Friday, March 25, 2011

Religion in Jason Rohrer’s Chain World

gdc-chain-world-building-a-religion-20110307040319023-000Every year, the best and brightest minds in game development convene in San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference. The GDC is an opportunity for studios to shill, speakers to speak, and for developers to share ideas on how to, well, develop.

Arguably the biggest game of GDC 2010 – despite it still technically being in beta – was Minecraft. It won the Seamus McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival. Everyone on the floor tweeted sightings of Minecraft’s creator Notch.

Given its popularity within the development community, it’s fitting that the annual development competition was won with a Minecraft mod. The year’s theme was “Bigger Than Jesus.” Jason Rohrer, the man behind Sleep is Death and Passage, beat out the likes of John Romero and Jenova Chen with Chain World.

Can a game be a religion? Can it at the very least imitate one? What happens when its followers abuse or misinterpret its precepts? These questions surround Rohrer’s “game.”

The World

The competition tasked developers with building a game around religion or the idea thereof. Romero organized a group of twelve apostles and ordered them to “convert” members of the audience with colored post-it notes. Chen stressed the importance of the world with one’s ideas, proposing an added level of interactivity to TED talks, the Big Idea talks given by everyone from Bill Gates to Jane McGonigal.

Rohrer, wisely exploiting the crowd’s Minecraft fetish, created Chain World, an exclusive Minecraft universe that could only be played by one person at a time. Drawing on stories from his late grandfather, he based Chain World on the notion that chains of ideas beget spirituality.

Uniquely linking one user to the next could generate similar feelings to the ones people developer for religion. That the one true Chain World exists only one a single USB stick creates a holy relic, the handling of which bestows a sense of legacy to the holder. Rohrer, like any good architect of religion, even issued a set of “commandments”:

1. Run Chain World via one of the included “run_ChainWorld” launchers.
2. Start a single-player game and pick “Chain World”.
3. Play until you die exactly once.
3a. Erecting wooden signs with text is forbidden
3b. Suicide is permissible.
4. Immediately after dying and respawning, quit to the menu.
5. Allow the world to save.
6. Exit the game and wait for your launcher to automatically copy Chain World back to the USB stick.
7. Pass the USB stick to someone else who expresses interest.
8. Never discuss what you saw or did in Chain World with anyone.
9. Never play again.

Rule 9 is the least like any religion, but it’s necessary for moving Chain World along. Without it, there are no disciples, no legacy, no “chain.”

The Tithing Process

Because of – or perhaps in spite of - its intended purpose, Chain World resembles religion more and more each day.

Rohrer’s stipulations seem tailor made to be broken like so many commandments. Could he really have believed that no one would hide text somewhere in the world or accidentally die and tell themselves that “one little respawn wouldn’t hurt”? The incredible appeal of Chain World, the allure of exclusivity, has already driven and will continue to drive people to act in ways contrary to the tenets its creator set forth. Sound familiar?

That there is controversy surrounding Jia Ji’s charging money for the third spot is a prime example. Though the money will be donated to charity, the immediate negative reaction has been that attaching monetary value to Chain World feels antithetical to the idealistic nature of the whole experiment.

But isn’t it just a tithe? An offering? It’s for a good cause, right? Rohrer surely foresaw this, and his encouragement of chain-breaking implies that he’s more interested in the mutation of his creation than its purity.


Wikipedia (yes, I know) defines religion as “a cultural system that creates powerful and long-lasting meaning, by establishing symbols that relate humanity to beliefs and values.” Can interactive achievement create or otherwise support such a system? That was the primary question of this challenge.

Chain World is equal parts metaphor and satirical performance art. The rules, the emergence, the legacy, the importance of an interested community: these are Chain World’s earnest imitations of religion. The potential for corruption (if you want to call it that), the differences in interpretation, the open-endedness: these are Chain World’s comments and observations of religion in the Western World.

Developer enthusiasm for Chain World also correlates to one of religion’s basic functions: answering the Big Questions. Why do we exist? Why are we here?

Games, at least in the self-proclaimed “artistic” community, are facing similar crises. Roger Ebert proclaims that games can’t be art, debate ensues, resolves are questioned. Genres grow stale, graphics dominate gameplay, and independent developers struggle to make an impact. Jane McGonigal claims that gameification can improve our lives.

If Chain World can be a successful religion, I don’t see why it can’t.