The Settlers of Catan is what is known as a gateway game. It’s often used to introduce people unfamiliar with the world of modern board games, into these sorts of games. But in 2003, the Settlers of Catan was used for something very different: as what seems to be Mormon religous propaganda.
[…] That was Jeremy Young, a mormon tech millionaire, who licensed and published the game. In short, it was a commercial hit. […]
This game didn’t do well for a Mormon game, it just did well for a game. Especialy in 2003, those sales numbers were top tier.
And it was very similar to the Catan most of us know. Only, it aded a temple, that players can contribute to building with their extra resources. Other than that, the gameplay was exactly the same. The other differences were all cosmetic: The resource cards had prophets on them, and the box art depicted an ancient native American city, the titular Zarahemla.
See, mormon’s believed a group of israelites migrated from Jerusalem to the Americas, around 600 BC. This group of israelites, came to be known as the nephite’s, founded a holy city in the Americas, called Zarahemla.
This game put you into the shoes of the Nephites founding their holy city. The settlers of Zarahemla still had you building roads, settlements, and smaller cities within the walls of Zarahemla. Now, if that theme seems pasted on, it was. In Mormon culture, it was a cultural trend to take secular pieces of pop culture, and republish them with pasted on Mormon themes.
The board game Carcasoone had a mormon version too: The Ark of the Covenant,” published by the same company. Trivial Pursuit also had a mormon version too: Celestial pursuit. Who wants to be a millionaire had who wants to be a celestial heir.
The popular book series, “Where’s Waldo” had a mormon counterpart in “I spy a Nephite”. There were mormon movies, which were thinly veiled knockoffs of non-mormon movies which came out shortly before. In short, there was a full ecosystem of this.
But I’m compelled to ask the question: Why? Why did these exist? It’s not like where’s waldo isn’t family friendly to begin with.
And I’d say that’s for a few reasons.
For starters, every religous parent was to indoctrinate their children into their religion, and religous toys and games is one of the most obvious ways to do that.
But I think we can get a fuller answer if we dig deeper into the history of the Mormon church.
In the late 90’s, the church was going through a reckoning. The young members of the church were leaving at an alarmingly high rate: nearly 40% of gen X members of the church were leaving, and more of them were simply not participating.
As a reaction to that, the church pushed some antisecular ideas: Satan works through entertainment and media, and in order to keep yourself pure, you must avoid anything not family friendly or anything that doesn’t uplift you. And for many Mormons, that meant avoiding anything that wasn’t explicitly mormon.
This is a tactic common in cults: to keep someone in the cult, you must isolate them from people outside the cult, demonize those people and how they live. And some families were very strict about it: some children grew up without ever hearing anything but gospel music, unaware of the secular versions of the games and toys they played with. They created a bubble, and part of maintaining that bubble was games like the Settlers of Zarahemla.
But think that bubble was created partly due to happenstance.
In Mormonism, there is an idea in the culture called “prosperity gospel”. And that’s the idea that god will bless you with power, and wealth, if you are obidient and live as a good mormon. And this idea being culturally prevalent leads to lots of business minded mormons.
I think a strong peice of evidence for this is the proliferation of multilevel marketing within mormon circles. There are over 70 mlm’s in Utah, where the church is headquarterd, making mlm’s the second largest industry in that state.
Being raised in the culture of mormonism makes it easy for mormon people to believe the promises made by mlm’s: between prosperity gospel, and the idea that you are chosen by god, it only makes sense to participate.
It’s actually been true for decades too: in 1988, a leader of the mormon church wrote a book about how members of the church are especially suspectible to materialism and get-rich-quick schemes.
And this businesses mindedness manifested in more ways than just mlm’s: it also led to the mormon knockoffs of secular things. It was an entreprenurial pursuit that let mormons stay in their bubble. The work was easy, the payoffs were often huge, and it scratched their desire for wealth in a way that felt prudent.
So to meet the demand of the families practising antisecular isolation, there was no shortage of entrepaneuring mormons hoping to make some money off it. Mormons were eager to consume these products, and produce them.
Now, all the mormon versions of secular things I mentioned earlier? They have a name, Mormon kitsch. A simple definition of kitsch is “art or objects designed in poor taste, but appreciated anyways.” When mormon kitsch comes up, I think the mormon action figures depicting characters from the book of mormon are the first thing to cross most people’s minds.
But if I wanted to explain mormon kitsch, I’d say its, in part, a result of Mormonism’s weird relationship with art.
There is no great mormon art. Even going back to the 1890’s, the mormon church sent out missionaries to train in Paris to become great artists, which resulted in little success.
The church has commissioned art though, quite a lot of it. If you look at the mormon gospel art, it’s actually quite funny. Jesus and John the baptist are depicted as two mountain men, in what is obviously the American West, not the rocky shores of Galilee. Both men are spot clean. There’s no doubt who Jesus is, he’s glowing. In another gospel painting, Jesus stands among American buttercups and bluebells in a setting that even could be the shores of the Great Salt Lake. It’s hard to find this art anything but middling.
But the purpose wasn’t to be great art. The point of mormon gospel art is to give concrete dipictions of the story. Oh, and to sell prints of course.
See, these pieces are all sold in pretty massive numbers. Some gospel art will be found in most mormon homes. It doesn’t matter that it’s not great art, because it’s a commodity. It’s fully entered the realm of the kitsch.
If you wanted to experience Catholic art, you’d journey to a church or a basilica. Maybe even a museam or an art history book. But if you wanted to experiecne mormon art, you could go into any mormon home, and find it hanging above the toaster, or next to a TV.
And it turns out, art in the mormon world is fufilling much the same prupose as The Settlers of Zarahemla. Yes, Zarahemla is a knockoff of the best selling eurogame of all time. Yes, mormons know that. But they don’t care. Much like the prints of the gospel art, their purpose isn’t to be great art. They’re both kitsch.
And their purpose is to be kitsch.
If great art is a nourishing meal, kitsch is junk food. Easy to consume.
There is a popular mormon phrase “Choose the right,” the Mormon version of What Would Jesus Do. When you’re constantly being told to choose the right, it can grow tiresome. But if the right is junk food, like the paraphernalia of mormon kitsch, maybe consuming it will be easy.
I mean, seems more directed at critquing ‘the mormons’ rather than game design, but whatever.
It’s not a critique, just an exploration of one cultural aspect. You’re right though, it’s not about game design.