What the Worst Video Game Ever Can Teach Us About Evangelization

If you’ve never heard the story of the Atari 2600 game E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, I’ll let the Wikipedia summary fill you in:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial  (also referred to simply as  E.T.) is a notorious 1982  adventurevideo game  developed and published by  Atari, Inc.  for the  Atari 2600video game console. It is based on the  film of the same name, and was designed by  Howard Scott Warshaw. The objective of the game is to guide the eponymous character through various screens to collect three pieces of an interplanetary telephone that will allow him to contact his home planet.

Warshaw intended the game to be an innovative adaptation of the film, and Atari thought it would achieve high sales figures based on its connection with the film, which was extremely popular throughout the world. Negotiations to secure the rights to make the game ended in late July 1982, giving Warshaw only five weeks to develop the game in time for the 1982  Christmas season. The result is often cited as one of the  worst video games released  and was one of thebiggest commercial failures in video gaming history.

E.T.  is frequently cited as a contributing factor to Atari’s massive financial losses during 1983 and 1984. As a result of overproduction and returns, millions of unsold cartridges  were buried  in an  Alamogordo, New Mexico  landfill. The game’s commercial failure and resulting effects on Atari are frequently cited as a contributing factor to the  video game industry crash of 1983.

What does this have to do with evangelization?

First, it tells us to take our time and get things right. The fact that Warshaw had only five weeks to create the game probably doomed it from the start. Even in 1982 it took time to develop and program a game.

Similarly, we need to take our time and do evangelization right. There are no short cuts when it comes to evangelization — no canned program or magic wand that will do the work for us. Evangelization means developing relationships, engaging in conversation, and walking with people on their spiritual journey. This doesn’t happen overnight. (Or in five weeks!) There’s a reason the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says that preparation to receive the Sacraments of Initiation is a lengthy process that can take years. We do ourselves and those we evangelize a disservice when we think that conversion happens at the end of a five week “welcome back” program.

Second, it should serve as a warning against giving people a poor version of what they want. E.T.  was  the hottest property in 1982. The movie opened to critical acclaim, broke all sorts of box office records, and  E.T. merchandise was flying off the shelves. A video game based on the film should have been a no-brainer.  Instead, gamers were given a shoddy product that didn’t meet their expectations.

Unfortunately this often happens when we create programs, products, and other “stuff” within the Church.  Because  we can never put the resources and production quality into something that a large corporation can, “religiousy” stuff usually pales in comparison. We can’t assume that just because we have the Gospel that we can skimp on making our books, videos, and other media compelling and winsome. As Christ reminded the apostles, we must be “wise as serpents”; in the modern world this means paying attention to how people will react to the message based on the form it takes. Slapping E.T. on a cheaply produced video game wasn’t enough in 1982; that’s a lesson we should remember.

Original photo by See El Photo / flickrCC