Chain World: a game intended to inspire a religion

A report from GDC describes the "Game Design Challenge 2011: Bigger than Jesus" winning entry, Chain World. The challenge had been to design a game that's also a religion, and so winning designer Jason Rohrer created Chain World, based on Minecraft, intended to be played in series by individual players, each of whom change the world, leaving a legacy for the next:
The result is Chain World, and a strict set of laws that all Chain World players must follow. There's only one true copy of Chain World and it exists on a USB drive Rohrer carried with him into the GDC session. This USB drive contains a Minecraft world and a custom script that Rohrer created. A player of Chain World inserts the USB stick and loads a Minecraft world onto his PC. He then plays in this Minecraft world as usual and does whatever he desires.

He plays until his character dies. Following the character's death, the player must immediately save, quit to the main menu, and leave the game. Rohrer's script than creates a duplicate of this altered world, saves it onto the USB drive, and deletes it off the player's PC. The player can never play again and must pass the drive on to the next player.

Put simply, this is a video game only one person on Earth can play at one time -- a chain of people that influence a single world. Rohrer was the first to walk through this world and, following his character's premature death, was the first to influence it for the next player.

GDC: Chain World: Crafting a Religion (via Super Punch)


  1. Maybe it’s too close to a religion:

    “It turns out that a game designed to have religious overtones has rapidly gone through a lifecycle that mimics several Western religions.

    For the past several years the Game Design Challenge panel at the Games Developer Conference has asked a few game developers to spend the week before GDC creating a themed game. This year the theme was “Bigger than Jesus.” Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer were to make a game that could become a religion.

    Jason Rohrer knocked it out of the park. He created Chain World, which was a Minecraft world on a USB drive and some commandments. The commandments specified that one player at a time would play Chain World, changing the world, until the player died. At that point the player would save the game and pass the USB to another interested player.

    Chain World is a chance to place your mark on a virtual world and pass it on to someone else who only knows you through what you’ve done to that world. It has nine or eleven commandments, depending on how you count.

    Of course it mutated instantly.

    The first recipient of the USB drive from Jason Rohrer, Jia Ji, decided to auction off the next slot on eBay for charity. Moreover, he specified that the recipient after that should be Jane McGonigal (a famous author and proponent of gamification), followed by the winner of another charity auction, and then Wil Wright. Jia Ji had set a precedence that you could have access to Chain World either by being famous or paying for that access, neither of which were expressly forbidden by Jason Rohrer’s nineish commandments.

    As you might imagine, this caused some backlash. Some game designers criticized what Ji had done. Jane McGonigal responded to one of those critics by saying, “[Y]ou are seriously upset about raising money for sick kids?” Jason Rohrer chimed in, saying that the winner of the eBay auction shouldn’t mail the game to McGonigal.

    So to recap: a game intended to be religious was changed by its first disciple so that access to the religion involved either money or being famous. Possible responses include subverting it within or declaring a reformation and forking the project. Sound familiar?”

  2. This is a lot like a ‘bloodlines’ game in Dwarf Fortress.

    Upon receipt of the world file, a player names a dwarf after him/herself. The player runs the fortress for one year, no save-scumming allowed. At the end of the year, the player must write a summary of the events that occurred during their reign – the more descriptive the better. Often these summaries take the form of letter, or a journal.

    Upon ‘completion’ of the bloodlines game, the summaries are collected and read out as a story. Google ‘boatmurdered’ for the best (and most infamous) example. Players can upload a bloodlines game to the DF map archive, and even annotate it. (here’s the very-first-ever Reddit bloodlines map.

  3. All opinions on this specific project aside, this is a fantastic idea that Notch would be a genius to incorporate into the game in some way.

    For instance, have servers set up to run multiple instances of, or facilitate this experience. That way I can log in, select or be randomly placed onto a server where a chainworld game has been on-going, and then play and explore the altered landscape until I die, at which point my experience with that world is over, and if I want to play again, I am randomly placed onto another game of chainworld.

    There is something extremely fascinating about combining MineCraft with the experience of exploring uniquely human, altered landscapes. And there’s something also interesting about a game with permanent death that’s not an instant turn off of lost time, like when a character you’ve invested hours into just disappears. It could even be set up to maintain some portion or all of your inventory. Imagine playing until you’re tired of the world, then committing suicide to move on and experience something new.

    This is too good to pass up. It could give Minecraft an optional infusion of purpose.

    1. “This is too good to pass up. It could give Minecraft an optional infusion of purpose.”

      I agree. That kind of set up would have advantages that neither single player nor multiplayer have on their own. In single player, there’s no opportunity for narrative, you don’t get the unexpected pleasures of exploring others’ creations, and the only audience for your own creativity is yourself. Multiplayer changes that, but at the cost of losing the primal/zen sandbox appeal of molding the whole world by yourself, and instead have intruders in the private universe with competing goals and interests. Inheriting godhood of a pre-existing world and then passing it on would take benefits from each.

  4. Something about this idea really hits me in a profound way.

    I’ve actually had moments while playing Minecraft where I was building a pyramid or stone henge or a row of moai along a lovely coast facing the sunset, and I found myself asking, “what’s the point?” I thought, “wouldn’t it be neat if I found relics like this in this map that already existed before I got here?” I thought, “wouldn’t it be neat if I could leave these relics for other people to find?”

    I have to agree with saintvsop that this could in fact be *THE* missing piece to Minecraft.

  5. Remember the somewhat-overused-in-geek-circles “Jesus saves; Buddha makes incremental backups.” line?

    This is one religion that could be circumvented surprisingly quickly by adequate backup software…

  6. Correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn’t religion teach teamwork and tolerance? Not the singular “I am the only person who matters for right now” mentality that ChainWorld implies.

  7. This is a cool idea, similar to the succession games played in Dwarf Fortress. I’ve thought of doing a similar version with other types of games– RPG or FPS, in which when you complete an area by dying or winning, you move to another level with a different set of players, and possibly different rules. These could be modelled on various heavens, hells, or planes or reality, but you could still be on the same teams (or not! Maybe incorporate karma/reincarnation).

  8. So…. it’s just Minecraft then? Not, in fact, a new game at all?

    The idea of designing a Minecraft world that others can play is not even new. Minecraft players do it all the time.

    1. True, it’s a game mode, not a new game. And I think the “religious” aspect of the concept is silly and pretentious. But I also think it could potentially be the most interesting way to “play” Minecraft.

    2. I’m with you on this one.

      People have been doing this with games for about as long as there have been games you can do this with.

    3. True, nothing groundbreaking that I see here, except maybe they’re the first to put it down on paper with a set of rules. Also, I would fear that many generations down the line, the map would end up getting over-run by giant Mega Man statues and golden penises, like most multi-player servers end up. That would kill the mood.

      Also, I’d recommend anyone check out a similar “chain world” type scenario (other “players” leaving relics and quests to be discovered) on The Yogscast epic Minecraft series:

  9. So, what happens when some jackass gets his turn, spawns, digs a pit under the spawn point, and fills it with lava?

    ~D. Walker

  10. …and then after 10 plays, someone accidentally does laundry with the sacred USB drive in their pocket, thus destroying the religion-cum-game in its infancy. Amen.

    1. My previous USB drive went through the laundry at least 10 times before I lost it. I always put it through the dryer afterwards, which probably helped.

      To be more on-topic, I assume Jason Rohrer isn’t releasing the script he’s written for this game? How hard could it be for someone to whip up an open-source version, or make a website that lets you “inherit” minecraft worlds over the internet?

  11. A group of Something Awfullers did a similar thing with Dwarf Fortress 4 years ago. Hilarity ensued.

    I think the religion comparison is a bit of a stretch, though. Surely something more like cultural turnover or civilisations rising and falling?

  12. “Imagine playing until you’re tired of the world, then committing suicide to move on and experience something new.”

    This is a fascinating idea, but I suggest there should be an enforced mortality if the player doesn’t die. All players get a minimum time plus some random amount. So as they do what they set out to accomplish, they know that the icy hand approacheth.

    Also, anyone who has played a map can view the world in a read only state at any time. I’d certainly want to see how people had morphed what I did over time.

  13. This reads the same as NetHack Bones Files to me, which supports shuttling about by things like Hearse. Not really a new concept, but I’ve been thinking to myself that Minecraft needed more interesting death modes(Lootable corpses? Bones files? Random spawn locations? Permadeth?), so it’s cool to hear someone is making it happen.

  14. I’m an ultra-novice to gaming, and my son is fast surpassing me. He’s been immersed in the Ben 10 universe for the past few months and I’ve been impressed with the sophistication of this imaginary world. Lots of DNA mixing, evolution of one creature to another, multiple alien forms with their specific powers, etc. Today he designed his own game using the game creator templates on the Cartoon Network website. It was pretty cool. He’s super-into the animated episodes and his alien creator kit and pretending that he’s an alien. Getting to design his own game was like icing on the cake. The designers that built this whole world did a great job. And, fwiw, it is most definitely a religion, in the fullest sense of the word.

    I find myself wondering if these games appeal to girls as well as boys and if not, then maybe game and toy designers need to get busy on creating plot lines and characters and toys that would interest them. Just an idea. Perhaps these things are already out there. There is much to explore. And, I can only hope, more to be made.

    1. “most definitely a religion, in the fullest sense of the word.”

      Uh, yeah, that’s probably overstating it a little, but you get the idea. The kid worships Ben 10 like its the Second Coming.

      Here is the link to the game creator.

      Actual adult gamers would, I’m sure, find it much too rudimentary, but it’s pretty neat in that it gives kids the sense of designing their own games.

  15. Another classical game with a similiar style of “influencing the world for others” is Nethack (a free-software single-player RPG). If you play online on e.g., then whenever you die you have a chance to leave the level on which you died for the next player to enter it, who will then encounter your dead body (with items and written messages) and whatever terrible creature which killed you.
    This is most of the time very interesting, since the dead body and inventory does tell a pretty complete story if you do some thinking.

  16. The game seems to capture some aspects of religion such as the inheritance and passing on of tradition. It completely misses the sociological aspects of religion. The game can never be be bigger than jesus because it is designed in a self limiting way. It bears the genetics of a mutant that can never be a species.

  17. I first heard of Jane McGonigal when I watched her TED talk a while ago, about ‘using game theory to make the real world better’. She had some interesting things to say, and spoke well. I was impressed.

    But this is one of two recent events where I’ve been disappointed in Jane’s actions. Firstly the ‘collect the plastic coins’ challenge at GDC, where a much lesser-known blogger used some shady – but creative – social engineering to beat her. Jane still collected the ‘prize’ of being allowed to address the crowd at length.

    And now, this ChainWorld thing.

    Without going into the specifics of each case, I feel each was an opportunity for Jane to say “Hey, I’ve been able to put my message across at many events, and have expereiences that other game enthusiasts will never have. I’ll happily ‘pass’ on this – and allow someone else to have this prize/experience”.

    Yes, Jane has the right to do ‘whatever she wants’ with a prize. I’m just disappointed with her choices. Oh, and responding to critics with “You are seriously upset about raising money for sick kids?” is a distraction. Making another choice could have been cost neutral, or even raise more money for charity.

  18. This will only really be a religion when someone makes a copy of the USB, insists that it’s the only TRUE religion, and then two opposing factions begin to argue the merits of each version.

  19. I think people aren’t looking at the big picture here. Everyone has a right to their own opinions, but when a game can be so profound to inspire discussion of morality all the while trying to emulate a religion seems to have done its job. People have been commenting that, the commandments of the game can be subverted by copying or re-writing the original script, but in truth while the game itself had some interesting aspects to it,the fact that there was even a backlash to choices made over a game are what has really made it become the religion. Whether Jia sold the spot intentionally to propel the religious connotations or to simply buck the system stays with him but aren’t all religions like that? Religion is about making people think about morality and make decisions based upon the moral guidelines that are presented to them. Faith is what makes it real. I feel the GDC made the right choice in selecting Chain World as the winning game because even in its aftermath people will keep discussing it.

  20. Shouldn’t the religion, like, answer the question of life after death? Yeah, the character dies, the world stays, the other character appears. Just like in real life – you try to change the world as you can, but then you die and some other guy spit on what you held dear. Where’s the religion in that?
    Rohrer continues to make himself a name by making crappier versions of existing things and calling them pretentious names. I wonder what John Romero did.

  21. First things first, he didn’t create a new game at all. Not even in the slightest. He created a script for an already well established game and seems to me like he’s trying to claim some of its thunder? Pretty scummy but then… religions usually do the same thing. Latch on to someones idea and ride it into the ground for profit. Perhaps he is not seeing direct monetary profit but he certainly has profited from free press.

    Secondly… is Notch seeing ANY of the proceeds of these auctions? Granted Notch is a really cool guy and is probably thrilled his game is being used to generate donations for kids charities but it doesn’t sound like he was even asked if it was OK if his copyright was violated to create this. Indeed there must be something screwy going on because since you can die in “ChainWorld” that indicates it’s running Minecraft’s Survival mode, which is a paid service. Last time I checked it was against the EULA/TOS/10 Commandments of Notch to give out your username/password so everyone could play for free.

    If Jason Rohrer wants to create a religous game then fine, so be it, but CREATE THE GAME don’t just write a script and con someone else out of their intellectual property by claiming you wrote the game.

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