Video Game Review of Journey of Jesus: The Calling

jesusOn its face, Journey of Jesus: The Calling is a Facebook Flash-based game that does exactly what it says on the tin, right down to being a Facebook game. It even suffers many of the flaws that most Facebook games do, from intrusive integration with the social networking aspect, to an aggressive “energy” system pushing players towards microtransactions. As for narrative, it follows a storyline based primarily on Christian mythology that is for the most dusted off only slowly by player activity.

The game boasts on Facebook that 15,000 people play (in their sidebar advertisement.)

In a recent GamePolitics post, it was mentioned that the game got some air time on Fox News. Christian software developer Lightside Games sent their CEO Brent Dusing to speak about the launch—which, much to the video game world’s amusement, was launched the same day as Blizzard’s Diablo III.

“Both games immerse the player, and you are what you eat,” Dusing said in a statement to Fox News. “While one game goes one direction, Journey of Jesus: The Calling players walk in the Messiah’s steps, in an authentic experience of Israel in Christ’s time.”

The game does come with the praise of at least one apparent, although largely unknown, religious scholar.

“Why would a theologian endorse a social-gaming game? Because 300 million people weekly log on to social games and because Journey of Jesus: The Calling takes players closer to the life of Christ in a fun, reflective and entertaining way,” said Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies with the Dallas Theological Seminary.

As a game, it follows the free-to-play model by providing services and game enhancement via microtransactions (for $2 to $50) or spreading the word about the game to Facebook friends.

The gameplay is ubiquitous for a Flash-based Facebook game and it’s boring

Here’s where the game really falls down: it’s just not interesting and in some ways it’s frustrating.

Most Facebook games are Flash-based and must work around a simple UI system that uses only one mouse button and as a result they tend to avoid complex interface design. In JoJ:TC the player partakes of a sort of adventure-style object-find game while moving a character around the map. With each object-find it allows the player to unlock further regions of the map and more dialogue.

The object-find functionality is at least extremely simple and easy to figure out. There’s very little puzzle to it and it’s generally fitting to the setting. The player might be asked to weed a region, chop up logs, or clear a path of brambles. All of these open up further paths and sometimes new maps along the narrative-line.

Useful items can be received by beating foliage (trees, grass, etc.) as well as a little bit of energy, points also come from speaking with characters to help reveal more of the story.

Here the “energy” mechanic comes strongly into play. The player is capable of only a certain number of actions per day, these actions are governed by a type of stamina. This stamina drains as the player finds objects and completes tasks. When the stamina runs out, the player can wait for it to be refreshed over time; or purchase more from the game via a microtransaction currency (gold bricks.) Of course, you can also ask your friends to help give you more energy—the social aspect of this game is extremely strong.

After almost every task completion the game thrusts a “share this with your friends!” window that tries very hard to tie the social networking Facebook experience into the game. This isn’t uncommon for Facebook games, but the degree to which the intrusion went seemed somewhat more excessive than usual.

By the time I made it to the second chapter I even ran into an instance where I couldn’t unlock an element of the game without calling in my friends to help me. Other games generally only settle this for accolades, or special items that don’t affect game play; and this one isn’t all that different in this respect. Of course, it’s possible to avoid having to ask friends for help by spending gold bricks instead.

The narrative is obfuscated and plays through contemporary Christian mythology about Jesus

…but the player character never speaks to him directly. At least not in the beginning.

Most of the game is all about following Jesus through various stories from the New Testament and listening to what other people have to say is going on. Some of the characters are also characters from the New Testament stories (such as disciples of Jesus) and there’s even a strange glowing man who stands out in some maps but says very little.

The characters refer to Jesus as “Yeshua of Nazereth,” the first part of the name is a Hebrew derivative of “to rescue” or “to deliver,” and is sometimes used as alternative name for Jesus.

It’s hard to tell what sect of Christianity that this game is attempting to audience for itself. Different sects modify their contemporary mythology about Jesus based on emphasizing or reflecting dissimilar portions of the story. The makers of the game address this a little on their website speaking about why they might be involved in Christian theology, but that’s something internal to the religion that would have to be addressed between their myriad sects.

The locales chosen look like they’re time-period appropriate for the setting of New Testament stories. The maps of the game take the player around Galilee in the first century C.E. although some of the technology is a bit off. There are Roman soldiers around the countryside (and in one case you get to gang up on one with another native.)

The beginning few stories involve attempting to see Yeshua who is being baptized in a river by John the Baptist—a preacher contemporary to the storytelling, who is also characterized in the New Testament—and helping out some fishermen at the shore of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Tiberias.) Most of the game entails collecting objects from the environment and then using them on other objects; for example getting fishbones to make needles, and nets to fix the sails on the boat.

Due to the aggressive energy system the story is also very difficult to access. As a result, it’s hard to critique the storytelling or even appraise the contemporary mythology.

This game is marketed to sell to a Christian audience and is unabashed in money requirements

The developers of JoJ:TC know their audience and they’re trying very hard to sell to them. The microtransaction system and the extremely aggressive social media tie-ins speak to a publisher who knows how to leverage the Facebook culture and is looking to make money from it.

This might explain why the storytelling is deliberately bland and the gameplay is tedious; it also shows why the energy mechanic is so aggressive as it hollows out the narrative development forcing the player to keep coming back (pay money, or announce the existence of the game to friends.) As a free-to-play game it’s brilliant when it comes to working its audience to make money.

The cash shop in the game also includes items that can be bought for money that enable players to perform certain tasks without spending any energy (allowing them to follow the game further each day) some of these items cost upwards of 20¢ a pop (that’s 20¢-per-tree to receive logs without spending energy.)

With a significant portion of the United States population adherent to the Christian religion and a background of cultural Christianity, a game like JoJ:TC will probably manage to sell well.

The Facebook game exists in the all-enveloping shadow of Blizzard anyway

The Fox News article reflected on the launch of this game by riding it onto the coattails of Diablo III. Chances are that was done because a Flash-based social media game isn’t going to attain as much attention without hitching a ride with the most-popular-thing in the video game industry. As a result, the comparison is hilarious.

Diablo III is not free-to-play and doesn’t hook into Facebook; although it has its social aspects, it’s not at all aggressive at making players tell their friends about it, and it doesn’t charge them any more than the $59.99 price tag on the box. It’s also less a casual game than one like JoJ:TC which will float or fail based entirely on people noticing that it exists.

For those people looking for an energy-based Facebook game with a storyline, interesting gameplay, and some social media aspects I would suggest playing Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter instead. It has all the hallmarks of an excellent fiction game, leveling, branching storylines, tactical puzzles, and even the ability to bring your friend’s characters along. It’s no Diablo III, but it’s a smarter game with better mechanics, and even includes the ability to make adventures of your own, a true Renaissance game for the social media era.

Happy gaming everyone.

Bristol Palin (and Many “Save Marriage” Advocates) Need a Lesson in Cultural History

Not long after President Obama made a somewhat tepid acknowledgement that gay citizens should be able to get married, Bristol Palin decided to throw her own two cents into the arena.

She did so with a patronizing lecture on parenting,

“While it’s great to listen to your kids’ ideas, there’s also a time when dads simply need to be dads. In this case, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage. Or that – as great as her friends may be – we know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home. Ideally, fathers help shape their kids’ worldview.”

Perhaps it’s just me, a student of contemporary and ancient cultural anthropology, but the ritual and social recognition of human marriage are a complex trend and not at all as static or simple as “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” might implicate.

In fact, across those thousands of years of thinking about marriage monogamy is only one solvent for tribal and clan affiliation; it sits side-by-side with polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and numerous other rites and contracts for matrimonial relationships. Perhaps Palin should be aware that arranged marriages still persist today in some cultures where children can be assigned to a potential mate even before the day they’re born. Maybe she’s thinking of the ancient Israelites and other cultures where a male could be married to multiple female slaves—or that marriages in other cultures also included not just a male and a female, but sometimes both partners also maintained harems of concubines, none of this was considered extramarital.

That’s only the scrim of the history of the subject.

Perhaps in those thousands of years of thinking about marriage we can look to the way that North Carolina used to think about marriage in racist terms, in 1875 they altered their state charter to include a law that prohibited blacks from marrying whites. North Carolina is in the news because of an ideologically driven amendment to their constitution that leaves strange wreckage of domestic partnership laws in order to deprive gays of any chance of being married in the state—an amendment that rings very similar to the miscegenation amendment of 1875.

After all, Palin, you know that you’re speaking to a dad—a dad of color—he might as well let his daughters know that states like North Carolina have a long, ghastly history of bigotry and prejudice against people of color. Just like they’ve voted to make certain gays are constitutionally deprived of their 14th amendment rights, NC previously deprived blacks of those same rights—that to marry whom they wished.

To the “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” there’s a lot of history for this sort of behavior, after all bringing an outsider into the intimate bounds of the tribe or clan is unacceptable. If we looked at this obviously racist view of marriage in North Carolina in the same way that Palin does the world of today we would still have to live with that black mark.

Advice from Palin on this matter has been ignorant, patronizing, and overprivileged—and it resounds with the enduring reek of insensitive chauvinism.

Those thousands of years of thinking about marriage are still ongoing and hopefully with a greater modicum of wisdom than the 61% of North Carolina who voted on Amendment One and people like Bristol Palin. People who cannot bring themselves to be compassionate about why people marry and why depriving them of that right makes them second class citizens.

Religion As Portrayed in Video Games

So, Danny O’Dwyer decided to do a video about a favorite subject of mine: video games. In it he expounds about the way that video games have focused on the niche of religions—after all, they’re a fundamental part of our society and their portrayal fits into how games access audiences. Although he sees it as that video games don’t tend to reflect on them much at all.

Not entirely the case, but for the most part, to communicate well with mainstream culture most media meant for a broad audience does try to keep religion as a cultural backdrop and not a main theme.

In the video game Mass Effect, Commander Shepherd must mediate a dispute over religious freedom on the Presidium Commons of a space station known as the Citadel when a hanar (basically a floating man’o’war jellyfish alien) wanted to preach about the Enkindlers. In Mass Effect, the Enkindlers are essentially a dead race known as the protheans who the hanar believe seeded their homeworld and lead to their eventual evolution into the sentient race they are today. The Enkindler religious belief is important to them amid other cultural artifacts. The hanar on the Citadel is “preaching without a license,” an act a little confusing to someone in the United States where preaching wouldn’t require a license.

Later, in Mass Effect 2, a batarian can be found on the asteroid space station Omega preaching on a box about how humans (like Shepherd) are a pox on the universe. “A blight. You, sir, are a blight.” And how their gods may yet return and raise them into glory over the other lower races. (Sadly, by Mass Effect 3, the batarian race will become all-but extinct with the annihilation of their homeworld.)

That’s science fiction.

The game Eternal Darkness views religion as a sort of poorly lit scrim against the real gods, a sort of gauzy backdrop of shadowplay as they move in the dark. Charlemagne is mentioned in passing but really it’s the old gods that hold sway along with their magic and other dead and gone civilizations. Of course, that’s because the game takes some very strong influence from Lovecraft’s Mythos writings and does an excellent job of it.

Then there’s the Diablo series—and the upcoming Diablo III—that borrows liberally from ancient Jewish and modern Christian mythology. With the major boss of the series, the eponymous Diablo, is a name for the Christian character of “the Devil,” there’s also reference to ancient gods like Baal—the name of any number of ancient local deities in the Middle East—and others taken from contemporary Western, especially German sources. In the game, there are several religious orders of vague cultures such as the Horadrim, there are chapels, there’s demons, and even angels. All central vestments of modern Christian mythology repainted into the Diablo universe.

Then there’s games where players get to play as gods, such as Black & White and From Dust—all extensions of the ever popular progenitor of the style Populous.

Of course, lest we forget, there’s things like Left Behind: Eternal Forces; but I’m not about to go into how badly that one went over when Kazz already did.

Child Witches Just Aren’t Funny

Unsurprisingly, organized modern-day witch hunts aren’t funny at all. In fact, they’re atrocities of the highest order and compelled and perpetrated by the superstitious and religious who place their religions above the rights and sovereignty of others. This is all-too-common a theme of not just when religions clash over cultural misunderstandings; but it’s also a symptom of a society that hasn’t grounded its morals and laws in defensible secular codes that accept the equality of human life.

Most religious ethics can barely agree on even very basic qualities of human life, arising instead from their tribal forbearers with xenophobic consequences. Often their arguments as to why some people are special and others are not relies on the supernatural or untestable qualities. This is the entire reason why “spectral evidence” has no place in criminal proceedings and is not admissible in a court of law in the United States.

And this is precisely why Christians in Nigeria are committing horrible, indefensible moral evils against children.

Before anyone condemns another human being, especially a walking, living, breathing child of something that could result in such hideous consequences—don’t you think that first we should provide a tangible test first? When was the last time that we treated someone for an illness without a single symptom or gone to repair a wall without observable damage.

Read Leo Igwe’s account of his most recent arrest after rescuing a young girl, Esther; and his subsequent treatment by police and the community for attempting to step in against this ignorant behavior. If you’d like to know more about the child witch phenomena and the religious and cultural background, Martin Robbins of the UK Guardian has an excellent take on recent events.

Don’t forget, people close to home behave in very similar manners as well and it’s our duty to keep them in check through laws and education; as much as it’s their duty to actually educate themselves and not do evil in the name of their religion. Immoral propaganda and campaigns of ignorance do much to provide foundations for these acts and we still see far too many of them lately.

The presenter in the video is R.K Watson from Skepchick.com. You can find more of her videos on YouTUBE.

Mill Avenue Resistance Reports: Saturday, April 4th 2009

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the Resistance does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog.

The lit cross is visible again on ‘A’ Mountain, most likely due to the upcoming Christian holiday of Easter (the vernal equinox, and thus Ostara has already past.) It was visible around the same time last year as well. A decoration that counts probably about sixteen feet in height, made of a series of round-white lights fashioned in a cruciform. The holiday will occur this upcoming weekend on April 12th.

Also creating a different atmosphere on the Ave happened to be the Tempe Music Festival.

At around 9:30pm some of the Way of the Master evangelicals were congregating around Mill’s End café talking to Korky and Cindy; when suddenly they scattered upon some unknown signal. Totally disappearing from where they were previously crowded handing out pamphlets. A mere minute later, Gadfly and Kazz arrived from across the street. The evangelical group had Al, Suzanne, Richard, and a few others—most of whom did not reappear that night.

Omar set up in front of Urban Outfitters for most of the night and used the amplification system of the Resistance to talk to passersby; he also had one of his new signs that reads, “EVOLVE LOVE.” There, a few of the Resistance stopped to talk to random components of the WoTM evangelicals—like Richard, who got himself caught in a long discussion with Strawberry Joe, a street rat who’s been around Mill for a two years or so.

Evidence shows that Jonathan’s group were possibly out earlier in the afternoon and night at the Tempe Music Festival. However, they were not in that position later on in the evening nearing 11pm.

The cap on the entire night was the arrival, once again, of Jeremiah who took advantage of the groups moving between the Tempe Music Festival and Mill Ave proper. As soon as he appeared the Resistance moved to siege him as they usually do—primarily out of a desire to see him because he’s well known, partially out of sheer entertainment.

The encounter with Jeremiah went predictably. Between arguing points out of Christian mythology and doctrine from their holy book he vacillated between poorly supported and ignorant positions on scientific issues like the Theory of Evolution and Global Warming. Parroting unknown propaganda that wasn’t taken well by the Resistance. Rocco, Joe, Gadfly, and Kazz took their measure of him as he tried to talk to passing crowds on these various subjects—Joe coined a speech out of his refutations: “Jeremiah, why don’t I just record the proper responses to these things that you have to say so that they can just be played back when you say the same thing without having researched it…I wouldn’t even have to be here to prove you wrong.”

Mill Avenue Resistance Reports: Saturday, March 28th 2009

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the Resistance does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog for Saturday, March 28th 2009.

Once again, Mill Ave is shut down due to the visitation of the Tempe Art Fair. White tents take up the center of the road, leaving the street open to all comers and passersby. The Resistance was sparse today but thick enough to entertain themselves on the preachers who came out to do some speaking. As usual, they found them set up in the middle of the intersection at 5th and Mill Ave—the diagonal between Urban Outfitters, Coffee Plantation, Hippie Gypsy, and American Apparel.

The Resistance consisted of Rocco and Gadfly, with a visitation by Kazz and Spyral.

Amazingly, the old-school core components of the Way of the Master evangelical group made it out! The preacher crew turned out to be Al, Jeremiah, Richard, and one other new individual of unknown disposition. This created an unexpected reunion of evangelical preachers who haven’t been out in a very long time. It’s been several months since either Richard or Jeremiah have been seen by the Resistance. Much to the amusement of all, Jeremiah took the stand later in the night and delivered his usual speeches—the rest didn’t really spend much time on their amps for the time people were out there to listen.

The notable event of the night didn’t involve the street preachers at all; although the night did end with Rocco and Gadfly with Jeremiah in front of the Brickyard.

It is reported that, earlier in the night, an itinerant busker took exception to one of Gadfly’s signs, set down his guitar, took it from her, tore it in half, and smacked her across the face with it. The sign in question was a rendering of the “BUTTSEX 4 JESUS” whiteboard-and-black-marker that originated at the protest against Brother Jed. He says that hitting her with the sign wasn’t intentional. This particular busker—an itinerant man, with a guitar, sporting a heavy, rounded dark beard of about an inch, usually sits between Hippy Cove and the Mill Avenue Jewelry store—has been on the Ave for possibly a little over a month. I haven’t gotten his name yet but I’ve spoken to him a few times about his guitar playing.

The evening wound down with Rocco preaching the gospel of the “Cookie-dough Dragon” at Jeremiah—and he even threw in some of his own criticism of contemporary Christian mythology and doctrine based on interpretations of their holy text, the Bible. I will try to paraphrase Rocco’s claim as I understood it:

The argument seemed to revolve around a prophecy from the Old Testament of the Bible which included a mortal patrilineal lineage for their messiah deity, Jesus. An event that wouldn’t make sense if the virgin birth also occurred, because therefore mortal Jesus would have no mortal father and therefore no possible patrilineal line to speak of.

FURTHER RESOURCES

  1. Gadfly herself has a narrative about what happened the night of Saturday, March 28th on her blog that I invite everyone to check out.

Book Review: “Who Will Rise Up” Part III (Conclusion)

He quotes Dave Gross from a February, 1991 article in the Mustang Daily:

And nobody can argue that it doesn’t work. The crowds he gathers are as angry, rude and ill-behaved as any mob that ever vilified any prophet. And so later in his speech, when he talks about how today’s students are obnoxious and have no morals…well, you can’t really argue. (p. 142.)

Yes you can. Anyone who’s taken a first year sociology class or any social statistics knows that they’re looking at a stacked deck when they regard the group that remains. We’re not seeing a truly random cross-section of student culture; we’re observing a carefully sieved and weighed slice promoted by the very behaviors previously described in the article—in fact Mr. Gross points it out for everyone by stating, “And nobody can argue that it doesn’t work.” That’s correct: It worked to gather an angry crowd of people, insulted by Jed; not a statistically significant population that properly reflects the entire student body to support that last assertion.

A multiple of chapters is dedicated to family life, one entirely to Cindy, his wife, and how women should submit themselves to men. “I often say on campus that no matter how much she denies or fights it, every woman has a God-given desire to marry and bear children for a man who will lovingly rule over her.” (p. 167.) That chapter continues into narratives describing the conception and birth of two of his daughters and their place in his campus-to-campus ministry at early ages.

When he reaches childhood education, Jed would like everyone to know that the establishment of public schools by the state is taken directly from communism—“It is not the proper function of the state to provide education. ‘Free education for all children in public schools,’ is the tenth point of The Communist Manifesto. When the state controls education, it controls our children and our future.” (p. 178.) He then fails to source his claim or demonstrate evidence; the connection to The Communist Manifesto is not evidence because it’s a perfect invocation of a fallacy by appeal to spite. He appeals to the emotions of the audience via connecting public education to communism but fails to draw any actual connection with the manifesto to our incarnation of public education; and he even fails to source exactly why anyone should care other than because people of his era don’t like communism. Furthermore, Just because there are public schools does not prevent people from putting children in private schools; and it certainly does not prevent them from supplementing education at home.

Pastor Glen concludes, “The human eye is so complicated that it can function on as an integrated unit. Which means it’s scientifically impossible for the human eye to evolve piecemeal, as natural selection requires, because the eye is totally useless unless fully developed. (Remember, natural selection is supposed to cancel out useless organs and appendages!) Indeed, such sophisticated design is itself powerful evidence that there must be a designer. So the Bible looks better than evolution when It says man was made by God! (p. 266.)

Yes. He went there. I understand that this book was apparently written in 1995, but for someone with a college education, Jed certainly doesn’t do his research before parroting what other people say. Fortunately for us we do have a number of resources at our disposal to readily show us that most claims of irreducibly complex systems are simply thinly veiled arguments from ignorance.[1] That, in fact, there are extremely plausible pathways that the eye could have evolved visible in extant versions of eyes in a multitude of differing animals.[2] Brother Jed does like to toe the party line of “evolution is incorrect and a lie,” but when it comes down to actually presenting any case for it he doesn’t go the extra mile, let alone the first inch.

CONCLUSION

Overall, I’d say that most people won’t be interested in reading this book unless they’re looking for a biography of George Smock. It does that quite tidily, but skipping through the terribly formatted Bible quotes, and trying to navigate the irrelevant preachy segments is a little bit tedious. The table of contents certainly gives a reasonable road map for avoiding sections of the book that aren’t anything narrative and are only finger pointing.

The past narratives were probably the best part of the entire work; followed by the unintentional eye roll inducing humor of the parables like The Five Dormies. (p. 110-113.) Perhaps there’s some useful information about Brother Jed’s psychology in the other sections, but for anyone looking for substance will find themselves grasping at smoke.

Come to this book for the history, the narrative, and the pictures—and there’s many pictures. In the midst of the book, split between two sections, are select photographs from Jed’s preaching campaign trail. They create an interesting aperture into the past.

The life and times of Brother Jed.

Now close the book.

Part I | Part II | Part III


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity#Reducibility_of_.22irreducible.22_systems
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_the_eye