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!



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