The Catechism with Lights, Bells, and Whistles

Divinity Religious Product's computer games make learning the Catholic faith fun

CATHOLIC LEADERS around the world have taken steps in recent years to ensure that a healthy Church ushers in the coming celebration of 2,000 years of Christianity. In 1992, Pope John Paul II released the first universal Catechism in more than 400 years and throughout his pontificate has called for a re-catechizing of Catholics everywhere. The U.S. bishops, for their part, have stressed the importance of finding new ways to engage youth and young adults with the age-old truths of the Catholic faith.

As the Pope and the bishops lay the groundwork, Divinity Religious Products, a small, like-minded company in Southern California, is working hard to make those goals a reality. The company's approach to the challenges mirrors the basic philosophy shared by almost all effective educators: It's crucial to make the material to be learned enjoyable.

Divinity has done just that in the games it has created based on the Catechism and on the Bible. The six-year-old company has also taken the extra step of submitting its products for ecclesiastical review and all have received the Church's imprimatur (let it be printed) and nihil obstat, indicating its freedom from doctrinal or moral error.

“We've taken material from the new Catechism and The New American Bible and made it more reachable and more fun to learn for lay people ages seven and up,” says Michael McKay, a theologian and vice-president of Divinity. “We're helping to build people's religious vocabularies.”

The company has produced two popular board games—the Catholic Family Bible Game and Divinity, the Catholic Catechism Learning System— and the Catholic Quiz series of question and answer flip books for grades one through nine.

It's Divinity's latest game, however, Catholic Challenge, that is attracting the most attention and stands to revolutionize the way people reinforce knowledge of their faith. Catholic Challenge marries questions drawn from the Catechism and Scripture with the latest advances in multi-media to create an exciting game for play on computers.

“It's our answer to the fast-paced video culture,” says McKay. “People are coming to depend on their Macs and PCs for everything from surfing the Web to information on balancing their checkbooks. Now they'll have the chance to use computers to increase knowledge of their faith in an entertaining way.”

Catholic Challenge brings the Catechism to life on the computer screen. Like the four sections of the 800-page document, questions for the game fall into four areas—Believe, Celebrate, Live, and Pray. Bold graphics, a ticking timer, cheers and jeers from a phantom audience, and other effects give it the multi-media feel computer games depend on to engage demanding audiences in the '90s. Game settings can easily be customized, allowing kids to compete against adults and novices against theologians.

“The colors, the tumbling dice, the bells and whistles, all make it really fun to play,” says Darren Hogan.

A 27-year-old New Haven, Conn. area fund-raiser, Hogan says he's not a game player by nature but has nonetheless become a Catholic Challenge aficionado.

“I usually prefer to read or take a walk, but I'm interested in my faith and this is a way to test what you know and to learn more. The game is fast and informative and you have to concentrate if you don't want to get tripped up on the really tricky questions.”

Hogan sees Catholic Challenge not only as a good game, but as a useful tool to further the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II has urged to prepare for the coming Jubilee year of Christianity.

“If you have people over, it's a lot more comfortable to play a game than to just start talking about your faith,” he says. “Besides, it's less intimidating for everybody when you have the questions being posed by a computer.”

And Catholic Challenge really does seem to get friends and families who play examining and talking about their faith.

“I thought the game was a good idea,” says Fritz Heinzen, a 40-year-old father of three, “but when I heard that it was supposed to promote discussion, I was a little skeptical. When you land on a square that presents you with a moral dilemma, before you know it you're talking about these profound ideas in the middle of the game.”

The Heinzens, who are big game players according to Fritz, sometimes play as often as three times a week. But Fritz likes the fact that his eight-year-old daughter, Katie, often plays on her own.

“Any kid who owns a computer can play this game” he says, adding that he's often surprised to see how much his oldest daughter, who attends Holy Spirit School in northern Virginia, knows.

“The game reinforces what she's already learned and prepares her for what she's going to learn,” he says.

By the time Katie hits fifth grade, the second grader might just get a chance to show her chops in competition. In conjunction with William H. Sadlier, Inc., a leader in the Catholic education business for 465 years, Divinity recently launched a “Religion Bee,” based on questions from Catholic Challenge and the Catholic Quiz series.

The pilot contest, held this spring in Orange, Calif., included nearly 400 fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders from across the diocese.

“It was a great teaching moment to have students take the study booklets home to prepare with their parents,” said Ruth Bradley, director of the diocesan Office for Religious Education. “It was an opportunity to get them talking about their faith.”

In a “Family Feud” style contest, four-person teams in two age groups—a fifth-sixth grade team from Serra School and a seventh-eighth grade team from San Francisco Solano Parish, both in Rancho Santa Margarita, Ca.— won top honors and passes to nearby Disneyland for their efforts. Now, with the success of that first “Religion Bee,” Divinity and Sadlier are working with other dioceses to put on contests in the coming school year.

“We plan to take it national and then international,” says Divinity CEO Lee Leichtag, who already has made inroads with the company's games in Mexico and Italy.

“Imagine it—an international ‘Religion Bee.’” Leichtag has the air of a dreamer when speaking of the company's future plans. But the 76-year-old self-made millionaire also has the resources and acumen to pull it off.

Though not particularly religious, Leichtag, who was born Jewish, was driven by the belief that the answer to society's many problems—drug abuse, teen pregnancy, violent crime, etc.—just might be found in religion.

“My dream was to do something for kids and parents, to bring families closer together,” he says. “And what better way than to get them to sit down together and deal with moral questions that prepare you to do good in the world. I hope and believe these games can help do that.”

Leichtag knows the games aren't a cure-all for society's woes. Neither are they a one-stop solution to religious education.

“Faith is obviously more than a cognitive experience and facts are just one part of it,” says the Diocese of Orange's Bradley. “But Catholic Challenge reinforces knowledge of the facts and can bring families together in their faith development.”

It's just that element that led Sadlier, probably the best known supplier of Catholic textbooks and other religious goods, to team-up with Divinity.

“Our products always have a family component and their games are so well done that they're generating excitement and interest everywhere our reps take them across the country,” says Sister Christine Kresho CSJ, Sadlier's director of marketing.

Catholic Challenge is the kind of product that sells itself, she says. “At conventions and conferences where we've shown it, people sit down to play and they don't want to leave until they can purchase it,” she adds.

Later this year Divinity plans to release a second computer game, this one based strictly on the Bible. But getting their games out to the Catholic community at large is the greatest challenge now facing the company.

“As good as our products might be, there's no established retail system,” says Leichtag. “There are no footprints, but we're ready to be pioneers.”

Whatever it takes, Leichtag says, he's ready to go the distance.

Stephen Lorenz is based in New Haven, Conn.