Playing with faith

GDC 2011: Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer share ideas for a game that's also a religion or a religion that's also a game.

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Who was there: Eric Zimmerman hosted the staple GDC competition, with reigning Game Design Challenge champion Jenova Chen (of Flower developer thatgamecompany) defending the title against John Romero (Doom, Daikatana) and Jason Rohrer (Passage, Inside a Star-Filled Sky).

What they talked about: This year's Game Design Challenge was intended to play off the rise in popularity of social games. With social networks increasingly becoming intertwined with gaming, the goal this year was to elevate that tie to "humanity's oldest model for a social network," religion. The challenge Chen, Romero, and Rohrer faced was to design a game that is also in some way a religion, or a religion that is in some way a game. The developers were given a month or two heads-up on the theme and arrived ready to present their fleshed-out ideas.

Rohrer turned to Minecraft for inspiration on his game design.

Rohrer started by introducing his game, Chain World. He talked about his grandfather, the first mayor of Fairlawn, Ohio, a tiny village that decades ago was going to be bisected by the creation of Interstate 77. Specifically, Rohrer wanted to talk about the impact his grandfather had on the world. Rohrer's grandfather led efforts to keep the highway from cutting a destructive swath through Fairlawn. His efforts forced the interstate to be built in a circuitous route around the city, a decision that still impacts drivers today.

A few extra minutes of time on the road for drivers wasn't the only mark his grandfather left. Rohrer also talked about the house his grandfather built, as well as the city logo he designed. Rohrer said he even finds himself doling out his grandfather's advice to friends in need, even though he's not always sure it was something his grandfather actually said or just a pearl of wisdom the family attributed to him.

"My grandfather has become less a man and more the idea of a man as these details have faded," Rohrer said.

Rohrer said the effect is that he's essentially mythologized his grandfather at this point, asking what the difference was between such an idealized man and a god. The same thing is done with historical figures, he said, noting that people are willing to travel great distances to see relics of mythologized people in the same way they make religious pilgrimages. Rohrer noted the way people travel to Jackson Pollack's studio barn to see the artist's paint-spattered shoes or the steady flow of tourists travelling to Stonehenge.

Rohrer thought his game should have elements of that sense of mythology, of players leaving evidence of their time in that world the same way they impact the real world. The original idea, then, was to make a game that was only ever played by one person at a time and was passed from person to person after each was finished with it. He reasoned that if players were able to modify the world specifically with an eye for how future players will experience the world, much like his grandfather did with I-77, then that would lead to an interesting dynamic.

Rohrer then introduced Chain World, which is actually a mod for the open-ended indie hit Minecraft. There's only one copy of the game in the world, and it's on a USB stick Rohrer held up to the crowd. The player runs Chain World and plays until he or she dies exactly once. At that point, the game saves the world and copies it back to the USB stick. Then the player takes the USB stick and gives it to someone who expresses interest.

There are a few rules, however. Each player is forbidden from talking about the game experience to others. The only knowledge anyone should have of the gameworld should come from that single firsthand play-through. Furthermore, building signs with text on them is forbidden. One that is permitted is player suicide, and Rohrer said the world even has a lava pit next to the spawn point for easy access, should players choose to take that way out.

The end result is a game that carries additional weight with the player. Rohrer said he experienced that firsthand when he took his own turn at the game.

"I had one of the most heartbreaking and poignant deaths that I've ever experienced in my life--and way too soon," Rohrer said.

He was upset partly because he didn't have time to really do anything to shape the world and leave for future players to find, but the one life limit was inflexible. He then passed the USB stick to an audience member to be the game's second player ever.

Romero's design was built on a messianic Twitter account.

Romero was up next, and he set up his religion around a Twitter user account: @Messiah6502 (ostensibly the son of @God6502). Romero said the messiah needed followers and told the crowd to follow him immediately. He read off the names of Messiah6502's first 12 followers and asked them to come up to the front of the room. The apostles were each given a colored pad of Post-It notes and told to convert as many people in the crowd as possible in two minutes by giving them the notes. Meanwhile, everyone else was told to check into MeccaGDC on 4Square.

After two minutes, the apostles reconvened. Romero said some of the Post-It notes had star-shaped stickers on them, representing a miracle performed in the Messiah's name. The crowd members with the stars then gathered at the front of the room so the apostles could tally their miracles, with the winner being the apostle with the most miracles. Once the miracles were tallied, the winner was told to kill John Romero and supplant him as the new head of the religion, bringing the developer's presentation to a close.

Chen was next up, saying he found the challenge particularly difficult because "I'm supposed to be an atheist from China." He took the presentation as a chance for him to examine his own beliefs. Chen's own definition for religion is "a core value with a particular set of practices and dogmas based on its time and environment that produce happiness." It needs to spread its way of life, to adapt to new environments, and to survive changing times.

Jenova Chen used the challenge to examine his own religious beliefs.

As a designer, he wanted to make something simple. He noted the correlation between money and happiness. Money can increase happiness up until a certain threshold, but once you have enough to get by, it's not enough. Money doesn't address a sense of purpose, Chen said. He noted "The Hero's Journey" formula, and how the story ends with the hero bringing something back to his community. It's not enough for the hero to triumph in the face of adversity if it's only to benefit himself.

Purpose needs to be primitive and profound, Chen said. Every form of life needs a purpose to go on, and on the most basic level, that's a need to be born, grow, propagate, and die. Chen pointed to propagation as the most interesting phase of that cycle and decided to build his game around that idea. But while it's time consuming to propagate people, it's easier and quicker to propagate ideas. Chen said his game would revolve around everyone trying to spread their ideas, with the best and most adaptive of them surviving. The problem is how the selection should be made, who makes that selection, and why. That what God is for, Chen said.

He said there already is a group that shares his beliefs, the nonprofit Technology, Entertainment, Design group, which holds a series of conferences bringing together "the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers" to compress their most world-changing ideas into 18-minute talks. However, he said they're not good game designers. He criticized the group's website and said he wanted to make it more active, starting with the slogan. Instead of "Ideas worth spreading," Chen would use "Influence with your ideas" to reflect the group's underlying purpose. He noted that the videos on TED don't even have instant feedback. The users also would have personal pages akin to those on Twitter; only instead of followers, they would have "people who have been influenced by you."

For a game to work, it needs a feedback loop, Chen said. Just having badges for having a certain number of followers isn't enough. There needs to be a feedback loop like in Diablo, where killing monsters earns experience and money that make the player that much better at killing monsters to gain further advances. Chen ended his session saying he would call the game Propagation.

The winner of the challenge was decided by audience applause, with Rohrer emerging as the clear victor. Rohrer was given his choice of the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, or L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. Rohrer took the Scientology tome, saying he gets offered the Book of Mormon all the time for free.

Quote: "Kids today don't have time to read a menu, so they don't have time to read a Bible."--Chen, on why he had to keep his design simple.

"There's no rules about that, I guess. And religion doesn't seem to have rules about it, either."--Rohrer, on whether he had considered Chain World players handing off the game to the highest bidder.

Takeaway: As the Game Design Challenge shows every year, there's no one way to skin a cat and no single answer to any design problem.

Discussion

124 comments
gbrading
gbrading moderator

What a fascinating concept. Treading on dangerous ground as well.

rarson
rarson

@GraffittiGuy I don't have any problem with people expressing their opinions but when they're blatantly misrepresenting what science is, I'm going to correct them.

GraffittiGuy
GraffittiGuy

@rarson Look, it's pointless continuing this conversation here. Neither of us is going to convince the other, but it was nice to see what other people's views about religion are. And yeah, I hear you, there is logic in what you're saying. But we can never be sure of who's right and who's wrong. Aaah, we might as well just enjoy life for the sake of it, eh? I still like Dan Brown though ;)

rarson
rarson

@GraffittiGuy "Look around you. Don't tell me that everything around us happened to exist by chance or by whatever means scientists claim it to be." Uh, no. See, that's exactly it: science doesn't claim to know anything that can't be repeatably demonstrated. Science doesn't claim where things came from, and it sure as hell doesn't say "Look at all the purdy stuff around, it MUST have come from somewhere, let's make something up to make ourselves feel better." "Yours is the typical behaviour of an atheist - a skeptic, in other words." Rational thought? Requiring evidence before believing random claims? Okay, but I think you're giving atheists in general too much credit. They're not all nearly as rational as I am. And yes, Dan Brown is a giant, flaming hack.

stEElyDaN909
stEElyDaN909

@ hegemon44 Actually, the internet was made for porn (true story: look it up). People can make forums, blogs, podcasts, or any such other internet media, all for the noble sake of open people having real intellectual discussions. In reality, this rarely happens. The gift of anonymity brings out the absolute worst in people, and as such arguments on the internet turn vicious, often to the point of trying to make the other person look bad instead of defending your case. People also have free reign over whatever they say, without any social consequences. This means you can say whatever you damn well please, and if someone tells you your wrong, you can simply log off. Not only does this tend to ruin the conversation, but you can delude yourself into thinking you can get away with this behavior offline. If your going to argue on the internet, please think out what your going to say and please be able to defend your case, instead of telling people what you think of their opinion and then vanishing.

hegemon44
hegemon44

@stEElyDaN909 The internet is made for the free exchange of information, ideas and opinions (religious and otherwise). You must've missed the memo. Jesus is a crutch for people unwilling to accept an interpretation of existence that doesn't revolve around themselves. Anyone who actually believes they can be vicariously "saved" by a 2000 year old human sacrifice is naive.

GraffittiGuy
GraffittiGuy

@rarson It seems you misunderstood the quote. God in this case isn't any specific deity like Buddha or Jesus' father, but instead the power that created us. Look around you. Don't tell me that everything around us happened to exist by chance or by whatever means scientists claim it to be. Yours is the typical behaviour of an atheist - a skeptic, in other words. Instead of instantaneously denying anything that has to do with religion or a God, how about you try to understand them? Like any experiment, you do your research firsthand and then draw conclusions. And no, Dan Brown isn't a hack.

rarson
rarson

"Science tells me that God must exist. My mind tells me I will never understand God. My heart tells me I am not meant to." That's the dumbest quote I've ever read, mainly because science is about as objective as human understanding gets, and it obviously doesn't point to anything indicating the existence of any number of deities that have been dreamt up. And honestly, if you really think that we'll never be able to understand something, then why bother with science at all? Science seeks out to answer the "unknowable". As long as we keep trying, there's no limit to what we can understand. Dan Brown is a hack, by the way.

rarson
rarson

@MooncalfReviews I didn't start the discussion, I simply responded to it. If other people are going to talk about something, then I'm either going to add to the discussion or ignore it. Maybe you should do likewise.

GraffittiGuy
GraffittiGuy

"Science tells me that God must exist. My mind tells me I will never understand God. My heart tells me I am not meant to." -Angels & Demons by Dan Brown Science is the set of rules with which God created us, like the set of commands of a digital program. Believe what you want to believe.

dawnofhero
dawnofhero

@Ricnic67 I'll take a 3DS instead, thanks ;)

Nightrain50
Nightrain50

Jesus is Lord. Terrible article. That is all.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

@rarson I agree with you that religion has been a major cause of humanity's problems. I'm just saying, save it for a thread where it's more relevant or where somebody cares. The random bashing of religion is boring now, we're heard it too often.

neuroboy
neuroboy

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." Friedrich Nietzsche

neuroboy
neuroboy

The Dude is My Shepherd, I Shall not Want; He makes me down to lie on a rug green; He leadeth me to the quiet waters by the Pool My table Thou hast furnished, In presence of my foes (German Nihilists); My head Thou dost with tanning oil anoint, And my cup overflows (with White Russians).

fightmusician
fightmusician

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

rarson
rarson

@SemiMaster "String "Theory", I.E. unproven yet accepted set of ideas until proven false. Scientific theories and religious beliefs are pretty similar on some levels..." Your definition of "theory" is colloquial and not even remotely close to what "theory" means in a scientific sense. A theory is the absolute pinnacle of scientific understanding; there exists no higher level of scientific understanding than a theory. A theory incorporates facts, hypotheses, evidence, observations, and laws to provide a comprehensive explanation of how the natural world works. There's no such thing as a "proven" scientific idea because science doesn't "prove" anything. "Proof" is a mathematical term. Science deals with evidence. Seems like you need to go back to 7th grade science.

rarson
rarson

The anti-religion "tirades" come up because religion has been the cause of a LOT of suffering throughout the course of human history. People still get stoned to death to this day for ridiculous reasons, all because some people are too naive to actually question the things that they are told as a child. To the people that say they respect all belief systems, I question you: do you respect stoning others on religious grounds? Do you respect outspoken hatred towards others because of their sexual preferences? Do you respect intolerance? I don't respect any of these things. Sure, they're not necessarily part of every religious belief system, but I equally do not respect the choice to remain willfully ignorant and the conscious decision to not think for oneself. That is why I do not respect religious beliefs. I'm not trying to persuade anyone to believe anything. I'm simply stating why I'm apt to give my $.02 whenever the topic of religion comes up. It's absolutely absurd that someone can look upon something like Christianity and take it so seriously while looking at something like Norse mythology and see it as ancient fairy tales.

Szeiden
Szeiden

@MooncalfReviews Why are you getting thumbs down? (I agree with you completely) People enjoy arguing about religion on a video game forum? Seriously guys, grow up. You aren't convincing anyone. And don't thumbs me down because you are religious, I am too, but nothing you say is going to change another individual's opinion. People are just too stubborn. If you really want to convince someone, it requires a long, arduous process and personal interaction. Not faceless flaming across the internet. In fact, trying to convince someone in this matter has an adverse result. All it achieves is a greater animosity towards religion. So please, stop.

Ricnic67
Ricnic67

@dawnofhero you deserve a cookie.

lowkey254
lowkey254

Romero's sucked, what type of crap was that? Is that how he thinks of a particular religion? To each his own I guess.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

Why, whenever anyone MENTIONS the word "faith" or "God", does a tirade of anti-religion begin, and then the back-and-forth of begins which turns into petty arguments. It gets BORING. We all have different opinions, so why do you feel the need to jump all over anything even remotely connected to religion or faith and stomp it to death? Who cares! To both sides: we've already heard all of these points before, and you're not convincing anyone.

nparks
nparks

@gDamascus I agree to an extent. Einstein phrases it better than I have, but we're saying very similar things. He was a sort of deist, while I'm an atheist, but both reject the existance of a personal god. To let him summarize the point: "A conflict between [science and religion] appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts." Different tools, different spheres, and both can be misused, though science has far better mechanisms for self-correction.

kintama88
kintama88

i totally respect any belief system since it's a good way to provide emotional support. i just think it's incredibly narrow minded when the religious say "you are blind, lost, corrupt or will end up in hell because you dont agree with my particular views." you dont need to be religious to be a kind and loving person.

DAFTArticuno
DAFTArticuno

@nparks, you pretty much said everything i thought. Nice posts.

xgalacticax
xgalacticax

@shooters125 What part of that comment made you think I was trying to separate myself from the rest of humanity? We all have to take responsibility for things that we do wrong instead of blaming religion or other people - and that includes myself. That's all I implied. Yet here you are hating just because you misunderstood me.

macca366
macca366

Fun read, I wish there was a Game Design Challenge every week.

Mortos13
Mortos13

Thank God i'm an atheist.

GeneralArrow
GeneralArrow

@gDamascus Science without religion=Star Trek, That's freaking awesome.

BornGamer
BornGamer

"There is not enough love and goodness in the world to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

gDamascus
gDamascus

@nparks Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. -Albert Einstein

nparks
nparks

@SemiMaster, common mistake. You're using a non-scientific definition of "theory". Rather than lecture on the scientific method, I'll just point out the key difference here: science rewards you for revising your beliefs in the face of new or conflicting evidence; religions generally punish it.

ThePurpleBubble
ThePurpleBubble

@SoNin360 Actually, they do - if it is done properly. Admittedly, I am a bit biased on the matter, being a Christian (and with that single sentence, I just attracted a whole lot of flame - fun how that works, huh?) but, I find that any form of media that is interwoven with anything that requires someone to think - to really figure out just what they believe - is that much better. As such, video games - a medium that is already interactive - that force you to think, not about a puzzle or a boss fight strategy, but about yourself, could effectively be used as a therapy of sorts - to help people, mentally (not sure therapy is the proper word... If anyone wishes to correct me there, feel free). On the other end of the spectrum is the possibly of them being used of propaganda - to twist people to believe something that they probably wouldn't otherwise. My two cents, of course, so take it as you will.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

Stop pondering and get making! Too much talking about gaming philosophy. I'll let you talk about it when I see ONE perfect game come out!

SemiMaster
SemiMaster

@nparks- String "Theory", I.E. unproven yet accepted set of ideas until proven false. Scientific theories and religious beliefs are pretty similar on some levels...

seankkkk
seankkkk

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

nparks
nparks

@rbereczki, Science is not a system of beliefs. It is a process for studying reality and attempting to understand it based on empirical observations and measurements. No scientific theory can be predicated on intuition or it is by definition not science. Are some theories untestable? Perhaps. Some say string theory is untestable and unfalsifiable because it permits anything, though I doubt any scientist would ever say "Humans just intuitively know that string theory is true." I agree that science does not have all the answers. It certainly doesn't yet, and it very well may never. But that hardly puts it on equal footing with religion. The two are in completely different spheres. Science is a tool to understand and manipulate the world. Religion is a tool to create and bond communities. Religion isn't about truth or understanding and science isn't about providing emotional support and social services to the community. Any religion that thinks it has something to fear from science has completely lost its sense of purpose.

SoNin360
SoNin360

Video games and religion don't mix very well do they...

eastwoodmaniac
eastwoodmaniac

@HollowNinja This I just gotta hear! How so, HollowNinja?

HollowNinja
HollowNinja

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

shooters125
shooters125

@xgalacticax If theres anything I hate more than religous conflict on the internet its people saying humanity is the cause of everything bad in the world. Sure its true, but theres really nothing you can do and really going to do except complain. Don't try and seperate yourself from the people that do bad things by blaming humanity because if you're blaming humanity, you're also blaming yourself.

stEElyDaN909
stEElyDaN909

@MentalSentinel 'Because you need what being face-to-face gives you: that your opponent will be polite enough not to really think what they're saying. That is the only way religion can exist. (that and torture, historically speaking)' Not exactly. I don't really get where this idea of yours is coming from. If you have actually argued with someone about religion or politics face to face, as I have, then you'll know that they may be polite at first, but the discussion can definitely turn very ugly very fast. Just because your there in person doesn't mean people will try to be nice once you say something that infuriates them. There are many reasons I hate arguing about anything on the internet. Here's a quick list: 1. People can troll. I might be trolling you right now and you might not even realize it. 2. People believe anonymity is a reason to behave like a jackass, and say vicious things just for the sake that they can get away with it. Not at all helpful for the progress of a serious discussion. 3. If your losing your ground, you can just simply disappear. You can say something stupid and hurtful and get away with it. I don't like that. If I'm arguing with an Atheist about religion and he says something blatantly false or contradicts himself, I like to make him eat his own words before I finish him off. Much more fun and we both learn something from the discussion.

rbereczki
rbereczki

I think the most important thing to remember is that no system of belief has all the answers, not even science. Religion came about because man instinctively knows that life has purpose and meaning and it was to try and explain/understand that purpose or meaning. Unfortunately, a long time ago religion became a tool for social control. @clockworkengine: Science is also notorious for confusing belief with knowledge. :) It postulates theories that, while sounding good and plausible, cannot be proven. Which means that ultimately it's up to you what you want to believe. Just gotta take it on faith. :)

eastwoodmaniac
eastwoodmaniac

@EternalDecay Sorry mate, but you don't know there is a god any more than I know there is no god. This is what people find arrogant: passing off their belief (or for that matter, their opinion) as fact. If you knew there was a god you would be able to prove it with no problems whatsoever but of course you won't be able to. You need to accept that you possess a belief and that there is the possibility you could be wrong and you'll find that people will have a lot more respect for you. Also, I don't know of one law that any god gave us that I have broken as I haven't the first clue as to what any of them are. Something about the sabbath...?

Neil_Clancy
Neil_Clancy

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

clockworkengine
clockworkengine

We Christians often confuse belief with knowledge. For instance, my spiritual heart embraces God and all He represents even while my logical mind calls my spiritual heart a moron who worships an invisible man. It sucks being torn between what you know as scientific impossibility and what you believe is spiritual necessity! I can only hope that, in the end, believing was enough.

Metallicantera
Metallicantera

Hey guys i heard that if you put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger that split second before the bullet hits your brain you can see jesus. Someone get back to me on this please.

MentalSentinel
MentalSentinel

"I'm a Christian, and I have my reasons for being one, logic based or otherwise. I'd be more than happy to strike up a conversation about my beliefs with an opposing party, but I'm not going to dare do that on the internet." Because you need what being face-to-face gives you: that your opponent will be polite enough not to really think what they're saying. That is the only way religion can exist. (that and torture, historically speaking)

CLOCKWORKIAN
CLOCKWORKIAN

@the_punkface You're starting to understand "irony". Thank God!