Heading north on Interstate 5 toward Newberg, Ore. last week, I wasn't sure what exactly I'd encounter at Christian Game Developers Conference 2011. Would it have a show floor? Would they be showcasing new games? Would there be a Kinect-enabled Bible study game with 1:1 praying-hands control? Is a third sequel to the Left Behind series this community's Half-Life 2: Episode 3, and would we finally see a trailer for it?
Of course, I saw none of that. I had underestimated what "Christian Game Developers" really means. And what they do.
My problem, appropriately enough, was one of literal interpretation. See, in the conference's title, "Christian" modifies not "Game" but "Game Developers." The distinction is a little more apparent after you talk to enough people and find most of them working on secular games. They're building iPhone and iPad games that don't quote so much as "Jesus wept," or even mention Him at all. They work at BioWare, on Star Wars: The Old Republic. They go to the standard GDC in San Francisco.
So if that's the case, why is this conference, now in its 10th year, even necessary?
"Some people just need to know they're not alone," said Chris Skaggs, of the independent developer Soma Games, and a conference organizer. "You see that in the conversations we have here. You often hear, 'Wow, there really are people who are out there,' and thinking about the same sorts of things."
No one here bats an eye when a discussion of industry trends opens with a prayer to the Lord expressing thanks and asking for guidance. Or when, bemoaning a market oversaturated with first-person shooters and sequels, a speaker invokes Peter leaving the boat to walk on water with Jesus as an example of having faith to try something risky and uproven.
But because such things, if they aren't disruptive to a secular workplace, would at least get you labeled "that guy" in one, there's a pressure for spiritual developers to keep a lid on it, within a games community that's convinced itself that the devout isn't interested in working for it, or doesn't already. And the gamer community has done a great job of making religion of any type feel unwelcome.
"We're not encouraging folks to start Bible study groups at Activision," Skaggs said. "But we do want to encourage the community: Don't walk away [from games development] and don't shut up.'"
The conference, held this year at George Fox University, a Quaker college about an hour or so southwest of Portland, has adapted to the purposes of its attendees year-to-year. (About 85 attended this year; at its height it's drawn 125). Some years networking is the focus. Other years, new products have been shown off. This year was plainly about spiritual and professional development, with keynotes like "Why Are You Here? Deciphering the Code," leading off a day of discussions that also included "Monsters: The Imagination of Faith and Fear," and "Christ: the Cosmic Hero."
There were some games at CGDC 2011, though. They were on a couple of PCs out in a hall, mostly being played by the kids of conference-goers. Adam's Venture was one. Think Uncharted meets Sunday School. It lacked some visual polish most gamers take for granted, but otherwise appeared to be a serviceable adventure tale of the search for the Garden of Eden. A second episode was released this April.
Adam's Venture is one of the better titles in a segment that, even before it overcomes secular mistrust of its agenda, is dogged by poor quality. Refreshingly, this was not an elephant-in-the-room topic at CGDC. Everyone was eager to confront it; if there was a lack of consensus, it was on the potential for overtly religious games to actually be any good as games.
"I really get annoyed when I see preachy games," said Kelly Lawer, 20, of Portland, attending the conference as a gaming enthusiast and an aspiring professional. The mainstream's aversion to an overtly religious game "isn't an issue because of hostility toward my religion," she said. "It's an issue because it's boring."
Lawer decried "Bible-tract gaming" that stereotyped characters (especially atheist antagonists) and all but hand-held players through what few moral choices they really presented. She had an sympathetic ear in David McDonald, pastor of the Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., who said he begged to get his speaking gig at CGDC 2011.
"If you made the Left Behind game and you're in here," he joked during his talk, "look, I'm called to love you but, epic fail, right? Class A bed-pooing there." There was a lot of chuckling. The Left Behind series is probably Christian gaming's most visible commercial success, but also its most controversial, as a real-time strategy game taken from the series of End Times novels. Though its creators vigorously dispute such portrayals, Left Behind's first game, in 2006 was tagged as violent and religiously intolerant, particularly of Muslims, and depicted as setting "convert or kill" as a goal. Generally poor gameplay reviews have made it into a secular whipping boy for agenda gaming at its worst.
"I don't think games can evangelize or disciple," McDonald said, meaning make new Christians, or make better Christians. "When somebody sits down and says, 'Let's make a video game to make better Christians,' they're in trouble."
McDonald is a mid-40s father of two whose congregation uses Twitter (sometimes during services). He has a PlayStation 3 and uses it. At the end of his talk, a rip-roaring trip through the bestiary of Biblical monsters, he talked about his favorites: Heavy Rain ("a brilliantly emotional and moral game,"); EchoChrome ("that's about perspectivism,") and Shadow of the Colossus. He's intrigued by El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron. "That borrows from the Book of Enoch," he noted.
Though he is not a developer or an industry figure per se, he's a constituent, and he cautioned his audience on what games can and cannot do in the name of the faith, no matter how personally important it may be to them. In presenting a story, a game should strive for metaphor, "not pedagogy," McDonald said. "All kinds of things are in bounds as a metaphor." Christian stories should be taught with themes and virtues, not principles and ethics. Tellingly, he suggested games present their story with a tone of mythology, not information.
"I hope nobody thinks a video game is a good place for indoctrination," McDonald told me later. "I just think it's about telling good stories. People can change when they read a good story. A good story can help them turn their life around. In my case, through my love for Jesus Christ, I believe that story (of Him) has the chance to produce the most amount of change."
CGDC was started 10 years ago by Tim Emmerich, a dad and a computer engineer from nearby Corvallis, Ore., who runs GraceWorks Interactive as a one-man side business. He grew up in a home where card-playing was for a time forbidden. Today, he tells of old ladies from his church who enjoy playing "Scripture Solitaire" purchased from his ChristianGamesNow.com store. (GraceWorks also is the North American distributor of Adam's Venture). GraceWorks' in-house games include The Interactive Parables, a 3D puzzle/platformer that teaches players about Jesus' Parables in 24 lessons.
"For my Christian walk, games development is part of what I do," Emmerich said. Emmerich said CGDC began when his wife asked why there was not a conference for games developers of the Christian faith. I asked point-blank why that was even necessary.
"Why is regular GDC necessary?" Emmerich asked rhetorically. "It brings value to those who attend that they can't get elsewhere, and encouragement for the business side. There are deals made [at CGDC] that couldn't be done elsewhere. There are maybe several deals done that couldn't be done elsewhere."
Digital Praise, a maker of, among other things, Christian rock Guitar Hero clones, grew out of connections made at CGDC, Emmerich said. He has a point about these dealmaking connections being unlikely in secular settings. Anecdotally, developers talk of an uphill fight to find funding partners, should they choose to identify their operations as outwardly Christian, whether or not the project they're working on is.
"Lots of friends and colleagues have said, 'Look, you cannot tell people you're believers,'" said Skaggs, the conference organizer and founder of Soma Games, also based in Newberg. His studio is up front about its values, seen here on its web site. But its big hit, G: Into the Rain is like its upcoming release, Wind Up Robots: an iOS game that is 100 percent secular in tone.
"Not only is there a perception that Christian games have been shlocky, they usually have. There's no getting around it," Skaggs said. "There are, arguably reasons for this that are logical enough, like lack of access to capital and experience. But it is something we need to change and part of that starts with a commitment to excellence."
It may be true that being devout gives secular backers pause, whether it's because Christian gaming is tarred as low quality or because a funding partner doesn't want to drag a values discussion into a business deal. But mobile and Facebook games development and self-publishing has helped make access to capital less of a viable excuse for the Christian game developer.
"We've got so many great stories, especially in mobile, one-man shop development. There's an explosion of stories there, so there's really no excuse," Skaggs said.
He is, however, concerned that the industry's mainstream is at best insensitive to the Christian community and, at worst, hostile to it. He described a story involving an American animator, a believer, working for a U.K. studio, assigned to render some particularly violent sequences for an "open-world GTA-like game." The animator asked off of that project and to be reassigned to another one, was branded as a troublemaker and dismissed. Worse, he was blackballed in the industry.
Skaggs didn't name the developer or the studio. The story is basically unconfirmable. But it's instructive that Christian developers feel that, if they do get a mainstream gig, they will have to go along to get along throughout it, even when they're assigned tasks that conflict with their values. Hence the value of CGDC as a support network in addition to a professional one.
"Literally, I have people who work at Activision, or at EA or wherever else, writing us a letter saying, 'We found this conference, and I feel in my shop or on this project, that I can't speak my mind or be myself,'" Skaggs said. "They perceive there might be some sort of judgment."
"Christian," as an adjective, arrives with a lot of freight in the secular world, especially as branding within entertainment media and markets. For example: Christian TV programming, Christian radio, Christian rock, Christian books and bookstores. To the secular mainstream, it's all assumed to mean insipid edutainment, ulterior-motive prosleytization or oogity-boogity intolerance. So Christian game developers, simply by identifying themselves as such, are up against that assumption of intent.
CGDC doesn't exist to advise developers of their rights and demand that they assert them, however. If the workshop schedule covered "Making Games That Reflect God's Stories," it also had lectures on "The Art of Building Immersive Worlds" and "Best Visual Practices in Game Art and Design" led by industry professionals with direct experience at mainstream studios and publishers.
There was no paranoid seminar on workplace discrimination, no calls to culture war with video games as a beachhead, and there was no thou-shalt declaration of godly or ungodly game content. A values statement opening the brochure is inarguably moderate. It actually says, "Try to avoid religious debates." Any mild-mannered Subaru-driving Unitarian would have been happy to skip his Friday morning labyrinth walk to participate.
I left with the sense of a group that doesn't confuse being taken seriously as Christians for being taken seriously in a secular art, by a secular public.
"We should have a seat at the table," in the community of games development, says Skaggs, and I agree. If video games are a medium serving a pluralist society, well, Christians are a part of it, too, regardless of my individual feelings on it or any religion.
"But as a Christian game developer, I'm going to make sure that we earn it," Skaggs said. "I'm not going to be there because I'm a noisy guy who screams discrimination. We'll earn it because we will bring something valuable to the industry."