Christians should make more Flowers
I have been enmeshed, over the last few days, with the flight of a flower. Or, more precisely, in a brand new video game called Flower. In the game, you play a flower petal that whooshes through through a beautiful landscape, triggering other flowers and gathering more petals. Your stream of fluttering, dancing flower bits restore healing and vibrancy to a discoloured landscape and a bleak urban scene. If that doesn't sound appealing, it might be because it's really a game that demands playing, rather than description. Even a video of the gameplay wouldn't quite do it justice. The game has a pretty, organic sound track, and zooming around this richly detailed world gives an odd sense of exhiliration. It also really naturally integrates the underutilized abilities of the tilt-sensitive PS3 controller. Critics are quite pleased with it--the biggest critique is that the game is too short (but what do you expect at $10?). The reason I'm going on about this is that this new artsy game has really connected with an issue that we wrestle with in a lot of my classes: what is a Christian piece of culture and what kind of culture should Christians be making?
Back in August, I had a rather lengthy conversation with a Christian game developer, a conversation that displayed a Christian understanding of pop culture that is, I believe, widespread, and not wrong,but limiting nonetheless. This person was working on a Christian social-networking site primarily designed for kids. But he hoped to turn it into a central online point for the marketing of Christian culture--a kind of Internet Christian bookstore, with a special emphasis on games. Given the well-established but declining Christian bookstore industry and the confusing welter of web options for the vending of Christian merchandise, this doesn't actually sound like a bad idea. But that wasn't the part that interested me.
What interested me was his vision of Christian computer games. As we talked, it became clear to me that he thought "Christian games" meant one of two things: either Christian themed, with explicit Biblical motifs and religious iconography; or family-friendly clean material. While this was hardly a surprise on one level--it very much confirms what I have seen as I've researched the Christian gaming scene--it still bothered me a little. Partly, it was because I was left wondering whether the kind of game project we worked on last year would qualify as Christian. But I also see this as a significantly limited understanding of Christians making art and pop culture.
Now don't get me wrong: I don't have a problem with clean, family-friendly games (although I do have an ingrained reaction against the term "family-friendly" dating back to when I was a teenager). I have a five-year-old daughter and a soon-to-be-three-year-old daughter. I don't want them playing games with explicit violence, language, or sexual material, as well as extreme consumerism (harder to avoid, unfortunately) . I'm glad there are lots of games made for kids that don't have those issues. There will be plenty of time for that later, when their ability for critical thought (already present, of course) is better-developed.
I also defend the right of people to create culture with explicitly Christian themes and sybmols. While I find a lot of Bible-inspired stuff dreadfully tacky or unpolished (and seemingly unaware of this), there's no need for it to be that way. While there are lots of issues--positive and negative--to talk about with Mel Gibson's Passion, it is clearly a powerful piece of popular art while remaining explicitly Christian.
The problem is not that family-friendly and Bible-themed is inherently wrong, but that it's not enough. God did not just make the Bible, and He has not called His followers to be children (like children, but only in certain senses). Nor did Jesus shield himself from the offensive parts of his culture. Let me break each of those down quickly.
Christians are involved with more than just theology and Bible knowledge. While theology--in my imperfect layman's terms, "our ideas about God"--is involved in all aspects of life, not everything is theology. We don't expect Christians to eat Holy Cereal or speak to friends of nothing but Bible verses. Life is a huge thing, and God created all of it. Christians should be exploring and enjoying all that is good, and not feel forced to slap Bible passages or theological insights on everything. God didn't put scripture verses into everything!
Likewise, God made us to be more than just children. Children are beautiful and wonderful and they operate in a different way than, say, a 19-year-old or a 55-year-old or a 90-year-old. It is good to make stories and entertainment and art that delights, informs, emotionally moves a child. And it is good to make stories and entertainment and art that delights, informs and emotionally moves an adult. That means we need Christians doing art that really challenges adults, and that means engaging all of life--even the offensive bits.
We need Christian artists, and we need them for all of life, not just the safe bits and not just the parts for kids, valuable as both of those are. And that brings me back to Flower and Christian games. Flower is not a perfect game for all situations and all people. It's an experimental game, which by definition means that some players will hate it. But there's no question of the artistry put into it. And it is a radical alternative to 98% of the games currently being made: it's peaceful, it's calming, it has a kind of serene beauty, and it continues the trend of pushing game hardware (especially controllers).
The blockbuster Myst created by evangelicals Rand and Robyn Miller did exactly this sort of thing in the early 90s. I have no idea what Jenova Chen's faith commitment is: what I'm saying is that Christians should be doing exactly this sort of thing. I don't mean Christians should necessarily be creating pacifist nature-themed botanical games. I mean instead that we should be doing cutting-edge art and offering creative alternatives to the mainstream. That doesn't require Bible verses, and it doesn't require a game suitable for kids.
Edited to add:
1. I meant to mention that these ideas are hardly unique to me. If you'd like to read more deeply on the issue of Christians and popular culture, here are two inspirations for my thinking: Eyes Wide Open by my professor at Calvin, Bill Romanowski; A Matrix of Meanings by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor.
2. In thinking a little more about it, I realized that Flower clearly meets the common Christian requirement of inoffensiveness. That's not why I'm excited about it, even though it certainly doesn't hurt. I actually think that some Christian art should venture to be offensive sometimes, so that's not what I was thinking with this game. Rather, this game is art with integrity. So much inoffensive stuff is unimaginative or of poor quality. So to produce art with integrity that happens also to be inoffensive is a significant achievement, in my opinion. Again, though, the goal is not inoffensiveness. The goal is art with integrity.