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What would Jesus play? Local gaming company makes faith interactive
July 8th, 2009
By Michael Vick


Christian is not the first word most would use when describing video games. Many of the most popular titles are full to the brim with senseless violence. Some, like "Grand Theft Auto," actually promote lawlessness, with players stealing cars, killing police and even initiating gang warfare. Even those games that do not promote such wanton destruction are often so trivial that Christian parents and gamers are left wondering if such pursuits are the best use of time.

 

On the other hand, some family friendly titles focus on message to the detriment of gameplay. Nobody wants to play a boring game, no matter how spiritually redeeming it might be.

 

Such is not the case with "Guitar Praise," among the latest offerings from Newark, Calif. based Christian gaming company Digital Praise. The game is similar to mainstream title "Guitar Hero," but features Christian rock bands like Petra, tobyMac, dc Talk, Newsboys and Skillet. Players use a wireless guitar and try to hit the right notes as the song progresses, gaining points along the way that unlock new songs and new guitars.

 

In tests with local teens from St. Ignatius College Preparatory and St. Raymond Parish's youth group, players found the game fun and the controls responsive.

 

Mike Totah, a junior at St. Ignatius, said the game is virtually identical to the popular "Guitar Hero," though he enjoyed the animated background on the mainstream title more than the static background of "Guitar Praise." He also said the addition of lyrics in the background was a welcome feature, especially since he had never heard the songs before.

 

Ryan Karl, a member of St. Raymond's youth group, also gave the game high marks, and said he hoped "Digital Praise" would follow up the title with a sequel featuring more musical instruments similar to the mainstream game "Rock Band."

 

Catholic San Francisco visited Digital Praise's headquarters to ask about future plans for the title and to get a sense of what motivates the team to create wholesome games in a market dominated by anything but.

 

"Our premise is to build fun games that people can feel good about their kids playing," said Tom Bean, president and CEO of Digital Praise. "Other game developers who are trying to introduce faith into their games sometimes seem to lose sight of the fun part of gaming, and get a little message heavy. We try to keep that priority right without violating our mission."

 

The company began in 2003 as the brainchild of Peter Fokos, Digital Praise's chief technical officer and creative director. Prior to founding Digital Praise, Fokos was director of software engineering at The Learning Company. Fokos said much of the early success of the company came from deftly adapting popular characters from other media, like "Adventures in Odyssey" and "VeggieTales," for interactive gaming.

 

"I'm not an expert in writing a great sermon, but there's someone else who is," Fokos said. "I can turn that into a piece of interactive media that people can enjoy playing."

 

Echoing Bean, Fokos said an essential part of creating a successful Christian game was in maintaining a balance between message and gameplay.

 

"If the game isn't fun, people aren't going to play it," Fokos said. "But if there's no (Christian) message in there, I might as well be working at any family friendly game company."

 

Other than that faith focus, one major difference between "Guitar Praise" and its mainstream cousin is on what platforms the game is released. While many mainstream games are released for gaming consoles like Sony's Playstation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii, Digital Praise's lineup of games have been released for Windows and Apple computers.

 

Bean said the approval process to get a game released on a gaming console is both arduous and expensive. A small company like Digital Praise cannot afford the process, he said, especially given that the hefty monetary outlay must be made whether or not the game is ultimately approved by the console makers. He said that approval may not be forthcoming for a Christian developer.

 

"To date, they don't seem really open to Christian faith elements in platform games," Bean said, adding that other anti-Christian elements fare much better. "If it's pagan ritualistic murder, then that's totally cool. However, if you have the golden rule as part of the picture, that's religious, you just cannot have that."

 

Bean said the company is still open to the idea of releasing games for consoles, but the hurdles involved present unique challenges to small companies like Digital Praise. No such approval process exists for the personal computing marketplace, making it a more attractive platform for small developers.

 

The company's main move into uncharted waters comes this year with the introduction of its first iPhone game, "Dance Praise." The game is an iPhone version of its popular dance game of the same name, and was released June 29. Bean said two more iPhone games will follow - an adaptation of "Guitar Praise" and a casual maze game called "aMazing Bible."

 

Bean's brother Bill Bean, vice president of marketing and sales, said the company's goal of producing quality games has paid off in spiritually uplifting ways. He said he has read letters from missionaries who have taken Digital Praise's dance game to foreign countries and have shared the gospel with people prompted by lyrics mentioning Jesus. He also received a letter from a mother who had gotten the company's "Dance Praise" game as a gift. The game brought the woman and her teenage daughter together.

 

"She and her daughter had not been speaking for the last couple years because everything turned into a screaming match," he said. "They were listening to music they had listened to all their lives, and they started talking again. If you read the letter it would choke you up. It's great to see when people can use the games as a tool."

 

For more information about Digital Praise, visit www.digitalpraise.com.


From July 10, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.







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