Like joystick-wielding paladins, would-be Christian video-game moguls will descend on Portland from July 28 to July 30. Officially, they're congregating for the fifth annual Christian Game Developers Conference, the leading (and only) national conclave of Godly game designers. In a larger sense, the dozens of participants organizers expect will try to figure out how to make games that thrive in an industry that's bigger than Hollywood and, in many eyes, more debased than Las Vegas.
Among these gamers-for-Christ, Medford's Ralph Bagley is a sort of patron saint. Bagley created Catechumen, a first-person shooter set in the catacombs of ancient Rome, the best-selling Christian game of all time. Bagley's secret: He insists that Bible verse and blistering action aren't mutually exclusive.
Bagley, who will speak at the conference, told WW about life as a man torn between two loves-Jesus and video games-and why he doesn't think he needs to choose just one.
WW: I read that you used to be an avid Quake player. How did you feel about playing a game that popularized the term "gibs"-digital chunks of flesh thrown from an exploding body?
Robert Bagley: I didn't like it. I'd spend Sunday morning at church praising God, then I'd come home and start blowing people away in Doom or Quake. But at the time it was the only game out there that had great graphics and the kind of intense gameplay that I like. You had some Christian games out at that time that were, like, take the two little animals and put them in the ark. That's way beyond boring to me.
When did you start playing video games?
I can remember sitting in the arcade playing Joust and Pong, and I've been at it ever since.
How did you get involved in developing Christian video games?
I had given my life, literally, to the Lord, and I felt that I either had to quit playing games or find a healthy alternative. I ended up creating an alternative, because I didn't want to quit. I submitted the concept for Catechumen to some investors and they flatly turned me down. Then, after Columbine, they called me back and said, "Let's do this thing."
Why is religion seen as such an anathema by leading video-game makers?
They just don't want to get into any controversy with religion. It's really frustrating because they'll go ahead and put out a game like NARC, where crack cocaine enhances your game skills, but they won't do a Christian game for fear of offending people.
Actually, it's worked out well because I've been able to keep control of my products. I don't want someone looking over my shoulder saying, "Hey, I don't like that verse of Scripture."
What makes a game Christian?
It could be anything. Our games aren't preachy at all. We're not trying to convert anybody. The only real Christian elements in Catechumen are the history and the Bible verses that are your health items-there are over 300 verses in the game. The Book of Proverbs says, "The word of God is health under your flesh," so we used that literally.
How is the Christian video-game market?
Outstanding. It reminds me a lot of Christian music 15 years ago; it's ready to explode. The thing that's going to push it to the ignition point is high-quality games. My team is currently negotiating with a few different Christian authors to do games based on their books. Those will be $4-to-$6 million projects. That's what we need.
The secular video-game market has kind of stagnated. I mean, how many games can you make about World War II? Game development companies aren't thinking about the quality of the game as much as how many units they can sell.
But you look at a lot of Christian videogames today and the word "cheesy" comes to mind. You ever see that episode of The Simpsons where they play Billy Graham's Bible Blaster?
I thought that was funny and also kind of true. A lot of the Christian games out there are cheesy. It's something we fight every day. No one went into it saying, "I'm going to create a cheesy Christian game." but if you've got two guys in a garage and $10,000-even if it's a good concept-it's going to come out cheesy. I want to help people move beyond that, because cheesy Christian games aren't helping anyone.
What's going to sell a Christian video game?
The first thing you need is great gameplay. Period. Next, the Christian elements in that game can't be so overpowering that they turn people off. Let's say your Sunday-school teacher gets home from church and wants to play a video game. He doesn't want another Sunday-school lesson; he wants to relax and play a fun game. Third, you've got to market this thing in such a way that it appeals to a wide audience. It can't just appeal to Southern Baptists below Tennessee.
Catechumen is billed as a Christian first-person shooter. How does that work?
We state up-front that there's no violence against human beings in our games. These are all demons that get vaporized. The possessed Roman soldiers get down on their knees and start praying when you shoot them. On the other hand, we're trying to create a game for teens and adults that they can enjoy-not a game for 8-year-olds. It is what it is, but we really took our time and made sure that we didn't put in anything too over-the-top.
I could see a Christian game with real violence where you had to slaughter the heathens. Would you ever make Sodom and Gomorrah: The Game?
I would never be involved in something like that. I think that would be borderline blasphemous, even. Since Christ came, it's not like the Old Testament anymore. God's wrath has been replaced by His mercy and love. The Devil is the one who came to kill, pillage and destroy, according to the word of God.
Let's be honest: Despite all the controversy, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a great video game.
I think the game was good and could have been excellent if they hadn't thrown in all the gratuitous violence and sex. The only reason they did that was for the shock value to sell more units. It's disappointing to me that they would do that to a great game with such a wonderful engine and concept.
Are gratuitously violent and sexual video games the work of Satan?
No, they're the work of the flesh. It's men's lustful desires-that's all. We all have them, and these guys just let those control their actions. It's no way to live; you've got to have self-control and self-discipline. I don't blame that on the devil, I blame it on men's selfish desires and fleshly lusts.
Bagley became a minister in 1992. He founded N'Lightning Software in TK: www.n-lightning.com .
Bagley also runs the Christian Game Developers Foundation to help others develop Christian video games. www.cgdf.org.
Bagley's game, Catechumen, is a first-person shooter in which the player is a persecuted Christian fighting demons in the catacombs of ancient Rome.
Catechumen cost $830,000 to develop and has sold more than 80,000 copies.
Bagley's favorite video games are Heroes of Might and Magic III and Half-life. He's been known to "sit in and wipe some people out in Halo from time to time".