As Guardians of Ancora – a digital Bible experience for children is released, the team behind the game explain why they chose to create it, what the game is all about, and the future possibilities of reaching children in a digital age.
We’re living in a post-Minecraft revolution world. Every day, millions of kids go onto their consoles, smartphones and tablets to play a game in which they build (and destroy) a world of their own. This is just the latest of a number of games that have held the attention and action of our children.
As Scripture Union approachs its 150th anniversary we have asked ourselves lots of questions about who we are, and what we are called to do. It’s always been an integral part of our mission to reach out to children who haven’t heard the good news of Jesus and that has adapted as times have changed: from the first beach activity in North Wales in 1867, through our travelling caravan missions and on to today where our fastest growing residential holiday is ‘The Voice’, centred on singing and recording pop songs.
As we looked at the statistics of the lack of children in churches and the level of Bible literacy, we were compelled to respond. For the majority of families the once familiar Bible stories that spoke of God’s salvation for his people are completely unknown; even the Christmas and Easter stories have faded away in many schools.
As we set out to discover how to connect with all those children who don’t come near a church, we found ourselves asking the question: what if Bible engagement was a video game? What would it look like? Nearly five years after those early discussions, the first release of Guardians of Ancora, Scripture Union’s digital game for children, has been launched and is opening up the Bible in a new, exciting and interactive way for kids throughout the world.
A key element of getting the right product for children was seeking to understand how today’s children see faith, Christianity, the Bible and their own responses. This major work, undertaken by Christian Research, provides a fascinating insight. We found that although parents felt that they weren’t equipped (or felt motivated) to teach their children about faith and the Bible, the children themselves were open to prayer and spirituality. Most children had a natural inclination to prayer, even among who were described as ‘cool’ towards Christianity. Children are willing to pray for help and support, offering prayers when losing a grandparent or pet, or even help when losing dinner money. There was an expectation that those prayers would be answered, in a real and concrete way, and many spoke of their experience in answered prayer. Their view of the Bible though is that it can only be understood by ‘religious, scholarly, or older people’.
The Bible though was felt to be difficult to access, with children finding the language ‘peculiar’, while parents felt it to be only for religious or scholarly use. Those same parents also spoke of the Bible as being important though, seeing it as a precious keepsake and having a holy power that can transform those who turn to it.
Maggie Barfield, Scripture Union’s product developer for Guardians of Ancora said that the study identified a real disconnect between parents’ attitudes to faith formation and the child’s willingness to learn. This extends to the Bible, as for many children the Bible is not a part of their life. Maggie concluded the research showed, ‘A need for parents not only to be inspired that the word of God is more than simply a rule book, but also equipped to teach their children.’
We quickly decided that online engagement was key. Children were increasingly seeing online as the primary place for information and entertainment. Kids love playing games, so a Bible-focused game, delivered online, gave us the chance to reach beyond the Church into networks and communities that enjoyed games and being online. We gave ourselves four goals:
This wouldn’t be a product for church children. Our passion was to reach those children who had never seen or read the Bible and had no idea of God’s love.In order for the game to be played repeatedly, it had to embody many of the features of the most successful secular games for children. The graphics had to be great, the gameplay compelling and the storytelling strong.We also had to remove as many barriers to playing as possible. We took the early decision that it would be free: free to download and free to play. Putting a price on the game would restrict the market.This should be about more than simple story retelling. We want children to come to a relationship with Jesus and we will support the child’s faith formation within the game.
With those principles established we set out to research the games market, how children and their families see and interact with the Bible and where faith and spirituality sit in their lives. We worked with one of the UK’s top children’s games designers, we enlisted the support of some world class experts, including a graphic design consultant in Los Angeles working with Pixar and Disney and animation studios in America and the producers of Family Guy. We also enlisted the help of a dear friend Bob Hartman, known as one of the top children’s story tellers in the world. Guardians of Ancora was born.
Guardians of Ancora is an interactive experience aimed at children of all ages. At the heart of the experience is exploring stories of the Bible by running, jumping, and solving challenges. The game players are encouraged to reflect on those experiences in ways that support their own personal faith formation. The game is available on iPads, Android tablets and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and can be downloaded for free. The setting for the game is the virtual city of Ancora: a place where light leads to goodness, wellbeing and peace. The problem is that this light has been taken away from the people, and the only way to restore it is to rediscover the Saga, the stories at the heart of the community.
Children play as Guardians alongside the other inhabitants of the city, including the Guildmaster – the first citizen of Ancora, Fabula, who looks after the stories, and Swift, who is there to help and assist. The children playing the game have the important task of discovering the Saga stories and bringing them back to Ancora where they will be rewarded with firebugs, used to light the central light in Ancora – the Spire.
Discovering the truth of these Bible stories is where most of the game play happens, as the guardians have to search for Jesus, the crowds, or the next conversation so that they understand the story. They run, jump, climb ladders, bounce off trampolines and slide down zip wires. They solve puzzles and challenges and where they can, they take part in the story. For instance, they can help to distribute the loaves and fishes in the feeding of the 5,000. As they play through the game they become aware of the story, of Jesus, his power and authority, and the impact that Jesus has on the people around him. We have invested a great deal of time to ensure that the biblical settings are accurate, that the story is retold and experienced in a way that is fun and interactive, but that the story cannot be altered.
We understood early on in the project that the retelling of the stories by themselves would be unlikely to bring children to a real relationship with God as playing them on tablets can be a solitary experience. We recognise the value of the Church, support networks, crucial friends and families in bringing people to Christ. It was always important that alongside the storytelling and gameplay, we give the safe place for children to explore their own faith and reflect on the impact of the stories, and how this may affect them outside the game. We encourage children to write their own prayers, and to be creative, designing pictures using stickers and familiar paint tools which they can share with those people known to them.
When we designed Ancora we wanted to create a place that we could regularly add more content, more engagement with the other Guardians, and, most importantly, a place where we could increase the number of Bible stories. From launch, we will regularly release new e-content so that by the Autumn there will be five stories, all with Jesus at the centre. There is an arc of over 30 stories, from Creation to Revelation that will unfold, to tell God’s story of salvation for us. As the game develops there will be stories from the Old and New Testaments alongside the Gospels.
In Guardians of Ancora there is huge potential for major evangelistic mission by churches committed to bringing Jesus alive to today’s children and young people. As a starting point you can get as many children in your church and extended networks to download and play the game. It’s free, so there shouldn’t be any barriers. And once they have the game and have played it, get them to talk to their friends. It can be difficult to get kids to talk about their faith, but it’s much easier to say ‘play this game’!
It’s not just children that should be stepping up in evangelism. Reaching those who have no experience of church or faith was the main driver for Scripture Union in developing and launching the game. We are investing significant sums of money in online advertising, especially into networks of children who play games, to encourage them to download it and play the full game. Within all the communities your church serves, there will be children whose first introduction to Jesus will be through Guardians of Ancora; as a church, is your presence one that would encourage an unchurched game player to have conversations with you?
As the reach of Guardians of Ancora grows, we hope that you can take advantage of it going into local schools, talking about it, and running events linked to Ancora. Some churches are planning to have the game downloaded onto a tablet to take into their local communities. Next year’s holiday club from Scripture Union will be themed around Guardians of Ancora, giving your church a great opportunity to bring children into the church on the back of a free game and the recognition of the brand even among children from outside a church community. Our new Christmas Bible Comic will use the Ancora theme later this year: a great opportunity for your church to buy a set, give out at your local school, encourage them to play the game and start relationships with new children, exploring their faith.
Our prayer for Guardians of Ancora is that it will be a global mission tool for evangelism to children. Our commitment to launching Guardians of Ancora, however big a job that was, is dwarfed by our passion to bring children to a relationship with our Saviour.