Gaming: for some of us it is our greatest outlet, our source of community, and where we go to take a break from the world around us. Gaming comes with many ups and downs (and up up down down left right left right B A), moments of intense joy, and moments of deep lament as we watch the trials of the characters whose worlds we have vicariously joined.
Video games have come a long way from the days of Atari’s Pong and Nintendo’s 2D Mario, pounding bricks and pouncing on unsuspecting turtles. They transformed into experiences that affect us emotionally and they transport us to worlds and experiences we could not enjoy without them. We may find ourselves taking a rest in the world of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s vast open world. Or wrestling with the consequences of sacrificing morality to defeat our enemies in Ghost of Tsushima. Or even exploring the effects of mental health and psychosis with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. But what strikes me the most about video games is how it always leads to community. Whether it was hanging with friends in the arcades of early youth, playing Goldeneye on the N64 and eating pizza with friends after school, or the ways we now connect online for multiplayer action, video games have always been a way to make new friends and play together.
During this pandemic, games have gained greater significance, becoming a source of therapy and a way to connect across the distance and isolation. In a time when church doors are closed--when we wonder if we will ever experience “normal” again--video games might show us a thing or two about discipleship in a world that is going virtual. Here are some ways we’ve experienced gaming community and discipleship:
Community as Fellowship
Gaming is all about community and fellowship. For some, that comes in games like Animal Crossing, a lifestyle game where you can build a literal community. You plant trees, invite neighbors and friends to your island, and terraform to make the perfect space. Animal Crossing has a substantial online community offering assistance with missing tools, DIY’s and places to sell your turnips and get rich in the stalk market.
We also find fellowship in games like Fortnite, chatting with a random new friend added to our squad and catching up with friends and family while spending time together. For our household, Fortnite is a big deal. With three boys (9, 7, and 4) Fortnite events, concerts, and season changes are LIFE. They are a chance to come together for fun and take a break from all going on in the world around us.
We’ve witnessed gaming as a venue for protests, rallies and political gatherings. Candidates have created dream codes and political centers in Animal Crossing. People have come together for virtual weddings, baby showers, and celebrations. While the venue may certainly be different, it is still an opportunity to gather together, celebrate and find solidarity.
Community United for a Common Goal
These communities are there to support you and usually unite around common goals. I remember a time while playing Sea of Thieves. We were hunting the mighty Megalodon on our pirate ship when we encountered a crew who spoke to us through a robotic voice, typed on his/her keyboard. Not only did they volunteer to lead us through every quest step and take down the shark, they also invited us to an impromptu dance party to “Thank You for Being a Friend.”
Sure. Every once in a while you run into a person with a bad attitude or someone obnoxious. But as a whole, the community is there to support you, seeking the same goals as you are. They share items in Animal Crossing, help you get a victory umbrella in Fortnite, and teach all of the steps to a difficult raid on Destiny 2. One unique feature of next gen gaming is that now players can take control of your game (if you let them) and offer a hand during a challenging mission you’re tired of failing. In gaming you are never truly alone in your quest.
Community as a way to gather around social justice and inclusion
Earlier this year, as Animal Crossing New Horizons was taking off, there was a petition going around for better representation in gaming. The petition focused on default skin colors and hairstyles in character design. In a game that is based around lifestyle play and that involves extended amounts of playtime, representation matters. It matters that there are options for girls with natural hair, or people of color who are most often underrepresented in the gaming community.
Earlier this summer, shows on Netflix and CBS All Access were released about the history of gaming. Netflix’s special, “High Score” featured the story of video game executive Gordon Bellamy and his journey for more inclusion in games like Madden Football, which featured all-white teams in the earliest iterations of the game. He tells his story of being both black and gay, and seeking for something that represented him. He helped to get more representative and accurate graphics into the game. Gaming opens a world where there is a place for everyone, and a place for every voice to be heard.
This idea of inclusion, and representation is something the church would do well to replicate. It doesn’t mean simply giving into the ideals of whatever is savvy or popular in the world around us at the time. It means taking cues from communities that strive to make space for everyone. What if instead of trying to constantly fix the world around us, we asked the communities around us what they need to feel safe in the church? How do we learn to love our neighbors better, not only being a space that says we are safe, but by being a space that goes out of the way to show it?
Perhaps gaming is a way to remember that the church is not just found in the four walls of those sacred spaces with stained glass windows, but church is found in spaces where we can be ourselves. Church is found in new friendships and gathering around the cause of a particular mission and purpose. Church is found in late night conversations and family Fortnite events. Church is where two or more are gathered, even if it’s fishing on the pier in Animal Crossing. What New Horizons is God calling us to today?
Revs. Laura and Nathan Wittman are a clergy couple (and both UMC preacher’s kids too!) in the North Carolina Conference of the UMC. Nathan is the pastor at St. James UMC in Tarboro, NC, and Laura is planting The Mills Church in Rocky Mount, while also serving as the Director of the Rocky Mount Cooperative Parish. They have three little boys, Cameron, Allen, and Ezra, who are their entire world. Laura and Nathan love playing Fortnite with their kids, watching Duke basketball, and gathering together with friends for theological conversation. Their love of Star Wars brought them together while they were students at Duke, and they find it an essential part of their job to continue to share the love of the force wherever they go.