Jesus at the Joystick: Can Video Games be Spiritual? - Xalavier Nelson, Jr.
Does spiritual development have to be dull? Or can growing with God be more like a game? Our guest today, Xalavier Nelson Jr., is a BAFTA-nominated narrative director and game developer. He creates video games that communicate spiritual truths in places where they're perhaps least expected. People playing games such as Hypnospace Outlaw, or Can Androids Pray, or any number of the many games Xalavier has worked on, find themselves connecting with their shared humanity and examining the big questions of life, even as they solve puzzles in a futuristic universe inhabited by robots. Today, we're talking to Xalavier about how games, including his latest release, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, can connect us to God's truth and to each other.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (NIV)
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred,sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”... “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (NIV)
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.
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MR: I’m Mark Roberts.
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Does spiritual development have to be dull? Or can growing with God be more like a game? Our guest today, Xalavier Nelson Jr., is a BAFTA-nominated narrative director and game developer. He creates video games that communicate spiritual truths in places where they're perhaps least expected. People playing games such as Hypnospace Outlaw, or Can Androids Pray, or any number of the many games Xalavier has worked on, find themselves connecting with their shared humanity and examining the big questions of life, even as they solve puzzles in a futuristic universe inhabited by robots. Today, we're talking to Xalavier about how games, including his latest release, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, can connect us to God's truth and to each other. Xalavier Nelson Jr., welcome to the Making It Work Podcast.
Xalavier Nelson Jr: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
LA: I am so excited for this conversation, not only because I got to play your new game a few days ago, which we're gonna talk about in a little bit, but because I'm interested in talking to you about how you integrate your faith with your very interesting work. So let's start off. For any of our listeners who might be skeptical about the spiritual value of playing video games, tell us how your work incorporates your faith and what effect that has on the final product.
XNJ: So when I was a teenager, I had come to find a unfortunate deep disappointment with a lot of Christian media, especially as it related to video games, because I came to a personal relationship with Christ as a teenager, I grew up in a Christian family, but my faith became my own and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior during my teens. And when I actually read the Bible, having had my eyes opened and having that understanding, the human truths and interest that I found on every page, the way that the words leapt at me, had so much more life than the stifled environments I found those words shoved into, especially in the digital realm when it came to the games that I was playing.
LA: And there were Christian video games to play?
XNJ: There are, but you have to go really far afield to find anything. I think one of the few Christian games out there still is... That's explicitly one made from a faith-based perspective. I think it's something about being a Captain Bible something in a dome of darkness that's from the '90s,. And I was gaining this desire to see something that represented the nuance of my faith and the humanity of my faith wholly through the medium I loved, and was very uncertain I would find it until I met a developer named Jay Tholen. And Jay Tholen, if you've never spoken to him or heard his story, basically went from being in a call center in Florida, a trailer park, no prospects, no significant roads for his future, and ended up, with the release of a game called Dropsy, having his life change.
I had started at 12 in the games industry, pretending to be an adult so I could be a games journalist, and this had been going for a few years now. And one of the first people to know my secret identity was this developer who also turned out to be of faith, and I was one of the first people who got to play Dropsy. And the conceit of the game Dropsy, is that you are a visibly horrifying clown who is despised by the world, pretty much universally, and in spite of that hatred, expresses nothing but joy and love for the world around you to the point that you end up transforming that world and the lives of every person you meet. And this is not a set of Bible stories, this is not necessarily a direct allegory, although you'd be surprised how far the allegory goes. But when I was playing this game that was so joyfully, radically, and directly about communicating Christ's love to a world that did not understand it, through the medium of a of a giant clown who didn't understand the way the world worked and just wanted to make sure that everybody was okay, and that they could get a hug.
When you hug someone in the game and you come back to your base, you see the little crayon drawing that Dropsy has done of meeting them and hugging them, and it's the cutest thing ever. And seeing that this was possible in games, this expression of the tenets that we're supposed to live by at our best, blew my mind. It changed the direction of my life. And of course, we took the concept of expressing that humanity consistently and constantly for everyone that you meet and see in Hypnospace Outlaw and in the games that I've made since, in some capacity, I am always aware because of that experience that I have an opportunity to say something about the state of the world, the way it can be, should be, the way it isn't, and the possibility of questioning that through every game I work on. And it has allowed me not just to appreciate my own work more and to see that as valuable, even though at the end of the day we are still just making video games. It's allowed me to appreciate the nuance and the work of other people of faith as well as people who aren't of faith.
LA: I wanna read part of a review of Hypnospace Outlaw, to give everybody the sense of what it feels like as a gamer, to engage with this game that you've made in a very conscientious faith-filled way, even though that it's not explicitly about faith. So I'm quoting from the review of Hypnospace Outlaw, and then we'll discuss it. This is what it says. "There's an underlying humanity that elevates this adventure from parody to loving tribute. Even the characters that grow into the antagonist role in the plot, and there is a plot, are treated as flawed, relatable humans, driven by hubris but not totally lacking of soul. The result is an effective blend of the surreal and the honest. So while I expected to chuckle my way through the game, I did not expect to get misty-eyed by the end." I feel like you're kind of surprising your game players with a nugget of realism, and in this case, having empathy for the characters, seeing grace or experience grace for the characters of the video game.
XNJ: That's definitely a major piece of the goal. I've kind of built my career at this point around the idea of taking something that is absurd or shouldn't work or arguably shouldn't exist, and finding a way not just to make it feasible to make from a production standpoint, from a business or commercial standpoint, but also making it something compelling. I made an entire open world comedy adventure game about interacting with stock photo dogs and somehow...
LA: Which I have played. We're gonna talk about that in a minute. [chuckle]
LA: I've interacted with some of those stock photo dogs.
XNJ: And seeing people stream or make videos of the game and how quickly all of that artifice falls away…It could be very easy for the game to feel, to look, to be a cheap joke, and how quickly people not just buy into the emotional sincerity of the character, but don't see it as a JPEG. They don't see it as a flat photo, they see it as a distinct sentient entity in a snap of time. There's so many different types of games I could make. Making this my specialty feels like I get to pull off a magic trick every day that also opens people's eyes to the role of faith and love in the world around them, and I can't imagine any job more worthy or rad.
LA: Now, Mark, I wanna bring you into the conversation. As I was reflecting on what it is that Xalavier does through these games, I was thinking of times in scripture where we have—Well, the word is a prophet, but I was gonna say an artistic character, a storyteller—use a story to connect people to truths, to God's truth in a new and different way that might be surprising. Do you, Mark, have a favorite scripture of that kind?
MR: Well, that's a great question. And first, I just wanna say, like you said, Leah... Xalavier, I love what you're doing. I think it's so interesting and creative and encouraging, Before I answer your question, Leah, if there are people listening who are sort of my generation and they may think of video games in that sort of older mode, like you just play Pac-Man... Xalavier, could you just say a little bit about how story functions in video games today? 'Cause it's this world, basically, you're creating worlds. So you say a little bit about that and then I'll talk about the Scripture.
XNJ: Absolutely. First of all, thank you so much for saying that. It's very apparent to me just how large of an opportunity it is to have people interact with narrative and storytelling games specifically, because if you sit down with a book, you have a certain relationship with a story. If you sit down with a movie, you have a certain relationship with the story. The really interesting thing about storytelling as it exists in games today, is that there are games with some of the strongest stories to be delivered in our artistic medium today, and they have no words in them, no visible words that you can read or anything else, purely delivered through systems.
You have the ability, very particularly, to create systems that cause people to have specific relationships with the world around them. Again, it's gonna be a little bit before we dig into the game specifically, but in Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, very early in development I was talking with the programmer on the project, Tom Benita, and he said, "Will we have money in the game?" And as soon as I considered, "Well, what would it look like if this world didn't have money and the philosophical implications and consequences of that decision?"
That is where story starts getting delivered, because if you say, "If you came to a hospital and you couldn't afford treatment, the dogs wouldn't care. The dogs would just want to help you because they're dogs and that's the right thing to do. You're a human being who is in pain. You're a sentient person. You have value to them, inherently. Therefore, you are deserving of help. Suddenly, that started to just... That one decision spiraled out into the rest of the project, and as we kept pursuing the dog-centered approach to what a world looks like, the final impact on the player is, every decision they make, every hour, every moment they spend in the game is spent invisibly and tangibly working through the mental consequences of exploring the rules of a different world. And no matter what they do with that experience or even whether or not they like it, that... Having explored that mindset in the first place leaves an imprint. And it might get them to start thinking about. How they can be the Good Samaritan, expressing the tenants of Christian faith in a lot of ways, and love, even if they don't have the words for it.
MR: So you anticipated my answer. I was gonna say, Leah... It is the ethic of the Good Samaritan. And what's amazing, you think... Jesus was asked by a legal expert, you might say a legal question, a question that anticipated a logical answer, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus didn't really answer that question. He told a story, the story we know as The Good Samaritan. And there's a lot of reasons for that, but partly, it allows people to sort of be in the story, in a way. It's not just giving a certain answer, "Well, your neighbor is the person on the road who is beaten up and has a need." It invites people in. The amazing thing about what you're doing is, people are not just sort of watching and feeling empathy, they're inhabiting this space, and you're helping to form their souls by embodying the Gospel in the world, in this world.
XNJ: And I really appreciate the particular opportunity here when it doesn't work, because as much as we're talking about molding someone's soul, whatever else…Everybody has a choice about how much that will work, and it doesn't always work. And it's fascinating, again, looking at videos or reviews of a game that is built with this perspective, whether or not the developer is a Christian, and seeing the points at which people choose to reject a worldview. A point at which actually, "I don't buy into this. This does not work for me." Which is a valid reaction, but it's also fascinating. I caught the tail end of a video for one of my games where someone was like, "This could have been a game about alienation. It could have been something deep and meaningful, and it's just dog jokes."
And I'm sorry that that person had a negative experience with the game, but I also find, in contrast with the experiences of most of the people who play it, it was really interesting to see this active rejection of the same thing, much like you have the seeds of the Gospel message falling on different types of ground. There are people who will take it at, say for service value, there are people who those seeds land and they grow and they bear fruit, and there's other people where it will dry up immediately. And that is a very human process that you would never expect to emerge from a video game, especially if the perspective you have of what a video game is is a little space ship at the bottom of the screen shooting white lines.
MR: Oh, that was a great game. I spent much of my college years wasting time with that game.
LA: Did it lead you to deep reflection about the meaning of life, Mark?
MR: Zero. There was not a world to inhabit. I was just trying to blow up the little things that were attacking me.
But it's partly why I asked that question because I think if people are familiar with video games in a certain era, and what you're doing now is so different and it's so engaging, and that's part of what excites me about the work you're doing, and as you mentioned, others as well who are really trying to embody the Gospel in this medium, not necessarily the literal message of the Gospel, but the ethic, the reality of the Gospel.
XNJ: I love that term of the reality of the Gospel. Everything that has gone to make me a more full person and a full Christian has emerged from taking this book, and the person, and God-head that Jesus represents, and taking that in as a reality. The moment of transformation, the choice of seeing those words on a page, hearing this truth and then internalizing it. I think it's a really powerful moment in general.
LA: And I imagine in turning that inward feeling that you have into a video game, there must also be a big element of surrender in it as well. You both mentioned Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan. This appears in the Bible in Luke chapter 10, starting with verse 25. I looked it up. I have it in front of me, in case any of our listeners care to look it up as well, but he... Someone is asking him a question, "What do I do to inherit eternal life?" And he starts to tell the story about... And he says, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus starts to tell the story about... To illustrate the answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" "And there was a man who was felled by robbers, he was down by the wayside and people who were in his kinship group passed him over, and then someone from outside of... Someone who might be seen as a stranger or enemy came and took care of him." So Jesus tells this and he tells it way better than I did, for many reasons. One, 'cause I'm rushing and two, 'cause he was the son of God. But he tells this story in a way that engages the listener, but also leads them to the story and leads them kind of to the moral of the story at the end. He says, "Well, who is the neighbor to the man who was injured?" Obviously, it was the Samaritan who took care of him.
Now, if you, Xalavier, are gonna go create a video game where there is someone... Where there are no words, but there's someone who falls down because they're injured by robbers, and I am the protagonist and I have to decide what I'm gonna choose to do in the video game, and there's a lot more freedom or there's a lot more giving up that you have to do to your audience in that moment than if you are just writing a story with a moral at the end that they could take or leave.
XNJ: Yes, and I think a perfect example of the exact dynamic that you're speaking about there is, just as an object lesson, consider trying to make the story of the Samaritan interactive. How do we make that meaningful? Well, if there's only three pieces of medicine in the entire world and if you are damaged in combat with some other entity, you need that medicine. And you see this person at the side of the road and there's no immediate benefit to you to help them. Choosing whether or not to do so becomes an interesting, agonizing choice.
We're talking about the Good Samaritan and we're also talking about the Pharisee. If we are talking about a game in which... And there are games like this which also exist, where you can have reputation and social standing with the people around you that you encounter, and here's this person injured, bleeding by the side of the road, and every moment you spend in their presence actively makes everyone start to lower their view of you. Your reputation, your standing plummets if you even enter their vicinity. You would be heavily incentivized to walk the other way because of the perspective and systems and reality that you accept as you move through this world. And it again, becomes a meaningful choice to get down into the dirt and muck and help this person.
As soon as we begin to explore the consequences of an interactive format, this beautiful spiraling constellation opens up of possibilities to reflect not just the ideal piece of our faith, but also the darkest possibility spaces. If we wanted to create a game in which you lived as a Pharisee and saw, "Man, being inside this person's head sucks, doesn't it?" That is, in itself, a really interesting way in which to... I love the term that you used earlier of molding someone's soul…to having lived through that perspective and mindset, have an instinctive distaste when you recognize it in yourself going forward, or when you see it in the world around you, that is the imprint that you can have on someone's life by bringing them through an experience like that. And it's one of the things that makes me thankful to be a game developer.
LA: Let's talk about your newest game, which is called An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Could you just give us a overview of what the concept behind this game is?
XNJ: Absolutely. An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is a first-person open-world comedy adventure game about journeying through a variety of humongous transit hubs, surrounded by a language you do not know, and experiencing the reality of a universe run by stock photo dogs. They run the airports, they run society, you and your fiancée are the last two human beings at the end of our world and the beginning of this utopian canine one and you are meeting these strange stock photo dogs solving their problems and finding time to spend with the people that you love in an absurd and inherently joyful and empathetic world. It's a series of exploring the implications and consequences of a perspective.
LA: Alright. So I wanna tell you so what I've found from watching my three children play the video game, and my 12-year-old was playing the video game, and then my seven-year-old and my nine-year-old were standing on either side of him, telling him where to go and which dogs to pet. I understood in a new way, that there's a power in video games, beyond the very compelling way that you've designed this game and your other games, to engage people in relationships and testing out the waters of these deep shoots like, "Relationships are important, we don't need to be violent." But there's something about being in a video game, where you are dropped into an environment where everything could be important, which we don't necessarily get in the regular world. We kind of go through life on autopilot, not thinking, "Maybe everything is important. Maybe this is the key to solving the puzzle that's in front of me." But when you're dropped into this video game world, you're really looking with new eyes at the world around you and noticing other people or other dogs, like, "Could they be important?" And I feel like that alone is a very maturing skill that at least my children could learn from the video game.
XNJ: So we have something that we haven't had the chance to actually talk much about, which is called The Dog Mod System. The Dog Mod System says, "People react to your actions." So if you throw a tennis ball at a dog, they will get fired up and you see beams of light shoot from them and they are energized. And sometimes, you use that to solve puzzles. The game is actively challenging you, in this point, to learn what things that you throw at people can meaningfully and positively alter them. If you get a guitar from a guitar shop and throw it at a dog, they instantly learn guitar and start shredding on the guitar.
And you can throw it at all of the dogs in the vicinity, to get them to start playing together, especially when you collect other instruments in the game.
...Did they try petting a vending machine?
LA: [laughter] They didn't.
XNJ: I ask why... I ask if they've ever petted a vending machine, because a vending machine has a dog on it. So if it's dog-shaped you should be able to pet that thing, and you can. And we...
LA: I'm gonna tell 'em that this is the cheat code from the game developer that I just found out. They're gonna love me this afternoon.
XNJ: You're gonna be the cool one 'cause you get to tell them, Hey, why don't you try petting that thing over there? And it makes total sense once you've been told the explicit purpose is to recognize that if there's something dog-shaped, you can pet it and express thankfulness and joy towards this thing. You can pet the garbage cans, and it's like, Hey, thank you. You helped me get rid of my trash. Finding these small, tiny ways of expressing your meaningful appreciation and joy in as many areas as possible doesn't just breed a certain mindset in the player immediately as they start to inhabit this perspective. It also just quite simply makes the game so much more enjoyable to make.
I've worked on violent, dark things, some of them with significant artistic value. But there is a burden that comes with working on a game like that. It feels like you're putting on these weights, and that if you put on enough, you will be dragged down, or worse.—And every time I stepped away from working on this game, I felt happy. I felt like I had made something good and purposeful, and that the thing I had produced was going to make a meaningful, positive impact on someone else that I didn't know yet. The keyword being yet, because through the experience of playing this game, they would know me and I would know them, and there would be a personal connection via sharing this same perspective.
It changed the way I make games, 'cause as soon as I felt like, I can feel this way all the time? I could step away from my computer and I can feel a lightness and a joy, and like I got away with something. I got away with making someone's day, through a tiny little detail in one part of an airport that one person's gonna find, and I get to find over and over again someone who's like, "Yeah, someone put that there for me?" I'm like, "Yeah, I put that there for you." It is a conversation. And yeah, I keep coming back to being so thankful. I'm so thankful to God that I'm the person who got to make this game, out of everyone in the world. I had the honor of being able to put this into the world, no matter how many copies that it sells or what its reception has been. And while I'm pretty happy for the positive reception, we just got reviewed by The Guardian, which is mind-blowing.
LA: Oh, that's fantastic.
XNJ: But no matter what the reception is, the fact that the game exists at all, the fact that I got to touch this thing, that is the victory. It could sell no copies, and I would be ecstatic, because this is the engine through which I feel I have had a conversation with God about the types of things I can bring into the world. And I cannot wait to make more things that make me feel like this.
LA: I hope for others who are not video game designers, but people listening to our podcast, I do feel like there's something we can all take from that, from your excitement of doing your job well so that one person who encounters the product of your work could encounter you and encounter God through that. Mark, tell me if that connected with you as a video game non-initiatee.
MR: I was thinking similarly, Leah, that though this is a very distinctive kind of work, and what I love about what you've described, Xalavier, is how you are... You're taking your faith and you're not only saying, "Well, I need to be a good Christian in my relationships with my colleagues," though I'm sure you believe that and do that, but it's more, "How could I actually embed my faith more deeply in my work?" And you've described your process. Well, there are so many other ways. I can't imagine, in fact, a job, other than maybe criminal behavior, that you couldn't... Really think about what would it mean, really, to do this in a distinctively Christian way, whether I'm selling shoes? What does it mean to serve people in the shoe store in a deeply Christian way? Or I'm running a company, or I'm an artist or whatever it is. After we're done, I wanna reflect more on my own work and just think about it in a more of a narrative way and see what I come up with. So this has been great. This is an exciting conversation, and I think it's gonna be both inspirational, but also stretching to many of us. And that's great.
LA: Xalavier Nelson Jr., thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It's been a real pleasure.
XNJ: It has been an honor and a delight chatting with y'all. Thank you for having me.
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