Monthly Archives: March 2005

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Video game lends new meaning to ‘Covenant’

[REPRINTED courtesy of Covenant Communications, March 2005]


I crouched, and I waited.

Having stealthily navigated my way through Covenant headquarters, I hunched at the end of a darkened passageway, overhearing the voices of several high-ranking Covenant officials. In silence, I waited for the right moment to spring into action and fulfill my mission to defeat the Prophet of Regret. More Covenant reinforcements closed in; I knew my window of opportunity was almost shut. Frantically, I leapt out of the corner, threw a plasma grenade, and ran a zigzag route through the room toward the opposite gate. I was so close I could taste it! And then – just as suddenly – it was over. I’d advanced so close to my objective, only to fall prey to enemy sniper fire.

Most Companion readers read the previous account and wonder: Is this a description of some sort of post-CHIC paintball tournament, or just a bizarre dream from a disgruntled E.C.C. employee? The answer, of course, is neither. Astute video gamers recognize this account of the exploits of Master Chief, the star of Bungie Studios’ critically-acclaimed XBox video game title “Halo 2.” Like many games of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre, its gameplay consists of wandering through futuristic worlds and shooting at ferocious alien creatures. The relentless action is punctuated by cinematic cutscenes that advance the storyline.

As video games go, it is a familiar story: The fate of mankind is threatened by a vicious alien race, and one man must lead the charge to resist these galactic oppressors. Ever since the 80s classic “Space Invaders,” video games have followed this time-tested formula. As the years pass, technological advances have continued to dramatically improve the presentation with more realistic graphics and audio. As a result, the quarter-fed arcade games of the past – with their blips and bleeps and reflex-driven game play – are obsolete. The advent of home console gaming1 has, over time, produced a standard of game play that combines complex three-dimensional controls with cinematic storytelling. As a result, many of today’s video games are visually stunning, emotionally engaging, and maddeningly addictive.

What’s more, many of these games are designed not only to be played at home with one or two players, but over broadband internet connections with many players. With variable options for appearance and technique, players can customize their own digital likeness and participate in many kinds of competition. Game companies dedicate numerous servers to support massive online arenas where players can chat, form clans, and join leagues.

As a result, video games are starting to rival movies in the pop culture marketplace. In both overall popularity and cult fanaticism, video games are consuming more dollars (sidebar statistics?) than ever before. When combined with the power of the Internet, video games provide not only riveting recreational experiences via online play, but significant exercises in community and self-identity.

Not surprisingly, many church leaders see video games as having unparalleled outreach potential. Phil Cannon, Director of Youth and Outreach at Glenview Covenant Church (Illinois), has held Halo competitions at church on more than one occasion. “With one [event] in particular, we weren’t going for evangelism per se… but we sure did get a lot of kids that week.” An avid gamer, he played throughout college and into adulthood, and sees video games as being a natural connection point for youth and young adult groups.

Naturally, he was excited about the November release of Halo 2. Clearly, he was not alone in his excitement.

According to published reports, Bungie Studios corporate parent Microsoft grossed well over $100 million on the first day of sales. By comparison, most films are considered financially successful if they can bring in $100 in an entire opening weekend. With such an unprecedented release, the national buzz surrounding Halo 2 was virtually palpable.

Any media product with that kind of buzz is sure to gain the attention of youth pastors, Covenant or otherwise. But this particular game shares a link of mutuality with the Evangelical Covenant Church in its usage of the term “Covenant.” In both Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequel Halo 2, “The Covenant” are the evil aliens in question. While not necessarily a direct reference to the E.C.C., Bungie’s use of the term “The Covenant” to represent their alien forces is, to say the least, unusual. As such, it begs the question of whether or not this usage is coincidental, especially since its lead designer, Jaime Griesemer, is a graduate of North Park University. Such a coincidence is bound to raise the eyebrows of even the least cynical among us. With so many Halo fans in the E.C.C., and two key Bungie staffers (Griesemer and Bungie’s Audio Director, Marty O’Donnell) with Covenant ties, it couldn’t all be coincidence… could it?

When asked this question, Cannon was in the affirmative. “It seems pretty much coincidental to me. I don’t see a connection, really.” On the other hand, Eric Gonzalez, an employee at E.C.C. headquarters, seemed somewhat skeptical. “No…” he said, pausing to think. “I don’t think it’s coincidental. There’s gotta be some deeper meaning to it.” Whether the Bungie braintrust was taking aim at mystic spirituality, the mega-church phenomenon, or making a political statement about the separation of church and state, Gonzalez isn’t quite sure. Nevertheless, he feels, something deeper is afoot.

As it turns out, they’re both right.

Or maybe they’re both wrong?

It’s hard to tell.

Audio Director Marty O’Donnell recently shed some light on the issue.

Being a member of the Covenant denomination for many years, I find it somewhat humorous — and sometimes fitting — to refer to the ‘Covenant hoard’ but no, there is no significance [to the term ‘Covenant’] other than the meaning that in our fictional alien sci-fi galaxy, various alien races banded together after eons of warfare and made a covenant to explore and conquer in relative harmony.”

From this answer, it seems as though the conspiracy theorists are bereft of a leg to stand on. But what about some of the other quasi-religious symbolism contained within the game? Playing the game, it seems as though the Bungie collective is trying to make a statement about the nature of religion. The answer, O’Donnell says, lies in the philosophy behind how and why the alien races are depicted the way they are.

In [the first] Halo, we wanted the enemies to seem like more than simple targets, but we felt like that didn’t come through well enough. For Halo 2, we didn’t want the enemy to seem like cardboard cutouts, so we decided to show more of the story of these alien races; [specifically] their religion and culture, in order to help the player understand what he’s fighting against.

The Covenant are a complex society that use religion to justify their power and political structures. Those who disagree with the orthodoxy are heretics, and the leaders are the Prophets. I think that using language charged with religious symbolism is a relatively easy way to give weight to a fictional society in a way that most people can understand. And yes, I believe that Bungie is stating the obvious truth that religion for the sake of religion is usually not a healthy thing for living things. History certainly shows that false religions can be quite damaging.”

An assertion of that magnitude might normally come from an atheist or agnostic, but obviously O’Donnell is neither. And while some may imagine software development to be a difficult arena to express one’s faith, O’Donnell feels his challenges are probably no more difficult than other Christians in other fields. Even though this mini-controversy surrounding “The Covenant” of Halo is a relatively new development, having his faith and work intersect certainly isn’t – especially since he’s been doing audio design and scoring for film and TV since the early 80s. His work with Bungie is especially exciting to him, since it involves “attempting to solve aesthetic puzzles that are unique to this new dynamic medium.”

While Halo 2 seems to be somewhat of a juggernaut in terms of popularity, concerns still arise about the game’s relative appropriateness for youth. This stems from fact that the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rated Halo 2 as “M for Mature,” a designation that means the game is recommended for persons 17 and over. Lately, most of the headline-grabbing video game controversy is centered around Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the news of his proposed legislation to ban the sales of M-rated games to children under 17. The idea is for retailers to police themselves in the same manner than movie theaters do.

Being both a video game insider and a parent, O’Donnell takes an even-keeled approach.

The ESRB ratings are about as reliable as the movie ratings. There are ‘R’ movies that I think a mature 16 can handle, but plenty of ‘PG-13’ movies that make me sick. Halo 2 doesn’t contain gratuitous violence, language, or sex but it is intense and violent and therefore I think an “M” rating is appropriate. Parents should certainly play it and understand it before giving it to their kids. I let my kids play Halo and Halo 2 because they can handle it, and my youngest was 16 when Halo came out.”

So as the youth and young adults of today settle into their recreational pursuits, the axiom is continually proven: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Parents who fondly remember the hours they spent in line waiting for concert tickets have children doing the same thing for video games. Even though the technology has improved, and the games have become infinitely more interactive, the fellowship remains constant. So anywhere you find an Xbox and a copy of Halo 2, you’ll find young people totally immersed in video game combat, blowing each other to bits and bringing a new definition to the term “Covenant.”

1 First with the Atari 2600 in the late 80s, then with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis in the 90s, and now the Playstation 2 and XBOX.