Guitar Praise, Mormon Music, and Video Games

By September 8, 2008

Over at Religion in U.S. History, Kelly Baker highlights the recently-released Guitar Praise, the Christian alternative to Activision’s hit Guitar Hero. Baker summarizes the game’s purpose, noting that

Now, folks who are offended by secular rock music can rock out, in a wholesome way, to songs by Relient K, dc talk, and Caedmons Call among others. One can groove with a plastic guitar and praise at the same time. Digital Praise wants to combine interactive media with effective worship.

Noting that this is not the first Christian-themed video game, Baker suggests that

this game could be successful where other Christian games have failed to gain ground. Guitar Hero is a huge success because it fulfills the dreams of all who wanted to be rock stars by allowing one to be a star in your own living room. Guitar Praise will likely build upon this success with more spiritual aspirations, of course.

This led my thoughts to (the lack of) Mormon-themed video games. Latter-day Saints are certainly no strangers to video games: Nolan Bushnell, creator of Pong and the “father of video games” was raised as a Latter-day Saint in Utah, and on top of that, anyone who has ever lived in Helaman Halls or the recently torn-down Deseret Towers as a BYU freshman knows that video games and video game geeks are in abundance there. The lack of Mormon-themed video games is even more perplexing given the fact that Latter-day Saints have created numerous Mormon-themed board and card games, including such classics as Settlers of Zarahemla and Missionary Impossible: The Game.

I did find this game (Book of Mormon Battles), and am aware that the subject has been discussed before on other blogs (AMV has a couple of great posts on the subject: I especially like the proposed SIM City 8: Colorado City in the first post). While I am not an active gamer, I do enjoy occasionally playing the Wii at friends’ houses and Guitar Hero and Rock Band with my brothers-in-law when I visit my in-laws. I am curious about the reasons for the lack of LDS-themed games, but also what it might reveal about Mormons.

In response to the first question—why the dearth of Mormon video games—the possibilities are numerous. One obvious example is that Mormon life just isn’t that interesting in many regards. A Mormon version of the interactive music games like Guitar Hero and Guitar Praise, for instance, would be severely limited in that it would most likely consist of 18th and 19th century hymns played solely on the piano and organ (no guitars allowed!), with the occasional violin or flute accompaniment. If a microphone was included (a la Rock Band), then perhaps players could score higher by singing off key (like that tone-deaf lady who sat behind me every week growing up). At best (or perhaps much worse), Mormon game developers looking to capitalize on this market might make a Mormon Rock Band where players could jam to classic EFY songs. Playing the drums, guitar, or base for Peter Brienholdt and Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band just doesn’t hold the same appeal (at least to me) as AC/DC, The Ramones, The Strokes, or any number of classic rock bands and artists.

Non-music games, however, seem to have endless possibilities in the Mormon market. I remember playing the original Oregon Trail as a third-grader. I would always name my wagon leader Angus Cannon (in honor of my plains-crossing ancestor) and give the other members of my wagon Mormon names like Heber and Parley. Obviously, in my mind, the game was actually Mormon Trail. In addition to the obvious Book of Mormon war games and the humorous suggestions over at AMV (i.e. God’s Army: The Video Game and Food Storage!), potential classics include General Authority, in which you begin as a freshly-returned RM and newly-called Elder’s Quorum President, and based on your management of the Quorum, you have the opportunity to advance to such prestigous callings as Bishop’s counselor, high councillor, and eventually Stake President. If you minimize apostasy and increase church membership and activity, you increase your chances of getting called to the newly-created 18th Quorum of the 70, and might make your way even higher. However, if you fail to improve home teaching during your initial stint as a 21-yr. old EQP, then you get demoted to Nursery Leader in a family ward.

All joking aside, I wonder what the lack of LDS-themes video games reveals about Mormons. Is one reason for the lack of games treating Mormon themes the respect (or fear) Mormons hold for what they see as sacred subjects? Is it because all of the above proposals deal with relatively controversial subjects? Any game treating the Book of Mormon story necessarily risks glorifying the war aspects of the story instead of spiritual lessons and stories. In addition, it raises questions about geographical location and landscape of the Book of Mormon’s stories. My proposed General Authority highlights other sensitive issues, including gender (only males, after all, could progress to the status of GA) and the nature of callings (if it is inspiration from God, is it blasphemous to play a game that depends on doing certain things to court Divine favor? If it is other factors, doesn’t the game run the risk of denying God’s hand in church callings?). Or perhaps no mass-market Mormon video games exist because each, in some way, would probably requires us to laugh at ourselves, and our conditioned response to criticism isn’t to laugh, but to defend?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. What the lack of video games reveals about Mormons is that the market is too small to support anything beyond hobbyist tinkering.

    If you have the resources to create a first-rate Old West shooter or RPG, why target it narrowly at a Mormon audience rather than at a much larger audience of gamers? There are Mormon novels because books are relatively inexpensive to create and distribute, and novels are capable of telling stories where the distinction between general audiences and Mormon audiences matter. There are Mormon movies, kinda, despite the high production and distribution costs because the audience is a bit broader, and the narrative potential is also high.

    But is a Zarahemla-themed RTS essentially any different than every other RTS made since Dune II? (Answer: No, because none of them are essentially any different than the others.) The narrative possibilities of a FPS are pretty much limited to blasting things apart, and I’m not seeing a distinctly Mormon angle, the fine recent posts notwithstanding.

    Maybe the question should be: why isn’t there an LDS Doom III mod? Or maybe there is. Back in the day, I squandered many hours on a Doom II .WAD that looked just like my local stake center.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 8, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  2. I think there is still some ‘anti-game’ in the Church (?) It’s really has never been into Bingo, cards, etc.
    I have side by side 22′ monitors. My grandsons like to seek in their war games and play each other on them. (Until I thrown them out!).
    I am very happy to use my Free Agency as to my music tastes. I have a 1947 reproduction of a Philco radio that plays CDs. This is only for 1955 Jazz or older. I have a small Crosley bubble jukebox, that only plays bubblegum Rock and Roll, or C/Western. I am very glad that the music of today go unheard by me. It go straight from the grandsons I-pods into their heads!
    Enjoy.

    Comment by Bob — September 8, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  3. Well, there are probably several reasons. There were the Living Scriptures, which were basically animated tellings of the Book of Mormon which ultimately killed my faith. After watching those movies I no longer believed in Nephi as an actual person, rather a cartoon contemporary of Conan and HeMan.

    Comment by Cowboy — September 8, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  4. I loved Civilization (not the last couple of over-complicated iterations, but earlier versions) exactly because it let me build populations and Wonders and other pacific things … or I could go militaristic and conquer the world if that was the mood I was in.

    A Mormon version of that would be lots of fun. Let the player build Danite bands and let Porter Rockwell conquer the world with if we want, or let us send out missionaries into hostile territory to make converts, then build wards and stakes and temples, collect and spend tithing, build hospitals and a church university to keep the people happy in the early moves (but sell them off before distant citizens who could not participate had a chance to grumble and dissent), deal with murmuring and schisms within the church, announce [vaguely worded] revelations that cause some wards to flower into stakes with joy and others to wither into apostasy with rejection. You could have an economic crisis when the City of Zion is taken up, and economic boomtimes as your wards learn to live the law of consecration. Just imagine the fun we could have with the characterizations of the opposing characters — there could be the Mother of Harlots, the Gadianton Robbers, the Secularists, the Apostates…

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 8, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  5. Maybe we should heed the words of Modern Prophets in regards to video games

    “Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.” Let us hope that that spirit of independence that was with our pioneer fathers may be re-awakened in us, and that none who are Latter-day Saints holding the Priesthood of God will be guilty of being idle.”

    (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant)

    Comment by PJD — September 8, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  6. It’s been nice knowin’ ya, PJD — I’m sure you’ll be signing off the blogs now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 8, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  7. Jonathan, I suspect that at a base level, you’re right. The market just isn’t there. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Latter-day Saints from trying a variety of other products specifically marketed to a Mormon audience.

    Bob, um … ok.

    Cowboy, despite the fact that you (and I and others) find the Living Scriptures cartoons problematic, many Mormons continue to purchase them and find them useful in teaching their children the scriptures.

    Ardis, nice brainstorming. I remember a few years back trying to organize a city on SIM City according to the proposed plat of Zion.

    PJD, what the hell are you talking about? Tone down the self-righteousness. This is your only warning.

    Comment by Christopher — September 8, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  8. Playing the drums, guitar, or base for Peter Brienholdt and Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band just doesn’t hold the same appeal (at least to me) as AC/DC, The Ramones, The Strokes, or any number of classic rock bands and artists.

    Okay, Peter I get, as he’s basically the mellow Mormon James Taylor. But Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band rocks! Quite a few of their songs would fit well with Guitar Hero or Rock Band. “Banjo Boy” (hmm – banjo hero?) and “Walk the Walk” or even “The Corn Dog Song.”

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — September 8, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

  9. #5 PJD – Section 42 is specifically talking about the “Law of Consecration”, and the idlers it was referring to were those who would not do their part in the secular labor of the Church. Hence the injunction that idler will not “eat the bread nor wear the garments of laborer”. This will not be a consecration camp, and the laborers will not be slave labor, so there would still be time for video games, possibly plenty in fact if everyone does their part. Whats the saying about “many hands make for…”

    Comment by cowboy — September 8, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  10. scratch that, it should read “concentration camp”.

    Comment by cowboy — September 8, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

  11. This topic reminds me of a t-shirt a high school classmate of mine had that I never understood until later. It was in the style of a MegaDeth concert t, but it said MegaLife and had Christian iconography throughout, but still in that gothic metal style.

    I think the closest thing we have along those lines are the “Air Moroni” basketball shirts missionaries wear. One buddy of mine likes to reference (in bewilderment) the “Mormon-Basketball Alliance.” Alas, perhaps that alliance is so strong as to relegate the Gamers of D.T. to (market) insignificance.

    Comment by MTN — September 8, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  12. it should read “concentration camp”.

    Your first version is punnier.

    Comment by Peter LLC — September 9, 2008 @ 5:50 am

  13. Because even a small scale game costs in the range of 8-12 million to make. And this extremely small. In order to create, to use an example above, a game like Civilization or Oregon Trail with a mormon focus would require a budget somewhere between 15 and 20 mil (rough estimate -the development budget for Civilization is probably twice that). Who is going to invest that much for a game with such a limited audience? You would literally have no chance of making a profit (you wouldn’t even be able to break even). Building a team of developers would also be difficult – such a project would require at least 40 to 50 developers, something that are in short supply and no way are they going work on such a project unless they are Mormon and even then, only if they aren’t interested in advancing their career because such a title would not be AAA (and your career hasn’t really started until you ship a AAA title). Video Games are extremely expensive and difficult to make, Board games aren’t. I don’t think it says anything about Mormons.

    Comment by Julie — September 9, 2008 @ 6:37 am

  14. This doesn’t say much about the lack of Mormon video games, but one of the later versions of Oregon Trail actually did allow you to choose from a couple of different trails to play, including the Mormon Trail. This version came out in the mid-90s. You chose from a variety of starting and ending points, so you could actually start in Nauvoo and go to Salt Lake. I don’t think I ever played any of the other various trails. I wonder if all versions of the game since then have allowed you to do that.

    Comment by Partridge — September 9, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  15. OK Ardis, now you have me thinking of a possible Civilization IV Mod. I think a Nephite one would be cool. But I’m sure one could be drawn up based on LDS colonization of the West. How about those barbarians that drove the settlers out of Missouri? Or Brigham Young settles the desert? Maybe this time the saints will go to Texas, or Vancouver, or even Hawaii. Or maybe they could have fought a war with Johnson’s army?

    As if I didn’t already have enough to do…..

    Comment by BruceC — September 9, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  16. I don’t know what people expect to gain by Mormon video games ?
    (Entertainment, Knowledge, Truth, competition). If the Church felt a need for these games, the money would not be an issue.
    I think I have 3 versions of Oregon Trail, but I doubt any of my grandsons would play them, or consider them a “Video Game”.
    Civil War buffs have always fought Disney over a Civil War theme park because they know “no one would ever die in one.”

    Comment by Bob — September 9, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  17. Re #16 – Bob, I think most people would see the existence of Mormon video games as proof that we had “arrived”. Sort of the way many view mormon celebrities. We have an grand opinion of ourselves and we want proof. Of course, we haven’t “arrived” yet. We’re just getting started.

    Comment by BruceC — September 9, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  18. Ivan, I’m no Ryan Shupe fan, but if you like him, then maybe Guitar Hero: EFY isn’t as unmarketable as I thought.

    MTN, yeah, Christian (and Mormon) ripping off popular material culture fascinates me, too. I like the God’s Gym t-shirt (modeled on the Gold’s Gym logo), complete with a picture of Jesus benchpressing a cross. For a whole slew of Christian-themed t-shirts that play off of popular logos, see here.

    Julie, as I said to Jonathan in comment #7, I suspect that at a base level, the economic infeasibility of any Mormon-themed video game is the primary reason that no such games exist. However, that has never stopped Mormons from other entrepreneurial efforts directed at the LDS market. But even if you’re right, it still says one thing about Mormons—that they are better businessmen/women than I often give them credit for.

    Partridge, Awesome. Do you know which version that is? You may have just reintroduced me to Oregon Trail as a way to waste time. Thanks.

    Bruce, you and Ardis have shown that the reason for the lack of Mormon video games is definetely not a shortage of ideas.

    Bob, who said the Church had to produce these games? That seems mildly absurd. And I suppose most people play video games for entertainment, not knowledge or truth. Except me. I play to be idle and thus to disqualify myself from eating the bread or wearing the garments of the laborer. Right, PJD?

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  19. Now my brain is thinking Civilization IV instead of working. Thanks.

    Imagine Nauvoo 1845. You have one of the schismatic groups in Illinois. Do you play the Brighamites, Strangites, Wightites, Rigdonites, or one of the many others. Each of them is a competing civ. How do you attact the various uncommitted (or committed) congregations? Do you go to Utah, Wisconsin, Texas, Pensylvannia, Missouri, Iowa or somewhere else. Do you pursue converts at the same time you are building your colony? Do you agree to send your best to fight in the Mexican American War? Set up a perpetual emmigration fund? Publish new scriptures?

    OK, I have to get back to work now so I can “eat the bread [and] wear the garments of the laborer.”

    Comment by BruceC — September 9, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  20. #17: Tattoos would also say “We have arrived “.
    #18: “Bob, who said the Church had to produce these games? “. Julie (#13) did… only a Party with millions to waste can produce these games. Who your pick?

    Comment by Bob — September 9, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  21. #21 That’s “Who’s your pick?

    Comment by Bob — September 9, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  22. Bob, I’m not “picking” anybody. That was not the point of the post. Read closer. And Julie never said the Church should make these games.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  23. I love this post Chris. It kind of reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons where the Flanders kids were playing a video game where they were supposed to convert the heathens. It is kind of surprising that somebody at Covenant hasn’t come up with something like this to mass market. I’m guessing that the fear of offending people is playing into this because of the fact that it would require live action. However, who wouldn’t love some sort of game about escaping the singles ward scene or something like that? But then again, that part of Mormon culture was made into several awful movies by Hale Storm.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 9, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  24. Actually having been in the videogame industry for the last 20 years – I can tell you that Jonathan is spot on in pointing out that the market for this type of game is just too small. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade – just help you understand the economics (love the game ideas here, by the way).

    Think of it this way – take the total available market of LDS folks in North America and the UK (since we won’t spend the $$ to make a non-English version). It would have to be PC-based, because we couldn’t afford to pay the fees to Ninetndo, Microsoft or Sony. Then, further reduce the market by those that are willing to buy video games (vs. buy scripture stickers, DVDs, CDs, etc). Even though the LDS marketplace is big enough for some things – it’s just too small for the costs associated with a game.

    To make a quality game – because everyone’s expectations have been set high by the quality of games out there – requires funding of several million dollars. You would need to sell roughly 100,000 copies of the game to break even. It’s a tough industry…even though there’s lots of money flowing into it.

    Aside from the business aspects – I’ve often wondered (trying to make an RTS game myself) if people would actually enjoy playing a Book of Mormon-based game where the outcome of the game would diverge from what actually takes place in the scriptures. Is that good/right?

    Comment by Neal R. — September 9, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  25. To carry Neal R. to the next step.. First , there is a lack of good LDS programing talent in the gaming industry. I think, if you are LDS and have talents to program well, your dedication to providing a stable income and health care for your family will lead you to companies with projects that involve less risk and a more stable company environment.

    Secondly, Church Employment is known for hiring at wage rates that are generally on the low side of the market, and making it up in benefits. Except for Computer Programmers and IT professionals, Here the pay rate is well on the high side of the market with great benefits, if you can show them a temple recommend because of security and confidentiality concerns, and it looks like the churches computer and information infrastructure may never be completely integrated.

    Take away those 2 pools of potential programmers and designers and the video game industry is pretty thin for LDS resources or for designers that would stay true to LDS attractions enough to hit the targeted users.

    So it could be there is not enough ROI for the companies to risk the market, and LDS members with the skills have moved on to more stable environments.

    Comment by Jim B — September 10, 2008 @ 1:01 am

  26. Interesting topic.

    I have spent the last few years in the fascinating area of modding (modifying commercial games). I’ve created a number of mods including one called “The Title of Liberty” which has been kindly hosted by James Fullmer of BookOfMormonBattles.com. You can see some images, get more information and even watch a preview video here: http://www.bookofmormonbattles.com/TOL/tol.html

    It was always a dream to make such a game and, as far as I am aware, there is nothing of its ilk presently available as far as Book-of-Mormon-related games are concerned. I created it primarily for the youth of the Church but getting it promoted has been hard. In addition to the strategy and fun of it all, it has scriptural references, an ongoing history from the Book of Mormon and other information which creates a strong educational aspect to the game.

    Mods are of course free as the owners of the engines do not allow mods to charge.

    I’d be interested in feedback.

    Comment by Darren Andrews — October 10, 2008 @ 5:29 am


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