In a departure from my usual critical film studies, I decided to make a foray into the realm of starting a discussion. It’s a new experience for me so be gentle.
As with movies, books, and music, I enjoy a good video game. Note that I said, “good.” I’ve known a few developers in my time and, having worked in the Disney animation studios, I have a deep respect for the commitment those long projects require. To them, it is an art form. Much of the attention paid to video games concerns the violence involved (and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of it), but like the aforementioned arts, I believe there is good mixed in with the bad. In fact, my wife (not a big fan of gaming) noted that I only really play games that have a good story. She’s right. To me, video games can represent a sort of interactive story experience.
Whether one likes games or gaming isn’t really the point. The point is two-fold. First, that with billions of dollars in revenue yearly, video games are here to stay. Secondly, as technology increases and games develop, they become much more complex. Just as movies have evolved from the kinetoscope fare of the early twentieth century, so too have games moved on from progenitors such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. I had the opportunity a few years ago to meet the lead developer of Assassin’s Creed for a demonstration of the game two years before its release. At the time, he took us through a virtual tour of the Dark Age, Middle Eastern city of Acre. His programmers, artists, and developers had done-painstaking research to recreate “brick for brick” the city as it had existed at that time (they did the same for Damascus and Jerusalem). The recent release Mass Effect has an AI system that is so complex that every single interaction with every single character impacts the outcome.
The point of all this is to set up my reaction to a game I recently had the opportunity to play. I had read numerous things — all good — about a game called “Bioshock.” All I knew was that it was a first-person shooter (which I tend to shun), but because of some trusted recommendations, I turned it on. I was blown away. Set in 1960, the game begins when a man named Jack (played by you) survives a passenger plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean and discovers a nearby bathysphere that takes him to an underwater city called Rapture. Until recently, Rapture had been an Objectivist utopia controlled by Andrew Ryan, a man with uncanny resemblance both physically and vocally to Orson Welles’s immortal Charles Foster Kane (from Citizen Kane). A Russian immigrant to the United States, Ryan had become disillusioned with the governments of both countries and created “a city where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small.” Of course, within moments of arriving in Rapture, one discovers that Ryan’s dream has become a nightmare.
I was amazed at first by the homage to famous Objectivists like George Orwell and particularly Ayn Rand (the name Andrew Ryan is a take on her name and Jack’s guide through the game is a mysterious man named “Atlas”). When my AP English teacher introduced me to Rand in high school, it was love at first read. I enjoyed Rand’s writing and, being a fiery teenager, was drawn to the principles of Objectivism. Of course, while I by no means reject them today, I do see where Rand manipulates her stories in such a way to prove her point rather than explore it.
That’s where Bioshock comes in.
I was skeptical of the game as I began to play it. First-person shooters are just that, right? Well, make no mistake, Bioshock is about trying to survive in a city where the citizens’ moral disregard for genetic tampering has driven them all to utter insanity. Living in – and being jaded by – Hollywood, I expected something between an anti-Objectivist and pro-Socialist message. But as one moves through the game and discovers the tape-recorded messages of its various denizens (doctors, scientists, artists, Ryan himself, etc.), it becomes clear that the story is exploring both the virtues and the flaws of Objectivist utopian ideals. I was flabbergasted by the complexity not so much of the plot, but of the philosophy. It took everything that I had wondered about Ayn Rand’s work (such as the role of children in a purely Objectivist environment) and examined it.
Take it for what it’s worth. Bioshock is a violent game, but also an extremely intelligent one. However, it derived its philosophy from literature. Somehow, this got me thinking back to a recent post about Mormon culture and what should and perhaps should not be passed on from generation to generation, culturally speaking. I began to think less in the context of books and more in the context of games. Cinematically speaking, the current generation of youth will probably come to know Scarface, The Godfather, and James Bond through the mediation of video games. John Madden is relevant not because he’s a Super Bowl winning coach and Hall of Fame broadcaster, but because his monicker controls the NFL license for video games.
So, after all that, this is what I’m interested in hearing. If video games are here to stay as a form of entertainment media (and they are), and they can achieve an artistic goal (and they can), what kinds of games could be valuable to the Latter-day Saint? We already do this with board games so why not video games? Development and marketing cost aside, if you could create an LDS-themed game, what would it be? Remember the ol’ classic, “The Oregon Trail?” Would you recreate the Book of Mormon war chapters as a tactical turn-based or real-time combat engine (a la Civilization, Warcraft, or Medieval: Total War). Would you prefer a puzzle-based game such as Myst, Riven, and Uru where a character travels throughout the scriptures? Would you prefer a story-based action-RPG set in newly-settled Utah, where one performs various missions for Brigham Young (as Porter Rockwell used to) as a way to learn church history? Would you incorporate the elements of online Co-op and multiplayer into some kind of missionary-training game. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that church-themed means just that. I don’t think Rainbow Six:Church Headquarters is what we’re after here. Simply consider, if you could capture some element of Mormon culture in a game, what would it be?