How three ordinary guys are changing the face of Christian video games
By Kirk Noonan
It was a terrible idea.
The Christian video game market was wide open, but largely uncharted. Houses would have to be mortgaged and assets liquidated.
Plus, they were too old, family-oriented and strapped for time to have a chance as a startup in Silicon Valley. Even worse, he wasn’t sure if G-rated video games would catch on with Christians, let alone with the masses.
While his mind kept raising red flags, something unexpected happened. “I felt compelled by God to go for it,” says Tom Bean.
Bean, along with his brother Bill, joined Peter Fokos in founding Digital Praise, a Christian video game maker headquartered in Fremont, Calif.
Since then, the terrible idea has become a burgeoning company committed to making fun games and changing the spiritual landscape of the video game industry.
Three gifts, one vision
Fokos, creative director of Digital Praise, had worked in the video game industry on such brands as Carmen Sandiego, Reader Rabbitt and ClueFinders. But when The Learning Company laid him off he found himself looking for new direction.
One day as he read The Wall Street Journal he saw an article about Christian video games. “I thought it would be cool to use the skills I had developed over 20 years in the industry to serve the Lord,” he says. “I shared that with my wife and she suggested I start my own company.”
Not sure if he should invest the time and money in such a venture, he prayed, read his Bible and searched domain names for his would-be company. He settled on “Digital Praise.” With the name in place, he says laughing, all he needed was a product, finances and a couple of partners. He decided to find a product first.
“From my experience I’ve learned that if you create something from scratch — no matter how good it is — it’s going to be difficult to sell,” he says. “So, I started searching for a well-known Christian children’s property I could build a game around.”
After riffling through his 6-year-old daughter’s video and DVD collection he set his sites on The Adventures of Odyssey series produced by Focus on the Family. After establishing a relationship with Focus on the Family, Fokos met with fellow church members Bill and Tom Bean (they all attend Harbor Light Assembly of God, Pastor Terry Inman).
“Bill and I thought maybe we should come alongside Peter and help him launch the company,” says Tom, who used to own a mortgage-banking consulting firm. “We had planned on helping him secure the brand agreement and sending him on his way. But Peter asked us if we would consider praying about coming on as partners.”
The company incorporated in June 2003. Tom Bean says God has been blessing and challenging them ever since.
One of the first challenges they grappled with, say the Beans, was whether or not they should be overt about their faith as they worked in a $10-billion industry better known for hit games that glorify violence, sex and demonic themes.
“We questioned whether we wanted to be a faith-based Christian company or if we were going to be a family-friendly company that had products with Christian themes,” says Tom, noting that Fokos always wanted to be overt about their faith. “In a series of ‘God-events’ we decided to side with Peter. Even non-Christians told us, ‘It’s who you are and it differentiates you from other companies.’ We found peace in that and it was a great day when we realized who we were as a company and how we were going to approach the business world.”
Today, visitors to the company’s headquarters are greeted by a large sign that reads, “Digital Praise: Glorifying God through interactive media.”
But being a Christian company goes beyond just signage. For Fokos and the Beans it’s about living up to a standard and doing business the way they believe Christ would.
“We try to base and run our business on the New Testament church,” says Bill Bean, who left a lucrative sales and marketing position for Digital Praise. “There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to treat people. Sometimes we don’t always live up to that, and then we have to ask for forgiveness and rectify the situation.
“We do business the old fashioned way. Our word is our bond. We have a lot of success in that and what illustrates that is how we overcome issues and move forward in a professional manner that strengthens the relationships we have and allows us to be good stewards of our time, money and effort.”
Every start-up needs money, and Digital Praise was no different. But the trio has bootstrapped the company so far. When approached by potential investors they make sure the investors are aware of their intentions and purpose for existing.
“I tell potential investors to run away if God hasn’t put this on their heart,” says Tom Bean. “As Christians we’re trying to be very cautious not to take advantage of people and also to not even appear to be doing so. It’s a fine line between making the most with what you have, but not at the expense of someone else.”
That philosophy has served them well. Tom describes Digital Praise as a for-profit company that is in the ministry. From the company’s new 8,000-square-foot headquarters in Fremont the men say they see themselves as missionaries in a very secular industry.
“The Lord didn’t send us to another country; instead, He sent us to a part of the media that has been pretty much taken over by Satan,” says Fokos. “Our mission is to take it back.”
Though business isn’t all fun and games, Fokos and the Beans spend a majority of their time and money investing in their games. Knowing that the average child plays more than 15 days’ worth of video games each year drives the trio to make clean, quality games that are extremely fun to play. “If they aren’t fun,” they ask, “who will play them?”
To make games that are on par or exceed industry standards, Digital Praise hired former development teams from The Learning Company, including artists, programmers, designers, audio producers, and animators. In-game movies were created by Toonacious, a Christian-based company in Burbank, whose main animator is Tony Bancroft, a former animator at Disney.
In Digital Praise games, gamers won’t find the violence, cursing, sexuality and demonic themes that plague so many secular games. Yet, if you are looking for games to shove biblical principles or family values down a gamer’s throat, these aren’t the games for you either.
“The redemptive message is built into the fabric of the game,” says Bill Bean.
The main motivator for making quality Christian games says Tom Bean, who serves as CEO and president, is to reinforce lessons children learn at home and in Sunday School and to give parents an option to buy video games they don’t have to worry about.
“I’ve heard parents say, ‘I wish we could buy quality Christian stuff,’ ” says Bill Bean, who serves as vice president of sales and marketing. “We spent the money to make the games as good as they could be. Now I challenge people to try them.”
Fokos and the Beans are hoping that what started as a terrible idea will one day become a new standard in the video game industry — and maybe along the way, change a few lives for eternity.
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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