I'm not your typical messiah. I've got short hair, a low pain threshold, not enough friends to even pretend that I have disciples and I'm not a carpenter - DIY in general being a weak point.
No, I design political board games for a living. (You might know about War on Terror, which has the unlikely honour of being the only board game in history to be classified an offensive weapon). And when people find this out, they always - always - have an incredible idea that I simply must use for my next game. "You should do a game about Wikileaks", "You should do a game about phone hacking", "You should do a game about Scottish devolution" (yeah, that's not a game; that's narcolepsy-in-a-box).
Curiously though, for such supposedly spiritually-bankrupt times, a large number of these helpful suggestions are religious in nature, my favourite so far being: "You should do a game about how it's fine to draw pictures of Jesus, but not Muhammad". (While 'Prophictionary' would be an easy pitch, I think the novelty would wear off after, ooh, a couple of rounds).
There's definitely room for a satirical religious game, but how to avoid the usual tired clichés? We all know what detractors claim: that religion is the driving force behind history's most egregious episodes, accused of starting wars, craving power, harming children and preying on the weak. Kind of like an abstract form of Tony Blair.
But I wanted to do a religious game that showed religion in itself could be benevolent, it's just the application and interpretation that's problematic. Yet this gets stale quickly. The usual dividing lines in this argument run similar to those of gun control in the US: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". Therefore, religion doesn't kill people, people with religion kill people. Drunk drivers don't kill people, drunk drivers who hit people and kill people, kill people... It's a facile argument that gets meaningless very quickly. The thing is, if religion really is so intoxicatingly corruptible, then it doesn't matter how great it is on paper, it's never going to have a happy ending.
That's when it struck me - we need a new religion immune to such things! And that's how - during a 36-hour, fever-ridden bout of food poisoning brought on by the unwise consumption of some found-in-the-back-of-a-warm-cupboard eggs - I set about founding Heninism, a new religion based on the worship of a Holy Chicken prophet and the Great Egg Above (and possibly an even Greater Chicken Above That).
Heninism would be the first religion that defies abuse. Initially I thought this meant locking down the credo so tight that not even a team of city lawyers could weasel in an alternative reading. But that doesn't work! For as we have repeatedly seen, even a strictly-observed, inviolable holy text can't stop the truly insane and egotistical from going on a rampage. No, just as the only antidote to abuse of free speech is more free speech, so the cure for twisted religions is an infinitely twistable religion; one that can be contorted so easily and casually that it'd be very difficult for any one person to claim to have any authority whatsoever.
And so, embracing the tradition of revelation 'The Hen Commandments' was born: a ritualistic game in which The Holy Chicken herself imparts mysterious and enigmatic (and occasionally dodgy) messages to humankind via encoded eggs. These eggs each contain a word so that when revealed in order they might read something like:
"Never ... feed ... the tiniest ... family ... with ... emptiness"
"When Friday comes ... worship ... your precious ... stain ... more than ... the stony ground"
It's up to you as a good disciple to convince all the other players (also good disciples) that your reading is best. And of course you can't really do this without adequately explaining: Who's the "tiniest family"? What's a "precious stain"? Why "Friday"? And is the "stony ground" literal or metaphorical?
As the other players join in and promote their arguments, they adjust your reasoning and introduce new elements to suit their own agenda. After ten rounds of this, while you're all individually pushing for a specific interpretation of Heninism, collectively you've all contributed to the creation of a whole host of new myths, narratives and... even the birth of a religion. Certain memorable tropes can even persist and develop across successive games of 'The Hen Commandments'. We had a rooster called Friday ('When Friday comes') - a notorious demon-like figure - follow us through several games, getting progressively worse and worse. We had to kill him off in the end.
And that's how I ended up starting my own religion. A malleable, matriarchal, chicken-based religion with a confusing hypostases that everyone, despite themselves, instantly took to heart, making of it simply whatever they wanted. In the two years since the very first test games, it's spread a lot of laughter and love and has only been responsible for one atrocity (the accidental spilling of a Diet Coke over a fellow game designer's fresh prototype during a particularly animated appeal to the assembled congregation).
Yet it's still, somehow, cast in a negative light, tarred with the brush of other religions' failings. It's the safest religion in the world and I keep getting asked, "Aren't you worried it will offend [insert your victim-faith-of-choice here]?" Fox News were particularly sensitive to potential upset, as you can imagine. But the only people who could remotely be offended by this game are devout Heninists. And currently there's only one of those and I have a pretty thick skin, so I'm OK - thanks for asking.
As we saw in the recent Huffington Post poll, we may be changing our religious habits (habits, geddit?) but there is one altar at which we all worship and willingly subjugate ourselves every day. Not lolcats; capitalism. And what better offering could you make than blowing £20 on a copy of The Hen Commandments? That would keep two gods happy at once and will secure you, if not a comfy seat in the afterlife, then a nice, shiny box that will enrich your life-on-earth while it lasts, in-shell-ah.