WASHINGTON — When Dominican Brother Athanasius Murphy entered the Order of Preachers, he never imagined that his mission of saving souls for Christ would include building a video game.
But that’s exactly what Brother Athanasius and a group of fellow Dominican friars have done in their spare time over the last several months — in what one of them describes as a new front in the New Evangelization.
“Grasping someone’s attention in our society today is one of the first steps in the New Evangelization,” said Dominican Brother Athanasius, a deacon training to be a priest.
The video game, which officially launched on Feb. 24, has a more immediate purpose: It’s a creative way of stoking interest in a prayer vigil the Dominican friars are holding at St. Dominic Church in Washington to mark the start of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent, during which statues in parish sanctuaries are traditionally covered in purple. The celebration of Passiontide is preparation for Holy Week. This is the second year the Dominicans are holding a Passiontide prayer vigil.
The idea for the video game arose after the friars explored seemingly every other avenue of drumming up attention — including posters, handwritten flyers, social media, word of mouth and even a retreat.
Dominican Father Thomas More Garrett, the newly appointed associate pastor at St. Pius V Church in Providence, R.I., said he brought the game idea up with Brother Athanasius after reflecting on the successes of the advertising campaign for their first Passiontide prayer vigil, held in 2015. Father Garrett recalled telling his fellow friar, “I don’t know what possibly we could do to expand interest in Passiontide — maybe if we invented a video game.”
“And at that point, it was kind of a joke,” Father Garrett said.
But as Father Garrett reflected further, the idea seemed less fanciful or far-fetched. “Why not take a little bit of space away from the devil? The devil is in this space heavily. Let’s square a little off for the Holy Spirit,” Father Garrett said, recalling their conversation.
Gaming, With a Side of Church History
The result, a little over half a year later, is a video game reminiscent of those popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Passiontide: The Game features a cappa-wearing Dominican friar who must make his way to St. Dominic Church in Washington. On the way, he encounters Albigensians, members of a heretical sect that broke out in France in the 12th to 14th centuries. The Dominican order was originally founded to fight the heresy. This year, the order is marking its 800th anniversary.
In the game, the Dominican friar must redeem candles and copies of the Summa Theologiae, the treatise by St. Thomas Aquinas, and convert heretics in order to earn points. He wins the game when he arrives at St. Dominic Church. His final score depends on how many converted heretics he brings with him.
“This is such a fun, creative way to draw attention to an event. It evokes the early days of Super Mario and similar platform games. The angry mushrooms and turtles have been replaced by heretics, and instead of Mario, the player walks around as a Dominican monk,” said Father Roderick Vonhögen, a priest from the Netherlands and self-described gamer who reviews video games on a podcast and his YouTube channel.
But the game also conveys an important message about how to win over heretics and others to the faith, Father Vonhögen added.
“What I love about this initiative is that it uses humor and the language of video games to convey an important mission: Evangelization is not about destroying your opponents, but about their transformation. As you jump on heretics, they turn back into regular people that you bring along with you to the event — exactly what we should do in real life as well: Invite people and touch them with the faith and light that you have found yourself,” he said.
As of this writing, exact figures on how many people have been playing were not available, but Brother Athanasius estimates that thousands of people have been playing it, based on a three- to fourfold increase in traffic on the video-game site just two days after it was formally unveiled.
Although the graphics for the video game may be crude by the standards of today, Father Garrett is convinced that the sheer novelty of it will break through all the things competing for the attention of their target demographic for the Passiontide prayer vigil: young adults. “What I’m trying to do is carve out space or compete for space in their memory,” he said.
But the game serves a larger aim beyond being a creative means of advertising a prayer vigil. Father Garrett said he hopes it inspires other Catholics with greater technical skill to develop more advanced games as a new tactic in the New Evangelization. “I don’t expect for this to be the greatest Catholic video game ever built, even by religious,” Father Garrett said. “By no means do I want it to be the last or, frankly, the best.”
Father Vonhögen agrees that the idea has potential. “When I wrote my book Geek Priest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, I wondered why the powerful medium of video games wasn’t used more for evangelization and catechesis. After all, video games play such a massive role in the world of young people today.”
“This initiative is a great example of the potential of this important medium,” he said. “The Catholic Church has always embraced new media to spread the Gospel; video games could be the next powerful medium for the New Evangelization.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
Passiontide: The Game can be played on smartphones or other handheld devices. It can be accessed online at http://passiontidedc.appspot.com.
The Passiontide prayer vigil will be held at St. Dominic Church in Washington on March 12 at 7pm.