Christian MediaCreativity

The Difficult Quest for Entertainment that Teaches

I’m all for positive values in entertainment, but at the extremes of this effort we usually find cheesy Christian movies, moralistic TV programming, stupid PBS specials, and embarrassing digital media.  Now, at the “Games for Change” conference, video games are suffering as well.  There’s no question that violent, sexually oriented video games are a terrible waste of technology, but at the same time, I’m not sure “social change” video games will really make the world a better place.  Take for instance a few sample of the kinds of games this conference is promoting.  The Weekly Standard described them like this:

There’s Ayiti: The Cost of Life, where you control a rural Haitian family and decide to either send your kids to school or put them to work. No matter what you do, you run out of money and everyone gets sick. There’s 3rd World Farmer, where you plant crops and raise livestock, only to see them wiped out by disease and fires at the end of every turn.

Then there’s iCivics, a website full of videogames to teach people about government.  iCivics began with a judicial branch game, Argument Wars, in which players fight Supreme Court cases by choosing arguments in front of a stern, futuristic-looking judge. In Executive Command, you’re a president who chooses a broad goal for his term, and then has to manage various crises while still pursuing his agenda. Oddly enough, though you can choose “deficit reduction” as your primary goal, the game offers no opportunities to cut spending and penalizes you if you refuse to raise taxes.

Obviously, I’m not against serious efforts to clean up entertainment.  But ultimately the key to entertainment is that the consumer wants to do it. You can’t shove education or ideology down someone’s throat just by dressing it up as a movie or game.

Jonathan Last, the writer of The Weekly Standard article had perhaps the best description of the whole enterprise in his final section:

“The entire Games for Change concept is of a piece with the central conceit of the Internet: that you can change the world without having to actually do anything.

Want to change America? Download the Obama app. Want to fight the Iranian mullahs? Turn your Twitter icon green. Want to bring human rights to oppressed peoples? Play a video game about it. Because what matters isn’t fighting autocrats or feeding the hungry or improving the conditions of Haitian farmers. What matters is knowing that you care about such things.

Games for Change isn’t really about the dissidents, the starving, or the wretched: Like the Internet itself, it’s all about you.”


  1. Very agreeable point of view. You can’t teach people something by locking them into some ideology. The more you do, the more they will resist it, and if they can’t resist it in game by changing their actions, they will resist it by not playing the game.

    People will in game space, as they do in real space make decisions based on value sets that they have. If you want the players to choose different actions, you will have to appeal to their values, or market your own values in a way that is interesting to them.

    Linear games with a single starting point, and a single finishing point is good when you want to turn off your brain and relax. You can’t really mix opinion into such a game because it defeats the purpose of playing the game.

    If you wish to present an opinion of any sort in a game, you will have to provide options for the user/player to oppose your idea, preferably in several ways. Then you must provide realistic consequences for the choices the user makes. You may lean towards bad consequences for opinions you oppose, and good consequences for opinions you hold. But if take this too far the player will loose the sense of realism, and discard the game and possibly the idea you present altogether.

    A good game that is not purely for entertainment or relaxation needs to be like a work of art, in that it prompts the player to make choices, feel something, and re-examine their values. In making a game like this you need to give the player an opportunity to experience a situation that will make them think about how and why they do the things they do.

    You may take your players to the brink of their resolve, but the they must make their own choices, you can’t do that for them. This of course means that if you want a person to do what you want them to do, they must want what you want, but what they want is and always has to be their choice.

  2. Great call Phil,

    I’m wondering if our primary job as creators of digital/film content is more to create a platform for individuals to use as a resource to help the viewer/user change the world for better, and ultimately to bring said user  into the family. A resource for people who have a relationship with said user, in order to dig deeper into said user’s life, ultimately to God’s glory. But I am coming to the conclusion that the film itself should not be the deciding factor, why- because there is no true authentic relationship occuring between film or created content and the user. It’s all about the relationship. Because of our relationship with the Father, we can use our relationships here on earth to point back to the relationship that we have with God.

    Hope that makes sense!



  3. Freethinker: You’re game idea makes me think like this: The Big Minister is obviously already in hell. Further, there is no flaming hell upon his demise. Hell is simply and purely the inability to live-in-God-and-God-in-him. While alive he spiritually sees this and repents. God then indwells the Big Minister. His second wife, who is not indwelt of God, can’t stand her new husband now God-indwelt. She divorces him. He forgives her and himself. Now, the game gets interesting. Both divorced wives are not God-indwelt and both cannot forgive their former husband. But by making the right decision, either ex COULD learn that heaven is very neigh,indeed, by being indwelt. The first ex to become indwelt remarries the pastor. And both live now in heaven, as they are indwelt and mature. See, that is what a good game is supposed to do…. Make you think and perhaps see with eyes to see! And demonstrate that God is above all commands, as the Guidepost #1 says, “Thou shalt have no other rigid-rule above God, who doesn’t like being put in a box, even a game box!” Smile, made you think! 😉

  4. An idea for a game: “The Seekers.” It is about a series of characters acting as seekers, which you control throughout the game. Each one is seeking salvation, so you walk each of them, as their turn comes, to “church.” They enter and see Jesus at the door of the church. So your animated character asks Him, ‘so, Lord, what should I do to be saved?’ And you hear, or read the captions of Jesus words: ‘you basically need to abandon your lifestyle of sin (sell all you have and give it away, and follow me)…’ So now you, as the player see all the stuff this character is involved in and all the implications that real-life problems would arise in his life should you decide to repent and follow Jesus. One of the characters is a very rich CEO of a company who cheats people, and by repenting you basically need to walk away from your prestigious position in absolute shame and lose everything you have. Other, a pastor, who many years ago decided to abandon his first wife for a younger woman in his congregation, whom he married shortly after his divorce and had children with her and now has a big ministry. You now get to decide if he repents and corrects his sinful adulterous marriage, with the obvious implications of losing his big ministry and reputation, or continues in his trajectory until he dies. So you go down the list of these “seekers.” At the end, if you got it wrong, your character dies and sees the flames of Hell with an angel on the screen reading the scriptures that support the judgement of God and why he is now in Hell. If you get it right, then you see your character go to Heaven.
    What do you think?

  5. Ala Jonathan Last: “This entire post is of a piece with the central conceit of the Internet: that you can write anything you want, without having to actually dig deep into anything.”

    Shallow and loose in arguments and logic. “Consumer”? “Entertainment”? All the games described here were create as educational software, are provided for free and used by teachers in classrooms. You should compare these products to textbooks or documentaries that, yes, shove education or ideology or information in the throats of students.

    And saying all that without taking away from entertainment’s or popular media’s crucial role in dealing with and commenting on social or political issues. Whether you agree with the messages or not – Schindler’s List, The Flags of our Fathers, The inconvenient Truth – are all movies that are both consumer products and a piece of ideology.

    The only argument in this post that is valid and thoughtful imho is the quote of Last regarding the nature of the internet and virtual civil engagement (ie “It’s all about yourself”). Worth a serious debate. But is it not better than complete ignorance and isolation from global events, both common in our society? I believe it is.

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