I just returned from a wonderful experience at the Christian Game Developer’s Conference. The trip ended up being pretty last-minute, as we found out we had an opportunity to VJ with Weiv for the band BarlowGirl (more on how that went later).

The Success?? of Christian?? Games

My favorite talk of the conference was the last one, a roundtable discussion that led with a question about the perceived lack of success of Christian games compared to other media. I just came across a post by John Hanan about it, which inspired this post.

To me, the panelists’ answers mostly avoided the issue by trying to challenge the question – you see this a lot in politics – with rebuttals like “What does success really mean?” and “What does a Christian game really mean?”

LAME. At that point, my passions started to stir (and they are still stirred as you can tell by my last post!). To me, exploring definitions is much less important at this point, if you look at the progress made – or lack thereof – in game design that is deeply meaningful at all, let alone that is Christian specifically.

Links project

We Need More Shotguns

Now, do I believe we’re in a golden age of videogames? Of course! But that doesn’t mean we’ve made a lot of progress in making them meaningful. The exciting part is that we’re shotgunning new game ideas due mostly to the Internet, and in part to more-open-than-console mobile platforms. But I want to make something clear: we need a hell of a lot more shotguns.

And so, just like I asked at the end of that panel, I ask it here. And just like I prefaced this question at the end of that panel, I preface it here:

I do not want any cop-out answers. I want real examples. How do we, as game designers, actually design a meaningful game? FOR REAL. Like actually design one that is actually meaningful. I am looking for resources to do this, and I have found very few. It seems to me like we should be holding 10 game jams per year trying to figure this out.

Unintentionally, I asked it rather accusingly, so what followed ended up being mildly embarassing. But I probably would have exploded had I not asked this, so it was a fair trade.

A Sense of Urgency

The answers? It seems that no one really knows at this point. And that should be a Really Big Deal™ for all game developers interested in designing games that are intended to deliver a meaningful experience. It should be our #1 priority to figure this out. We should all be running to our laptops and feverishly creating experiences that attempt to explore this issue, and then sharing the results.

Lion chasing bike

And yet… I can only find a handful of other designers with a sense of urgency about this, and most of those few are not sharing results in a way that progresses game design. Including me! Shame on me. I don’t know, maybe a sense of urgency is the wrong thing to look for, but I guess that’s what tends to inspire and motivate me. I keep remembering a conversation I had with Greg Wohlwend where we likened a sense of urgency in creating something to being chased by a lion. I think it is a beautiful picture. :)

It scares me that I, as a wannabe videogame designer of meaningful experiences, am starved for resources on how to actually do this. The important thing is that if that’s the case for me, then it is most likely the case for many others.

My Solution: A Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam

I love game jams. At this point, I’ve been involved with roughly 9 or 10 of them since 2007, most of which I helped organize. I think they are a savior of sorts for videogames as a medium. And so naturally I turn to the game jam to solve this problem. I’m probably biased, heh.

I have a vision for a game jam dedicated to exploring meaningful gameplay. I think it can be structured in a way to help solve this problem. And I think it deserves its own post, so I’ll save that for next. Sit tight.

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[…] the last post I was wondering where the sense of urgency was for creating meaningful games. It even sparked some interesting discussion on whether or not one should reduce the solution to a […]

God at play – spiritual games » A Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam added these pithy words on Jul 18 11 at 6:02 pm

The impression I got when reading this will feel like a cop out but I’m not sure it is… My thought was, “is this a problem solved by more Law or by the Spirit?”

Your question was “I want real examples, how do we as game designers actually design a meaningful game?” It sounds at least on the surface like “I want real examples, how do I get to heaven?” One could layout the roman road for you, but real change is a heart and a Spirit issue.

In the talk that Os gave, he mentioned George Washington Carver and how George said that God gave him his ideas. I looked up quotes by George Washington Carver on google (where all accurate information comes from) and found this:

“I never have to grope for methods. The method is revealed at the moment I am inspired to create something new… Without God to draw aside the curtain I would be helpless.”

Kyle Garner gave a great presentation right before that round table. I found it to be tremendously helpful and it pointed out a number of mistakes I’ve made in crafting an immersive game. But at best, he can just give me the Laws to follow, I could apply them and have an interesting game, but I feel that the true inspiration and true meaning will have to come from the Spirit.

RyanNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 11:21 am

Thanks for the comment Ryan.

But don’t deeds naturally flow out of a sincere faith? If we sincerely want to make games that are deeply meaningful, we should be building each other up toward that goal.

I guess to answer you in the context of your question, I’m looking for guidelines for a lifestyle. I’m looking for epistles, or something like that. And in order to get epistles, we need apostles who are traveling around and writing and teaching. Were they led by the Spirit? Of course. But they were also writing and teaching. Hopefully I am following your metaphor correctly.

Right now game design is a black box. What happens is that you try something, and then play the game, and then see the result. You can’t really predict what will happen; it’s guess and check. And I’m fine with that. But that means at the very least, we could be sharing the guess and check approach with small pieces of gameplay, so that over time we as a community could build a knowledge base and grow from each others’ work.

This approach has already happened to some degree with “fun” games. I think it’s time we started doing this with meaningful games.

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 11:36 am

I’m down with the whole community and epistles and teaching and all of that. I want it too, and I’m excited to find other designers excited about it. That’s how I found your website in the first place :)

I’m also not trying to be super spiritual here, I have just had a number of experiences in the last year where I’d be talking with my pastor and I’d be like “how is this supposed to work, what’s the law here?” and he’d give me the “have you spent time praying about it?” line, and I’d find it very frustrating because I just wanted the answer not the relationship.

So at the risk of sounding trite, I just wanted to add the point that as believers, we have a unique relationship with the creator of meaningful experiences and he can download those things into us if we ask.

Maybe you’re the apostle here.

RyanNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for the link! I agree with you that meaningful games need to be made, but I’m kind of with Ryan in that I’m not sure that we can provide meaning on our own. Who determines what meaning we can get from a piece of art? Certainly the artist will have his own intentions, but that doesn’t mean every person who experiences it will get the same thing.

For example, the movie John Q with Denzel Washington is one of my favorites. To me, it’s a story about the sacrifices a father will make in the pursuit of his son’s wellbeing. There are a lot of ways that I see God reflected in this movie. And yet, for others, it’s simply a scathing indictment of the evils of insurance companies, with no divine counterpart whatsoever. The movie provides the context, but what we take away from it depends on our own points of view.

I see Christian games much the same way – we can provide all the context we like, but true meaning can only come from the audience. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit is working on their hearts to bring about the response that God desires.

JohnNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 12:20 pm

Yeah, I know what you guys mean. I don’t want to try to be too legalistic or scientific with the approach, but at the end of the day, you have to code some game logic. You have to do some actual work.

I’m glad you mentioned an example of a meaningful experience. John Q is a film that exists. And one established way to become a good filmmaker is to analyze a film like John Q to understand the parts of it that make watching the film a meaningful experience. Then you try some of those things out yourself to see if the result is similar.

I am proposing that we should be part of an active community of developers who are doing this frequently with games, and then sharing the results with each other.

I’m so glad we can have this conversation guys, this is great. :)

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 1:07 pm

Here’s a great example from The Bell Foundry of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

For example, perhaps a game about the Apostle Paul has in view the obstacle “travel” – travel was time-consuming and difficult in the ancient world. Perhaps tension comes from the mode of travel; sea travel is fast but risky, land travel is safer but slow, so Paul must choose which mode to use to complete each journey. This could be reflected well with a game mechanic that emphasizes “risk/reward” tension, whereas a mechanic built around “resource management” may not evoke this aspect of the theme as well.

That is a ludonarrative design guideline. This and other design guidelines are usually discovered through trial and error. And by sharing those discoveries, we can build each other up as designers to more easily develop meaningful games.

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 13 11 at 1:47 pm

We’ve been in ministry for many years and we’ve also made games since age 11.
We’ve seen many Christian game startups, from shoestring budget games to million dollar investments fail largely.

Problem 1: Christians design games for a Christian target group, even if they don’t want to.
Reasons why this problem exists:
– They seek approval from the Christian community that is usually more worried with tradition/Christian-culture than being cutting edge.
– They are funded by folks that don’t understand gaming culture.
– They are often put together by inexperienced game developers that settle with shortcuts to get to market, which turns out to be Christians.

Problem 2: They are teachy/preachy
Reasons why this problem exists:
– Teaching through games is difficult, subtle and requires extreme story-craft. If you’re a Christian investor, you don’t want to spend 30 million on a game that never does an altar call. So you go for trivia-with-nice-graphics when push comes to shove.

Problem 3: Everything needs to feel nice
Reasons why:
– Christian media in general (movies, etc) ignore gut-wrenching conflict. I’m not just talking gore, I’m talking any type of story conflict. You take that out, the product just gets flat as a penny (debt wise) and won’t work. Great Christian media used to exist WITH conflict (think Ben Hur, etc) but Christian culture has just gotten far more politically correct than needed.

Well, it’s simple yet hard. Do the opposite.
“The Passion of the Christ” did this. It was graphic, un-cultural (no perfect Jesus with perfect hair) and self-funded.


-Efraim (TornadoTwins)

TornadoTwinsNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Nov 17 11 at 11:24 pm

Thanks for the comment Efraim! Great points. I’ve definitely thought about all those things. Actually I just participated in an online discussion like this earlier this week, hehe.

I think there are certainly fewer developers trying, which has a lot to do with it.

Tree of Life is definitively my favorite film of all time because it chose to do the opposite for all 3 of those things. We just need more game developers out there with the same mindset.

gapadminNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Nov 17 11 at 11:51 pm

*We’re in a rather different predicament: We feel like God wants us to make a specific “meaningful” game inspired by our own life, but we don’t know how to develop a game in general. He said to focus on completing a smaller practice project first, but we don’t even know how to develop that! It’s a bit frustrating, knowing that any AAA studio could whip all this together in a month with a tiny fraction of their resources, but instead they’re all competing to crunch out the trendiest Shooty McClone XII. It briefly occurred to us to make one of those Kickstarter things, but we’d still be out of our depth, except with other people’s money and expectations at stake. Honestly, if we get this done and anyone besides us actually likes it, I’m going to be very surprised. It’s not going to be “nice”, but it’s not going to reward sociopathy; and it’s not going to be overtly Christian, but it’s also not going to be gentle on the devil’s philosophies. So I really have no idea who if anyone is going to play it. I guess that’s beside the point, though. Our job is just to make it exist…somehow.

So far our best leads in the design area are the blogs and discussions from the “Notgames” community. That Frictional Games company, for instance, seems to have hit on some effective mechanics for digital roleplaying. I hope God won’t be upset if we rip off their innovations. As you said, there just isn’t a lot of precedent in this area.

We’re also considering spending a certain proportion of our paycheck every month on premade Unity3D assets, if we ever agree on what we need and what we can competently use. It might solve a large proportion of our how-to issue…or needlessly squander our time and money. Right now we’re arguing about whether to buy clouds. They aren’t going to magically make the game more meaningful, and we probably can’t even use them in the practice game (aimed at low end devices), but at least that could be one less aspect to be self-conscious about. We don’t need the audience to be hours into the story, in the middle of a tense battle between good and evil, thinking, “Gosh that cloud looks tacky!”


*The plural denotes that this involves cooperation from several split personalities. We believe it’s good for us to practice working together intentionally, rather than passive-aggressively overriding each other like we did for most of our life. It definitely feels like an improvement, even if we still haven’t accomplished anything.

KatzNo Gravatar added these pithy words on May 30 16 at 12:54 am

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