The Christian video game industry has a heavy cross to bear.
A small customer base, even smaller development budgets and competition from a mainstream market that sells violent games by the truckload has traditionally meant spiritual gaming barely registered a blip on the national radar.
But a growing mainstream fascination with divine entertainment has a variety of companies hoping to cash in big on Christian video games.
“Right now the . . . industry is just ready to explode,” said Ralph Bagley, chief spokesman for the Christian Game Developers Association and often called the “Godfather” of Christian video games.
Christian game developers will flood the market in coming months with new products that offer a godly alternative to the blood and gore games prevalent in the marketplace.
“I have been just amazed at the secular game industry and the level of shocking imagery,” Bagley said. “People want high-quality alternatives.”
If the success of the Christian markets in other forms of entertainment are any indication, religiously based video games ascending from niche market to mass consumption would be no miracle.
Last year’s box office hit “The Passion of the Christ” showed America’s fascination with the story of Jesus after it raked in over $300 million nationwide. Christian books like “The Purpose Driven Life” and the post-apocalyptic “Left Behind” series have flown off the shelves of mainstream retail outlets.
Even music has turned into a lucrative market for religious groups. The Christian market regularly outperforms the country, Latin and classical music industries.
The band Casting Crowns has sold more than 1 million records without a mainstream hit. Their strategy: targeting church groups to promote such songs as “If We Are The Body,” “Love Them Like Jesus” and “Father, Spirit, Jesus.”
Evangelical Christians are beginning to exert their power in mass entertainment, said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University.
“Evangelicals have begun to recognize that they can market to the larger population,” Ammerman said. “They don’t have to aim at just a niche market anymore.”
Over the next few years, the Christian market will represent over 10 percent of the video game industry, said Troy Lyndon, whose own company, Left Behind Games, will debut with a computer game based on the popular book series of the same name early next year.
“A lot of the marketing that we would have to do has already opened up for us” because of the success of the book series, Lyndon said.
But the game developers are after more than profit. They also want to save souls.
“This will be a tool that evangelicals can use to have great outreach events at their church,” Lyndon said.
“We’ve agreed we don’t look at each other as competition, we look at each other as brothers in the Lord,” Bagley said. “It’s not about money, it’s about ministry.”
Even so, as the money pours in, religious companies will find themselves competing against their secular counterparts selling similar products.
California company bEqual, which produces “family-based” games, is planning to release a Christian trivia DVD game in the fall.
“This is our first faith-based initiative,” said company founder Rowland Hansom.
Another traditional video game producer, Crave Entertainment, recently unleashed “The Bible Game” for the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Game Boy Advance consoles.
As secular markets move into the Christian markets, tensions may arise in the evangelical community about what is or isn’t acceptable.
“You’ll probably see a fair amount of debate in the conservative community about whether it’s OK to buy this stuff from a company that makes this other stuff,” Ammerman said.
But most Christian companies say they’re prepared for secular invasion and don’t mind the competition. Some even suggest that traditional game developers will be quick to join the flock.
“Other video games are going to jump on the bandwagon,” Lyndon said. Three of the five major game makers have already approached LB Games about distributing future products, he added.
To stay on top of the game Lyndon said evangelical groups will have to create products popular to the non-religious user while simultaneously pleasing the Christian constituency.
“We want to make darn sure we don’t disappoint the Christian marketplace,” he said.