Romans and Christians: Bearing Witness and Performing Persecution in Bible Camp Simulations

Scott Magelssen, Ariaga Mucek


Summer camp, for those who grew up campers, conjures utopic images of dips in the lake, evening campfires, and cool, tanned, college-aged staff with sandals and acoustic guitars. But Christian Bible camps have not always relied exclusively on the types of programming that generate good feelings. Blended with these idyllic associations, campers may also remember activities that elicited sadness, anxiety, and fear. This essay presents a history of the immersive role-playing field game called “Romans and Christians,” a simulation of the early Church in which Roman soldiers hunt down and round up illegal followers of Jesus Christ as they try to find and gather in a secret location to worship. We argue that Romans and Christians has its roots in survival-of-the-fittest immersive games like Capture the Flag, which Bible Camps adapted from Boy Scout and YMCA summer camp practices. Whereas Romans and Christians began with simulations of early illegal Christian activity in the Roman Empire, the 1980s and the Cold War brought a second phase of development in which campers played Christians in hostile communist invasions. By the end of the twentieth century, shifts in pedagogical philosophies and attention to emotional and physical safety largely ended large-scale field game versions of Romans and Christians, but the game is still found in youth group activities and overnight retreats. This essay draws on performance theory and personal interviews with camp leadership and staff to historically situate Romans and Christians in a larger scope of play and immersive simulations (“simmings”) as religious educative practices, analyzing how the game made use of performative motifs and dramaturgical elements to maximize emotional arcs.

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