What Do Christian Video Games Tell Us about Discipleship?

What Do Christian Video Games Tell Us about Discipleship?
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You arrive at a wedding in Cana. But there’s a problem. The celebration has run out of wine. Your mother asks you to help. You tell the servants to fill jars with water. Then you wave your hands and—oops!

No miracles for you. You ran out of Holy Spirit power.

That’s obviously not how the story goes—unless you’re playing this month’s virtual reality (VR) experience, I am Jesus Christ.

We talk a lot about helping kids and teens engage content through a biblical lens. But let’s go back a step. How should we think about the many media (any medium, including but not limited to the news media) conveying that content?

To explore that question, I want to go down a rabbit hole. It’s about the strange relationship between Christianity and video games. But on a deeper level, it’s about how various media shape one’s posture toward content, and what that means for discipleship.

Discipleship in VR

Christina Grube covers I am Jesus Christ for wng.org. This bizarre, sacrilegious video game invites players to step into the sandals of Jesus, performing miracles and acting out the gospel story. If that doesn’t set off your blasphemy alarm, the game also takes liberties for the sake of gameplay, including a “Holy Spirit energy” meter that can fall too low for the player to perform miracles. This prompts the blunt notification: “Out of Holy Spirit.”

But here’s the strangest part: By all appearances, the game’s creator had the best intentions.

Maksym Vysochanskiy says he has wanted to tell the gospel story ever since he saw the power of 3-D animation in films like Shrek. His project eventually morphed into a video game. He chose VR because, as he told the Washington Post, “it can show from first perspective what Jesus Christ did.”

So how did his attempt at gospel storytelling go so wrong?

In his early review of I am Jesus Christ, Vice reporter Mario Lupetti offers the following insight:

“I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something profoundly incompatible between Christianity and gaming. It’s pretty clear that I Am Jesus Christ struggles to translate these episodes into the objective-challenge-reward system that makes up traditional gameplay. Something isn’t quite right.

The teachings of Jesus tell us that whoever has the lowest score in life, those who languish at the bottom of the ranking, those who have failed their mission either partly or completely, will be the first to receive a reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not really compatible with many video games’ objectives . . . .”

Lupetti highlights a seeming contradiction between medium and content. Video games prioritize reward and achievement. But the gospel hinges on grace and sacrifice. It tells us “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16)

This wouldn’t be the first time Christianity and video games mixed poorly. The real-time strategy game Left Behind: Eternal Forces (which, oddly enough, also featured a “Spirit meter”) drew widespread criticism for letting players kill non-believers. The game penalized players for doing so, but still. Gross. It also just felt wrong to gamify the Great Commission and treat non-believers as pieces on a board.

So is Lupetti right? Are video games simply the wrong container for Christian content?

Let’s go a little farther down the rabbit hole.

Just Add Jesus Stuff?

A handful of Bible-based computer games sprouted up in the 1980s, but the story really begins with 1991’s Bible Adventures. This unlicensed Nintendo Entertainment Systems game pilfered mechanics from other popular titles to retell the stories of Noah, Baby Moses, and David.

Gabe Durham, founder of Boss Fight Books, writes about the development of Bible Adventures. His book opens with a quote from South Park: “All right, guys, this is gonna be so easy. All we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them.”

Durham suggests that Bible Adventures brought a similar mindset to video games. Just recreate Super Mario Bros. 2 and add Jesus stuff.

I’ve served in ministry contexts where this mindset exists. Form, they argue, is neutral. It’s the content that matters. This mentality makes it easy to co-opt popular trends for the sake of evangelism. In terms of numbers, it yields results. But what about in terms of discipleship?

Author James K. A. Smith gives us a different framework for thinking about form and content. In Desiring the Kingdom, he argues that humans are not merely information receptacles. We’re shaped by our loves and our habits—the things we do. Because of this, the varied mediums of content—not just the content itself—have power to shape us. Experiences like watching a movie, going to the mall, or playing a video game can become their own liturgical actions that shape our loves.

Simply put: The medium of our message has an impact in itself. Our discipleship methods, not just their content, will play a role in shaping our children.

Our discipleship methods, not just their content, will play a role in shaping our children.

The Medium for the Message

You might feel an impulse to retreat from contemporary media channels. You might want to say that things like video games—or contemporary music, or movies, or social media—simply don’t mix with Christianity. But this scorched-earth approach can deprive us of many joyous, beautiful venues for discipleship.

Video games might be the wrong medium for the story of Christ. But what serves as a poor vessel for one message might serve as the perfect vehicle for another.

In 2016, Ryan and Amy Green released That Dragon, Cancer. The Greens created this video game to tell the story of their son Joel, who received a terminal cancer diagnosis at just one year old. He died at the age of five.

The family’s faith holds a central role in the game. The prayers of Joel’s parents and their church family are worked in for the player to experience. Writer Tim Challies sums it up beautifully:

“They speak words of hope, they pray prayers of confidence, they sing hymns of faith. [Amy] proclaims her confidence that her boy will be healed, then is left grappling with the inevitability of his death. [Ryan] wavers in his faith but finds it restored and strengthened.”

That Dragon, Cancer uses the expectations of its medium to make us feel the helplessness of the experience. This is a game. We feel we should be able to win. But we can’t.

The Greens use a video game to show us that our efforts aren’t enough. We need faith. We need hope.

What Does This Mean for Discipleship?

In a previous post, we offered tools for engaging media through the S.O.A.R. method: Survey, Observe, Analyze, Respond. This entails looking at media and asking: What can we affirm? What can we challenge?

We can apply this approach to all media. Every medium has strengths and weaknesses. Instead of simply saying, “Video games aren’t helpful” or “Movies aren’t helpful,” we can ask, “Which medium is right for this message?”

Every medium has strengths and weaknesses. Instead of simply saying, “Video games aren’t helpful” or “Movies aren’t helpful,” we can ask, “Which medium is right for this message?”

Then we can make observations. We can ask questions. Where did this medium come from? What sorts of messages does it usually convey? What emotions does it produce?

Let’s leave video games for a moment. As an exercise, let’s think through the medium of the platforms we collectively call “social media.” What strengths and weaknesses might we identify in this medium, and what can we take away from those observations?

My own analysis might look something like this:

Strengths: Social media offers the clarity of the written word. It can add visual impact to a message. It maximizes shareability, allowing content to spread far and fast. It allows for instant connection to real people geographically removed from us, with whom we might otherwise have lost contact completely if not for social media.

Weaknesses: Social media lacks the permanence of physical media. Algorithms tend to push negative emotions. The digital distance makes it hard to interpret social cues and easy to compartmentalize and dehumanize others.

Takeaways: Social media is a great means of achieving non-controversial personal content or promotion (life updates, event planning, humor, marketing). But it’s a poor medium for nuanced, emotionally charged discussion, and it’s an unreliable source of news.

This is just one example. Your own analysis might look different. But hopefully this gives you some ideas and categories for thinking through media and content.

It’s Not the End of the World

This involves a lot of subjectivity. Sometimes we’ll mess this up, and that’s okay.

Not every medium works for every kid. One child might respond well to devotions in a mobile app, while another child finds that medium too distracting. For an older teen, a video game like That Dragon, Cancer might provide a powerful experience. But for another teen with different habits, it might not be the healthiest medium.

I am Jesus Christ shows us how wrong things can go when we unthinkingly force discipleship into the latest fad. But triumphs like That Dragon, Cancer show us the power of choosing a medium for its strengths to make a story come alive.

As disciples-makers, we can go boldly into our work. Our own courage in engaging new media can teach our kids and teens a similar courage. It’s the courage to look closely and see how good culture-making opens our eyes to God’s beauty and truth.

Jonathan Boes

Jonathan Boes

News Coach

Equipping for Cultural Engagement

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