2011's annual Game Design Challenge was literally a spiritual experience. This year's panelists, Jason Rohrer (Between), John Romero (DOOM) and Jenova Chen (Flower), were tasked with creating games that were also a religion, and Rohrer tapped the romance of permanent objects -- and players' love of Minecraft -- to win the most audience applause.
Fascinated by stories, places and images left behind by his late grandfather, Rohrer based his game concept on the idea that chains of meaning over time create a sense of spirituality. "We become like gods to those who come after us," he says.
So what if there were a game that could be played by only one person at a time until that person passed it on to the next player? By being part of the chain, players would get a sense of legacy, and some of the mystery and excitement around waiting to be chosen, attentive to the myth of that "holy object" circulating somewhere out there in the world.
Rohrer created a Minecraft world that exists only on one USB stick; players are permitted to play until they die once, then must quit immediately after respawning and pass the USB immediately on to someone else interested in participating in the "religion" and willing to respect the rules.
No text signs are allowed in the mod; each new player will be presented with the world and its artifacts and will be able only to wonder about those who came before them much earlier in the chain, and perhaps about the original creator.
The idea proved to be the most popular with audiences, but both Chen and Romero received almost the enthusiasm for their presentations on the panel.
In an engaging, kinetic game -- which, cannily, worked with participants' tendency to be using Twitter while in GDC lectures -- Romero asked attendees to follow a messiah, literally. The first 12 followers of "Messiah6502" were chosen as "apostles" who were given two minutes to run around the room and convert people by asking them to hold small colored post-it notes.
Incidentally, two of those followers picked to be apostles were noted social game developers Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal. The winning apostle wasn't the person who converted the most people, but the one who "performed the most miracles" -- or, had the most converts whose post-its were blessed with a little gold star.
Task for the winning apostle? Kill John Romero. Cue audience cheers.
Jenova Chen gave a thoughtful presentation about the two core human issues that religion addresses: Lack of purpose and fear of death. While handling survival and thriving issues (lower tenets on Maslow's Pyramid of Needs) could generally account for the latter, the need for purpose is much harder to address, said Chen.
Human purpose should be both primitive and profound; one of the most core elements of being human is the ability to propagate, not only on a physical level but also to propagate ideas. That act of creation and commitment to propagation is more religious, said Chen, who cited Eastern religions' greater emphasis on philosophy or tenets for living versus Western traditional focus on deities.
His basic idea? If people are able to influence others, they can find happiness. So Chen developed a series of ways to make the library of TED talks more dynamic and game-like, with social features that would help people give better, more visible feedback on how they've been influenced by the speakers.
The standing room-only session was held, as always, by the animated Eric Zimmerman, who led the audience to elect the winning idea by applauding, and who determined Rohrer the victor.