As a gamer who loves the Lord and loves everything about gaming, I have realized over the years most gamers misunderstand the church and the church misunderstands them. What should the church know about gamers? Can believers share their faith through a game?
The Main Scene
First, let’s start by breaking down a stereotype that has misinformed the church’s perception of gamers. Whenever I talk to other Christians about gamers, their responses involve some version of an unkempt young man, unemployed, living in his parents’ basement. While I know a few single guys who fit this image, the majority of gamers I know will surprise you.
Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry reports the average gamer is a thirty-five-year-old and that almost half are female. In fact, more adult women play games than teenage boys. Google Play and Newzoo presented evidence that women play games five times per week or more for other reasons beyond entertainment. Most surveyed women said they play games as stress reducers that offer needed moments of rest. Sixty percent said it makes them feel good.
This should not surprise the church. After all, games have evolved into a bigger part of the American home with nearly two-thirds of every household owning some form of gaming system. These systems on average receive over three hours of play time each week. The majority of them include computers or smartphones, but half of American households own a dedicated gaming system of some sort. Gaming has thus grown into another American pastime, and many families include gaming as part of their entertainment.
MMO—Massive Multiplayer Online
Many Christians I know see gamers as inherently antisocial. I remember working with a Christian organization and spending my downtime playing a game online. My coworkers called me antisocial for most of the time I worked there.
I tried to explain to them how the game worked. That at any given time, I would interact with several of the gamers who also played the game online. At its peak, Blizzard—the publisher of the game—reported 12 million active subscribers. In an article written for Polygon.com, Philip Kollar reported that their most recent numbers hovered somewhere around 10.1 million.
Still, in this massive multiplayer online (MMO) game, players can cooperate with forty other players at a time, working together to complete certain objectives within the game. Players can also interact with over forty other players in other areas of the game, because of the in-game chat features. This doesn’t account for the dedicated communities of players (called guilds) who play together frequently. Over the years, I’ve returned to play that game online because I get to interact with other people, and I know many other gamers feel the same way as I do.
Statistically, over half of all gamers spend an average of six hours each week playing multiplayer games. Over half of those gamers play with family members, bringing them closer to their families. On occasion, I like to play Overcooked with my niece and wife. The game presents a variety of challenges players must work together to overcome in order to progress to the next level. In fact, in his review, “Overcooked Family Values,” Drew Dixon highlighted the team-building nature of the game and how his family learned to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses to succeed. His experience describes my own.
I appreciate the conversations I’ve had with my family about conflict resolution and playing as a team as a result of this game. Games allow families to have these dialogues in safe, fun situations. Overcooked creates this safety with its cartoony graphics and increasingly ridiculous restaurants. The stakes are low, but the lessons matter.
The Video Game Culture
Other lessons learned through gaming involve playing online with people very different from me. I didn’t realize or understand the diversity within the gaming community until my first trip to a convention.
I attend gaming conventions with Gamechurch, an organization whose ministry bridges the gap between the gospel and the gamer. I stood at a convention table, handing out Bibles and other free swag. The sheer ethnic diversity of the people walking by my table struck me. For a long time, I only thought of gamers as people like me—around my age with similar life experiences. I stereotyped gamers as nerds whether they visibly fit the profile or not. Yet the people I saw that day broke down my preconceptions. People from all ages, all ethnicities, and all forms of life experience walked by our booth.
Part of my responsibility with Gamechurch also included spending time with people from all over the world who traveled to the convention. I knew people played games, but I simply never realized the vastness of the gamer population. In this gaming community, we have a common language. What an amazing opportunity to interact with people and share the love of Christ!
Gamers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. People might wonder if they can self-identify as a gamer because they play Angry Birds on their phone or enjoy a round of Solitaire on their computer. My understanding is that those who play any game during downtime are considered a gamer, and people don’t necessarily have to play video games either.
For the Love of a Game
One aspect of gaming that has drawn more attention lately ditches the graphics and instead involves a table, some cardboard, and meeples (modern board gaming pieces that represent the player). The gaming community not only includes people who play video games but it also includes those who play board games too. Like video gamers, they consist mostly of adults.
In an article for the Atlantic, Jonathan Kay explained the growing trend of board games. Newer board games now include sophisticated rules and engaging challenges, or they allow adults to revisit the silly-fun of their childhood. Sales in this industry have increased by over 400 percent from 2013 to 2016, and GenCon—one of the biggest board-game trade shows in the US—had over 200,000 people attend last year. Like their video cousins, board games bring people together and allow for meaningful connections in a safe, fun environment, but board games do so in a physical space.
I intern for InnRoads Ministries, a board-gaming ministry. One of their forms of outreach involves setting up board games in churches to foster community for churchgoers. As a result of these interactions, meaningful conversations about God and the Christian life happen. This reflects something I’ve noticed while ministering to gamers. People desire meaningful conversations and a loving community.
Jesus Loves Gamers
Have Christians created spaces for gamers to have meaningful conversations or to find a loving community? Gamers thirst for something more than what they currently have. They search online for a group who will love them and accept them. I know plenty of people who found a loving, accepting community in their WoW guild, their Xbox Live Club, or their favorite Discord server, yet they would never look for that love and acceptance in a church building.
Have concerns over gaming addiction and the influence of violent games on people led the church to detach from gaming as a whole, showing an attitude of fear rather than a determination to love? This spirit of fear misses the mark concerning God’s love for all people because Jesus loves and calls us to love gamers too. Somehow, the command to love one’s neighbor has lost any relevance when talking about gamers, even though a solid majority of American families contain one to two gamers in their households. So what can we do to love the gamers in our churches? How should the church reach them?
I remember a conversation in my second year of seminary. Sitting in a class on evangelism, my passion for sharing the gospel grew to an all-time high. Several long-term friendships with nonbelievers lay heavily on my heart. In one of these in particular, I felt the Holy Spirit move me to share, so I did. We talked for an hour or so about life and faith, about a relationship with God, and what that would look like for my friend. It felt amazing to see God moving. What surprised me the most is that this entire conversation happened while I played a video game with my friend.
Jesus summarized the entirety of the Law and the Prophets in two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31). Statistically, gamers permeate our neighborhoods. Gamers want meaningful relationships. Why not introduce them to the one who loves and cares for them better than anyone else?
In every aspect of real life, playing a game cultivates relationships. Gamers foster long-distance, digital relationships that allow for evangelism and discipleship. The church only needs to meet them in their spaces. I wish I could have articulated this to my peers back in my second year of seminary. Instead, I hid the evangelistic conversation I had with my friend because I thought my peers would judge me. Still, my ministry journey continues, and I pray that as a church we can take steps forward in loving gamers with the love of Jesus because they so desperately need it.