PlayStations of the cross

Is there a place amid the witches, warlocks and diabolical monsters for Christian video games?

The Rev. Ralph Bagley is on a very 21st-century sort of mission: introducing the word of God into what he calls the "dark Satanic arena" of the video game business. But he has an old-fashioned calling to back it up.


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"I've always just loved video games," he says. "I was one of the guys playing 'Pong.' When I became a Christian in 1992, I still wanted to play, but it was hard when the best-quality games out there were 'Doom,' 'Quake'--Satanic stuff, you know? Stuff that if I went to church on Sunday and came home and wanted to play a video game, I kind of felt a little bit guilty about it. I tried to find other games out there that were Christian, and there were none. Absolutely nothing. I'm the kind of guy that when I see something that's not being done, I want to do it myself."

Bagley, an Oregon-based publisher of a Christian tabloid newspaper, had an idea for a game in which persecuted Christians are rescued from the catacombs of ancient Rome; after taking a class in early Christian history for accuracy's sake, he pitched the game to six different investors--Christian and secular alike--and they all turned him down flat.

So Bagley put his project on the proverbial shelf, and there it sat until the shootings at Columbine High School.

"Two of the investors that I had originally contacted--and they didn't know each other--called me back after Columbine," he told me recently, "and said, 'Listen, you know, I've been hearing this stuff on the news'"--much of the follow-up coverage focused on the teen killers' devotion to "first-person shooter" video games like 'Doom' and 'Quake'--"and now I kind of feel like maybe I should support this." With almost a million dollars in seed money, Bagley not only developed his ancient-Rome game, "Catechumen"--an early term for a convert--but also founded his own Christian game-development studio, which he named N'Lightning Software.

"We're going to hold the word of God up and illuminate the place," Bagley likes to say. "We're taking the land back from Satan."

It's a mission that's not always popular, either among secular gamers or among his fellow Christians. A great many people of faith believe the video-game business is so irredeemable that the best response is simply to bar the door. And beyond the violence and witchcraft, there are more subtle theological objections having to do with gaming's unprecedented exercise in creative decontrol and free will. As one essay in a Christian publication recently had it, "In a virtual world, what happens when the bad guy wins?"

There are those who honor God by renouncing worldly things, and then there are those to whom the world itself, in all its aspects, is a battleground on which they are unwilling to cede any territory to God's opponents--even the corrupt, disreputable, seemingly unsalvageable territory of the interactive-entertainment business. An evangelical Christian who talks about the demonization of video games is not necessarily employing a metaphor. In a scenario right out of a game itself, in a landscape where all hope of redemption seemed abandoned long ago, the soldiers of God are amassing.

"It didn't seem like a good idea," says Peter Fokos, a longtime game developer who mortgaged his house and liquidated his retirement fund to start his own Christian development studio, Digital Praise. "But if you look at the Bible, a lot of things are like that. Not a good idea, but God wants you to do them anyway."


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If the notion of a market in faith-based video games seems unlikely, so too, 15 years ago, did the idea of Christian pop music as a moneymaking enterprise. Christian pop is now responsible for 7 percent of the total pop-music market, with more than 43 million albums sold last year--not a niche but a major element in music-industry demographics. That's the example Christian game developers mean to follow. "I kind of liken it to the westward expansion," Scott Wong, president of a Washington State company called Brethren Entertainment, told me. "Just like you'd have the one pioneer who would go out ahead of the rest and be eaten by bears or killed by Indians or something, 10 or 15 years ago you'd see some music companies that would sprout up and then die off. They might have had something good, but at that point there wasn't any infrastructure to hold it up. Christian video games I think will follow the same track."

Of course, there are differences. As Wong points out, any Christian can pick up a guitar and sing, but to make a decent video game for a PlayStation or an Xbox, you need anywhere from $3 million to $6 million. Still, consumers spent $2.9 billion last year just on software for

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