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How Games Fail to Teach: Christian Videogames and the “Problem of Content”

This is the third in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

A few years before the release of “The Bible Game” on the Playstation 2, I [Eric] was listening to a news story about an Association of Christian Entertainment (ACE) gathering in which the organization discussed how videogames might better engage children in the Christian faith. This was 2002, and I was listening to a lot of radio on my daily drives through the Georgia back roads to attend college in Milledgeville, GA. I wasn’t playing a lot of games then, and the drive gave me plenty of time to imagine what a Christian videogame might be like. What I saw in my head was something along the nature of Bethesda Game Studios’s Elder Scrolls series, which would involve a knight, perhaps set during the Arthurian Era, waging battle against demons while collecting Christian artifacts. Some comment on the immorality of the Crusades would be foregrounded in such a game, as would the differences between pious Christianity and predatory insurgency. The player would be cast as one of the ‘good’ Christian knights caught in a struggle between the ‘bad’ Christians, the demons, and those of other faiths trapped beneath the unforgiving swords of the Crusade onslaught. This environment would prove a useful educational ground for separating the pitfalls and the virtues of religious practice, as well as offering some fun action quest-going and content-learning along the way. Anyone who has played 2011’s Bethesda offering, "Skyrim," knows more about Tamriel and the Alde Marie Dominion than most Christians know about The Shroud of Turin or the Image of Edessa. The reason behind this is what Arizona University Professor James Paul Gee, in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy calls “the problem of content.”

The idea is this: Important knowledge (now usually gained in school) is content in the sense of information rooted in, or, at least, related to, intellectual domains or academic disciplines like physics, history, art, or literature. Work that does not involve such learning is ‘meaningless.’ Activities that are entertaining but that themselves do not involve such learning are just ‘meaningless play.’ Of course, video games fall into this category. (21)

What this means is that educators, Christian or otherwise, don’t view videogames as learning tools, so they tack “content” learning onto shallow game architecture. "The Mansion of Happiness” was a board game invented in 1843 for the purpose of ingraining children with a sense of morality in a fun way. Essentially, it was a simple roll-and-move game (ala “Candyland”) in which each square depicts the virtues of a moral child or the depravity of the immoral child.

When I finally saw “The Bible Game” stranded in a discount Best Buy bin in 2005, I was reminded of that 2002 ACE conference, which actually spawned the Christian Game Developer’s Conference that still meets every year and still hasn’t produced anything groundbreaking in the world of videogames. “The Bible Game” involves players participating in a game show scenario (ala “Jeopardy”) where they are asked questions pertaining to the New and Old Testaments and then rewarded with mini-game quests. Not surprisingly, the game did not perform well. The reason for the failures of games like “The Mansion of Happiness” and "The Bible Game” is that these games fail to initiate players into the semiotic environment that they depict. In both games, the player is cast in the role of the student and asked either to take in lecture or to answer questions. In both cases, the “game part” is added as a reward for learning content. It was Elizabeth Magie’s genius in “The Landlord’s Game” (see our previous post) to unite the formal conventions of a game with informational content.

In successful semiotic immersion, the player is absorbed in an experiential medium. It is a delicate balance of fusing content into that world without kicking the player out of their immersed state for the purpose of education. An example of this kind of immersion in schools can be found in the act of dissecting a frog in biology class. The novelty of such a gruesome and wondrous act overshadows the content, and children often absorb the information as an experience. The game “Monopoly,” similarly, forces players into moral conflict with the rules. Playing Monopoly competitively requires players to routinely railroad opponents into self-destructive deals; however, casual players might have a hard time enforcing some of the exorbitant rents on the game’s more coveted properties. This may lead the player to catharsis and understanding about their own moral value system in a way that games with lesser determining sub-strata cannot. While this catharsis may be limited to the game narrative alone, it may influence the player in the real world as well. To what degree, however, largely depends on the player. In our next blog post, we’ll talk about player types and how what players bring to the domain of video games determines what they may or may not take from it.