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Godsend or Oxymoron, Religious Gamemakers Won't Be Left Behind

Karen Raugust checks in with the niche industry where faith rules the day.

Christian titles like Charlie Church Mouse have found a way to combine interactive games and faith. But the genre continues to be criticized for low quality and pushing beliefs on an unsuspecting public. © Lifeline Studios, Inc.

Christian titles like Charlie Church Mouse have found a way to combine interactive games and faith. But the genre continues to be criticized for low quality and pushing beliefs on an unsuspecting public. © Lifeline Studios, Inc.

For an enterprise that's a very small sliver of the interactive gaming business, Christian computer games have attracted a lot of controversy -- from Christians and non-Christians alike -- in the more than two decades that such games have been available. But those who make inspirational games say they are simply offering a faith-based alternative to the more violent, more secular games that are on the market.

"We work hard to impact kids' lives with a positive message," explains Tony Fouts, president of Lifeline Studios, creator of the Charlie Church Mouse franchise, for children aged 4-8. "Combining interactive games and faith is a way to do that."

Market trends show that there is demand for inspirational games among consumers of faith. Sales numbers are on the rise, religious and secular retailers are making room on their shelves for these products, and the number of games and their level of quality are both on the rise, developers say.

The Critics Speak

The criticisms of this market segment, and individual games within it, vary. Some franchises have been called out for the level of violence, some for trivializing religion, some for sending a bad message by marrying Christian principles with a low-quality game, and some for pushing their beliefs on an unsuspecting public.

"Are these Christian gamemakers out for less violence/sex, or are they trying to promote a Christian way of life?" asked a reader responding to an article on BBC Online about the Christian gaming market. "I think the former niche is already taken, and the latter will put a lot of people off if done badly. Good luck to you, but I hope and pray that you don't do it badly. If it's crass and obvious, then it'll simply give antagonists more ammunition."

Another reader pointed out that there are many nonviolent games on the market already, such as The Sims, flight simulators, driving and sports games, backgammon and chess. "Is this just another attempt to sell their brand of religion?" he asks.

In an opinion column in the Truman State University Index, author Kelsey Landhuis questions the fit between Christianity and any merchandise meant to make money. "Capitalism and individualism are key American values, but they aren't found in the Bible," she writes. "Jesus encouraged the formation of community and threw out of the temple the merchants who were trying to sell goods there. How would he react to a 'He Saves' T-shirt or an entire store that specializes in religious merchandise? When two sets of values are blended together in this manner, there's a good chance that neither one will survive intact. Separation of church and state goes out the window when God gets thrown into the mix. Biblical principles fall by the wayside under pressure to achieve financial success."

The original Left Behind (2006) is one of the most controversial games in Christian gaming, largely because of accusations that it is too violent. Left Behind: Tribulation Forces is the second title in the series.

The original Left Behind (2006) is one of the most controversial games in Christian gaming, largely because of accusations that it is too violent. Left Behind: Tribulation Forces is the second title in the series.

Game Developers Respond

"We're labeled as religious extremists and we're not," says Troy Lyndon, chairman and CEO of Inspired Media, developer of the Left Behind gaming franchise. The original Left Behind title, released in 2006, has been one of the most high-profile and most controversial games in this sector, largely because of accusations that it is too violent. But Lyndon says that, in order to win, players must influence people through the use of worship; killing is counterproductive. "You can't win the game if your goal is killing," he says. "Gamers will always use the path of least resistance to win a game, and that means not using violence."

There is a wide diversity of games on the market, in terms of age, genre, amount of violence, and graphic style. Titles also vary in their approach to putting forth a Christian message. Some of the children's games focus on teaching values such as telling the truth, often mentioning God but not teaching scripture per se, while others are intended to reflect core Christian principles.

The Left Behind games offer an opportunity for gamers to declare their Christian faith after every level. "We've gotten 1,000 people to come to Christ or recommit themselves to Christ," Lyndon says. "I'm called to make a difference, not to make money."

In other cases, the inspirational message is more subtle. "It doesn't have to be dripping with evangelism, people just have to derive hope from it," says Scott Wong, president and CEO of Brethren Entertainment Studios, an animation, graphic novel and gaming company whose franchises include Light Rangers and Victory at Hebron.

"The bridging of a Christian world view and good content is not a problem," Wong adds, noting that it's been done many times in successful movie and television properties. "Quality is a concern," he admits. "Some people think Christian games are synonymous with poor quality. You can't really blame them. We can't compete with Hollywood."

Wong says he's encouraged by the number of Christians he's talked to who work in the gaming industry and support the idea of inspirational games, and he's in talks with some of them about taking Brethren's properties into the console arena. "Some really great games could be made in the space," he says. "You have to get the best people who really love their craft and create an environment that encourages creative stimulation. If you can wrap that around the inspirational content, you could make some really great stuff."

Light Rangers carries a subtle inspirational message. © 2008 Brethren Entertainment Media Group.

Light Rangers carries a subtle inspirational message. © 2008 Brethren Entertainment Media Group.

"If you want to make a good game you have to apply the craft," agrees Bill Bean, VP, sales and marketing, at Digital Praise, makers of children's games including Adventures in Odyssey, licensed from Focus on the Family, and Max Lucado's Hermie & Friends, from Thomas Nelson, as well as the industry's latest hit, Dance Praise.

"I wasn't really sure about this as a space when I first came in," Bean says. "There was a lot of low-budget stuff being cranked out and tossed out. But there's a real need for the product. We're taking the brand synergy and weaving into the fabric of the gameplay a positive, redemptive message. It's not Sunday school in a box. It's a game, and by definition it's supposed to be really fun to play."

"The quality is much, much better than it was 10 years ago," says Tim Emmerich, owner of GraceWorks Interactive, which started in 1998 and whose best-known brand is Interactive Parables. "It's a deeper experience, a more immersive experience."

"We have a lot of product that competes with or surpasses secular product out there," reports Brenda Huff of Wisdom Tree, which markets and distributes Christian games through its website.

Still, there is a way to go. "Compared to a state-of-the-art game for the Xbox, it's a hard comparison," Emmerich says.

A Growing Market

The inspirational games market, which consists almost entirely of titles for PC and Mac and virtually none for consoles, has grown over the last two to three years, although it is still small. "It's starting to grow a little and to grow up a little," Fouts says.

Lyndon estimates that inspirational game-makers will generate net sales of $2.5 million in 2008, up from just a couple hundred thousand in 2001. That compares to $910 million in sales of computer games as a whole in 2007, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and $8.64 billion for console videogames.

The Christian gaming industry's latest hit is Dance Praise. © Digital Praise.

The Christian gaming industry's latest hit is Dance Praise. © Digital Praise.

Packaged Facts estimates that the total market for religious publishing and products has increased 21% from 2004 to 2008 and pegs retail sales at $1 billion, mostly driven by sales of books. The researcher expects sales to fall off over the next two years for the market at large, but believes the video and software segment is poised for growth, largely due to the number of companies entering the market.

The companies creating games for this segment tend to be small and entrepreneurial. The Christian Game Developers Conference, now in its seventh year, attracts 90 to 110 people to each event. Emmerich, who founded the conference, estimates that 50 or 60 of the attendees each year have created games or have a title in the works, with the remainder mainly students.

The bulk of Christian games are sold in Christian bookstores such as Lifeway or Family Christian Stores. Five years ago these retailers used to mix interactive game titles in among the educational software titles, but now they have become more sophisticated about the category, although there is a lot of variation from store to store. For example, most have separated the interactive gaming titles into their own merchandising area, and some host demonstrations to spur sales.

In addition to Christian stores, many inspirational products are available in electronics chains such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Fry's. A few leading titles, such as Dance Praise and Left Behind, are carried by mass merchants such as Wal-mart. Lyndon reports that the first Left Behind title, at its peak, sold over 10,000 units in Target alone.

Still, securing distribution can be difficult. "You don't get any favors because it says God on the box, I assure you," says Bean of Digital Praise. The company is about to release Guitar Praise, a follow-up to Dance Praise, and has wide distribution in both Christian and secular stores.

Digital Praise is well-funded and has an experienced creative team, most of whom had worked at The Learning Company before its purchase by Riverdeep. "We made an investment in response to what we perceived to be an opportunity in music," Bean says, noting that Christian music accounts for 7% of total music sales in the U.S.

The quality in games like Interactive Parables is much better than 10 years ago. The games now feature a deeper, immersive experience. © GraceWorks Interactive.

The quality in games like Interactive Parables is much better than 10 years ago. The games now feature a deeper, immersive experience. © GraceWorks Interactive.

Other Religions Not Left Behind

Christian games dominate the inspirational interactive gaming market, but there are a few companies making titles for other faiths. These include Jewish games from companies such as Davka Corp. and TES, and Muslim games from companies such as Syria-based Afkar Media and UK-based Innovative Minds. They primarily are sold in bookstores targeting their respective believers, as well as online.

Like Christian titles, these games encompass a wide variety of genres, age targets and approaches. For example, the Muslim game titles on the market range from those promoting Islam as a peaceful religion to those that are about spreading a more militant message. In general, though, many of the companies say they are simply trying to offer an alternative for people of faith to some of the more violent or inappropriate secular games on the market.

"The market is very small, but the expectations from the consumer are of comparable quality," says Alan Rosenbaum of Davka, which has been marketing children's software and games that teach the Jewish religion and Hebrew language for 26 years. "The challenge is that amount you take in and can use to develop more product is a relatively small amount of money. But we believe in what we're doing."

Faith in the Future

Only a few inspirational games have been made available in console versions, due to the high cost of development and marketing, the relatively low sales potential compared to mainstream games, and the regulated environment. A few have crossed over, including a VeggieTales title and, years ago, Bible Adventures from Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree, among others.

Guitar Praise, the follow-up to Dance Praise, will benefit from wide distribution in both Christian and secular stores. © Digital Praise.

Guitar Praise, the follow-up to Dance Praise, will benefit from wide distribution in both Christian and secular stores. © Digital Praise.

Some gamemakers have their eye on the console market today. Brethren is dabbling with a PS port for its Light Rangers game, Digital Praise has approached console companies about a version of Dance Praise, and Inspired Media is in talks with a partner about a Wii game for its recent release, Keys to the Kingdom. The latter would be more mainstream than the computer version; gamers would have the option of using quotes from scripture, proverbs from the Old Testament, or the more secular alternative of quotes from famous people. Other areas of interest include massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and casual games.

Several gaming franchises also are expanding into other media outside of the interactive gaming field. Charlie Church Mouse has moved into books, videos and a 13-episode TV series shown on several Christian networks, while Brethren is looking at broadening its franchises into TV, animated curriculum or books.

Despite all these positive signs, most companies involved in Christian gaming are not making money on a regular basis, and few are able to dedicate themselves to the market without having other work on the side. "We'd love to be able to do this full time," Wong says. "But it's kind of hard to make a living solely on inspirational games."

And, with low budgets and small teams, simply letting consumers know the product is out there can be a challenge. "There are a whole slew of [secular] family-friendly games, but if you're of faith, there's more out there," says Emmerich. "We need to let them know these games are available."

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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