This is the second part of a two-part blogpost on online gaming. See the first post here, or scroll down.

theotrek1So games have some profound effects on us as a society. There are simply too many people devoting far too much time to this activity for it not to have significant social repercussions. Games boost us mentally and physically as well as encourage us to pursue communal virtues like trust and cooperation. Yet something in me hesitates to call games an outright good; I don’t want to be a Kool-Aid drinker for EA Sports and Valve.

I’m a theologian. Therefore, the questions that remain close to my heart are: “How are we to think about such things from a theological perspective?” and, “How does this activity affect my ability to recognize the work of God in the world?” If games can somehow link us to some essential truths—who God is, who we are, how we live in light of this relationship—then the Church better start taking notes.

Can video gaming provide us with a better way to teach Jesus? Let’s start with the basics and work outward from there.

  • We like gaming as a society. Particularly youth. 180 million Americans play games about an hour a day or more. 320 mil = total US population. Let that sink in.
  • Confirmation curriculums are not exactly hotbeds of innovation, though some bright minds have been making headway in recent years. For some reason, there is a wealth of material about which ice-breakers to use for youth group nights, but disturbingly little about catechesis.
  • Some churches are hesitant to embrace pedagogical innovation for fear that the message of salvation in Jesus Christ somehow gets lost or minimized.

The joy of gaming leads me to wonder about our methods of theological instruction. Could there be a responsible way to integrate gaming into our catechesis programs? Much evidence supports gaming as a platform for education, but theological education is another beast altogether. I don’t yet know if a confession of faith and gaming education software works more like peas and carrots or like water and grease fires.

A brief primer… Confirmation is the ritual by which a youth confirms the faith given to them at baptism; he/she takes ownership of that faith and publicly acknowledges it in midst of others. I am assuming, for the sake of this experiment, that the youth in question are eighth graders (give or take a year or two) and that each one has been baptized as an infant. Other denoms and non-denoms debate about the efficacy of infant baptism, but I’m not going to address that here. Second, I’m not going to treat confirmation as a process by which you are initiated into the governance of the parish; I don’t think  confirmation is the time to bestow voting rights or get your personalized offering envelopes. Mixed messages.

“I don’t yet know if a confession of faith and gaming education software works more like peas and carrots or like water and grease fires.”

Okay, now let’s play out a thought experiment. Imagine a catechesis program that is taught, in part, through online gameplay. Catalog where exactly you get uncomfortable with the proposed curriculum framework and, conversely, what might excite you. To make it more real, imagine that your pastor presents this material to you at a parent’s night. Have your own child (or future child) in your mind.  Honestly, I don’t know where I’ll be on this issue when this all shakes out.

The catechesis program is called:  TheoTrek.  One-half of the curriculum would be done through an online gaming program. The theoretical online game would have a three-fold look: 1) a character development page, 2) a blog site (from which to do the necessary writing/homework), and 3) social networking interface. The other portion of the curriculum would be done through traditional, embodied relationships; I imagine a small-group format would work nicely.

Back to the digital side. Each student becomes the central character in their own catechetical story—his/her own TheoTrek. They are the hero, and since heroes have secret identities, students are encouraged to develop a digital avatar that best fits their personality. For me, I would pick an avatar that looks like a cross between Ron Swanson and the Silver Surfer. Looks are up to the student. The character page would allow the student to see his/her progress (more on that soon) and to pick up information on the week’s responsibilities and/or announcements.

Nick Offerman stars as Ron Swanson in NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation." The show airs on Thursdays on NBC (8:30-9 p.m. ET). (Mitchell Haaseth/Courtesy NBC/MCT)

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The hero’s goal? To pursue the ultimate prize: the public affirmation of their baptism before the congregation. How does the hero get from point A (engaging the mission) to point B (public declaration of faith)? The short answer is by creatively and successfully navigating through a series of challenges. These challenges make up the core tenets of faith—in the gaming world, I’d call them “Boss Levels.” Boss levels are the crucial battles that take place, ones that usually require significant trial-and-error experience. They are not easy, nor should they be. Since I come from the tribe of Lutherans, it seems natural that my boss levels align with the Six Chief Parts as outlined in Uncle Marty’s Small Catechism.

An example boss level would be that the student would be charged with some fine art performance of the Lord’s Prayer: perhaps compose a song, create a painting or poem, dramatic work, even spoken word art. This performance would successfully communicate the major features of the Prayer in a confessional way. In this particular instance, the assignment is not online but done in embodied presence with other Christians; yet your online avatar would show that you’ve completed the task and that you’re that much closer to your goal.

To open up one of these boss levels, each student (affectionately called, “Trekkies”) has to acquire a certain number of skill points to move on to further Christian instruction. In other words, if they receive the requisite points in the categories below, they receive permission to engage these bigger missions. Perhaps the categories look like this (think of what you might add):

AWARENESS
THEOLOGY
SCRIPTURE
COMMUNITY
SERVICE
CREATIVITY

Imagine a scenario where a catechesis student comes into class with their weekly homework—they were to write a one-page blogpost, reflecting on the Bible passage or the pastor’s message. Those who are able to get at least one other person (student or otherwise) to respond by way of comment, get +1 COMMUNITY. If the blogpost references at least two other original Bible passages, the student gets +2 SCRIPTURE. Recognizing a liturgical device in church and posting about it gives +2 AWARENESS. Once the student has certain benchmark scores, they receive certain positive outcomes over and on top of the already positive outcomes of observation, synthesis, and application of powerful ecclesial tools. The benchmarks are the very key that open up boss levels…therefore, well-rounded effort across a variety of educational experiences give you the opportunity to demonstrate your mastery of core Christian doctrines, one by one.

The social networking arm of the gaming program gives you freedom to discuss ideas, share articles and resources, as well as seek pastoral/leader support if something goes wrong or needs further explanation. This type of network is monitored by the leader, not for the purpose of babysitting but rather to ensure that the spirit of engagement is lifted up. This is solely done over the Internet and exists to supplement the embodied education that is happening at the church.

Now, to the embodied experiences… Some of the better confirmation curricula I’ve used required the building of parent-student “huddle groups.” These groups are four to six students strong with two parents (from different families); the huddle groups serve as the central nervous system of the confirmation experience. Consider what a curriculum might look like if the confirmands worked in team fashion; every member of the huddle group is given a special role or assignment, rotating weekly, toward the end of group bonding, better learning, and to simply keep things interesting.

The PROFESSOR would be in charge of teaching a small component of the lesson (e.g., what are the major parts of a creed).
The ACTIVIST would look for service opportunities that brings the week’s lesson to life.
The ARTIST would bring to the group a picture of some researched piece of art (sculpture, painting, etching, etc.) that would speak to the previous week’s material.
The ENGINEER would be responsible for the nuts and bolts of the next week’s gathering, assigning who brings what, making sure announcements are received and disseminated, etc.
(and on and on, for you creative types…)

These roles are assigned digitally each week by the instructor; one look at your character profile and you’ll know what you’re responsible for when everyone gathers again face-to-face. Remember, our thought experiment rests on the attempt to make the entire process–embodied or digital–a game.

If all the boss levels are completed and the instructor agrees that the confirmand is ready, the game reaches its conclusionsupermario. In the digital world, the student’s avatar (the online character) receives some sort of external reward—I don’t know, a new hat?—don’t laugh, entire video games have been built around the idea of collecting hats. In the embodied world, the student publicly bears witness to his faith surrounded by a set of side-kicks that helped him accomplish the goal of the game. The hero wins.

Ok, discuss.

The cynic in me suggests that this is the commodifying of education. Shouldn’t the value of education be education itself—not the hope of some set of extrinsic rewards and/or the expectation of entertainment? I’m not totally convinced my cynicism holds water. The former way of doing catechesis essentially believed (explicitly or implicitly) that one could come to an intellectual knowledge of God that stood the test of time. This was delivered by lecture and/or really bad confirmation workbooks. Catechesis systems that use games naturally bring in the other parts of the brain that make human experience beautiful and fulfilling. After all, games (digital and otherwise) are really, really good at engaging the whole person. Many of you might be familiar with Howard Gardner’s work on the multiple intelligences; these intelligences are interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, verbal, logical-mathematical and naturalistic. Could you imagine a catechesis program that—just once—attempted to incorporate four or more of these in its design?

I do fear that catechizing this way may detrimentally conflate education with entertainment—where students expect to be entertained or else it’s not worth the time to learn. “Here we are now. Entertain us.” The theme lyric of an entire generation. Second, TheoTrek or something similar might struggle with mixed messaging. For example, I teach my kids that Christian community has a necessary embodied component to it—it cannot be received in full from an online interaction. If TheoTrek morphs into a completely online experience, the students lose much more than they gain. The embodied component must be protected at all costs for one very big reason: the face-to-face contact is where faith itself is witnessed, mirrored, mentored, and encouraged. TheoTrek without the embodiment might do alright as an information delivery system, but my gut tells me that we want our catechesis programs to build the faith the student will be confirming–not just speak about the faith in a factually accurate manner. Moreover, is the confirmand really the hero is his/her catechesis? Shouldn’t it be…?

There is room for excitement about this little experiment, too. Perhaps the greatest draw of the gaming world—something people most crave in the real world—is to be caught up in a compelling narrative. To be part of a story in which you have a crucial role to play. This is not terribly far from some of John Eldredge’s work (Wild at Heart, Epic, Waking the Dead). TheoTrek attempts to draw students into a broader narrative–one that gives them a certain amount of agency to form their own personal narratives.

“The embodied component must be protected at all costs for one very big reason: the face-to-face contact is where faith itself is witnessed, mirrored, mentored, and encouraged.”

Maybe I’m somewhere in between. Equal parts joy and cynicism. At least I’m calming my over-active Luddite streak to think hard about what the digital world can offer our church bodies. That alone has some value. Perhaps more games will have real-life impact, making the world a better place. Perhaps we can be inspired by the success of these projects to build better ways—or at least more engaging ways—to know and serve Christ. A generation of youth who associate learning about God in Jesus with the thrill of discovery and adventure cannot be anything but a good thing. In fact, it’s an epic win.

Folks, this took me a few days of thought. That’s it. Obviously, it’s not a fully flushed out idea… But, hopefully, such an exercise can help you think creatively and critically about how the Church could possibly use the distinctive goods that video games offer and parlay those goods toward the advancing of God’s kingdom. Maybe you’ll come to a decision that you (nor your future children) would choose this style of curriculum—no problem. But what can be harnessed, cajoled, or fashioned into a catechesis system that excites the brain, increases our capacity for empathy and trust, and still creates a theological foundation that sticks?

Maybe the Church can tap into a generation’s optimism. Jane McGonigal writes, “gamers believe that an epic win is always possible.” Isn’t this grace? Isn’t this the whole story of world—where Jesus pulls off the epic win against all odds—and by his resurrection, we experience the benefits of that victory? Maybe the epic win is an eighth-grader who uses TheoTrek, loves the experience, and confesses Christ before her congregation.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.