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 three of the webinar below, but you can also listen to the full webinar here

How can we support video gaming in a way that is deeply Christian, in a way that supplements what we are already doing? In the next section, I would like to briefly offer you some ideas on what this might look like, both through the examples of what other people are doing, and by drawing attention to a broader area of what I consider a pretty pressing need for the church and gaming education.

Currently, most K-12 attempts to include video games in classrooms include casual gaming clubs, eSports clubs and educational software, like old classics like we talked about, Oregon Trail or Math Blaster. And there’s some new developments as well. I don’t know if you’ve heard of online gaming platforms such as Heroes League Game Day which is really a lot like World of Warcraft. You have the students log in, and it’s all about helping them develop virtual skills, social emotional learning and that sort of thing.

Now when we talk about casual gaming clubs and eSports clubs, what I mean are clubs that have a gaming leader in place and that utilize some sort of physical space that contains enough gaming machines for students to engage in gaming activities together. Each gaming club or eSports club ideally is unique, growing organically out of each school’s unique set of mission, values, and goals.

Clubs can range dramatically in scope and complexity. And one of the biggest mistakes that I see as I’ve interviewed with many eSports directors and colleges and schools is to just see the E in eSports as enrollment or as an easy way to appease students. There should be this organic thinking like, who are we? What do we want to accomplish? What do our students want? What are our resources? What’s our relationship with our community? If it doesn’t take into account all those sorts of things, it’s doomed to fail or do more harm than good.

Now one of the things that happens though, if you do have a successful club, it often leads to eSports programs, which significantly ups the level of needed resources and coaches. You need to have people that are capable of helping the students who understand the games. Training hours are often a part of it. And make sure that your internet infrastructure can allow students to compete on equal footing with other schools. Now, for the examples and the characteristics of a good club, we’ve already talked about this a little bit, but you need to be deliberate, you need to be honest, and you need to be collaborative. If you do not approach it in a collaborative way, if you’re not helping people get on board and each contribute and know what’s going on, it’s going to cause some significant problems and just undermine you from the start.

And then be sure that it is deeply rooted in the mission, values, and goals of your particular context. That is, the best programs conduct thorough and comprehensive studies on whether they possess the internal and external resources to do it well. They seek to determine whether or not they have a ready-made gaming champion available who is able to legitimately head up the project.

Do you have administrative support and the availability of physical space? Many of the best programs are also creative in that they construct their gaming activities or programs to simultaneously accomplish as many goals as possible, embedding social and emotional skill learning and game training, or helping students include exercise in their gaming routines. For example, in terms of a collegiate example, Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, runs an exceptional e-sports program that requires students to include exercise such as Pilates and yoga into their gaming sessions. They provide blue light glasses, wrist guards for every student, and have found ways to embed curricular objectives within their gaming practices so that students can actually earn college credits by participating in leadership positions and events. They find these creative ways to make sure it is legitimate and it’s actually really helping students in a variety of ways, not just their skills. Is there a way you can plug it in with your local junior college or something like that, and then work with them? There are a lot of creative ways to go about this.

Other exemplary schools include a wide range of required team-building activities and opportunities that teach valuable social and emotional skills, such as communication, self-awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills– skills that are not only important for personal health and happiness, but are essential skills that can set students apart in the job market as well. And I believe that today, social and emotional learning or including practices that emphasize gaming, nutrition, and physical health are very important.

However, in addition to these needs, there’s another area of need at the K-12 level that I find particularly pressing, which is the development of a wide ranging set of robust gaming education curriculum for parents and students at all levels of the church.

But let me explain that and draw that out a little bit. First, when I think of how far video games have developed and how influential they are, the one parallel I keep coming back to is training our children to drive. Think about it. As responsible parents, we would never allow our children to drive without training them, teaching them about driving techniques or dangers. How does this responsibility have the potential to impact the lives and the wellbeing of others? While it may seem far fetched, I don’t think it is a reach to compare the freedom and responsibilities of driving a car to active children playing a video game online at times because the minute your child plays online, they are immediately exposed to the designs, the philosophies, the theologies of the game designer that they encounter online. If they’re not educated well, if they’re not prepared, many students will just keep making the same mistakes that many before them have made.

For example, when a student plays Call of Duty, they likely have no idea that Call of Duty is made in close partnership with the US military and designed in such a way to pre-train soldiers and increase military enrollment. It’s the number one way that the military gets its quota. When they play Grand Theft Auto, they don’t realize that the choices and the options that they make are forged from people who may not have Christian commitments.

Gaming companies can create games that prey specifically on the young, taking advantage of a child’s lack of internal defenses by pressing them to play via incessant alerts that they’re about to miss out on the day’s rewards. You don’t want to miss this! Oh look, your friends are online! Young children just don’t have the defenses and the creators know that.

On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, not only do students need help navigating online spaces safely, but they also need help in their search to creatively engage in gaming, nourished by a deep, loving commitment to Jesus. That is how can we help students harness their passions and talents to become modern day digital explorers who can help us point out new coastlines of God’s creation.

I believe that if we are to reach gaming populations, we as a church must now begin to concentrate our efforts on creating a growing, comprehensive, thoughtful, and faithfully grounded set of resources and trainings for our students, so that our students have the chance to not only avoid costly mistakes while gaming, but also to promote healthy exploration and stewardship of gaming related spaces as well. I think that whatever we can do to help our student gamers will have an impact and benefit for the kingdom of God in the future.

Gaming at Dordt University

So for this last section, I want to just introduce you briefly to what we’re doing here at Dordt University. As I talk about our gaming program, I want to start with a story or two.

When I first arrived at Dordt I thought I was going to build an eSports program, and so had pushed a lot of my resources in that direction, interviewing eSports directors around the world, reading everything I could get my hands on about it, even writing a chapter of my dissertation on how to develop one from a Christian perspective. However, imagine my surprise when the students were not interested in an eSports program. What I found was that many of the student gamers on campus, what they wanted most was to be seen, acknowledged, empowered. They wanted to have a space where they could enjoy wholesome community with other Christian gamers from a wide range of gaming interests, from Dungeons and Dragons to war gaming, trading card games, and various forms of digital gaming.

In light of this, I had to pivot significantly. I had a lot of work to do to convince students here at Dordt that I valued them and their gaming, and that this wasn’t some sort of inauthentic gimmick to get them out of their rooms.

All of this leads me to my second story in which a young woman, a strong gamer who started attending one of our events. She was initially clearly hesitant to join in and cautiously watched everything unfold over several months. But during one particular event, this young woman heard me speaking about the power of the gaming community and how much I cared about them and their gaming. Later I would find out that day was meaningful enough for her to say that she had never felt so seen as a Christian gamer, and that was just so powerful to me. It moved me so deeply. I knew that we had something. Another fun part of the story, that same young woman is now part of my leadership team, and is making a significant difference in the guild.

So let me just talk a little bit technically about what we’re doing. Over the last year, Dordt University has laid a foundation to engage student gamers based on two opportunities that it offers to students throughout the school year. The first features a gaming club, which we call the Dordt Gaming Guild, which serves over a hundred student members. The Guild emphasizes regular community events, networking opportunities, and leadership training, and encourages students to explore the relationship between Christianity and gaming.

The second opportunity is an upper level class on faith and gaming. I taught 35 students last year to engage video games through a strong Christian gaming method, the goal being to help them be able to go beyond static things, like gaming is violent and addictive, as much as that may be true at times. But I want to help them have a method and a Christian approach that’ll help them respond or engage gaming phenomena in contextually appropriate ways, whether as a parent or as a designer, so that they can respond on the fly.

The gaming Club quickly has become one of the largest clubs on campus. Community events such as our Minecraft Theology competition surpassed expectations, producing digital artwork that demonstrated the consistency of God’s creation of laws in cyberspace. We are currently training five Dungeon Masters for Dungeon and Dragons in a way that is consistent with Dordt’s vision, mission, and goals. We help our Dungeon Masters develop their basic skills, provide them with opportunities to think through how role playing can be a tool to foster community, to teach the Bible, to grow as a disciple. They will be graduating in a few weeks and will then be authorized to lead their own guild, sponsored while playing games in the future, and have access to guild related resources as well.

Due to this success, we are now considering expanding our offerings by providing training for K-12 gaming programs through something we are going to call Gaming for Transformation. We are also interested in generating academic resources that deepen and expand Christian gaming scholarship through a gaming related journal called Coram Deo Gaming Journal. And we are also thinking about including a two year certificate in Christian Gaming Leadership.

What we hope to provide is a pipeline for students who are called to gaming, that includes meaningful embodied communities and a comprehensive approach to training that can empower students to carry out their callings faithfully, effectively, and thoughtfully.

New Frontier for Christian Contemplation

Now, in closing, the world of gaming represents a new frontier for Christian contemplation that desperately needs significant attention from the church and Christian academic institutions. Video games represent a cultural sphere that ought not be classified or approached as a cultural trifle. It is a substantial and significant civic space in which real stakes are involved, from the lives and health of gamers, to the formation of new callings and vocations, and it exerts tremendous influence upon traditional fields such as art, music, sociology, anthropology, and many others.

I believe by working together and contributing in our unique ways, the church can finally give Christians who are called to gaming and play related spaces, the chance to shine and make a significant difference in the world through what we call Gaming Coram Deo.

The last thing I’d like to say is that if you have any interest in dialoguing further with us at Dordt on these types of topics, please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact me. Also, while we’re still very much in the planning phase of the bigger projects I’ve mentioned, we’re always looking to talk to schools who may be interested in partnering with us in the future in various ways.

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.