I witnessed a miracle this week. It's hard to explain how I got there, but I found myself at a monastery begging the monks there for help. Death was at the door. The sounds of distant horns had signaled that the Saracens were coming, armed to the teeth. Villagers all around me were oblivious to the approaching doom; some were building the town's new granary while others were berry-picking, shepherding—the stuff of survival. Our armored militia gathered in the road, grunting inside their helmets, ready to defend us with force.
Then the monks I had summoned appeared, three of them in a line. They moved calmly into the road and began to chant in a resonant basso profundo. And that's when the miracle happened. The shouting invaders stopped just shy of the militia, put down their swords, and then—well, they joined us. No blood was shed. God was on our side. I don't know how to explain it.
In fact, there are a lot of things in the video game Age of Empires II that I don't know how to explain. Oh, I'm sure the answers are in the manual, which sits by my keyboard, dense as a novel. Maybe next time I'll learn why moments later, while I missed out on a beautiful sunny afternoon in the real world, this little village I had built was destroyed by a second wave of invaders. My monks tried to repeat their miracle but were slaughtered. A message appeared on the screen. NOT ENOUGH FAITH TO CONVERT ENEMY. What? You'd think that first battle would have reinforced their faith. But in Empires, faith is a resource, like wood, grain, gold, and time, that gets used up.
Civilizations from Scratch
Empires and its sequel, Age of Kings, are highly acclaimed and enormously popular video games from Microsoft and Ensemble Studios. Packaged with lush animated introductions, the games send you on many complicated missions. Choose a civilization from the great expanse of history. Build a village from the ground up with the help of villagers, military units, and religious agents. Hunt for food. Chop wood. Farm. Mine for gold. Set up houses and barracks. Defend them from attackers. Careful: even the roaming wild boars can attack. When you're ready, go ye and attack neighboring societies. It becomes addictive; chess and Risk suddenly seem boring.
Empires and Kings mercifully abstain from the bloody pageants that befoul many best-selling games. We're given a "God's-eye view" of combat, without any carnage close-ups or foul verbal exchanges between combatants. It's really just a glorified board game with cool special effects.
You'll learn about the role of religion in history, at least from Microsoft's perspective. Playing Kings, which covers what it calls the Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age, and Imperial Age, you'll be able to build monasteries and spread the gospel with militant zeal. In the Imperial Age, monks gain the advantage of block printing. The printing press heightens the range of a monk's conversion powers.
When I was a child, I played video games like a child, blasting asteroids and aliens. But now that I'm a man, I acquire printing presses and powers that enable me to redeem the souls of Viking enemies while a fair distance away. Then I click on pause and read up on Teutonic or Turkish technology.
It is heartening to see that the game-makers recognize the important role of religion in strengthening a culture, and the significant role that Christianity specifically has played in Western history. But Empires can only portray how religion helped preserve culture, or how religion influences a battle. You won't find any information about the role of faith in the lives of the people on a normal day. Religious agents are fairly useless until there's a military moment. Then, like just another branch of the militia, they swing into action. Their powers are less like gifts from God and more like commodities, earned by a series of works and spent like cash.
Monks who remember to pack "monotheism" will march in the confidence that they can convert enemy warriors. Special monks can convert even buildings and war machines. Make sure your catapult is Christian. Monks who "research astrology" can convert the enemy faster. A monk's powers ("hit points") increase if he has acquired "mysticism." "Fanaticism" accelerates rejuvenation, which is good because converting an enemy's barracks is exhausting.
True Christian virtue would be unattractive to players of this game. Let's face it: the book of Christian history is not a Who's Who of people with long, safe, and happy lives. You don't see the meek or the humble winning millions on TV's Survivor. Imagine a villager in Kings wandering away from town in hopes of loving his enemy. That villager won't last long, and he certainly won't win the player any points. It's a knight-eat-monk world out there.
Yes, I know, Empires was never meant to be a revealing exploration of religion. But how popular culture—in film, music, and, yes, video games—views Christianity reminds us of how believers have often failed the gospel and reorients us to the essentials of Christ's commands: Go. Serve. Give. Love. Most Christlike acts are not reported by the press, or history books, or featured in video games. The world's eyes see only power, pride, and aggression. Love slips by undetected, unglamorous, and changes history quietly.
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Microsoft's Age of Empires has a trial version and upgrades available online.
The Age of Empires II: Age of Kings official page has a trial version and screenshots.
Planet Age of Empires seems to be a very extensive fan and tip site for the games.
Writer Jeffrey Overstreet writes Christianity Today'sFilm Forum and edits reviews for Promontory Artists Association.
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