Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gaming for Church Reform

UPDATE 7/14/2011: Cheyenne Ehrlich, the founder of SGR Games, LLC, makers of "Vatican Wars", reports that "players of Vatican Wars today elected their first Pope. By a margin of less than 3%, Higgins defeated Karolka Wojtyla in a tight race. Higgins ran on a platform that supported abortion rights for women, same sex marriage, the use of birth control, the ordination of women and an end to priest celibacy." A new Pope will now be elected each week in Vatican Wars. Stay tuned....

The news release launching Vatican Wars, a new Facebook game aimed at Catholics, was irresistible:

"SGR Games, LLC (“SGR”) today announced the launch of Vatican Wars, a revolutionary social game that exists at the intersection of religion, politics and social issues. Players are divided into two teams based on their opinions on topics including abortion, same sex marriage, the ordination of women and the use of birth control. Each team then works to ensure that a player from the other team is not elected Pope.

“We did extensive surveying of Catholics before launching the game and were surprised to find that 80% of Catholics surveyed supported creating a game where they could debate these topics,” said Cheyenne Ehrlich, Founder of SGR Games, LLC. “It will be interesting to see if that’s because they want to elect a liberal Pope or because they want to prove that Catholics are unified and conservative on these issues.”

In Vatican Wars, a player who is elected Pope can make gradual changes to the Church’s position on each topic. Gradual changes made by ten consecutive liberal Popes could, for example, reverse the Church’s position on same sex marriage. Popes are elected based on their own gameplay, their team’s gameplay and actual voting by all players. Gameplay within Vatican Wars is based on the Catholic liturgical calendar, daily readings, Saints of the day and debating theology.

Vatican Wars is not SGR's first venture into Catholic Facebook gaming. Last year, the virtual company created another game called PriestVille, which has ended (the "Play Now" link on this Web site redirects the viewer to the Facebook page for Vatican Wars). According to one player, Dustin Faber, who posted a review of the game on his blog, PriestVille involved first naming your virtual priest. "Immediately after naming your priest, it asks you to state your beliefs: Whether or not you think Priests should marry, if a bishop should be picked by the diocese or Rome, and if the statute of limitations on a priest should expire after 20 years or have no expiration...The game has you carry out priestly tasks to level up (using indulgences instead of points), such as saying Mass, giving homilies on certain topics, etc. In addition, you can buy priestly items such as bibles, stoles, chasubles (some of which you'll need to do certain tasks), and challenge other priests with different beliefs to win their parishioners. The game does a decent job at making you feel like a priest (minus the 3 a.m. phone calls from college kids going through a mental crisis), making you choose between improving your charisma or religious knowledge, or choosing what duties you carry out in a certain day..."

PriestVille seems to have had a positive impact on the faith of its players while it lasted. SGR Games commissioned a user survey involving 461 players who had played the game through Level 15 or above and at least 18 hours and posted the results on the PriestVille blog. Among the findings:

  • 45% of young men (age 24 and younger) said that playing PriestVille made them more interested in becoming a priest (Vocation directors, time to brush up on your social media and gaming skills!).

  • 54% of seminarians surveyed said that playing PriestVille could help their friends and families better understand why they are considering the priesthood.

  • 30% of practicing Catholics who attend Mass less than once per week said that, since they started playing PriestVille, they attend Mass more often, and
    the percentage of this group who do Daily Readings at least once per week grew from 4% to 52% since they started playing PriestVille.

  • 83% of Catholic clergy surveyed said they would recommend PriestVille to members of their parish and 76% said they think it would be a useful tool for bringing people back to the Church.

So who, or what, is SGR Games? According to the original Facebook app page for PriestVille, the acronym "SGR" stands for Saint Genesius of Rome, an actor who mocked Christianity and then had a conversion experience and became a martyr for the faith during the reign of Diocletian.

Cheyenne Ehrlich, the company's founder, responded briefly and enigmatically to questions about his firm with the following:

"SGR is a virtual company. We are a handful of people, in different cities around the world, working together to make PriestVille. Everyone works from home. Most have other jobs and do this as well. As such, we don't provide an address or phone number. And we won't, unless we get an actual office somewhere. However, we are reachable by email...We LOVE the Catholic Church. However, we don't want to give anyone the impression that PriestVille is owned and operated by the Catholic Church. It's not. As such, we have a disclaimer on our site making that clear."

Both PriestVille and Vatican Wars contain similar disclaimers that "SGR Games LLC has no business relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican or the Holy See." The disclaimer for Vatican Wars also adds that the company isn't affiliated with the maker of Mafia Wars and the one for PriestVille adds that there is no relationship to Farmville.

But actually, there is a post office box for SGR Games in Pa'ia, Hawaii which, coincidentally, happens to be the same PO box as on the Learn To Sit, Inc. Web site. And Learn To Sit is a meditation instruction workshop connected with the Pa‘ia Meditation Center founded and run by Cheyenne Ehrlich (photo), who also holds a computer sciences degree from Vassar. Learn To Sit describes Ehrlich as having spent "most of his adult life focused on the unlikely pairing of incubating early stage Internet companies and intensively studying and practicing meditation." An article published last year in the Maui Weekly, says that "Cheyenne was raised in a meditation center, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist centers in the U.S., and was exposed to meditation teachers, scholars and practitioners throughout his childhood... 'Whatever you create for yourself in your life is simply you acting out what’s going on inside your mind,' he said. 'So it just makes sense that learning how to change your relationship to your inner dialogue can change every aspect of your life—that’s what we’re doing at Pa‘ia Meditation.'" You can also read more about Ehrlich's meditation career and beliefs in this article in Maui News.

Bottom line: A meditation instructor with a Tibetan Buddhist background is now teaching Catholics about their faith and stimulating debate about Catholic Church policy via Facebook gaming. The only question is: Why? Does Ehrlich have a hidden agenda on Catholic Church reform? It's a rich irony, one that Saint Genesius would undoubtedly have appreciated.

I'm on leave from Facebook but those who are still playing the social media game could sign up for Vatican Wars and try to tip the balance towards progressive Catholic Church reform and, since there are papal elections involved, it may be possible to have a woman Pope in virtual reality where it's impossible in Rome.

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