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 two of the webinar below (here’s part one), and 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 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. But how do we start? Let me offer a couple ideas.

Coram Deo and the New Jerusalem

There are two theological lenses that I have found particularly useful to approach gaming here at Dordt. First is a theological concept and a Latin phrase called coram deo. And then the second is the biblical idea of the new Jerusalem.

The first of these concepts, coram deo, is Latin for beneath God’s gaze. It is a concept that points to God’s sovereignty over all creation and the freedom and responsibility that implicitly comes with it for us as human beings. It is a concept that is meant to remind us that once we are in Christ, every square inch of our lives, from our work, to our play, to our relationships belongs to God, and that part of Christian discipleship entails working to understand how every aspect of our lives fit into God’s broader mission of redemption and restoration.

I once heard a story about my PhD mentor Richard Mao during his tenure as theological seminary president. As the story goes, Richard once decided to consider what a theology of student parking and parking lots might entail. That is, he wondered how we could create things like student parking in a way that would show love for students, increase shalom in their lives, while perhaps encouraging healthier environmental practices and encouraging better aesthetic approaches to parking lots and so on. It was an attempt to creatively engage an aspect of university life with freedom and responsibility. And that is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing with every area of our lives, from figuring out how to design better chore lists for our children, to life-giving ways to rethink how we decorate our business’ waiting room to bless our clients.

Now, for me, this concept contains two particular implications that I have found quite helpful for gaming. On the one hand, coram deo implies personal responsibility. That authentic participation in video game related activities is always enacted on holy ground. That is to say that virtual worlds and digital play do not escape God’s gaze. It doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to love our neighbor, to seek God’s glory or to participate in culture making. It requires us to think deeply about our play, to put in the hard work to figure out what love for Jesus means for various activities that we’re involved with.

However, in addition to this, coram deo also reminds me that gamers are free to play and use games for God’s glory, that God’s gaze is not only invested with His authority, but also with love and tender anticipation, excited to see us grow and tend virtual gardens as His stewards. I believe that just as parents enjoy watching their children grow and master new skills, it is not hard to imagine God Himself eagerly leaning forward, watching us during gaming, enjoying our skill as a Mario Kart player, smiling as we show love to our neighbor in World Warcraft, pumping His fist in the air when His Spirit guides us to share the gospel with someone who has never heard it authentically translated into Rocket League, into League of Legends, Overwatch, and other popular games that people play.

Thus, for me, coram deo sets the tones that I’m always looking to embed the idea of freedom and responsibility into as many aspects of the guild that I can in order to push students to think about related liturgical practices such as washing their hands before playing or taking their shoes off to remember who they are, that they are on holy digital ground. I want to help them think critically and productively about how this freedom and responsibility may intersect with their own unique gaming related talents, callings, and contexts.

Another important theological lens that I use to consider gaming is the biblical account of the new Jerusalem, which we find primarily in Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21. I believe that one day God will take the things that we make like video games and put them to use in His eternal city, both to glorify Himself and to show love to His people.

I also believe that these passages give purpose and meaning to everything we do, that what we make matters, both now and in eternity. That is because in these passages, the picture of the world to come isn’t static. It’s not passive. It’s positively bustling with human activity and culture. For example, these passages mention the kings of former nations who will bring goods like ships, timber, and animals as gifts to be put to the service of God’s people. The presence of ships and precious metals and other things that it mentions suggests complex cultural forms such as commerce, all of which will be conducted under the light of Christ who Himself illumines the city. What is more, all the cultural goods will be brought into the city and will be purified. Their function as sinful idols will be broken and repurposed to serve God. For example, in Isaiah 10:24, Isaiah writes that God will cut down the thickets of Tarshish with an axe in response to their nation’s pride and sinful idolization of their material goods. But then we have a curious twist. In Isaiah 16:13, the author mentions that very same variety of wood would be used to beautify the Lord’s sanctuary.

This pattern of God’s breaking and reorienting goods, lumber, commercial vessels, and something they call other beautiful crafts is a process by which things are purified and made to adorn God’s city. It is in part through these gracious actions that God intends to glorify Himself and care for us. Now, if this interpretation of Isaiah and John’s writings is correct, I can’t help but be excited to see what will have to be the most beautiful and colorful city we have ever seen, a city that artfully blends a massive spectrum of different cultures and God’s creation, like plants and animals. It is a city filled with the purified forms of the things we have made from innumerable peoples who are now free to engage with them, with joy and freedom in Christ.

Therefore, now bringing this to our discussion on video games, what I tell my students is that our gaming–our creativity as designers, as content creators, as musicians or coders–they matter. They matter now as instruments to glorify God, to enjoy them, to bring about shalom in the world. And they will matter later in the new Jerusalem when our gaming, music interfaces, music stories, and so on, may well adorn the new Jerusalems space. Heck, maybe there will be a moment when we pass by a music hall in the new creation and hear a sanctified version of the Mario soundtrack or walk through a certain section of town that is made up entirely of a beautiful mosaic of Minecraft blocks.

But the point is that according to Isaiah and John, our actions today and the culture we make very well will find an echo in the future. These writers and these passages should encourage video game players, designers, etc., and provide purpose, value, and meaning to their activities.

So, Why Invest in Gaming for Our Students?

Up to this point, I have tried to show just how influential video games are for students and why that might be. I’ve also argued that we as Christians should not underestimate video game spaces, that they too can play a role in the kingdom of God and that God is already active in those spaces, working, loving, seeking to redeem gamers.

Yet, despite all that has been said, why should educators, schools, and districts even consider allocating precious time and money to intentionally integrating gaming into their programs? What makes them a particularly good fit to accomplish educational objectives? In answering these questions, I think back again to my time playing World Warcraft. I think about how I needed to learn how to communicate, play well with others, learn to make responsible decisions, and develop social awareness. I had to learn how to think critically about the game, synthesizing statistics, game mechanics, and thinking about all of that in light of the needs of my group. I grew in those sorts of ways because the game design was made in such a way as to encourage these skills. In other words, unknown to me, my gaming in World Warcraft was also full of opportunities to grow and develop as a person as well, if I took advantage of it. And so here I want to propose that video games, particularly in light of their popularity among students, are suited for educational purposes in this present moment due to several important features that I want to talk about today. Versatility and interactivity, as long as those things are used in such a way that values and links themselves to human embodiment.

Now, when I talk about video games’ versatility, what I am referring to is video games’ nature as design systems that can be oriented towards a wide range of objectives such as social and emotional learning, and can provide a wide range of access points to accommodate a wide range of learning styles and student interests. That is, well-designed games such as Oregon Trail taught about history and gave students a chance to experience this in a meaningful and educational way. Carmen San Diego taught about geography and drew attention to civic diversity and distinctions, city populations, and so forth. The latter combined digital play in embodied action, such as having to use physical educational techs to accomplish their goals.

Because of this, games like these were able to perform multiple functions, combining their primary objectives with smaller objectives, such as learning to find and synthesize data or further team building and communication skills through working with other students. Second, video games represent what scholars call a transmedial super system that provides educators with a wide range of ways to encourage students to engage with video games.

Really this term, transmedial super system, is just a very fancy way to say that mini modern video game franchises like Super Mario Brothers or Minecraft are very much like their movie counterparts, such as Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is because all of these often involve massive, detailed worlds filled with characters, history, stories, and the like. These worlds can often spill out across other forms of media: books on ship schematics, television series, amusement park rides, comics, clothing, room decoration. What’s particularly important here is that this wide range of entry points can be used to serve a wide range of students and accomplish a wide range of goals. For example, teachers could schedule a virtual discussion with the engineer who designed a game-themed amusement park ride to talk about how to merge form and function. Others might piggyback on gaming movies to talk about basics of media production or ethical issues. Still others might use gaming comics to teach reading skills, and as Christian educators, our objectives can also include various Christian ideas, practices, and goals.

And then the second one of these is interactivity. In addition to their versatility, video games also possess a powerful mode of interactivity that pretty much completely defines the game medium. And there’s nothing else quite like this. When I talk about interactivity, I’m not just referring to how a player interfaces directly with a video game, but the broader, complex interaction between player agency, the game itself, and its designers. That is, game designers only possess a certain degree of power to influence player actions and ideas.

Designers create the game world and its rules. They are responsible for determining what tools are available to players and how effectively the interfaces work. But what they inadvertently create is what is often called spaces of possibility in which players can act and play. However, the term spaces of possibility is also meant to highlight the reality that once the game is published and the content accessible, players can and will interpret the gaming content in a way that is authentic to their own needs and context.

This is another reason why video games are so versatile, by the way. The player can choose to accept or challenge the meanings or even the design of the designer. They can, in some ways, even subvert the intentions of the designer entirely using game elements in ways never intended or wanted by the designer, such as when players use gaming space to protest the actions of the mother company or when they hack the game to acquire items illegally.

However, what often happens is that players will use game elements to achieve what they need in real life, as we talked about earlier, to seek solidarity, to protest or change real world realities, and to transcend disability. They’ll use the game to accomplish these ends. Thus, any video game will not only be used to reach certain objectives set forth by the designer or the teacher, but to fulfill a wide range of roles and needs that the players bring to the table, and that is often a good thing.

Finally, there is quite a lot of research out there to show that video games’ interactivity when approached responsibly, can provide natural benefits. For example, researchers found that exposure to action-based games has been shown to improve visual, spatial, and attention based skills. In some studies, action-based games have also been shown to help prevent cognitive decline in older adults. And in other studies, researchers such as Bandura note that online gaming spaces can be effective in communicating a significant number of meaningful skills such as leadership and agreeableness. One of the more interesting developments in the last five years is the rise of therapists who use video games, allowing students to use those characters to work through the trauma that they undergo or to try to acquire the skills that they admire in their avatar and that sort of thing. And it’s been highly successful.

Our Ultimate Goal

However, while I believe that video games and online spaces have much to currently offer us as educators, I believe that we can never lose sight of our ultimate goal, which is to train our students to be effective, well-rounded kingdom citizens in our physical world. That is, wherever our student gamers happen to be developmentally, from cocooning and cyberspace seeking, escaping from trauma, using game spaces as catharsis or community, to those using gaming as a way to make money or to minister, one of our primary goals should always be to help our students connect their play to their physical lives. We should help them develop thick, embodied relationships and experiences that promote healthy balance and active engagement in their various contexts.

This is because it is the quality and quantity of our embodied experiences, the relationships that we work through, the good times, the bad, the arguments, the time going out for ice cream, whatever it is, and the memories, the mistakes that we make and learn from, social interactions and the triumphs when we master a skill–these are the things that give our lives depth and dimension, and this treasury of our embodied experiences fuels the quality of our online interactions and determines how we experience and interact within online spaces. As cultural scholar Justin Bailey put in a paper on cyber sociality, “God has been interested in bodies from the beginning, so much so that God’s Son took on a human body to redeem us as embodied beings from the bondage of decay. To be human is to have limited capacities. It is to continue to be a creature, not the Creator. Even when we are liberated into the freedom of the children of God, it will not be freedom from embodiment.”

Embodiment is an unconditional good of creaturehood. Thus, I believe that as educators, if we are considering using video games in our programs, we ought to keep embodiment–physical connections and experiences–as one of our northern stars always seeking to equip our student gamers with practices that can help them engage in cycles of healthy, intentional, embodied life so that the treasuries of their hearts, minds, and bodies can be filled to the brim so as to be bright lights in online spaces.

Therefore, when combining the high level of student interest in gaming with its versatile and interactive capabilities, I believe that video games are a powerful tool for educators. Considering gaming and the role it can play in our schools or to help our students is not giving in to secular culture or losing something meaningful about the educational process. Instead, I think that if our school is a good fit, ideologically, structurally student-wise, bringing in video games in some form or fashion can help us fulfill our responsibility as educators.

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.