|By SARAH LINN, Associated Press Writer
In the world of Christian video games, players sport the armor of God, the best weapon is a ball of holy energy known as a "smite," and demon-possessed Roman soldiers drop to their knees in prayer when they're hit.
Christian video and computer games currently make up a tiny fraction of the $11 billion gaming industry. But developers expect the market to grow as movies such as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and books like the "Left Behind" series prove consumers are hungry for faith-based entertainment.
How to find producers for such games and get them on store shelves is the focus of the third annual Christian Game Developers Conference in Portland, July 30-31. About 100 people are expected to attend.
Event organizer Tim Emmerich said Christian game developers want to provide a clean, safe alternative to shoot-'em-up games like "Grand Theft Auto" -- and spread the gospel without boring or alienating players.
The target audience ranges from Christian gamers eager for new thrills to teenagers and 20-somethings who have never picked up a Bible, said Emmerich, a software engineer who attends Circle Church of Christ in Corvallis.
"We're salt and light where we're at," he said, referring to the Biblical admonishment that Christians lead the world by example.
For Canadian developer Mackenzie Ponech, that means creating a fun, entertaining game that doesn't condescend to its non-Christian players.
"It's not about taking a Bible, rolling it up and shoving it down the person's throat who's playing the game," said Ponech, who co-founded Two Guys Software in Edmonton, Alberta.
In the company's most popular game, "Eternal War: Shadows of Light," players assume the role of Mike, an angel charged with saving a suicidal teen. They battle demons -- and the teen's own doubts -- with spiritual weapons that include razor-sharp "soul disks," "trinity blasts," and the "smite," a ball of liquid holy energy that blows bad guys away.
"Eternal War" also references the "armor of God" mentioned in the book of Ephesians. "It's almost like your meat-and-potatoes for a Christian game," Ponech said.
Unlike some of their secular counterparts, Christian video games avoid "all that blood and guts and gore," said Ralph Bagley, CEO of N'Lightning Games in Medford.
Enemies vanish, vaporize, or, in the case of the Roman soldiers in N'Lightning's "Catechumen," start praying as Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" rings out. Most games incorporate Bible verses, and story lines often focus on spiritual struggles.
Religion expert Larry Eskridge says the emerging Christian video game industry marks the latest effort by people of faith to put their own imprint on popular culture.
Evangelical Protestants have led the charge since World War II, Eskridge said, seeking sanctified versions of everything from board games and television to rock 'n' roll.
"The real ascetic 'Don't do this, don't do that' has passed out of favor. Evangelicals have started saying, 'God wants me to have a fulfilling life here (on Earth) as well,"' said Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.
But some in the industry question whether consumers will be as eager to embrace Christian games as they are to play secular versions.
Most retailers are reluctant to pick up Christian video games because the products don't have a proven track record, said Dave Tanner, senior buyer for Christian Supply Centers. The retail chain has 16 stores in Oregon, Washington state and Idaho.
"As a buyer, I want to see past sales. I want to see a forecast," Tanner said. That's difficult with the relatively new Christian video games, which make up such a small portion of the market that the Christian Booksellers Association doesn't track sales.
Companies also struggle to find investors for game development, said Bagley, the N'Lightning CEO. His game "Catechumen" took 15 months and $830,000 to create -- often demanding 16-hour days from his 11-person team.
To boost interest, the Christian video game industry is pinning its hopes on established properties such as "Left Behind" and "Veggie Tales" -- based on the children's video series in which singing, talking vegetables act out Bible stories.
"There's a huge void and a tremendous opportunity for growth," said Troy Lyndon, who helped found the Murietta, Calif.-based Left Behind Games Inc. in last October.
Left Behind Games' first effort, "Eternal Mission," will follow the plot of the apocalyptic thriller series, allowing players to plan strategy in real time. It's set to be released in late 2005.
Lyndon hopes that "Eternal Mission" and its successors can avoid one criticism of the industry -- that Christian video games lag behind secular games in terms of visual quality and fast-paced action.
"If you're going to put out a video game, don't stereotype Christian games as horribly lame games," said Arron Daniels, 29, an avid gamer and former youth minister.
Although industry giants like Electronic Arts Inc. have yet to add faith-based titles to their lineups, Daniels said the potential for growth is there -- provided that Christian developers continue to improve graphics and gameplay.
"When Christian music started 20 years ago, all you had were different versions of 'Amazing Grace.' Today we can compete with the big boys," said Daniels, who works at the Christian radio station KBNJ in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Eventually, Christian video game developers hope to see their games sold by mainstream retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target -- perhaps as part of a special Christian interest section.
"We just have to pray," said Tim Emmerich, the conference organizer. "If God wants us to succeed, we'll succeed."
Ignorance is bad, if you have it you will not have a good time.