The Gameful Church

Ken Evers-HoodGames

Do you like games? Chances are the people you serve do. When I ask church groups to tell me their idea of what a “gamer” looks like, folks invariably guess a teenage boy playing videogames alone in his room. The reality is quite different. Even if we just talk about video and computer games the average gamer is much older than most people expect. In 2016 nearly half of gamers were over the age of 50. Half. The average age of male gamers was 35 and the average age for women was 44. Speaking of gender, the split between male and female gamers is more equal than most think with women representing 41% of gamers. And if we extend our thinking beyond video games to include board games and sport, these numbers only increase.

We are living amidst an increasingly gameful generation.

The Apostle Paul would be delighted. Many people know that Paul supported his ministry by tent-making. But have you ever wondered why Paul was making tents? I mean, one of the things for which Romans are justly famous was architecture. The Romans built impressive domoi with incredible interior gardens. The Romans created multi-story apartment buildings. While the fire ratings of those complexes with arguably sketchy, Romans didn’t generally live in tents. So what was Paul doing making them?

Every two years after the Olympic games athletes and their supporters descended upon Corinth for the Isthmian games. Tents were needed for temporary housing. On a daily basis Paul lived and breathed the language and environment of the games, and it shaped the way he thought.

“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).

Paul understood that gameful environments motivate us in ways we are only just beginning to understand today. If you haven’t heard the term “gamification,” the use of gameful mechanics and principles in non-game settings, you have certainly experienced it. If you have ever worn a Fitbit or used Nike+, you know how motivating it can be to seek badges for certain behaviors and level up over time. Gameful environments free us to be more creative, resilient, and willing to try and fail—all behaviors we need in the church.

Because of this it’s not surprising that the education community is among the most enthusiastic to embrace gameful approaches. Some of these environments are online, such as Khan Academy. Khan Academy—a free, interactive, gameful education space—welcomes learners around the world to study at their own pace, earning points and badges as they deepen their education.

But not all of these spaces are virtual. While schools have used learning games for decades the gameful revolution doesn’t simply integrate games into a traditional format. Gameful education seeks to gamify the entire learning experience. Quest to Learn, an innovative school in New York City, engages students with levels instead of grades, secret learning missions, impromptu quests students can choose, and boss levels for kids looking for a real challenge. These students have to learn the same things other students do, but the difference is these students are more actively participating in their own educational journey. Education for them is an adventure.

A Duke D.Min cohort playing the innovation game Mission:Possible.

The gameful revolution is just beginning to reach the church. Brilliant minds like Jason Brian Santos are designing games like UGrad that help undergraduates learn about their new environment and creating community along the way. Or Shannon Hopkins, Christian innovator at Matryshka Haus, designed Mission: Possible, a game that trains groups in how to playfully engage in challenging social problems. I mentor the 2016 Duke D.Min cohort and watched Victoria Atkinson White lead the students through the game. Some groups faced homelessness and others dealt with bullying. With assets and restraints, the students playfully engaged their challenges and came up with some pretty amazing solutions. Never “just” a game, Mission: Possible has enabled real life social innovation. One friend, Mike Mather, has even experimented with gamifying pastoral ministry for his staff.

Of course, it won’t always go well. Indeed, good games can be surprisingly challenging to create. At the church I serve we attempted to gamify spiritual practices in the hopes of introducing more people to prayer, scripture reading, and intentional ways of placing them in the way of the Holy Spirit. I worked with a group to create a rudimentary point system with badges to encourage certain behaviors. But I soon discovered not only was the “game” not working, but it was actually stressing people out. By having to record their efforts and check in, I turned what I was hoping would be fun into something that felt like work. Fail! But because of our gameful attitude, instead of feeling bad about a failure, we saw this as an opportunity to learn, grow, and change. Gamers, like social innovators, like to fail fast and fail forward.

We will see the true power of gameful thinking, though, when we aren’t just talking about playing more games (something I certainly hope we do) in our same old structures, but when we are actually reimagining the learning environment of the church itself. What might it look like for educators to redesign Christian education inspired by Khan Academy or Quest to Learn? What could it look like if disciples are offered experience points for effort, given surprising challenges, and where learning about Holy Scripture, theology, spirituality, and church history are experienced as the wild adventure they truly are? I don’t know what it looks like, but it sounds like fun to me. How about you? Are you game?

Ken Evers-Hood pastors Tualatin Presbyterian Church and is the author of The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church. He lives with his family outside Portland, OR.