Don’t Do Video Games in Church, Do Church in Video Games

Can video games be encountered as beautiful, unsettling, troubling, joyful, sad or maybe even worshipful?

Written by Andy Robertson / Published on January 24, 2018

Using technology in spiritual spaces isn’t a new idea. Ever since (and before) early adopters brought cutting-edge pipe-organs into church buildings there has been conflict and suspicion about what unintended consequences these advances bring with them.

"Games aren’t worthwhile because they educate, inform, develop skills or solve problems. They are valuable because they are games."
Use a film clip to illustrate the concept of a hard won victory and you might inadvertently import violent assumptions along with it. Play a piece of music that points to the beauty of life and you may also be pushing gender stereotypes. Goodness knows what playing a game in a church service might surreptitiously sneak in while we’re distracted by the entertainment of it all.

You may be expecting me to defend the use of games in these contexts, but I’m not going to. I think caution is justified before we bring in the latest new thing to our ancient rituals.

The more pressing question is what new spaces do games create in which we can practice rituals, encounter truth and tell our old stories? By worrying about the advance of technology into buildings and gatherings we could be missing a huge new virtual frontier where God, spirituality and truth can be encountered in undreamt of new ways.

This was the subject of my 2012 TEDx talk, Developing a Sustainable Relationship with Video Games. I called for a “new priesthood of gamers”, everyday people who would play and talk about games differently. Asking not whether they were good or bad, but what they were about. What they meant.

Since then I’ve had amazing opportunities to put this theory to practice. At mainstream arts festivals, ancient Cathedrals , Churches, Gaming Expos, Schools and Parks I’ve invited people from all walks of life to encounter something meaningful in a video game.

I’ve watched from the sidelines as these all-age temporary communities have played and engaged together. They’ve laughed, cried, shouted, shoved and hugged. And amongst all that, have been moments of transcendence, meaning, and tranquility. People often aren’t sure what language to use about these encounters but many people say they found truth or spirituality or God in these spaces.

What I have tried to do is make sense of what was going on, most recently in a small book called Exploring Spirituality in Video Games: Encountering Meaning in Digital Spaces. Writing this with Dr. Alastair Jones, has been an opportunity to spend time thinking through the ground work to capitalize from video games in this way but also the implications of their use.

Seeing games as art objects that can receive us and become places to go in their own right mitigates one of my pet peeves—the justification of video games by the secondary good they can do. Games aren’t worthwhile because they educate, inform, develop skills or solve problems. They are valuable because they are games. As I put it in the book:

Games are “useless objects” in the good sense of that word—having no other true purpose but to be encountered as beautiful, unsettling, troubling, joyful, sad or maybe even worshipful.

We can domesticate them for all kinds of noble purposes, but this misses the point. Their unpredictability is intrinsic to them. Their fierce untamable torrent of experiences, ideas and emotion-flooding interactions are an indelible part of what, at best, they have to offer.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game based on the Apocryphal book of Enoch

Of course games, like any medium, aren’t without their sharp edges or difficult dark corners. It’s important that we move beyond defending or promoting the new art form as idealized or unproblematic. Games often glamorize violence, and use it as a way to make the player feel powerful. They can absorb a huge amount of time if you have an addictive personality and don’t encourage physical activity. They can also be expensive if you focus solely on the high end Hollywood-like experiences. This, understandably leads to criticism of their use in faith circles. However, a parallel to the bible is helpful here. In the same way that violence in our faith texts don’t eclipse their value, I don’t think games are cancelled out by their jarring habit of getting players to shoot each other in the head.

This is all well and good for those of us versed in (and connected to) the rich flow of the video game world. But for others it can be hard to know where to start. So, along with the booklet, I’m creating weekly videos on Encountering Meaning in Digital Spaces as part of my Patreon project. This not only lays the ground work to understand how this perspective looks in practice but for the $1/month it offers monthly suggestions of what to play next. Here’s the first video in the series for free:

This comes full circle for me, to my TEDx call for us to “start talking different about video games”. As we’ve done in other meaningful areas of life—literature, music, film and even religious texts—we need to find language and dialogue to share, describe and decode the substantial experiences we encounter in video games.

Beyond commercial success, the verdict is still out on what place games will have in wider society. Will they, like comics, become synonymous with super heroes? Will they be only associated with violence and power narratives? Or will they, as those of us who’ve benefited from them hope, become experiences that everyone gets to enjoy—breaking out of the ghetto and into cultural spaces at large?

About the Author:

Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer) is a theologically trained freelance video-game expert for national newspapers and the BBC, and runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel. He has worked on the theory and practice of spirituality in video games in a range of contexts.