Video games

Minefield or mission field?

“Right now, each of you has an ‘F,’” Professor Lee Sheldon tells his students at the start of every new semester at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Slouching students slump even lower at the news.

“But,” Sheldon continues, “you can level up.”

His use of the gaming term, which means acting to improve your situation, gets everyone’s attention. Students morph from unengaged to hyper-alert, looking at their teacher as if to say, Bring it on.

This methodology is part of a new trend in education called gamification, or game-based learning. It replaces the “sage on a stage” lecture with student-driven scholarship that makes use of intrinsic awards, not letter grades. Instead of research, students go on “quests,” and every exam, presentation and problem solved will win you the “XP” (experience points) necessary to pass the course.

His students, Sheldon claims, become more aware and self-sufficient, and graduate able to use game techniques to solve real-world problems.

“We now have a gamer culture,” he says, “like it or not. So why not use it?”

Other worlds
I snap the radio off and consider the implications of what Professor Sheldon is saying. Are we living in a culture of games? Can we be defined by our consumption of a particular medium? I’m not sure. It’s an area I don’t know much about. I remember being surprised to hear, on an episode of CBC radio’s Spark, that gaming communities now include not only players but virtual spectators. Twitch, a website for watching other people play video games, is the fourth-highest trafficked site in the U.S. after Netflix, Google and Apple. Forty-five million people will watch 13 billion minutes of gaming on Twitch this month.

Then my nine-year-old comes home and utters these previously unheard-of instructions from her teacher: “I need to play a game on your computer! For my homework!” If video games have moved beyond being products for consumption to a kind of shared cultural experience, I have some catching up to do. So I give myself a quest: investigate trends in gaming and look for Christians in the field, working to transform it.

An article in World magazine is the first clue – a glimpse of Christians who see gamer culture as a unique mission field. In July, the annual Anime Expo in LA hosted a booth by Gamechurch, catching participants’ attention with a large image of Jesus gripping an Xbox controller. Volunteers passed out buttons and postcards with the words “Jesus loves gamers” and 2,000 copies of the book of John re-written with a new audience in mind: “And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it” (John 1:5). It’s a ministry based on developing relationships and translating the good news into contemporary gaming language.

Culture making
What about the video games themselves? Are any developers making games with a Christian worldview? A rise in “empathy” games is the second clue I come across. Indie developers, not necessarily religious, have moved beyond first-person shooter and fantasy games to this new type, which allows users to virtually experience what it’s like to live with alcoholism, for example, or homelessness. In a game called Auti-Sim, your character is on a playground full of children. Going too far into the crowd results in painful static, shifting volume levels and visual impairments, which only decrease once you pull back and find a quiet spot. Playing this game may help neurotypical kids understand the behaviours associated with autism.

My third and final clue proves that anything can be a vehicle for the gospel.

It ends the way I began – by listening to a professor talk about video games. Every pilgrim needs a guide, right? I decide to call Kevin Schut, author of Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Game Culture (reviewed in CC). Schut teaches at Trinity Western University and has clearly spent more time thinking about this topic than me.

I ask him to name a video game that conveys a Christian worldview.

“The best one hasn’t been released yet,” he says, “but I have never seen press for a video game like it. It’s called That Dragon, Cancer, a highly narrative game [about] raising a kid with terminal cancer. It’s tremendously moving, probably not that fun [to play].”

Ryan Green, co-creator, lost his five-year-old son Joel to cancer this past summer. Joel was diagnosed at age one. Despite that seemingly tragic ending, That Dragon, Cancer is a game about hope, “a hope that extends past death,” Schut says, “which is a noble and powerful goal. Not everyone will get it, but that’s the nature of difficult texts.” Ryan Green describes the game as his testimony.

I stand amazed at the strength and fortitude of these Christian developers, tackling one part of culture just as desperate for transformation as everywhere else. I’m grateful for the gift of imagination, for the reminder that, as Shauna Niequist, says, “There are a whole lot of ways to tell the same story.”

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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