Just in time for the holidays: ISU professor's study on religious board games and toys

AMES, Iowa -- Apparently, some parents aren't just looking for the latest video game system or doll for their kids this holiday season. An Iowa State University professor says a growing number are seeking religious games and toys for their children.

Popular family board games such as MONOPOLY®, Candyland® and Trivial Pursuit® now have some interesting competition. Religious games such as Mormon-, Bible- and "Catholic-opoly" (Christian), "KosherLand" (Jewish) and "Race to the Kabah" (Muslim) may sound a little like their secular counterparts, but their content is designed to expose children to religious values.

"There are new religious board games created all the time," said Nikki Bado-Fralick, an ISU assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies and women's studies. "The business is doubling yearly, making it attractive and lucrative."

So lucrative that religious-themed board games and toys are now a multi-million dollar industry worldwide.

Instead of Barbie or Bratz, some Muslim-American girls may receive Razanne, a doll modestly dressed for school, play or prayer, complete with hijab (head scarf). The In & Out Razanne comes with more high-fashion accessories that can be covered with a traditional jilbaab coat when going to work or visiting friends.

Messengers of Faith Bible character dolls come in both Old and New Testament styles. Moses, David, Esther, Mary and Jesus are 12 inches tall, outfitted in hand-sewn clothing and sandals, and provide 60 to 80 seconds of scripture "recorded in an easy-to-memorize" style.

Bado-Fralick's research of such religious toys and board games is the first for this growing industry. "There was no scholarship previously done on this," she said.

Bado-Fralick recently collaborated with Rebecca Sachs Norris, professor of religious/theological studies at Merrimack College, on a scholarly paper titled "Ritualizing Religious Reward: The Dark Side of Play." They presented their research last month at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. -- also conducting a teach-in that allowed academics to play some of the latest religious board games.

Some of those include "Mortality," a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints board game in which players get ahead by helping their opponents; and "Missionary Conquest," a religious alternative to Risk®. There is also Divinity® -- the only game to have the imprimatur, the Catholic Church's official seal of approval.

Some of these games are available in large religious bookstores and specialty shops in larger cities, and they can also be obtained online at such Web sites as www.one2believe.com, www.trainupachild.com, or www.onlineislamicstore.com. Their prices are comparable to the more well-known classics.

"Of course, one impulse behind such games is to enculturate children into the religion's values -- worldview, ethics, morals, cosmology, and so forth. But while games may be instructive and revealing, they must also be entertaining -- they are a form of play; they are fun. This is one of the principal motivations for offering religious games to children -- they willingly participate in religion because they are having fun," Bado-Fralick and Norris wrote in their paper.

However, Bado-Fralick is concerned that the line between play and religious expression can be blurred in some games that introduce children to more adult and controversial themes. For instance, she said, Missionary Conquest -- billed as "One Giant Game of Laughter and Strategy" -- provides opportunities to finance missions. In some mission locations, a player can earn extra points by being stoned to death, thus becoming a martyr.

"Some of these games incorporate serious issues such as colonialism, racism, and religious persecution. And yet they're advertised as fun and healthy games," said Bado-Fralick.

"Religious games are not only an important indicator of cultural values and practices, but they also influence the formation of religious identity and principles," Norris said.

The researchers report that religious dolls and action figures might be considered less problematic since they seem to emphasize positive role models.

Both Razanne and Fulla® (a popular Muslim doll sold in the Middle East) are designed to appeal to wholesome "Muslim values," the researchers said. "Among the many things this means is a focus on personal qualities other than external beauty."

But while Fulla® is marketed as alternatives to Barbie, they actually look quite similar in appearance. In fact, Bado-Fralick and Norris found that both Barbie and Fulla® dolls are produced in China by the same subcontractor. The dolls are made of the same material and are the same height, but the Muslim doll has a more modestly proportioned bustline.

The increasing popularity of religious toys and games has prompted Bado-Fralick and a colleague, Iowa State University religious studies lecturer Eric Northway, to lead a one-credit seminar on the subject starting in January. "Religious Games and Toys in the Classroom" will provide members of an Iowa State learning community the opportunity to engage in hands-on research to explore the dimensions of religious play. Bado-Fralick, Northway and about 10 students will use religious board games and toys to focus attention on the material artifacts of religions as they are lived.

"Students will play the games together with other students and help develop assessment tools that will gauge their critical response to the games," said Bado-Fralick. "As artifacts of material culture, religious games and toys serve a serious pedagogical function -- they use play to teach about the religions they portray."

A copy of the full paper is available here.