More Religion Games

We can’t let the Jews and the Catholics have all the fun this week, so I did a bit of digging around to see if other religions were doing the gaming thing.

Of course, I realize just saying “other” kind of makes it sound like I’m channeling Rev. Lovejoy from The Simpsons:

Rev. Lovejoy: No Homer, God didn’t burn your house down, but he was working in the hearts of your friends be they Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous.
Apu: Hindu! There are seven hundred million of us!
Rev. Lovejoy: Aww, that’s super.

Be that as it may, it’s pretty easy to find games that are used as religious teaching tools, primarily for kids. These are your basic “scripture quote” and “heroes of the Bible” trivia games that Christian kids play at Summer Bible Camp. (Oddly enough, I went to a Jewish summer camp as the Token Catholic. It’s a long story.) As games, they’re fairly uninteresting, based on the bog-standard trivia two-step of 1) answer questions in order to 2) win the race to the finish. I got bored just typing that sentence.

For instance, there are a number of Islamic board games made by Goodword Books to teach Muslim children about various subjects. The Hadith Challenge Game and the Quran Challenge Game are designed to help with memorization of the religious texts. Pilgrimage is taught with the Hajj Fun Game, prayer with the Madinah Salat Fun Game, and mosque architecture with the Great Mosque Game. They all appear to be trivia games designed for use in religious education.

Mecca to Medina is another Muslim board game, and this one looks like it might have a little more substance. It doesn’t require any specialized knowledge of Islam, and appears to be a trading and resource collection game with an Islamic theme, rather than a trivia game.

Buddhist board games follow a similar pattern. Buddhist Knowledge Quest, for example, is a straight-up Trivial Pursuit-style learning game.

I’d like to be able to tell you just what Karma Chakra is like, but I’ve read the instructions a couple of times and still not figured it out. The description makes it sound like a trivia game with perhaps a more complex racing mechanic. The goal is to “attain a rebirth as a Bodhisattva of the First Level (Great Joy) or at least a better rebirth than one’s current existence. There are no ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ in this game and whomever finishes first may not acquire the best rebirth. At the end of the game, players’ Sonam points (merit) are totalled to see what kind of rebirth he/she managed to get.”

By the way, Gautama Buddha didn’t think much of games and toys, and left behind a list of games he would not play. This included “hitting a short stick with a long stick,” “guessing at letters traced with the finger in the air or on a friend’s back,” and “imitating deformities”(?). Oh, and all board games.

Hindus seem to have a much wider range of game choices thanks to the efforts of Kreeda Games. Indian culture in general is remarkably rich and diverse, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, they gave us chess, pachisi, and snakes and ladders.

“Kreeda” means “play” in Sanskrit, and the company evolved from a series of articles on traditional Indian games. People became interested in playing the games, but there were no pieces or boards available. So, the people who wrote the articles founded Kreeda to produce these classic games, as well as make some new ones based on traditional Hindu themes.

The results are fascinating historical recreations. Kalanay Belanay (Black Elephant White Elephant), for instance, appears to be a regional wari variant taught to the Kreeda staff by “a lady anxious to see the games she played as a child passed onto the next generation.” That’s the kind of cultural field work that we see all too rarely in gaming. (As I never get tired of saying, gaming is part of folklore and regional culture, just like music, storytelling, food, dress, and dance.)

Some of Kreeda’s original games are more explicitly religious. They’ve created a trilogy of games based on the Hindu epic the Ramayana, and including Vanavaas (Adventures in the Forest), Search for Sita, and Battle of Lanka (The War Game). Kreeda describes Vanavaas this way:

In the Ramayana, Dasharatha, Rama.s father is forced by an old promise to send Rama, his eldest son away to the forest for fourteen years. Rama is accompanied by his wife Sita and brother, Lakshmana. In the forest they have many adventures and face many hardships. Vanavaas – The Adventures in the Forest lets you understand their experiences and brings you face to face with the demons they meet in the forest.

In the game, the footsteps are pictured as sandals – the old and traditional footwear worn by forest dwellers and rishis. The game is played with long dice which are the traditional dice in India.

This game begins with Rama and Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya and follows their adventures in the forest. The game takes you through the stay at Chitrakoot, Bharata.s encounter with Rama, the meeting with Shoorpanaka and the incident of the golden deer.

This blend of storytelling, traditional game techniques, history, and pedagogy sounds far more interesting than the usual “Who begat Abijah?”* trivia-race, and might serve as a good example to religious game designer who want to make more engaging games.  The full list of Kreeda games can be found here.

And thus ends the Unofficial Accidental Religion in Games Week here at State of Play. If you have any favorites that I missed, please feel free to add them in the comboxes. And I’ll leave you off where I began: with The Simpsons:

Interviewer: Apu, there are rumors that you are a Hindu. Is this true?
Apu: By the many arms of Vishnu, I swear it is a lie!