Our goal at Curriculum Trak is to feed into the network of faith-based educators around the world that we’re honored to serve, as well as provide some additional networking and discussion opportunities for you. To that end, Brad Hickey, director of Gaming and Student Support at Dordt University, joined us in a recent webinar to address how gaming can be something done in God’s sight and for His glory, Coram Deo. Dr. Hickey has been studying the relationship between faith, gaming, and education for nearly a decade now, not only as a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, but also in his current position. You can read part one of the webinar below, but you can also listen to the full webinar here. We’ll be posting the remaining portions of the transcript of this webinar in the coming weeks.

I would like you to imagine with me a particular scene that happened almost a decade ago. First, imagine a relatively large office filled with several bookcases stuffed with books. There’s an unoccupied desk and a window three stories high that looks over an urban area of Pasadena, California. I’m sitting slightly tense, waiting in a chair at a table in the room. Across from me sits my PhD mentor, leaning comfortably back in his chair, his eyes intent on my face, chewing on one of the stems of his glasses, trying to gauge how to respond to my newly minted idea: writing a dissertation on video games and faith.

Now you have to understand that my mentor, Dr. Richard Mau, is well known for his willingness to accept students who specialize in, I would say, unusual topics. However, writing on video games, I suspected just might be pushing it. But, while initially hesitant, Richard graciously supported my project and we would go on to have many wonderful conversations about video games and their place in the kingdom of God.

What is more, this would mark the beginning of a great many discoveries, personally, a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns that would absolutely upend everything I thought I knew about video games. So why did I choose to write a dissertation on gaming? For myself, video games, board games, fantasy, and play have all played a rather unusual role in my life. In fact, last semester, without thinking about what I was saying, I mentioned to the students in my gaming class that I believe that God redeemed my life through play, that He used play to reach me, to teach me, to shape me throughout my whole life.

And it is the foundation of my vocational calling as well. For example, some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother and me grabbing a burrito from a local shop when I was very young, and then returning to eat and play Pacman or Frogger on her Atari 2600. Later, I would be smitten as I walked into my aunt’s house to see people playing Super Mario Brothers for the very first time on the original US Nintendo. Even then, the music, the sounds, the graphics, and the gameplay, all just moved me so deeply. Later, coming from a dysfunctional home, playing an online massive multiplayer game called World Warcraft would literally change my personal trajectory forever, allowing me to find a guild in the game who would care about me, teach me how to lead, show me that the online community could extend into real life when people would actually pay money to fly across the globe to attend each other’s weddings and the like.

These experiences would cure a significant stuttering problem that I had at the time, and provide confidence that came from meaningful community and solidarity with others like me. And that is why I chose to write about gaming. My experiences in life led me to a solitary question, and that driving question was, What is the Holy Spirit doing in video games?

Over time, what I have learned has led me to care deeply about gamers and brought about a driving need to help Christians think more deeply about this space, both the good and the bad. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned about gaming and education as a gaming scholar first, and then as a gaming director here at Dordt University. I would like to also offer an inside look at how we are trying to approach gaming here at Dordt.

What I hope you walk away with is first, that video games when done well can be used not only to prepare children for academic or vocational success, but to contribute significantly to a vibrant spiritual love for Jesus. The second primary idea that I would like you to consider is that the high level of value that students place on gaming should elicit active educational adjustments to provide exceptional support for students and parents who desperately need professional guidance and support on gaming related topics.

In order to build a coherent case for these two ideas, I will first begin with a small snapshot of modern games. What are they? How are they used, and what are some helpful theological lenses that might help us interpret and engage gaming from a Christian point of view? Second, I will take us in for a close look at why I think video games are currently one of the best educational vehicles to supplement and enrich traditional teaching methods and models. Third, having argued for the value of video games for educational purposes, I will then offer some observations on what successful school gaming activities or programs might look like. Finally, I will share about our own unique experiences with gaming here at Dordt.

Now, to begin I would like to ask you to reflect on your own experiences with video games. What experiences did you have with video games as a child or as an adult? Were they positive, negative? Did you have a favorite game or a particularly poignant memory? Either good or bad?

Modern Gaming from a Theological Perspective

In this first section, what I want to accomplish is to provide you with a picture of what modern gaming entails, statistics, scope, impact, and what we might make of it from a theological perspective.

So let me start by defining what I mean when I say video games. When I speak of video games, I am speaking to the totality of its influence as a cultural good. I define them as a form of digital play that represents the sum knowledge and experiences of players, designers, and all others who use video games for various means and ends.

What this means is that when I think of video games, I’m thinking not only of games, as such, the interface, the gameplay, etc., but about what functions they play in a player’s life. How to think about them philosophically, what they’re capable of, those areas that undermine God’s lordship, their environmental impact, and so on.

Statistically, and at a very basic level, video games are a global powerhouse. And while it can be very difficult to ascertain exact numbers in gaming related areas, according to best estimates, the global number of video game players from casual to professional stand at least at 2.5 billion, which translates to almost 33% of the global population. While many video game players are young, the average gamer age is 34, and gamers are almost equally likely to be male or female. According to researchers such as gaming sociologist Trent Fox, most gamers are in fact healthy. The average gamer is often married with children, socially active, working a full-time job and has successfully often achieved at least a BA.

In addition, gaming transcends all major demographics of race, gender, religion, and so forth. One of my favorite examples of this diversity has to be a professional Call of Duty team, like the Silver Snipers, a group of people who only accepts players who are 60 years of age or older.

Economically speaking, video games represent an industry that is estimated to be valued at roughly 138 billion dollars. Professional tournament events such as League of Legend Worlds or the DOTA, two World Championships, have recently drawn nearly a hundred million viewers, which places professional eSports ahead of sports stalwarts such as MLB or the NBA, and during the top events can even supplant the NFL, one of the holy grails of viewership in the US.

For those able to leverage their gaming skills, gaming can be a lucrative business. Pro teams can make up the 40 million dollars at the largest championships. Pro team players can make anywhere between 50 to 60,000 if they’re really good and know how to leverage their skills through prizes, merchandising, and sponsorships. Another segment of players can showcase their skill on digital media platforms such as Twitch or YouTube where the top 10% can typically earn anywhere from 70,000 a year. And the very top influencers like Ninja or Pokemon are worth at least 25 million and have over 17 million followers online.

Importantly for educators, it is important to note that 24% of that 2.6 billion players are school aged, a number I expect to steadily increase in the near future. That means that there are 650 million gamers spread out in our schools globally. That is a statistically significant number that I think is worth considering and making adjustments for.

Now when we talk about their influence, video games have never been as simple as many perceived them to be. From the beginning, they represented a new way to experience play–interactive music or interactive play, new modes of storytelling. Yet there’s no denying that initially video games were actually fairly simple in scope and design. However, in the last decade or more, video games have undergone some dramatic changes that have greatly expanded their potential and their capabilities. There have been, for example, great leaps forward in areas such as gaming and play theory, video game technological capabilities, as well as the rise of exterior technology, such as the internet or digital social media platforms that have opened up entirely new horizons for video games to explore. Now with this rapid expansion of capabilities has come an equally rapid rise of influence around the world, regardless of demographics.

Gaming Matters

One important voice in all this includes T.L. Taylor, professor of Media Studies at MIT. Taylor has studied gaming for over two decades and is one of the foremost experts in her field. Here, I want to quote her and draw attention to what I think is a very important statement on just how meaningful video games are to players and the immense influence video game culture exerts over modern gamers. Taylor says, “Play and gaming are deeply connected to the things that matter and impact our lives. This means ultimately that gaming is a civic space, a political domain, media sphere, in sight of critical work while simultaneously being a place of leisure, even rest and respite. Gaming cannot be set off to the side, a quirky outpost functioning as an academic novelty. It is huge indeed, for many, the most significant space where they engage directly in core cultural issues and debates. It shapes and deeply impacts mainstream conversations and culture.” And she concludes, “Games matter.”

The important point I want to make here is that gaming is very important to many of our students. Whether we see them or know them as gamers or not, even if they don’t play video games, many are likely immersed in the culture or pick up stories, experiences, and so forth from their friends. For many, gaming mythology, its stories, its music, and all that surrounds specific gaming communities or cultures are part of the air that many of them breathe. To laugh at them or to not take students’ love for the video games seriously, I believe, is a grave mistake.

But that’s not the end of it. Gaming’s power also stems from its ability to appeal to many types of people and so many types of interests. Some players simply like to pore over books filled with Starship schematics or allure tones that are meant to flesh out various fantasy worlds. Some players use online worlds to escape and process trauma, for catharsis to find solidarity, to seek the transcendent, or to transcend disabilities. Each player will possess a unique set of reasons why they play.

Therefore, what I wish to stress here is that whatever we may feel personally about video games, the facts on the ground are that they are here. They represent a powerful, influential force that informs how many of our students see the world and provides a medium to address needs, seek others, and achieve the good life, however they might conceive it. As such, as educators, we must pay attention and adjust accordingly as we can in our own context.

Yet, thinking about it, is that enough? Okay, they’re influential. Okay, they’re important to students, but is that enough? What are we to think of video games from a biblical or theological perspective? Are they something we should play ourselves or have our students or our children play to promote or utilize in education? Do they have any significant role to play in the Kingdom of God or God’s plan to redeem the world? For me personally, a healthy, biblical view of video games begins with the doctrine of creation and culture and a unique way of looking at the relationship with human discipleship and God’s glory.

Let me explain. Historically, church traditions, particularly those who emphasize work or separation from the world, have always struggled to know what to do with various cultural forms of play, from dancing to playing cards, and then the 1920s to know what to do with crossword puzzles, and now things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games. On the one hand, the church has often given in to the temptation to be suspicious of play and new play forms, or to denounce them as distractions or barriers to authentic Christian discipleship. On the other hand, the church has also at times given in to the temptation to uncritically baptize every new form of culture or phenomenon so that a Christian or a secular view of play looks virtually indistinguishable from each other.

It has always been a struggle, and it doesn’t help that quality Christian resources on play are hard to find for anyone, from parents to pastors, to scholars and professionals. Because of this, we as a church have not thought deeply enough about play and have often made snap judgements about new gaming phenomena.

This has led to a great deal of harm, whether in regard to our ability to speak to younger generations and have that authority in their lives, or to be able to recognize new ways that the Holy Spirit is moving in the world. For example, if some of you can remember the Satanic panic in the eighties and the resulting treatment Dungeons and Dragons players endured, which has led to many modern prominent leaders in that community who are on Twitch and other platforms with a large following– many of whom were involved with churches when they were young, by the way– to not only reject the church and its message, but also to influence their many followers to do the same.

In addition, many gamers like myself have grown up with a continual litany of unnuanced comments that I’m sure many of you will find familiar. For example, video games are a waste of time; that I better be careful or I will become an overweight adult living in my mother’s basement; or that I need to grow up and find a real hobby, like sports or playing an instrument.

And in recent years, some high profile Christian speakers have added to that trend. For example, Mark Driskell, the popular pastor and founder of Trinity Church in Arizona, noted that while video games weren’t evil, they were stupid. Dr. James K. Smith, a popular reformed writer and speaker once wrote, “If I ever see you on a plane playing a video game, I will accost you and I will be disappointed, and I will forthright remind you, you aren’t educated for this. The world needs your continuing education and your soul is starving for it. Let’s not squander our inheritance.”

Now, I don’t want to ignore the implicit warnings and helpful insights that drive my colleagues’ comments. I know Jamie, admire his work and consider him a friend, but I do think that such comments are both misguided and hurtful and reflect a lack of understanding about gaming in general. What is far more important for our purposes here, though, is that students hear comments like that and internalize them. They instantly recognize the underlying or implicit values that such comments convey and the negative implications that they have for their gaming talents and callings. Yet, increasingly, I cannot see how these approaches jive with scripture.

What Does the Bible Say?

What I see in scripture is that creation is accepted as good by God, a reality that sin can mar, but never obliterate. I see culture as an outworking of our role as stewards and image bearers, that we are called to engage the whole world, including digital space and make something of them for God’s glory. There is no hierarchy of callings, no reason to say that a calling to video game related spaces is any less fulfilling, any less holy than any other. A calling to video game related space can be just as beautiful, just as valuable to the world and to God as anything else.

Along these lines, I interpret video games like I do any other cultural good. They are made of God’s good creation. They’re a valid part of the world that God wants to engage and redeem. They are not some strange cultural abnormality or void that for some reason escapes God’s sovereignty or love or activity. Video games can be used in design in ways that further the kingdom of God, but as we know, they also suffer from the stain of sin and can be used to undermine God’s kingdom as well.

From all of this, I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic in the least to say that the church, whether pastors, teachers, educators, academics, parents, and so on, desperately need to become far more conversant with modern gaming and far more engaged within modern gaming spaces. This is because modern gaming, whether the overall evolution of the gaming industry, the formation of principles that guide game design, or the process of how gamers conceive of gaming’s role in their lives and their faith, has developed without almost any influence from the church.
While we have lost a lot of ground, there is certainly, I feel, still a great deal of hope to turn the tide. I believe that the church possesses the resources and depth to contribute significantly towards development of what I call a more robust Christian gaming imagination. I believe that with enough resources and attention, we can make a significant stride in ministering to gamers, empowering them to be Christian leaders who can be effectively faithful in their various gaming contexts, from gaming parents who use their knowledge of board gaming or video games to love and communicate with their neighbors, to gamers who develop new ways to translate the gospel into digital tongues for various digital gaming groups.

To be continued…

Dr. Brad Hickey has been studying the relationship between faith, gaming, and education for nearly a decade, first as a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and now as a member of Dordt University, where he currently serves as the Director of Gaming and Student Support Specialist. At Dordt University, Dr. Hickey has established a popular 100+ member student-led gaming club called the Dordt Gaming Guild and teaches collegiate courses designed to help students explore gaming-related spaces from a rigorous Christian perspective.