Resident good: how video games can be used in church – The Guardian
Put your screens away and worship God, I was often told on Sundays. Video games and church don’t mix. When they do, it’s usually fuelled by outrage or misunderstanding – PlayStation game Resistance: Fall of Man’s use of Manchester Cathedral for a violent gun battle in 2007 led to legal threats from the Church of England and an apology from Sony.
These arguments stem from a misunderstanding of what video games are. If games are seen only as entertainment, it’s inappropriate for them to address culturally sensitive topics or be used in sacred settings.
However, games are more than just entertainment. They can create spaces that address wide-ranging topics in imaginative and meaningful ways. The unusual texture of these spaces can have psychological, ethical, social and, yes, spiritual benefits.
Unlike the more common defence of video games as sources of behavioural change or ways to achieve covert teaching, this perspective sees games as valuable in their own right. They cannot be properly understood if they are defined by utility. This idea has taken me to some unusual places, from giving TEDx talks to writing a booklet on the spirituality of gaming, organising video game communion services in Exeter Cathedral, running events at arts festivals and even training church leaders and teachers how to use games for spiritual exploration.
These adult spaces are unsurprisingly suspicious about embracing video games. Conversations with clergy or parents usually start with mild confusion: “This is for my children, right?” or “So, you’re making the services more accessible for young people?” Other journalists inquired about my use of games in the cathedral. When I talked at TEDxExeter on meaningful gaming, the audience initially thought I was joking.
The Reverend Canon Graham Thompson had never played video games before a session I ran for Methodist ministers. Although he initially saw them as a foil to the main event of the sermon, afterwards he and the group saw them in a new light. “Some ministers were bemused, even perplexed, but others embraced and revelled in wrestling with what these video game spaces mean for the church and Christians,” he said.
After I ran sessions last year with the Frontier Youth Trust charity teaching churches to use games as a part of worship rather than entertainment for youth groups, Alastair Jones, then CEO, said: “Through history the church has used art to deepen spiritual awareness, as you see in its buildings. The digital realm is a less obvious site of meaning for Christians, so can be easily overlooked.”
For Jones, the effort to understand was worthwhile. “Even titles like Limbo, Joust Mania or Space Team can bring a new form and structure to explore spiritual stories and the ethics of Jesus with young people, in a way that allows them to own and nurture their faith,” he says.
Over last few years, I’ve run digital spirituality sessions at the Greenbelt arts festival. I asked Paul Northup, its creative director, why a mainstream arts festival was granting many hours of programming to video games. “Far from being meaningful, or spiritual, video games have a reputation for promoting violence through addictive, expensive experiences,” he said. “However, taking the risk of exhibiting unusual and challenging games at Greenbelt – as we have with That Dragon, Cancer [a game about a family dealing with childhood cancer] and plan to do with Bury Me, My Love [a game about the experience of Syrian refugees] – has shown gaming to be a deeply important way to better understand justice, faith and culture. It’s not for everyone, but those who engage discover something unexpected and valuable.”
One of my more unexpected invitations was to create a gaming communion at Exeter Cathedral. We held two services using different games – Flower and Journey. Anna Norman Walker, canon at the cathedral at the time, said that previously she had understood video games as a way to entertain teenagers. Afterwards, however, she commented on how well games had fit the setting, and said that she was open to the possibility that they might be a part of her story as a priest.
Asking game creators how they feel about their games being used in these contexts has been interesting. Designer Jenova Chen reflected on Journey being used in the cathedral: “Journey provides a situation where you can trust someone you know very little about … That feeling of being home and connected is rare. When I see the church-going experience, that makes sense, because it’s about the same thing.”
The Rev Stephen Santry summed it up well: “It was revolutionary to understand that game developers create spaces or worlds for people to explore and discover. This is also the domain of a priest. In facilitating acts of worship I create an environment for people to have an encounter with God.”
We can easily close down conversations by pigeonholing ourselves as either for or against video games. However, bringing games into these ancient, culturally significant settings and letting the encounter speak for itself opens up new and exciting dialogues. This can be misunderstood as faith groups modernising to attract youngsters, but an older audience is also benefiting from what video games can offer them and their faith.
- Andy Robertson is a theologically trained video game journalist and family technology expert.