuitous violence or a positive portrayal of the occult. “There have been too many games,” said Bagley, “Where the devil always wins or is one of the strongest characters.”

But that’s not to say the occult is ignored. N’Lightning has spent $2.4 million in two games where Satan almost plays the lead role. In “Catechumen” you are a Christian skulking around catacombs in pagan Rome. When you smote a demon with the biblically approved “sword of the Spirit” they disappear. Heathen humans don’t die when struck; but “see the light.”

“Ominous Horizons: A Paladin’s Calling,” N’Lightning’s latest game, has the player moving across time and continents battling Druids and Mayans in the search for the original Gutenberg Bible, which in this scenario was stolen by the devil. The action is brisk, the puzzles complex and while the Christian message is obvious, it doesn’t interfere with enjoying the game.

Evil is present. And where’s there’s evil, there’s conflict. And without conflict, there’s no drama. And who wants to play “Adventures in Candyland” anyway?

Bagley summed it up: “I just don’t want to be another two guys in the garage creating cheesy Christian games.”

Off the shelf religion
Whether used as metaphor, artifice or a way of shaping a story, religion appears in secular gaming as well.

Start with the obvious. There is the “god mode,” a hack that allows players to pass through walls, take no damage, etc. Then there are the so called “god games” which describe the player’s relationship vis-a-vis the game play. Think of “Sim City,” where the player, from high above, creates a world. Another “god game,” “Civilization: Call to Power” even provides players with the option of creating a theocracy. “Black & White,” released in 2001, took god games to the extreme, tasking the player with creating a god to be loved (or feared) by fickle mortals.

All praise the cow. The temple provides the seat of a deity's power in "Black & White"
Few sites dig for religious undertones in secular gaming better than the Christian Spotlight’s Guide to Games: “I’m honestly disappointed in the spiritual content of WW. The Great Fairies somewhat resemble the Hindu goddess Shiva,” reads the site’s review of Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Walker.” “Every few minutes it’s ‘the gods this, and the gods that...’.”

At another level, belief systems have been incorporated into virtual characters. In “EverQuest,” the massive online multiplayer game, new players are asked to pick from among the religions native to the land of Norrath. One of Norrath’s deities, “The Nameless” has triggered talk on discussion boards over whether “Nameless” could be understood as the Jewish Yahweh.

Some evangelists have even used “EverQuest” to proselytize to fellow players.

“On the plus side, “EverQuest” is a great place to preach the gospel,” reads the Christian Spotlight’s Guide to Games. We can take forth our God, even in a fantasy world... because the people there aren’t just fantasies, they are people with souls.”

finding God in grand theft auto

To Denver Post game reviewer David Thomas, all this discussion about literal displays of religion in games misses the point. “These doctrine based games aren’t interesting,” he said.

Religion lies deeper. In a column on his Web site, “Buzzcut,” Thomas wrote, “The structure of games themselves have, what seems to me, a fundamentally theological message.”

Take, for example, the existential challenge of a game. The player is dropped in a universe created by someone — the programmer — with a master plan. “I think if you believe there is theological structure with rules, purpose and an ethical system, you’re telling people there is a purpose.” Thomas said.

“Part of the game experience is dealing with a strange set of rules and you’re learning by just fiddling with the rule set,” Thomas told MSNBC.com. “What’s that like. Well it could be interpreted as a person’s experience with God.”

In the 1970’s-era text-based game “Adventure,” the purpose was navigating “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike,” Thomas said. Today’s gamers navigate mob relationships in “Grand Theft Auto.” Two games, two different moralities, but all the same in the grand theological scheme according to Thomas.

Marshall McLuhan, the media philosopher, talked about how media technology shapes knowledge and influences a return to collective ways of perceiving the world. The immersive, increasingly hyper-real experience of games, according to Thomas, triggers a whole set of questions on faith, purpose and ultimately, truth.

“The average game player can sort out the difference between killing something in a game, and killing someone in real life,” said Thomas. “But do they think about the cosmological implications of pretending to be someone in an interactive world created by someone else?”

They may not need to, but according to Lynn Schofield Clark, a media professor at the University of Colorado, they do find something else. Clark studies the dynamics between media and kids.

“Young people are at a stage where they feel powerless,” she said. “Games are a way to approach those situations, to discover what is truth.”

Common ground
Christian game developers seek to put God in the machine, while thinkers like Thomas and Clark say that the notion of God is already there. Differing opinions, but both hold a core belief: A game’s influence doesn’t end when you turn off the console.

One day perhaps, as games grow larger in size and more realistic in play, a modern day St. Augustine will write some treatise on the notions of truth and morality in game play. Until then, gamers will have to negotiate those mazes of “twisty little passages,” on their own.

“There’s actually a pretty positive message in games,” said Thomas. “You find it in “Grand Theft Auto,” “Doom,” “The Sims,” all those games. And that’s the idea that there’s somebody out there with a plan for me.”

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com

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