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This is the first of perhaps a series of posts as I consider whether or not boardgames can become a basis for worship in a fresh expression of church.  i do warn you, this is a very long post, but hopefully thought provoking.

As an ordained pioneer minister for the Church of England  in my current context, I began a boardgame project. This is modern boardgames contrasted with just playing monopoly or snakes and ladders.  Part of this arose out of my own interests, part from experience playing games with young people, particularly role playing games as a way of exploring beliefs and attitudes, and partly as a way of connecting with those who were affected by autism. Autistic people really gravitate to boardgames as there are rules for conversation, and organisation, plus it really fits their analytical thinking styles.

But since I am a pioneer minister, I have also wanted to know if they can be used in a spiritual sense.

Whilst they CAN be used as allegory – as I have shown in my article about 11 boardgames which can be used – I want to know if actually there is something deeper, and more frequently can be used as an act of worship, not just teaching.

Being able to explore this through video games began when I saw a retweeted message about a new book coming out ‘exploring Spirituality in Video games’.

It’s a bit unfair, but since no one has actually written anything on boardgaming and a fresh expression of church based around boardgaming, I am going to have to use a recently published work on video games and spirituality as a stepping off point.

I’ve built and online friendship with the authors, particularly with Alastair Jones of Cadence Leadership who has a very impressive CV. His title from the Grove youth series (copyright 2017, Y49, available at https://grovebooks.co.uk/products/y-49-exploring-spirituality-in-video-games-encountering-meaning-in-digital-spaces) written with Andy Robertson (another very impressive CV, and providing high quality information for parents concerned about video games and technology ) explores encountering meaning in digital spaces.

IMPORTANT: SINCE THIS IS NOT ACADEMIC I RESERVE THE RIGHT TO NOT BE CRAZILY ACADEMIC WITH MY PAGE REFERENCES AND SO ON. SO WHEN I AM USING SOME INFORMATION THAT I HAVE GLEANED FROM “EXPLORING SPIRITUALITY IN VIDEO GAMES” I AM SIMPLY GOING TO ADD (Y49) AFTER IT AS AN INDICATOR. IF YOU WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR OWN PAPERS OR ACEDEMIA YOU’LL HAVE TO BUY THE BOOK AND SEE WHERE IT IS FROM, AND NOT JUST TAKE MY QUOTES. PARTLY THIS IS TO GIVE THE AUTHORS SOME KUDOS…AND PARTLY BECAUSE I AM LAZY.

There are marked differences I have discovered between boardgames  and video games.  Perhaps the biggest are the interactive nature of the two.

So in video games there are worlds to explore and discover. You have a movement mechanic, and things are pretty much more immersive.  And are set to become even more so as virtual reality really takes hold. Although its pretty much move and click, these simply things change with the environment moment to moment.

Boardgames, however, have a much more linear direction to them. You ‘do’ certain things over and over, and it is a very constrained decision making process. The real dynamic of a boardgame doesn’t come so much from the game itself, as form the interplay between the people at the table. If it is competitive in nature, you are trying to be the best. If cooperative together you are attempting to beat the game.  In essence, the boardgame becomes a facilitation of a social dynamic which requires certain ingredients:

  • You need to all agree that you like the mechanic of a game
  • You all agree to abide by the rules, because unlike computer games where the developer has prevented you doing certain things, there are no constraints as to having to obey the rules
  • More imagination (perhaps) is required such that bits of cardboard and plastic make a meaningful connection. This taps back into the imaginative play of our childhood development theory.
  • Boardgames require completion in one sitting, apart from a very few exceptions such as Time Stories which is more of a RPG (role playing game) set around a board. This means in the context that playing boardgames as church may just be simply too impractical! But we shall see….

These differences aside, there is still the undercurrent of gaming at the heart of both digital and analogue formats, and whilst I have no idea whether or not at this point in time either could form the basis for a church, if video games can explore spirituality, then perhaps boardgames can as well, and if that is true then it MAY be possible to form church out of either or both of them.

Can video games really be used to explore spirituality … and become worshipful?

I’ll refer to Alastair and Andy’s work on the way through here, which doesn’t directly look at a regular church act of worship based around video games, a little later as a resource to what I am considering.  But if I am to explore this as regular worship rather than just a one off event, then I need to start in the usual place of asking, what is worship?  I’ve covered this many times before in different ways, a bit of an obsession of mine. This time I am going to suggest a slightly different pattern to validating worship than I have before, though it is more an extension on my previous thoughts. And for sake of completeness, I shall repeat what I have said previously.

I am also going to deliberately consider video games and for now leave boardgames out of the mix as it would just complicate things. Everything I say of course is up for debate, and much of this is my own thinking. It’s not setting out to be academic but add to the conversation. Feel free to post comments of disagreement!

What is church?

Church isn’t the building. Obviously. And in fresh expressions this is more true than ever as we try to set up a worshipping community of believers within other existing communities rather than ‘come to church [building] model’. It’s not that that is wrong, it is simply that those of us who are passionate pioneers tend to look to the mission field in this way. So if we are to have a video game based church, what is church?

I suggest, church is a gathering of worshippers, either physically or networked (for example digital….perhaps through social media or even a server, such as second life or even Minecraft ‘church’ or Roblox. For those of a more traditional point of view who would object to this, let me remind you that in the Church’s Daily Office we consider that when we say the office, we are actually joining in with the ongoing prayers of the saints. In other words throughout the world at any moment there are people praying, and we are simply joining in and out of that ongoing spiritual network of prayer. And that is the Church here on earth.

So worship is what the church does.

I’ve said in other places the purpose of worship is not to change God. This is important because I hear many people say worship is this or it is that, and people get very upset on the whole subject of what is the right song to sing. Then it gets dressed up in all sorts of doctrine and theology to try and validate someone’s view; then the other side tries to shoot it down. Meanwhile the rest of the world gets on with it’s business and mission goes unattended…. Lots of air wasted. There’s a verses about that somewhere….

So here’s how that theory plays out.

You can’t change God. So to speak of making God happy with certain songs or whatever is wrong. Or how we ‘do’ worship is wrong. It starts with what God loves, which is

Living sacrifice

Romans 12.1

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship

And

Micah 6.8

What does the Lord require of you…to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

And we walk humbly by trusting him every day in faith by

Matthew 22.36

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength, and all your Spirit

And then, letting our ‘deeds’ flow out of that relationship such that we

Love our neighbours (that is, everyone) as ourselves.

So if worship is living lives which honour God in this way, what then is that thing we do in church?

Well actually it’s to encourage that faith which will lead to these things.

Hebrews 10.25

Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.

So, essentially that things we do in our gatherings together is for our benefit. It is to encourage us. And the way we can do that is

Ephesians 5.19

Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him. Sing hymns instead of drinking songs! Sing songs from your heart to Christ. Sing praises over everything, any excuse for a song to God the Father in the name of our Master, Jesus Christ.

In other words we are encouraged when we do these things. But its not just singing, I think that there are other ways we can encourage one another.

At the Last supper they ‘sang some songs then went out’. The way it’s written in quite a down beat kind of way (Matthew 26), there must have been a great heaviness in the air rather than the usual festivities of the Passover meal.  And then Jesus asked Peter, James and John to keep watch with him…in other words looking to them for strength.  Those of us who have sat with families in distress will know that sometimes simply keeping watch is all we can do, but there is something spiritual about it.

Taking it further, in the arguments that usual ensue around what is worship in church, whilst everyone defaults in their heads to ‘what is the next song’ (evangelicals do have this habit of before singing a song introducing it by saying ‘so let’s stand to worship by singing….’ Which kind of creates this implication….even if it is not what they mean) it is quickly over ridden by the thinking part of their brains to say that it is not just singing, but the whole service is one of worship. This is most clearly seen in the directives for the communion service which instructs that not one part of the eucharistic prayer (special words said over the bread and wine aka the elements) is more important than another. So the words that we say together, or sing together, or that we hear, or the actions we complete depending on our personal expression of faith, is the worship.

So worship is for our benefit to encourage faith, and it can be anything that achieves that.

Church is probably when we gather to do that worship, but can be in different forms.

That’s quite a bold claim to suggest only ‘probably’, but if you consider that church is where we meet with Jesus in worship, since it is by the Holy Spirit that our faith is truly inspired and Jesus said ‘wherever two or three gather together in my name I am there with them’ then I think we need to keep the idea of church pretty fluid.

So if video games can inspire us spiritually, and encourage our faith, then surely it could be counted as worship.

From faith development…to expression of faith in worship

Recently I have been refining my thoughts on how we come to faith.

It is based on a sudden thought I had as I read the passages of scripture around Peter’s declaration of who he said Jesus was in Luke’s gospel.

It goes like this:

  1.  Miracles (pre Luke chapter 9)
  2. Peter Confesses Jesus (9.18-20)
  3. Jesus explains what is to happen and what it means to follow him (vs 19- 27)
  4. Peter James and John are with Jesus at the transfiguration…the penny finally drops as to who Jesus is…the Father’s voice helps in this of course! (vs28-36)

Put a little quaintly:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Declaration
  3. Explanation
  4. Revelation

So when people come to faith there will be this process going on.  When I speak of declaration, I mean it more in the sense of a head acknowledgement as to who Jesus is rather than life changing experience. The disciples still didn’t seem to ‘get it’ even though they ‘knew it’.  This is what I have seen and tested out in my ministry. Spend time with people and tell them stories, if possible have them be part of those stories. I mean stories of today, not bible stories. Bible stories are great but to most people, they are just stories.  They don’t have biblical literacy like we theologians have. That comes later…but it requires humility towards the teacher and the scripture.

Speaking of which, after inspiration then comes the declaration. This is what I say to people when I think that they are ready for the question:

‘so who do you say Jesus is?’

Not exactly rocket science is it?  Good enough for Jesus to say, good enough for me.

And this is the thing, those who are ready to go further say Jesus is the son of God. Those who aren’t say they don’t know.  Cool huh?

Once they can say who Jesus is, even if they haven’t yet said he is Lord of their lives, and this is basically the difference between declaration and revelation; being a follower of Jesus and just knowing about him…then I can either teach them personally or invite them to an alpha course or something similar depending on who they are.  It’s the explanation phase.

Simply put, there is little point explaning the gospel to someone who could care less, or doesn’t actually believe Jesus even existed.

But without the explanation part, I haven’t often met people who went straight to the ‘oh that’s who Jesus is….I want to know Jesus as my Lord and Saviour!’ from the declaration stage.

It does happen, but I think this is a clearer set of steps.

It also fits with the Engles scale in terms of faith development over time. And even Westerhoff’s model of faith development.

So what does that have to do with worship which encourages faith?

At first I looked at worship as being a cycle between explanation (a sermon) and deeper revelation for the believer, then as I started to dig deeper and put the model into practice I realised that in a worship service that helps people grow in faith, all four elements are present.

Perhaps inspiration comes from a testimony, or songs that are sung (I find songs emotive….but I can get emotional over a fantastic piece of dance music…as in EDM/trance/drum and bass), or even just being together in God’s presence.

Declaration comes through saying things together. It gives us the sense of belonging to something together, of believing something and receiving validity and acceptance by being amongst others who share those beliefs. Can you do this in silence? I am not sure. What I do know is that when you say things together it has much more potency. Have you ever heard a football crowd silently supporting their team? And yet there is a sense in the crowd of belonging to something greater. It seems that affiliation through declaration is part of our human hard wiring, which would suggest that whether by evolutionary or spiritual means, God has put it there. (a bit of a God of gaps argument there…apologies).

Explanation is pretty much reserved for whatever constitutes as the sermon, which may be what you might traditionally think, or could be a drama, or a discussion, or exploration in some other form.  It is more cognitive, but should explain the other elements.

This all leads to a deeper revelation of who God is so that we are inspired to go forward in our faith…which takes us back to inspiration and so the cycle repeats.

There is also a rhythm to it:

  1. Inspiration (a call to respond)
  2. Declaration (we respond)
  3. Explanation (a call to respond)
  4. Revelation (we respond)

We could even see it as something else: a journey. A journey has a linear path to it, a start, a middle and an end. Perhaps this is why we have the forms of church service which we do, a sense of a journey. In fact the church of England common worship pattern is precisely this. Preparation takes the form of songs, then we declare certain things together including collects and confession (Peter Confessed Christ, is the old way of putting it!); then we get the liturgy of the word including bible reading and sermon; which we respond to with the creed, arguably another declaration but I think that it is a statement of belief which has been formalised. God has revealed himself. And in a communion/eucharistic service then comes the communion which is an even deeper revelation of Jesus as we meet with him. This common worship pattern is now a framework, but it is much more ancient being based on the book of common prayer (1662!) and even that is based on preceding patterns.

So this ancient linear way of working and thinking is pretty much there. What else is linear…have you noticed how the two things spoken about most in almost every field from sales to education now is journey…and story? There is a journey travelled on, and a story which tells that journey. Story is an important way of looking at things.

Finally there is something about the vessel/context we put this pattern into, though I risk confusing the issue a little.

  • The declaration will be about common values, and doctrinal expression
  • The moment of declaration and revelation will each contain elements of a Kairos moment, which essentially is that moment of God’s timing when we have to make a decision as to what step to take next. It is the recognition that this faith thing is more than just a bunch of facts, it is also something that is meaningful to us to the extent that we need to make a response.
  • There is a decision to be made concerning that response.

So lets pull all this together to attempt a kind of definition of what a gathering of worshippers (and therefore church) actually means.

worship is for our benefit to encourage faith, and it can be anything that achieves that.

Church is probably when we gather to do that worship, but can be in different forms.

Worship will have the elements of inspiration, declaration, explanation and revelation where we will have a meaningful experience which gives us a sense of belonging and affiliation and mutual encouragement through an outwardly expressed agreement of faith through common values and doctrine.

The form of that worship may well be that of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

There will be a response decision to be made arising out of the meaningful experience.

Worship of a different form….art

It’s getting  quite complex, and because of our prior thinking of what worship is and our church-affected views of what worship is or isn’t, to consider games as a possible church expression may be difficult for some to accept. So I want to take a side step and consider another common ground of worship and games in general. The world of art.

Art is present throughout the Christian world, and has been since ancient times. It is essential, and artists bring as much our of faith as theologians. It is also crucial to games of both types in this discussion because they are a visual media. From board art and design to the incredible animated scenes present in video games. But whether simple or realistic, or even virtual, art is what we encounter first.

But art is in a sense purposeless (Y49) in the sense that they do not have an actual practical use like that of a chair or a spoon. And yet they DO something. They make us think differently. They change the spaces we encounter. A piece of art hung on a blank wall changes the way we approach a room, which is why we display art.  Art also has the capacity to move us, and in fact without an emotional response from the viewer it is simply decorative. And it is the emotion which changes how we approach the world.  So purposeless, and yet with capacity to evoke change.

Taken to it’s spiritual dimension, much great art of the past was concerned with telling biblical narrative. And then there is the icon. Icons are odd things, for years I thought they were strangely painted and didn’t quite get them. But the point is that they are supposed to be a key to a deeper spiritual understanding. Deliberately painted in a naïve way, they aren’t meant to be of anything, but describe in a visual way something deeper without words, such that anyone can access them, unlike theology, and it is as much the what the viewer brings to the encounter with the art as what the artist is trying to say.

So an icon is a kind of deconstructivism in what it is trying to evoke, showing the least possible of something beyond understanding so that the Holy Spirit has a chance to inspire the person reflecting on it to realise (have revelation) of something which can never be painted or created by a human.

And if you don’t believe me, try painting the throne room of revelation…..

(picture I produced for Scripture Union)

And I still don’t think I got it right.

To give an example personally of a piece of understanding I came to through an icon. My tutors showed us the picture of the Rublev Icon. This simple piece showed Father, Son and Spirit, and a space at the table to which we are invited.  It asks if we will come and join them. Come up here, it says…we are invited into the trinity! Now, the trinity points to one another in what is called the trinitarian dance, forever pointing to one another and preferring one another. Which is what we should do. And if we are invited to join them, then we are raised up ourselves! We are not second class, but God actually points to us, pointing to and preferring us!  But we can’t leave it there, no, we need to prefer Him….wow….thats meaningful. A deeper revelation for me of who God is, built around these four stages of inspiration, declaration, explanation and then revelation. And it has had great meaning for me ever since as I understand the oneness of God, but also what love he has for me.

As an illustrator, one of the things that we are always trying to do is to tell a story in a picture. This comes right back to my earlier point that there is a journey, and a story to be told about that journey. So art is a way of telling a story. The journey expressed in art. And so worship expressed in art.

The icon, or film or whatever medium you would like to use, ends up being something which can move someone emotionally…it can inspire them, and if done right requires a response, even a declaration and move us to a deeper understanding.

And if art can do that, perhaps a game can do the same thing?

NOW can we talk about video games?

Yes.

So the first question has to be, do video games have the potential to fit this mould because if the answer is yes, then, at least in theory, playing video games can indeed become an act of worship.

I want to work slightly backwards with this starting at my context pattern. This is because for fresh expressions context is all important. The worship that comes out of the context will use the metaphors and language which is present in the host community for at least part of it’s worship. Not something that sits well with the liturgical commission… ahem. At least we now have the common worship pattern, but there are many tensions I won’t go into here. Enough to say, that we are informed by historical patterns and spirituality, but innovation is as important. In which case we innovate, borrow…beg or steal as is necessary from traditions and cultures, and put everything through a theological filter.

Lets see what similarities there are:

Worship pattern Gaming experience
Declaration about common values and doctrinal expression Game rules

Game play

A reflection on experience which can lead to a Kairos moment Recognising there is meaning in a game (Y49)
Decision to move forward –  a response Something learned which can be taken offline (Y49)

So the context broadly works, and I will come back to this in a moment. First I would like to see if the process of inspiration through to revelation also works. This time in the grid marrying up common worship, icons, and then computer games.

Context Inspiration (call) Declaration (response) Explanation (call) Revelation (response)
Common Worship Songs, collect, lifting us up to focus on spiritual things confession Liturgy of the word Creed and/or eucharistic encounter
Icons discovery, wonder, a focus on things beyond the here and how Consideration, understanding (otherwise it is just a picture/decoration) Inspires discovery in scripture. Opens deeper understanding Deeper understanding meaning a deeper relationship with God
Video games As a key to deeper meaning (Y49) Yes, if preceding is true, otherwise it is just a pass time or escape (Y49) Analogy to spiritual things (see my link at the beginning of this text to 11 boardgames) If there is an affect beyond the game and what is learnt / encountered is taken offline (Y49)

A brief look at Space

I don’t mean outer space, but rather spaces. This has become more the subject of consideration these last few years. Sacred spaces, liminal spaces, cooperative spaces, spaces to explore. Space set aside for particular activities. Even psychologists and child behaviourists speak about spaces for certain things.  Again it seems to be something of the human nature to respond to space in different capacities.

The act of worship seems to be no different. Whether it is online or offline, space and how we define it is important and gives meaning. Why do people whisper walking into a church?

But a picture needs a wall to be displayed on because that is what a picture is for. Private collections are pointless, even for something without purpose, if that makes sense.

A story needs to be told and to be heard, and it needs a space both in time, and geography for that telling.

And so it is with worship that it needs some sort of space, both physically (or meta physically if online) and spiritually, and time.

Can we see video games within that context?

Exploring the book  – Exploring Spirituality in video games – a little further

I am not sure this isn’t cheating a little in the format as I am going to steal a few important threads now directly from the book.  I should add at this point that I can’t really disagree with anything that Alastair and Andy have said, both because they know the arena of video games much better than I do from a practical and applied point of view – they have spent time with young people gaming and seen what happens and attempted various ideas – and from the theology and thoughts they have used.   So if I get anything wrong here I am hoping that they will point it out!

  • Context of video games… there is a sense of belonging to something. When playing a co-op especially. But you’ve also got language and things to talk about with your peer group. The story is very important to a game, no matter what it is. Some themes are pasted on, but some really draw you in.
  • The exploration of the space is important, especially free exploration. I’ve read recently the importance for the current culture of people needing to have exits in whatever they engage in. In our services we so often have no exits…and if you did then you would be ‘seen’. This experience of the physical church translates to spiritual interpretation. In other words fear that if you get involved in something spiritual, there is no way out. So the culture is needing the freedom to explore freely and need to move away if they want to.  Video gaming has the space to just quite if you feel like it, but explore freely.

The narrative spaces that games take us into are not sanitised, or even safe, spaces. But they raise questions about our humanity and present us with choices. In this regard they resemble the narrative spaces of some of our sacred texts. #digitalmeaning #CodecMADT from Twitter, [at]andrew_spurr 10 March 2018

  • Of course there are those games which are more linear: 2d platfomers and so on. But still, exploration and discovery at your own pace. And some sense of journey and development. As you move along in any game you gain skills and ability, not just as a character, but you actually get better. So this sense of discovery, development makes the story space.
  • But does it make a sacred space? Andy and Alastair suggest it does. If we go back to icons, then maybe they do. If the video game works in such a way as to give an insight into a different kind of thinking or world. Shalom spaces are described as ‘fruits of the Spirit, moments of grace, how we learn about ourselves and it’s creator’.

Does it really mean Video games can be spiritual experiences…or at least lead to spiritual experiences?

Yes, I think it can indeed mean they can be spiritual experiences.

And certainly as one off events I can’t see why they cannot become spiritual experiences. In one section of the book I was thrilled (that’s the right word) to hear how games had been used in a cathedral and there was a sense of worship alongside the regular service.

And I hope somewhere in here I have demonstrated the possiblities of them also becoming one off worship experiences as they ahve all the hallmarks of worship.

But there is a bit of a problem.

When you work in fresh expressions of church, there is a bit of a process that we go through. It’s not strict, but it helps recognise where we might be up to and were we might go next.

We begin by listening to the culture, and then gathering people. From whom we then discover language, concerns and where God is working in that culture. From this we discover features that might be used in worship, and combining them with the appropriate traditions and what we learn from cultures in the past, we being to form church.

Well it is certain that video games can have a spiritual language that can emerge. So yes, a culture can arise out of the gaming which can use that language.

For example (and this is mine) we could talk about spawning and re-spawning. Of course re-spawning and starting again can link allegorically to forgiveness and starting again. But what if a confession were written that used the language of respawning?

And is this gimmicky…or would it be reality?

In our church we have bubbles for the confession.  And, because of my son (*sigh) he on purpose calls them Bubles. As in Michael Buble.

At first it annoyed me that he should make fun of something so serious. Then we all played with it. And we play with the bubbles…and over time we have discovered as sense of joy in the confession. It’s fun…and isn’t it fun to be forgiven by God? Shouldn’t the experience afterwards by of joy, not of continued sadness at our sin?

In other words, to say re-spawning at first may seem a bit odd. And a gimmick. Almost making fun of something so holy. But as it is repeated as a liturgy, which essentially is what happens when something is repeated in contexts, it takes on meaning beyond its original sense.

That I think may be the problem. It is the necessity of repetition to form an meaningful expression of these adopted and adapted words.

Gaming in video games is a play once affair unless it is competitive. In which case is that right for a worship context? The games in the book were pretty much all exploration and story based. We may have problems with time…or even finding enough games so that things don’t become boring for the players.  And are we limited to just adapting and adopting language for our liturgy, or should we be looking at actually using the games themselves, such as the Roblox and Minecraft churches?

Conclussion

I’ve dug through a lot here, and some of it may not work out, or be gramatically correct. I am more than happy to be corrected in either way!

You can have video games as a spiritual exploration tool.

And you can have video games as an act of worship if placed in the right context.

But can you do that often enough for it to become church? In other words, can you repeat the act of worship enough times for it to take on meaning outside of itself, in the same way as one might use an icon for example.

I would encourage you to come back at me and suggest how we could bring out a sense of repetition.