Will God-Gaming Alter the Bible?

While Americans celebrate Labor Day with picnics, BBQs, and weekend getaways, Germany-based FIAA GmbH is releasing the beta version of The Bible Online: Heroes, the first installment of a projected series of MMORTS (massively multiplayer online real-time strategy) “games” based on the Bible.  MMORTS games take place in a world that continues to exist and evolve even while any given player isn’t playing.

According to the press release, there is an RPG (role-playing game) component too; players can expect to play as Abraham, and “as the leader of their tribe” they will construct villages and manage resources—even keep a budget. Players will “have to decide between diplomacy and warfare” as they “go on a quest to go to the Promised Land” while “leading Abraham’s tribe from Ur to Haran and finally to Canaan.” The game appears to be similar in some ways to Civilization-style games, a type of “god-game” in which players manage decisions from a privileged vantage point while the game’s algorithms determine success or failure based on both strategy and luck.

However, the promise of an online RPG complicates this comparison, as Civilization allows players to stay at something of a remove from the action, controlling resources and making decisions but not necessarily being directly drawn into the game as a character. The same is true of The Sims. The Bible Online, by contrast, presumably would allow you to play both with a god-like perspective and as biblical patriarchs (presumably lending a masculine air to the game and confounding feminist hermeneutics). This means that you would not only control the action but be implicated within it.

Furthermore, in a game like Civilization you may be playing as a “god” insofar as decisions about resources and building are concerned, but it doesn’t overtly invite you to see yourself as God like Black and White and Fable, which directly encourage such a perspective taking a tongue-in-cheek jab at traditional religion. In The Bible Online these issues are somewhat more confused, complicated by your dual identity as God (through control of wealth and resources) and as his patriarchs (through specific role-play). Perhaps, though, we’ll find that players’ ability to control resources is thwarted by divine intervention within the game’s algorithms. Perhaps we’ll discover that when we play as Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, if we don’t fulfill the game’s (and thus God’s) expectations of us, digital plagues will descend. This might be more theologically appropriate, but I bet players would find it less interesting.

It will be fascinating to see how the game’s dynamics handle the problem of divine inevitability and human interaction, especially as it relates to the fixed narrative of the Bible itself. The “About” feature of the nascent Web site tells us that the game “is designed for users to actually experience the Book of Genesis by fulfilling quests of Abraham, which is based on the true stories of the Genesis [sic].” In order not to offend most Christians, the game will have to leave the biblical narrative intact and only allow interactivity in the narrative gaps in the biblical text, making the game potentially midrashic in performance.

In other words, the game would have to find those places in the biblical story that allow for alternate or additional events without disrupting what is written there, and then direct players back to the fixed narrative after specific game quests are completed. Yet even if the game succeeds in limiting our interactivity such that we don’t upset the received biblical narrative, could the very notion of interactivity in a game like this have some effect on our everyday approach to the Bible’s stories? Will play with the text in the form of a game make us more likely to see the biblical text itself as a game, or at least as alterable?

Of course, Jewish interpreters have been reading the Bible this way for thousands of years. Midrash itself is a sort of biblical play and can be both enjoyable and theologically profound. But fundamentalists of all monotheist stripes are much less enamored of interactivity with the text, particularly if it invites a constructivist hermeneutics, allowing people to see their own perspectives as able to effectively shape the Bible’s meaning.

Some questions to ask as The Bible Online rolls out, gleaned from an awareness of the ordinary features of game-play, and enhanced by inquiry into the theological significance of religion as a game: What are the rules (explicit and implicit) of The Bible Online? We’ve already noted that one of the implicit rules is that we must play as men, with the attendant patriarchal implications (pun unavoidable).

But other questions remain, like what if anything it means if I, as a woman, play as Abraham and direct the conquest of Canaan? Also, what will players as patriarchs be able to do and not do? For example, will the game present us with the choice of whether or not to begin the sacrifice if Isaac, or present us with options in other theologically loaded events?

Will the chat feature enable a sort of performed blasphemy in people’s ability to speak “as” a patriarch, publicly, and possibly disrespectfully? What exactly would it mean to win the game? Does The Bible Online present destruction of others as a goal? Are there any implications for current Mideast unrest of such potential game-based violent performance?

Furthermore, if competition is a core feature of games, who is competing in The Bible Online, and in what way? How are points amassed, and do these “points” have any religious significance beyond the game? What of the “RTS” (real-time strategy) component of The Bible Online and its communal play feature? Will everyone play as Abraham at the same time? Or will one player get to take on this role while others follow him? And what performative act, faithful or “playful” would emerge from the game’s own unfolding? If I play it, do I become more “pious?” Or does it cause me to view the Bible as merely another supernatural mythos lying behind a fantasy-based experience that distracts me from ordinary daily responsibilities or activities?

I won’t be able to resist entering the fray when the beta version is released today, if only to see how we as a culture we are trying to figure out the relationship between play, theology, and performance of belief. If you’re curious to learn of my progress, you can follow my tweets at www.twitter.com/godwired.