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February 28, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable


In his follow-up to January's round table, which invited participants to reinvent literature as a game, Corvus has asked us to take someone else's proposed design and elaborate on it, disposing of strict ties to the original literary source, but continuing on the themes and rules inside.

If I hadn't put this off until the last possible day, I would have actually written the Flash version of "l(a" sketched out at Discount Thoughts. Instead, I want to take a closer look at Nerje's Super God Delusion 64 at Ludic Thoughts, which is a riff on Dawkin's book of (almost) the same title.

To summarize: in the design laid out by Nerje, the game is a kind of Animal Crossing filled with both believers and secularists, where players are rewarded for acts of skepticism and science. The game also regularly states that a secret score is being kept for the player's actions--but in a final twist, the end of the game is simply a blank, and the only reward is the feeling of accomplishment. (I am, of course, already a sucker for bizarre Animal Crossing variations.)

It's a fun idea, but the problem with making a game that satirizes religion is that it's easy to be betrayed by the medium. Of course there's no God in your software, players might respond, you programmed it that way! In fact, aren't you a kind of Intelligent Designer for the whole scenario? Perhaps we would be better served by setting our sights a little lower, at the behavior of religion instead of its belief system--and in doing so, we may be able to make the original point, albeit more indirectly.

I propose changing both the player's role in the game, and adding a new influence: Dungeon Keeper (we'll also change the title of the game to reflect this--I like Tithe, personally). In this version, the player character arrives in town as the seed of a nascent religion. Setting up a small house/worship center, your task is to grow your flock and your influence over them.

There are two methods for attracting believers. The first is where the Animal Crossing influence remains: being social, trading letters, learning about the community, and performing favors to gain good will. The second, and more powerful, method is to increase the drawing power of your church by adding "attractions" to it. You might start out, for example, with some bargain-basement artifacts, like a magic translating hat or a moldy sandwich shaped vaguely like a saint. Followers who are impressed by a display will donate funds (cha-CHING! goes the animation), which can be used to upgrade further: a state-of-the-art sound system, Creationism Museum wing, or even visits by higher religious authorities in funny hats. The tone of this should be exaggerated and gently satirical--not mean-spirited, but targeted at the extremes of modern superstition and their tendency toward graphic spectacle.

Players can also create their own attractions, using a combination of Little Big Planet-style sandbox and some lightweight graphical scripting. Solutions that play on physics and statistical misjudgement will be particularly effective in growing the flock. Don't expect that the other religious communities in town will take your expansion lying down, though: they'll also begin ramping up their efforts in order to hold onto their members and possibly steal yours. At higher levels of gameplay, a simplified political simulation is even mixed in, giving the ability to form alliances and allowing you to champion rule modifiers that will benefit your organization over the others.

The idea, as I see it, is not to champion secularism directly. Rather, it's to satirize the materialistic and commercial aspects of religion in America. In his 2007 book Shopping for God, marketing expert James Twitchell noted the many ways that branding and advertising have become a part of American belief--at root, perhaps, because this country has always had a unique "marketplace" for religion, although Twitchell himself does not point this out. American churches work hard to maintain their base, using strategies as simple as the now-ubiquitous church sign or as encompassing as the megachurch (or as disturbing as the Jesus Junk described in Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready, which includes "Testamints" and a smiling cross).

At their most basic, video games provide an ideal vehicle for satire of fundamentalist American belief: they're rigidly rule-bound, arbitrarily-constructed, and market-driven. It is difficult to directly critique faith (particularly moderate, relatively harmless faith) given such a system, but easy to mock a worldview that admits no ambiguity or rationalism. By moving from the original's sandbox to a design that puts the player in the position of church leader, we limit the message a bit, but we also sharpen its aim at a target that arguably needs more deflating than the broad concept of God itself.

Who else wants to talk?

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