Chain World Recapitulates Religious Schisms

It turns out that a game designed to have religious overtones has rapidly gone through a lifecycle that mimics several Western religions.

For the past several years the Game Design Challenge panel at the Games Developer Conference has asked a few game developers to spend the week before GDC creating a themed game. This year the theme was “Bigger than Jesus.” Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer were to make a game that could become a religion.

Jason Rohrer knocked it out of the park. He created Chain World, which was a Minecraft world on a USB drive and some commandments. The commandments specified that one player at a time would play Chain World, changing the world, until the player died. At that point the player would save the game and pass the USB to another interested player.

Chain World is a chance to place your mark on a virtual world and pass it on to someone else who only knows you through what you’ve done to that world. It has nine or eleven commandments, depending on how you count.

Of course it mutated instantly.

The first recipient of the USB drive from Jason Rohrer, Jia Ji, decided to auction off the next slot on eBay for charity. Moreover, he specified that the recipient after that should be Jane McGonigal (a famous author and proponent of gamification), followed by the winner of another charity auction, and then Wil Wright. Jia Ji had set a precedence that you could have access to Chain World either by being famous or paying for that access, neither of which were expressly forbidden by Jason Rohrer’s nineish commandments.

As you might imagine, this caused some backlash. Some game designers criticized what Ji had done. Jane McGonigal responded to one of those critics by saying, “[Y]ou are seriously upset about raising money for sick kids?” Jason Rohrer chimed in, saying that the winner of the eBay auction shouldn’t mail the game to McGonigal.

So to recap: a game intended to be religious was changed by its first disciple so that access to the religion involved either money or being famous. Possible responses include subverting it within or declaring a reformation and forking the project. Sound familiar?

I’m fascinated that an artificial simulation designed to mimic religion has re-created religious schisms and arguments. I’m also fascinated that it exposes a fundamental disconnect between gamification adherents and some traditional game designers. Gamification as espoused by McGonigal and others is about using game mechanics as a means to a non-game end, which dovetails nicely with Ji’s desire to use Chain World as a means to raise money for charity. Many game designers view games themselves as an end rather than a means. For them, Chain World shouldn’t be used for other purposes. Its reason for existing is to be itself.

You want to know why I care about games? This is why. Chain World has spawned arguments about the greater meaning of games and how they reflect the wider world. Leave aside arguments about whether games are art or not. Games like Chain World have something to say about our lives.

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