(Note: the formatting is all messed up because I copied from a Word document - if you want a PDF of this document, I'll email one to you.)
May 14, 2012
Okay, so here is my thesis written to conclude my Master of Arts in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. It needs some work yet before I am happy with it and there are some changes that I already see that need to be made, but if you have suggestions/questions/comments, please comment on this post or email me at elnora.romness at gmail.com.
(Note: the formatting is all messed up because I copied from a Word document - if you want a PDF of this document, I'll email one to you.)
(Note: the formatting is all messed up because I copied from a Word document - if you want a PDF of this document, I'll email one to you.)
GOD AND…GAMING?! THE PLACE OF GAMING VOCABULARY IN
MINISTRY WORK WITH CONTEMPORARY YOUTH
A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of
In Partial Fulfillment of
The Requirements for the Degree of
MASTER OF ARTS
THESIS ADVISER: Terri Elton
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA
This thesis may be duplicated only by special permission of the author.
First, thank you to the wonderful staff and faculty in the CYF office at Luther Seminary for supporting my thesis idea. I would also like to acknowledge the people who I interviewed as part of this project, those who were quoted and those who were not. Finally, thank you to my husband, friends, and family who put up with me during this process. And to God, who is the reason I am here.
Aggro When a player has triggered aggro, an NPC will attack that player.
Boss The bad guy at the end of a line of quests that must be overcome. Often found in special areas called “dungeons”. It generally takes more than 1 player to kill a boss. Sometimes it takes 40+ characters to “down a boss”.
Downing Defeating a major NPC (generally a boss)
Guild A group of people who play together in a game. Guilds can be “social”, focused on helping one another level and learn the game, or “raiding”, focused on getting the best raiding gear and bringing stat numbers as high as possible, to name a couple kinds of guilds. The game experience in MMOs is much richer when one is a member of a guild, imo (in my opinion).
Guildie Fellow member of the same guild.
GM “Game Master” – person employed by game company to ensure play runs smoothly for players. They settle disputes, fix problems, and oversee game play.
Healer The person in a party who is responsible for making sure other party members do not die. This person will use spells and such to keep party members alive. Generally they cannot take much damage and as such are known as “squishy”. If the healer in a party dies, the party will likely wipe.
Hold aggro What a tank is supposed to do – keep aggressive NPCs attacking him/her so other characters can kill them. Tanks can usually take a lot of damage.
Leveling One advances in a game by moving up in levels. Once you have enough experience points (accumulated by completing quests, killing things, etc), you advance to the next level.
Loot Items picked up from various places in a game. Loot can be basically anything, from food to bandages to weapons to armor…
Lvl “Level” – the number that describes how much progress a player has made in a game.
MMORPG “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game” – game that has many people online at the same time, playing different characters in the same world
Murloc A kind of animal in WoW, akin to an annoying, walking frog.
n00b Pronounced “newb”, someone who is new to something.
NPC “Non-Player Character” – Characters controlled by a computer. Bosses are always NPCs.
Oom (oom’ed, oom’ing) When a character runs “Out Of Mana”. Mana is the energy source for many casting type players (spell casters) and when one runs out of mana, he or she can no longer cast spells unless mana is regenerated (through a potion, scroll, or just waiting). When healers oom in the middle of a fight, the party is likely to wipe.
Party/partied Grouping with other players in order to accomplish a common goal.
Pug “Pick Up Group” – This is when random players who do not know each other form a group to complete a quest or dungeon.
Quests Missions given in many games. Players increase in level and explore the game by completing quests.
Resurrect Bring a dead character back to life so they can continue playing. Often shortened to “rez”.
RL “Real Life
RPGs “Role Playing Games”
Stats In-game statistics, these numbers represent what a boss/character is capable of
STFU Shut The F*** Up
Tank The person in a party who is responsible for taking damage so the other people can either heal or kill.
Toon Someone’s in-game character/avatar.
Uber l33t Akin to “really cool”.
Wipe/wiped When an entire party is killed by NPCs
World of Warcraft The single-most popular video game on the planet, this MMORPG has a huge world, wide variety of toons one can play, and thousands of quests to complete. Being a MMO means that one is online with other players at all times while playing.
“The video game industry is larger than the movie industry. Video games can explore
deep and meaningful issues. What will Christian churches make of this new world?”[i]
As a first-year in college, I was “the girl who says weird things.” I’d regularly call someone a “cool cat”, would use terminology often seen in old movies, and would often use the words “nifty”, “rad,” or “far out.” One day a friend asked where my vocabulary came from. Perplexed, I explained that my remote upbringing in Alaska meant my 50-something parents – teenagers in the 1960s – were the source of much of my vocabulary. My friend laughed and said something like “that’s why you sound like you stepped out of the 60s!” Vocabulary identifies. How and which words are said can locate where one grew up[ii] both geographically and temporally (my youth group kids might say “awesome” where my 30-something sister might say “groovy”). Each generation has its own set of slang/lingo that is particular to that generation and reflects the times. (Note that a lot of drug lingo is in the set for the 1960s while movie quotes pepper conversations between people raised since the 1980s.) Members of the current youth generation (here defined as anyone 25 and younger), for example, have an entirely new vocabulary at their disposal that reflects their technological times – one from the world of video games.
If I said something was “uber l33t,” would you know what I meant? How about if I said I partied in a pug and we kept getting wiped by the boss because the tank didn’t know how to hold aggro and the healer oom’ed right in the middle of the fight? Chances are that a large percentage of youth today would read the previous two sentences without missing a beat, while most people over 25 would now wear a puzzled look. L33t? Wiped? Oom’ed? Aren’t pugs a kind of dog? Much of the vocabulary in those two sentences comes from the world of video games, particularly MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), a world with which many youth are familiar and which contains its own very specific set of vocabulary…a world into which God can speak and whose specific vocabulary is not off-limits to the Gospel.
Youth ministry today must deal with what the reality that video games are not going away means for the Gospel. If youth workers are to take seriously that “a church in which children are genuinely welcome necessarily concerns itself with children as they are formed within contemporary culture and also with those cultural and social forces at work”[iii], we must recognize that video games make up a significant cultural and social force. After all, “it’s important for a religion to evolve with its followers, and to speak their language. A clergyman who refused to acknowledge the existence and influence of television in the 1980s would look a fool, and so does one who refuses to acknowledge the existence and influence of videogames in the 2010s”[iv]. The sheer popularity of video games indicates gaming is meeting a cultural and social need amongst today’s youth, a need apparently not being met by the Church. Given that neither video games nor the Church are vacating the stage any time soon, what would it look like to appropriate video game vernacular in such a way that imbues the Gospel and related messages with a cultural relevancy that captures the attention of our more plugged-in youth?
Identifying the boss: What is going on?
We find ourselves in the midst of an era that is witness to a major decline in serious youth participation in anything resembling Church as we know it. David Kinnaman is rather blunt when he states that “[m]illions of young adults leave active involvement in church as they exit their teen years”[v], but this is a situation that requires such bluntness. We should be extremely concerned that “[t]he ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations”[vi] as this is symptomatic of a documented 43% dropout rate for youth who were actively engaged in Church who reach early adulthood[vii]. This does not even take into consideration the millions of youth who are unchurched, those who have never darkened the door of a youth group room or church building in their entire lives.
At the same time, however, we are also in the midst of an era defined by technology. Humanity has vehemently squeezed technology for every drop of entertainment value it is worth, and this is particularly relevant in terms of games. This should not be too surprising. After all, “[h]umans are game players”[viii]. Play is not only a natural part of our existence, but it seems that people who never play at all display higher rates of aggression[ix] and are less emotionally stable than counterparts who goof off every now and then. Yet “[i]f humans are players and in need of space and time to play freely, we are also game players and in need of rules, boundaries, and limits”[x]. Almost as far back as the beginning of time, in nearly every culture on every inhabited continent we find evidence of people playing games. For many Native American children, it was hoop-and-stick. From African cultures we get mancala. As technology became more sophisticated, so did the gaming options available as we went from simple games like those mentioned to games like chess, checkers, card games, board games, etc. It was only natural for games to make the jump to computers once the technology was made available. Though all of the above are still played, we now have access to exquisitely complicated digital arenas that allow users to battle everything from lions, tigers, and bears to dragons, aliens, and each other.
So who games? Nearly everyone, as it turns out. While the “gamer” stereotype would have us believe that anyone who can understand the two gaming-vocabulary riddled sentences above is a pimply faced 16-year-old boy with the “social and hygienic skills of a moldy sandwich”[xi] who rarely sees the sun, the truth is that “assumptions we’ve built up about video games – who plays them, why they do, and what games are all about – are turning out to be houses built upon sand”[xii]. Statistics continually show that “[v]ideo games are played by virtually every demographic group in our culture”[xiii]. Age is no longer a limiting factor – although the vast majority people who game are under 25 – and neither is gender[xiv]. According to the Entertainment Software Association[xv]:
· 72% of American households play computer/video games
· 58% of gamers are male, 42% are female
· Women 18+ are a greater portion of the game-playing population than boys 17 or younger
· The average # of years adults gamers have played computer/video games is 12
· Consumers spent ~$25.1 billion on games and their accessories in 2010
For World of Warcraft[xvi] (WoW) alone there are 11.5 million subscribers worldwide (more than the populations of Cuba or New York) and celebrities spend a significant amount of time in-game (Mila Kunis, Elijah Wood, Jessica Simpson, and Chuck Norris[xvii], to name a few). “When a major expansion of WoW called The Burning Crusade was released…2.4 million copies were sold the first day. Only a handful of religious denominations have more members than WoW does. Given its supernatural symbolism, its engagement of the user’s emotions, and the many hours each week members may participate, one could argue it has greater spiritual significance than all but a half dozen mainstream American denominations”[xviii]. Clearly, games are not a cultural phenomena amongst our youth that youth workers can simply ignore.
People game for myriad reasons, so we will only cover a few here. First, consider that the average teenager has oodles more free time on his or her hands than ancestors at the same life stage. Historically, teens have been caught up with adults in tasks related to survival – hunting, foraging, helping out on the farm, etc. As technology has eased the burden of survival for many teens in developed countries, these teens need something to fill time and video game developers are more than happy to comply with thousands of pixels of lvling entertainment.
Second, video games allow youth to exercise id impulses without real danger to self or garnering a criminal record. After all, “[t]he technology of virtual reality games…permits the participant to ‘experience’ (the word experience becomes problematic in this context) a high tech battle, including graphic moments of killing or being killed, without any risk to life and limb”[xix]. An adrenaline rush, the excitement of the hunt and/or explosions, or of simply outsmarting an opponent – all this can be had at the click of a button. Someone can be as aggressive or passive as they want and have spilled no actual blood, wasted no actual people or buildings, etc. Gamers can explore the nooks and crannies of new areas and solve dastardly complicated puzzles, take part in intricate story lines, etc…it is exhilarating but can be switched off at the flick of a button.
Third, video games serve as distractions from daily life. For some daily life is boring as on the whole, youth are not protecting themselves from dangerous animals, constantly battling the elements for survival, etc. For others, life is filled with stress the youth would rather escape. Going on an epic quest is much more engaging and fulfilling than being harangued by Older Sibling, doing chores, or being yelled at by parents. Games “allowed me to escape from the realities and stresses of being a student and having to pay back student loans. It also allowed me to be in control of something completely so that I wouldn’t have to focus on actually having very little or no control over things in my life”[xx], says Dan Stark – a fellow seminarian.
Ostensibly using gaming to serve the above reasons, many youth find games help meet the deep needs of identity and community development. When one is a serious gamer, that person has found an identity as part of a specific in-crowd, one that understands the confusing sentences above. This in-crowd, just like any other, is marked by a specific vocabulary set that separates insiders from outsiders (the terms I used above are just a sampling of what is in use). Two complete strangers can meet, discover they play the same game (or games in the same genres) and have an in-depth conversation, identifying with each other in meaningful ways before ever knowing anything real/not-virtual about the other[xxi]. They are members of the same sub-culture, one ridiculed by media, shunned by churches, and understood only by other members. They belong somewhere, their self is understood somewhere, and they have a name – gamer. For youth seeking somewhere, anywhere, to belong, this can be a wonderful place to go.
For many youth, as mentioned, gaming also provides a sense of community. Community has changed drastically in recent years. Whereas in the past, such was defined in large part by familial origin and geographic location, these markers are less important for a majority of youth today as people are far more mobile. Many go to school in a different town than where they live. Moving several times in two decades is relatively common. Immediate family can live thousands of miles away. Technology has evolved in ways that promote connections across distances/various locales, as we can see in Facebook and Skype, two programs meant to maintain social connections no matter how far away two people live from each other. Yet video games also serve this latter purpose. One person interviewed for this paper indicated that he and his brother met a good friend via gaming[xxii], another said he uses games to keep in touch with college friends after graduation[xxiii], and a woman indicated she met her husband through their mutual involvement with an online trivia game[xxiv].
Many assume games cannot cultivate community simply because participants are not face-to-face, and to a point these people are correct. It is mighty difficult to establish a real and meaningful relationship when you don’t know if someone’s avatar matches their true physique/gender. Difficult – not impossible. It is also true that sometimes people feel more cared for online than in other locations, including local congregations[xxv] and “there are some people who will play games online and get ridiculously close with people in their guilds or something, share details about their work, their children, relationships all without ever meeting in person”[xxvi]. “The world of online gaming is like living in a gigantic city”[xxvii]. Is this an expression of a new way to form community in our highly technological world? I am inclined to think yes.
How are the two realities of religion and video games coexisting? In the minds of many they are not doing so. After all, how could they? What in the world does the one have to do with the other? Well, there are “multiple, obvious connections here between play and religious ritual: play is “sacred” in the sense that it is set apart from “ordinary” (profane) life; it creates its own sense of order; promotes communal cohesion; and reinforces identity and difference. These are common traits associated with ritual as well”[xxviii]. At the same time, “[o]nly a handful of religious denominations have more members than WoW does”[xxix]. Yet despite religion and video games having traits in common, many youth are still turning to video games for identity and community development. Though both “satisfy some of the same psychological needs…[by] providing compensatory status, a sense of community, and transcendence of the material world”[xxx], churches are struggling to keep youth involved while games increase in popularity.
The Church should be where youth are seeking identity and community, whether they realize that is what they are seeking or not. The Church should be where youth find their definition – not only are they beloved children of God (identity), but they have a family that is bigger than imaginable (community). Yet the recent exodus of many youth from Church indicates this may not be what they are finding, and this statement is particularly true for gamers. Why?
Figuring out the Boss’ Stats: Why might this be happening?
Historically, the Church has had an interesting time relating the Gospel to youth in ways that are relevant to the current times, but with recent technological advances that task has gotten difficult on new lvls. “Our students have changed, the culture has changed, the world has changed, and sadly, the church and its academic institutions have for the most part been very slow to change”[xxxi]. Current youth have grown up in a world where computers, iPods, and fancy phones that are miniature computers with the capability of making phone calls are the norm. Their world includes ways to communicate and form community that depend upon binary processing. Yet many workers in the Church, those for adults and youth alike, keep attempting to reach people in the same ways they did fifty years ago – events, coffee houses, letters, etc.
Technological advances have created a gap between youth and those typically trying to work with them as the two populations can anthropologically almost be seen as coming from entirely different cultures. Researchers have recently begun describing the difference between the two as the difference between “digital immigrants” and “digital natives”. The former are those of older generations who did not grow up with a cell phone on them at all times and were not surrounded by an intensely digital atmosphere. The latter are youth in developed countries who are accustomed to having Twitter, Hipster, Facebook, IMing capabilities, games, apps, and cameras at their beck and call 24/7. As one author put it, many members of the former generations (age 25+) “did not have a clue that computers would wind up being tiny little things that [they] carry with [them]. [Their] generation did not prepare for the digital revolution”[xxxii]. As a result, it is not uncommon for digital immigrants to ask the help of digital natives with technology (just ask a parent who had to have their teenager explain how to use a new phone).
Unfortunately, many digital immigrants give up on keeping up with technology. It is hard to blame them – many technological advances are out of date before they even reach the store shelves[xxxiii]. Yet unfortunately for the Gospel, many of these immigrants are youth workers.
This leads to Church leadership lagging “behind in our understanding of the digital culture and its impact on ministry and theological education”[xxxiv]. I firmly believe God cares an awful lot about what is said in texts and IM chat screens and how youth treat each other digitally in games, but it is hard to know that when seeing how older youth workers tend to shy away from using modern technology to conduct their work. True, many workers are branching out into the digital world but “[a]lthough congregations increasingly rely on online tools to function day-to-day, technologically they are not moving as fast as individuals, who are increasingly going online to deepen and enrich their spiritual lives” [xxxv]. Still relying on old, paper-based solutions to address a digital world? That is a problem (as if intergenerational ministry was not difficult enough).
Video games often exacerbate technological divide problems because a gamer necessarily relies heavily upon technology. It takes a good understanding of such in order to game effectively, so not only are n00b gamers learning a new world, vocabulary, and skill set regarding their games of choice, but they must also learn how to work related technology. This technology, however, poses a definite challenge for digital immigrants as it is often very complicated (especially gaming systems). This impedes their ability and desire to engage the games on a real level, and widens the digital divide between them and youth who game. “It is not only that adults often do not know how computer games function and what kind of tasks have to be solved, but that most adults do not know how it feels to play these games and therefore they do not understand the fascination which computer games hold for young people”[xxxvi]. Lack of experience with technology means a lack of experience with gaming technology that could serve to bring the Gospel to youth. Yet this is not the only obstacle impeding the utilization of gaming vocabulary in Church.
The relatively short history of gaming coexisting with the Church is fraught with misunderstanding and demonization on both sides. Though “[t]hey both recreate the known world and present that alternative version to their players/adherents”[xxxvii], these two worlds have not played nice. At best and rarely, Church has recognized the usefulness of gaming in religious education (for example, designing a game revolving around Biblical plots)[xxxviii]. At worst and more frequently, however, the Church lives into the assertion that “the church and modern media might not be ideal bedfellows since the former represents the spiritual, the moral and the eternal, and the latter represents the present, the trivial and the narcissistic”[xxxix]. Along with modern media, church as an institution is quick to jump on the bandwagon that playing video games increase aggression levels and violent acts amongst youth[xl], citing articles which state “research clearly indicates how ongoing involvement with violent games has antisocial and aggressive effects in the player” [xli]. Games are an evil part of an evil world. Gamers, therefore, are often viewed by the Church as they are viewed by the world – social outcasts whose addiction of choice is to screens and have a higher propensity towards violence than average. Despite this, individuals whom I interviewed for this project agreed gaming rarely explicitly comes up in church itself. It is much more likely for religion to come up in games.
Religion has an interesting place in the world of gaming, one that we must attend here as games allow “values and ideals to be communicated to a much larger audience than traditional art forms” [xlii]. Multiple references to existing religions are present in video games themselves. For example, churches and shrines to a motley crew of made-up deities exist in WoW and Oblivion (though the names of such may closely resemble deities in RL religions). Games often talk about spiritual concepts – ghosts, possession, magic/witchcraft, etc[xliii]. Character types are often reminiscent of their RL counterparts (priests in WoW can resurrect players, warlocks summon otherworldly entities, rogues can pickpocket others).
“Religion in video games is a tool one uses to suppress dissent, put down rebellions, gain bonuses (items and stats), and accomplish goals. It improves the fiction by making for a great story, by making the manipulation of others to perform any vile deed credible, by providing a means of social control, and by creating a believable world…It is cool, it is geeky, and it lends a numinous/Gnostic/mysterious aura to the game…It is a tool players use to fantasize and deal with the lack of certainly and efficacy in the real world. And it leads players to reflect”[xliv].
At the same time, however, the portrayal of religious people and elements in games may be either positive or negative. Priests may be healers critical to the success of a party in WoW, while in Oblivion priests may be the cunning ones undermining an invented society. As one author stated,
“Symbols of the divine are simply appropriated as part of mythology, in the negative Western modern sense of the word, or as synonymous with magic. Religious figures tend to be the weak or crazy ones in many RPGs, such as Morrowind, Fallout, Oblivion, and Skyrim. However, in other video games, religious or faith based characters (such as Aeris in Final Fantasy VII) are the saviors of the world. In some of the aforementioned games, religion is portrayed very negatively as a cultic, zealot-driven group of people rather than a loving community. It seems that the mystic side of religion is appropriated in RPGs as another mode of magic, inextricably tied up with healing and driving away undead and such. In other games the powerlessness of religious figures is a powerful statement of the developers’ critiques of religion…A great deal of ignorance and hate courses through online video gaming communities towards people of faith”[xlv].
One researcher says “Many electronic games mock conventional religion, and may thereby erode the player’s respect for the churches in his or her real community. Other games positively present ideas and symbols from religions considered exotic in the West, such as Japanese Shinto and Classical Paganism. Still others offer somewhat attractive invented religions”[xlvi] [xlvii]. It is not unreasonable to expect youth’s view of religion to be influenced by what they see in-game.
This rather tempestuous relationship between video games and religion causes many youth to be nervous about bringing their gaming lives and church lives together. What if members of the one shun him/her for participation in the other? Are they going to be demonized by members of their congregation, or seen as a potential time bomb just waiting to commit a violent act? Or are they going to be ridiculed by their gamer friends by participating in something with mystical elements that they claim are actually real? Many think these two worlds are completely incompatible. After all, what do aggro, quests, and mana have to do with the Gospel? It depends on how one views the situation. On the one hand-held gaming controller, the world of gaming is very much of this world and therefore separate from the holy world of the Gospel. On the other controller, what if gaming language is a new way to bring the Gospel to our youth? What would it look like to appropriate gaming terms to describe the Gospel in ways that are relevant and interesting to a particular, but not undeserving subset of our youth – the gamer? Would God mind?
Getting advice from the GM: What might God have to say about this?
“We do have the choice of ignoring the digital revolution – it is just that we dare not ignore it if we hope to be relevant to the missiological imperative that is the basic premise of our task”[xlviii].
What might God have to say about video games, indeed. Were one to judge from His “church people”, one might be tempted to say God wants nothing to do with video games and their associated vernacular, no matter how many youth game. (If everyone jumped off a bridge, does that make it okay?) Video games could hardly be made more worldly, what with their violence, graphic demonstrations of gore, encouraging people to chase after seemingly worthless achievements, etc. Yet they are still important to our youth. What is important to youth is important to God, though perhaps not for reasons we may originally ascribe to the Ultimate Game Maker, and so should be important to youth workers.
It is important to consider how God dared vulnerability through making transmission of the Gospel depend in large part upon called workers instead of a Matrix-style direct download. Certainly He could have made it possible for the Gospel to be dumped into our brains with no effort by others. But He did not do so. Instead He made it necessary for one human being to transmit the Gospel to another. Hence the Gospel is at the mercy of God’s workers, flawed human beings who sometimes run ahead of God and themselves decide the cool and fashionable ways with which to present God’s word.
Recognizing God’s status of all-powerful alongside vulnerability, however, is to acknowledge that God has the ability to relate to His creation in whatever manner He so chooses, whether His workers are comfortable with His methods or not. Maybe, just maybe, He “so chooses” to reveal himself to gamers through one of the things they know best – games. Maybe, just maybe God is at work here, showing bits of light through the darkness enveloping everyone (not just gamers) through questions about faith stemming from how religion is often portrayed in games. Maybe, just maybe, He is at work fulfilling some youth’s need for community through games, and we as youth workers are the ones standing in the way because that is not how we think “community should look.” After all, “the incarnation of Jesus calls us deeper into the world around us, because God is taking what exists right now and is using it as building blocks for the fulfillment of the realm of God”[xlix]. Who are we to decide what God uses as building blocks?
Our particular audience has been exposed to games which, despite what the Church as a whole might think about them, promote a substantial amount of thought amongst their players. It is negligent to think youth are not pondering how religion is presented in games. Is religion indeed a way to manipulate the masses, a means of gathering power, a creator of artifacts useful for cleansing areas of contamination? Or is religion something more? The question becomes thus: do we in our own fear and/or ignorance surrounding gaming and associated culture/vernacular really want the only people talking to our gaming youth about religion in an interesting way to be NPCs?
The world of gamers is a mission field whether we admit it or not. It is a place that Christ’s freedom must be spoken into, a freedom that “is shunned by fallen humanity both because it entails a new kind of bondage and responsibility and because it frightens us to be delivered up to our own resources”[l]. Our own resources right now include a new vernacular with which to relate the Gospel, but who will do so? Whom shall we send? This person needs to be cognizant of how very important it is to truly approach youth on their lvl. Douglas John Hall in describing theology of the cross says part of the mystery, power, and awe-inspiring nature of the cross event is that Jesus met humanity right where it was at. Not where he was, or where the Holy Spirit or even the Father was, but instead right where their beloved was[li]. Humanity needed an atoning sacrifice – Jesus was that sacrifice. Humanity needed to know that God suffers right alongside their suffering – Jesus demonstrated a level of suffering for love that few have approached since.
Youth today have demonstrated gaming is important to them – it is our job to show it is important to God, thereby showing them “that the details of their everyday lives might just have some connection to what God is ultimately up to in the world”[lii]. Just as games expanded into advancing technology as it became available, so too should have the recognition of our responsibility to bring Christ to this arena. After all, “[n]ew technologies offer the potential of ministry, enhancing possibilities in every area of congregational life”[liii]. God cares about every area of daily life for every member of the congregation. It is our duty as responsible youth workers to care about every area of daily life for every member of our mission fields as well. As one author put it, “[t]o look for religious dimensions in a daily life phenomenon such as computer games requires a notion of religion which is not restricted to the traditional and institutionalized forms of religion”[liv]. God is not restricted to the barriers and confines that the institution set up around him have agreed upon. Many youth, particularly gamers, are tired of these barriers and confines, and they crave theological discussion. Just because they might frame their arguments in l33t speak does not make their discussion about God and the Gospel any less valid. It is our theological duty to reach youth by whatever means necessary – recognizing that God can choose whatever means He wants – and prepare to be amazed.
Effectively carrying out God’s command to be missional requires reading the audience and adjusting message transmission accordingly. Consider that in the New Testament, Jesus used one set of metaphors with farmers (Matthew 13:3-8) and another set with religious officials (Matthew 22:15-40). He took what was relevant to those in his audience and related his message with vernacular appropriate to that particular audience. Of course He did so – they needed the message in their terms. How would Jesus talk to gamer youth?
Downing the boss: So what do we do?
“So the church faces a real dilemma: either embrace the new technology or remain a dinosaur,
and we all know what happened to the dinosaurs!”[lv]
Now, all of the information above may have made it sound like video games are replacing religion, but this is certainly not the case. It is true, however, that games have too major of an impact on too many youth for youth workers to simply ignore. We cannot simply accept the fact that youth are leaving the Church in astounding numbers. Nor can we throw up our hands and say “well, we tried to reach them” as more and more teenagers, including and especially gamers, decide darkening a church’s doorways is simply not worth their time. I don’t think God would accept that of His youth workers, those He has entrusted with the special burden of bringing the youth to him. No, instead we are to work in the new reality facing our world, one defined by technology that is fast-moving and hence hard to keep up with. We are to realize that part of the reason many modern youth are leaving the Church is “simply” because reasons for adhering to the Gospel have not been presented in a relevant way, or in a way that makes the Gospel something worth dying for.
Kenda Dean makes the case that youth are filled with passion that challenges adults, but for many youth this passion is channeled in directions that have little to no eternal significance[lvi]. For gamer youth, this passion is often exercised in hours plunked in front of a screen, involved in a pug that has an inept healer. I know several young men who light up when games come up as a discussion topic. They can spend hours detailing specifics about every dungeon in WoW, naming bosses like old friends and rattling off stat numbers as if they ate stats for breakfast. These youth have found a place for their passion, though it is lacking in eternal significance. Let us return to why youth game – the reasons listed previously boil down to a need to fill time for whatever reason coupled with a need for identity and community. Can the Church, by truly entering the gaming world, provide a place where the Gospel is transmitted in a relevant way that promotes activities of the body of Christ as worth the same time as games, but also promotes Christian community as the inclusive, non-judgmental identity and community forming place it should be?
There are some steps to take in order to reach this goal. First, we must work to expose truth on both sides of the video game vs. religion front. Gamers need to be shown the Church when it is most Church is “an environment where human beings can become more fully human, where communal life thrives, where space is created for imagination to flourish, where doubts aren’t ignored, where hospitality and inclusion are the norm…and where the community has a posture of openness to the presence of God, the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit”[lvii]. God is interested in all parts of us, digital and otherwise. The Church needs to be shown the above facts and truth about games (who plays, why, etc) and their true significance for our youth, and who gamers really are. The reality of today is that “the digital revolution has changed our lives and our world in a way that calls us to seriously re-envision our work as pastors and theologians”[lviii] and “[t]he church…should be aware of the current developments and trends in modern media to remain relevant and have the capacity to reach out to a modern generation conversant with such developments”[lix].
Part of remaining conversant with current gamer youth is appropriating video game lingo into theological conversations. Over the past two years, I have been involved with a context where inner city youth aged 6-16 come together once a week for an evening of ministry, dinner, and fellowship. Upon arriving at the program, youth are split into four groups based on gender and age (older, younger). As one who works primarily with the younger girls, I rarely had anything to talk about with the older boys. When some of them found out about my WoW toon, however we suddenly had something to talk about as we each recognized the other as member of the gaming subculture. I had the opportunity to use gaming vocabulary to share my view of God. The same happened when some of my husband’s fraternity brothers and I were discussing theology – gaming terms helped me relate my theological ideas in a way relevant to the young men with whom I was speaking and they ate it up – this they could wrap their heads around. Inner city kids and college frat boys – two populations where gaming is extremely popular. Two populations who would benefit from hearing the Gospel in gaming terms.
One of the first things budding anthropologists are taught when considering a participant-observation ethnographic study on a particular culture (a study where the anthropologist lives with the people in order to fully understand their ways) is that they must gain a working knowledge of the language. The same is true for youth workers training to reach particular populations. Now, I am not arguing that an already strained church budget needs to make room for a “gaming minister”, but I am arguing that youth workers – lay and staff – need to familiarize themselves with gaming and gaming lingo. Imagine the worlds of interaction that can open up when a youth worker displays a first-hand understanding of the games played by youth! Those workers have earned a ticket into their world, have gained special status as someone who can speak the language, and can then use that language to bring the Gospel to the youth. Note that I said “bring the Gospel to the youth” and not the other way around – the former lives into theology of the cross as discussed above – that which meets people where they are.
Of course, in order to use the language appropriately, youth workers must make an honest effort to engage with gaming itself. “It doesn’t matter if you are an expert in video games. But, if you don’t know the first thing about video games, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from asking another person into the world of gaming…Gamers are great evangelists – they love to share their passion with others – so there is virtually no risk that you’re going to be turned down”[lx]. Imagine how youth would react if their church leaders came to them in humility and asked for training on video games! To take seriously the knowledge of youth and ask for their expertise – what a wonderful way to empower a youth! What a wonderful way to encourage intergenerational ministry to help bridge the divide between digital immigrants and digital natives! But what about gaming youth who are not in Church? Well, might its members / youth workers become engaged with local gaming clubs/activities? To engage all of the gamer subculture, might the Church open its doors to host a LAN party, or a “gaming night for all ages”. Or maybe the Church can connect adults interested in games with youth willing to teach the adults. Or perhaps youth workers simply integrate gaming vocabulary into their regular lessons.
Integrating gaming vocabulary into a Gospel lesson is not as daunting as it may sound. Consider a lesson on Ephesians 6:10-18, the passage describing the armor of God. Many gamers are very familiar with the concept of armor as a toon’s armor is integral to its survival. As such, many gamers already have an understanding of the function of breastplates, shields, swords, etc. Use that connection in a lesson! Or consider how one author talks about using “the armor designs of warrior characters in [WoW] and connecting those designs to the battle strategies of the fourth-century emperor Constantine”[lxi]. Might God be described in terms of an epically awesome GM? Or the sacraments as a form of leveling up[lxii]? Or fellow youth group members as guildies? Might Jesus’ life and work be talked about in terms of an epic quest to bring people back into relationship with God? (Note that this vocabulary is not meant to replace already established vernacular, just provide youth workers with another tool in their belt for relating the Gospel to youth). These are ideas that gaming youth find interesting. They can wrap their head around concepts presented in this light as this relates directly to their interests. Ample research “demonstrates the fact that digital gaming is a significant teaching tool”[lxiii] – there is nothing saying the Church should stay away from this tool. Indeed, it is our theological duty to use whatever we can to help the Gospel reach as many people as possible. “We can no longer afford to live in academic or ecclesiological ghettos”[lxiv].
There are those who might be nervous that appropriating gaming vocabulary to reach gaming youth runs the risk of watering down or misconstruing the Gospel. This is a valid concern and one youth workers must keep in mind as the “church should continue to participate in the new possibilities available, but do so cautiously and prayerfully, keeping in mind the dangers as well as the advantages”[lxv]. For example, several people I spoke with abhorred the idea of God as a guild or game master because they had negative experiences with both and “don’t want God to be that kind of God”[lxvi]. Yet there is danger inherent in any way we construe something infinite in finite terms (non-inclusive language in certain Biblical translations and problems with the idea of God as a father come to mind). Despite the danger, we must respond to the “call of the church to relationally pass on the gospel to adolescents in any cultural or environmental setting. This means that we must know and understand as much as possible the population we are dealing with. Our message must never change, but in seeking to care for and reach the coming generations, our methods must change”[lxvii].
To consider relaying the Gospel in such a radically new way might seem scary or even sacrilegious, but we must do something. Youth workers will one day be held to account for how they fulfilled their calling on the earth, and I for one do not want to stand before God and have to admit that I had an epic tool at my disposal but was too afraid of learning something new to use it. We must engage gamer youth right where they are, not only because this is what Jesus modeled as he molded his language to fit his audience, but also because they are members of a population that has been socially maligned, misconstrued, and the subject of much ridicule – just the kinds of populations Jesus hung out with. By using gaming vocabulary to speak the Gospel to these youth, youth workers, as representatives of God, are portraying a God that cares enough about the individual to use any means necessary to help His Church be a place of finding identity and community for all. By no means will this practice cease the hemorrhaging of youth from modern Church, but just because it may only work to clarify the Message for and/or reach a few youth does not mean we should not try. Besides, who are we to limit what God might want to do through this vocabulary? Maybe, just maybe, He has an epic plan in mind for work with these terms and technological community, one that He is waiting for youth workers to engage in to reach the gaming subculture amongst this generation in a real way, a way that also tells Satan to “STFU, n00b”. I don’t know. What I do know is that we will never know the potential impact until we try, and now is a better time to start than later. Quest accepted.
[i] Adams, Paul C. “The Theology of…Video Games?! Using Games to Build Relationships in Your Congregation and Community.” Word & World Vol. 30 No. 3 (2010): 291
[ii] In the U.S., for example, we call people “friends” where two people in the exact same kind of relationship in Australia might refer to each other as “mates”.
[iii] Mercer, Joyce Ann. Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Children, (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2005): 3
[iv] Cox, Katie. Interview via email 23 March 2012
[vi] Ibid., 22
[vii] Ibid., 22
[viii] Plate, S. Brent. “Religion is Playing Games: Playing Video Gods, Playing to Play.” Religious Studies and Theology Vol. 29 No. 2 (2010): 215
[ix] Ibid., 222
[x] Ibid., 218
[xi] Lewis, Kyle. Interview via Facebook 19 March 2012
[xii] Adams, Word & World, 291
[xiii] Ibid., 291
[xiv] Humorously, a friend of mine once said that he used me as an example in an argument to prove to a friend that “pretty girls play WoW too!” I have a level 82 gnome rogue.
[xvi] World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular video game ever created.
[xvii] “The Unbelievable World of Warcraft”, Online Schools. Accessed April 19, 2012. http://www.onlineschools.org/blog/unbelievable-wow/
[xviii] Bainbridge, William Sims. “Electronic Game Research Methodologies: Studying Religious Implications.” Review of Religious Research Vol. 49 No. 1 (2007): 46
[xx] Stark, Dan. Interview via Facebook 18 March 2012
[xxi] Here I speak from experience – I once met a gentleman and after quickly learning we each play WoW, we proceeded to chat for well over half an hour about the game before trying to learn about the other person.
[xxii] Stark, Interview
[xxiii] Lewis, Interview
[xxiv] Cox, Interview
[xxv] Useem, Andrea. “The New Connectivity: How Internet Innovations are Changing the way we do Church.” Congregations Vol. 34 No. 4 (2008): 25
[xxvi] Lewis, Interview
[xxviii] Plate, Religious Studies and Theology, 217
[xxix] Bainbridge, Review of Religious Research, 46
[xxx] Ibid., 36.
[xxxii] Ibid., 23
[xxxiii] The problem of not being able to keep up with technology that youth are adept at is not strictly one of older generations – I am only 24 and I have already lost track of recent technology that kids I work with are skilled at using.
[xxxiv] Jewell, Theological Education, 23
[xxxv] Useem, Congregations, 26
[xxxvi] Scholtz, Christopher. “Fascinating Technology: Computer Games as an Issue for Religious Education.” British Journal of Religious Education, Vol. 27 No. 2 (2005): 174
[xxxvii] Plate, Religious Studies and Theology, 221
[xxxviii] Herzfeld, Noreen. “Video Shootout: The Games kids play.” Christian Century Vol. 121 No. 9 (2004)
[xxxix] McAlister, Colin. “The Church and Modern Media.” Modern Believing Vol. 51 No. 2 (2010): 41
[xl] We will hold this argument for a later time. In short, I have few problems with the idea that games promote violent behavior, but it is a chicken and egg argument – are games promoting the violent behavior or are those with more violent tendencies self-selecting to play games with more frequency than more calm peers?
[xli] Plate, Religious Studies and Theology, 221
[xlii] Adams, Word & World, 293
[xliii] Bainbridge, Review of Religious Research, 41
[xliv]Love, Mark Cameron. “Not-So-Sacred Quests: Religion, Intertextuality and Ethics in Video Games.” Religious Studies and Theology Vol. 29 No. 2 (2010): 208
[xlv] Stark, Interview
[xlvi] Bainbridge, Review of Religious Research, 41
[xlvii] Why do games deal more with religion than the other way around? Perhaps do designers of the one recognize the huge sociological import of the other more so than the other does of the one?
[xlviii] Jewell, Theological Education, 27
[xlix] Adams, Word & World, 296
[l] Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003): 26
[lii] Adams, Word & World, 296
[liii] Jewell, Theological Education, 24-25
[liv] Scholtz, British Journal of Religious Education, 174
[lv] McAlister, Modern Believing, 42
[lvi] Dean, Kenda Creasy, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm, B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004)
[lvii] King, Mike, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry: Guiding Students into Spiritual Formation, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006)
[lviii] Jewell, Theological Education, 19
[lix] McAlister, Modern Believing, 46
[lx] Adams, Word & World, 295
[lxi] Ibid., 296
[lxii] Please don’t misunderstand – I am not attempting to be flippant about the sacraments, merely provide youth with another way of relating to an old ritual. People progress through sacraments in a church in much the same way as a character gains levels by completing certain activities and going through stages of development.
[lxiii] Jewell, Theological Education, 23
[lxiv] Ibid., 18
[lxv] McAlister, Modern Believing, 46
[lxvi] Stark, Interview