Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 11/23/20

Virtual virtuosos on a virtuous mission. Recently, I reported on DvG: Conquering Giants, a virtual reality game described as “a reimagined immersive experience based on one of history’s greatest Biblical duels (David vs. Goliath).” The game drops today (11/23) on the SteamVR platform, as well as others over the coming weeks.

The concept is the brainchild of Hollywood visual effects artist Jarom Sidwell (whose work includes blockbusters as The Avengers, Avatar, The Hobbit, The Adventures of TinTin, Man of Steel and Transformers) and Virtuous VR Gaming (VVRG) Founder and CEO Bill Issler who share a vision of producing video games that apply movie-style inspirational storytelling to the world of virtual reality. DvG, their first collaboration, is aimed at creating a thrilling VR experience for gamers while also putting forth the moral message of the original biblical story – not just by watching a hero make choices (as we do at the movies) but by actually experiencing events with the character.  The duo plan to develop more such games utilizing characters that may or may not come from The Bible.

After my initial post, I sought them out to learn more.

JWK: How did the idea for DvG come about?

BILL ISSLER: I have a software company. I’ve in the business for about 40 years and towards the end of that period of time virtual reality started to come into play – and also augmented reality. So, I started looking into buying some of the equipment to see how I could bring it into the industry.  As a result of that, I ended up making a company called IndustryLift.org to develop virtual reality into little five and ten minute games (to help) young people get into the skilled trades. So, we made a game about welding, a game about iron workers and forklift operators. And when that was going well, I thought it would be really cool to do something with the other passion of my life which is my Christian worldview.

I thought could we make some virtuous games? We looked at people who were in virtual reality who knew a lot more than I did and, through Google searches, found Immersive History which is Jarom’s company.  We connected and at that point we started looking at what we could do to explore a fun, virtuous gaming environment.

JAROM SIDWELL: I was sitting in a Bible study group and we were talking about Jesus Christ in the temple. I looked around the room and everybody seemed like they were tuned out and bored. So, I asked myself the question “Why is everyone bored?” (The answer was) they’re bored because they can’t visualize it…That started us down this path of working with rabbis, pastors, scholars and tour guides to create ancient Jerusalem from 2000 years ago. We did that and that’s in our Immersive Bible app.

Bill found that and we started talking about (possibilities). We share a love for virtual reality. We got together and I showed him the prototype of a giant soldier that was about 12 feet tall in virtual reality. When you see that in virtual reality, it’s pretty intimidating. From there, we decided “Hey, this is the perfect impetus to create a David Versus Goliath VR game” – to put people in the game as David playing as if they were that character from the Bible.

JWK: I guess that Bible story lends itself particularly well to this kind of treatment.

JS: Absolutely.

BI: We thought that might be the perfect (story) for a gaming community to (come together) to play something – and then learn some of the virtuous (concepts) that are incorporated into the (plot) about how a young shepherd boy ends up fighting a goliath and, as a result of that,  goes on the path to become the king of Israel.

JWK: Will this be the first of many biblical stories to be given this treatment?

BI: I can say that we’re going to use this to shoot us forward to make more virtuous stories. Biblical stories do have virtues in them (but) that’s not necessarily the only place we’re gonna go…We have a user base. You don’t have to be someone who understands the Bible to enjoy the gaming technique.

JS: The good thing about virtual reality, John, is that it’s completely immersive. Rather than a console game where you’re pressing A or X and that does something on the screen to a character, you actually do the actions in virtual reality. We wanted DvG to be a very active game. You know, get the heart rate going. So, you have to pump your hand to walk. If you want to (go) to the right, you pump to the right. If you want to go forward, you pump forward. If you want to run away from a lion or a wolf, you pump faster.

We also included a sling (mechanism) which is very unique but is, obviously, David’s weapon of choice to defeat the giant. So, you have to wind up and throw every time you want to throw a rock. It’s a really fun and a very active (mechanism). And it’s really fun to watch. You know, other people gather around and, when you cast it or screen share it onto the TV, they can see what you’re doing and it becomes a really run activity for classmates, families and youth groups to do together.

JWK: Jason, you’re known for creating effects for films like Avatar and The Avengers. How is the process different – including the plotting out process – for a virtual reality game as compared to a non-interactive movie? Or is it different?

JS: It’s actually pretty different. One of the things that I love about games – and especially virtual reality games – is that, rather than a passive experience where you’re watching a character do something, you become that character.

As we were building this out, we were kinda leaning toward having the high-end special effects, making it look “photo real” (but) after we brought in a bunch of kids in our target age group – you know, in that early and mid- teenager range (the game is rated E10+) – we found that having the wolves circling them – from 360 degrees inside the headset – was a little intimidating.  Some said they were scared, so we dialed the look back to make it a little bit more cartoony so that it has a broader appeal and is more family friendly.

JWK: Am I right that you have two levels of play – one a little more scary and the other less so?

JS: It’s not (really more) scary.  It’s the level of difficulty. So, a sling – just like in David’s time – takes a bit of time to master but, when you become a master of it, it’s a very powerful weapon. It’s a very, very rewarding part of the game, as well. (But) we also put a slingshot in there as well. Most people know the mechanics of the slingshot and they’re pretty familiar with it. You know, you hold the forked stick in one hand and you pull back the string with other and let it fly. So, you able to use two weapons – the slingshot and the sling.

JWK: I notice looking over some of the movies you’ve worked on – such as The Avengers, The Hobbit and Man of Steel – some of them, at least, have some pretty distinct Christian themes and references. Is that why you chose to work on them – or is that just sort of a coincidence?

JS: That’s just coincidence. I was really blessed to work on a lot of these good films that had good messages behind them. I really enjoyed (them) and what’s really cool about where we’re doing at Immersive History and Virtuous VR Gaming is that get to choose that content now.  We get to choose the stories (we tell) and the morals and values that are shared.

****

The Grateful Dozen. As we near the end of a challenging year, film retailer Redbox is a list of 10 movies that remind us that there’s still a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. At the end of the list, I suggest two great ones they somehow missed. BTW, the company begins offering on-demand holiday deals tomorrow (11/24).

1.       It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
An angel teaches suicidal businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) that his life has meaning. Attitude of Gratitude: Life is a gift.

2.       To Kill a Mockingbird(1962)
In the depression-era south, defense attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), an innocent black man from a charge of rape. The screenplay by Horton Foote is based on Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same nameAttitude of Gratitude: Thank God for people who have the courage to face down the mob.

3.       The Blind Side (2009)
Future first-round NFL draft pick Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) rises from homelessness with the help of a compassionate woman (Sandra Bullock) and her family. Attitude of Gratitude: Thank God for human kindness – especially when combined with talent and perseverance.

4.       Forrest Gump (1994)
A mentally-slow man (Tom Hanks) lives a life of virtue.  Attitude of Gratitude: Thank God for the pure of heart.

5.       Just Mercy(2019)
An attorney (Michael B. Jordan) fights an uphill battle to defend a man wrongly condemned to death row (Jamie Foxx). Attitude of Gratitude: Thank God for those who stand up for justice.

6.       Charlotte’s Web(2006)
A spider teaches a pig about life and death. Attitude of Gratitude: (per Trudelle H. Thomas), “Even in the face of death, life continues and ultimate goodness wins out”.

7.       The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The true story of a salesman (Will Smith) and his son as they struggle through financial ruin and homelessness. Attitude of Gratitude: Be grateful for the good times – and for the ability to persevere through the hard times.

Spoiler Alert (ending)

8.       A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) offers a new perspective to a cynical reporter profiling him. Attitude of Gratitude: Thank God for the gift of silence – and for  “all the people who loved us into being.”

9.       Wonder (2017)
A boy with facial differences is subjected to the taunts of his classmates. Attitude of Gratitude: In a world where people can be cruel, thank God for those who opt to be kind.

10.   Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
A grumpy grinch wants to ruin Christmas for everyone. Attitude of Gratitude:  Don’t be a grinch. Embrace the joy of the holiday season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqOOUJFv1n0

And here are two I would humbly add to the mix:

11. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
A surrealistic romantic fable following the journey of Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) as he learns to let go of neurotic fears, trust God, move forward and be grateful for every precious moment of life. Attitude of Gratitude: You don’t have to understand God to trust Him and to be awed and grateful for His blessings.

12. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Finally, (I don’t know how the folks at Redbox missed this one), this John Hughes classic is about an uptight business and family man (Steve Martin) and an obnoxious salesman (John Candy) thrown together in a ridiculously chaotic effort to make it home by Thanksgiving. Attitude of Gratitude: Even life’s most frustrating setbacks can, on reflection, be appreciated as funny. Also, it’s good to understand, forgive and share the holidays even with those who usually tend to annoy us because, as Desiderata notes, “they too have their story.”

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

 

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