The (Video) Game Is On

The remarkable growth of various forms of electronic gaming in our culture may strike us as an ambiguous phenomenon. Yet, it must be admitted that video games are worth taking seriously as an influential popular art form. Even non-gamers like myself can appreciate their visual design, narrative intricacies, and other distinctive qualities. Artists in other media have paid homage to the allure of video games. The AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire nodded to the creativity of early game designers and programmers. Steven Spielberg’s recent film Ready Player One showcased the excitement and power of games. A live-action television series based on the celebrated game Halo is on Spielberg’s production docket.

My own interest in popular culture has been an asset to my work in campus ministry. Movies, television, music, advertising, fashion, sports—all of these have currency in young adult culture, and carry the potential for serious reflection. They provide opportunities to explore personal and social issues, or to delve into philosophical and theological questions. A personal case in point involved a college student who recently came to my office. He was excited about the new Destiny 2: Forsaken video game expansion that was soon to be released. The conversation that followed evolved in some surprising ways. This young person’s experience of the game brought up deeper questions of meaning, ethics, and vocation. He felt a need to talk about how his faith might address those concerns. This served as a reminder to me of how entertainment and enrichment can coincide.

A Serious Business

I may not share the fascination of others with video games, but I certainly recognize the impact of the gaming industry on our cultural and economic life, as the number of gamers worldwide continues to grow. The industry generates tens of billions of dollars of revenue in the U.S. alone, and has fueled hardware and software innovations that have benefited us all.

Many of the students I teach and those I work with in campus ministry have been playing electronic games all their lives, whether on the gaming consoles of their youth or the multiple digital platforms of today. They have run the gamut from solitary games to “Massive Multiplayer Online” (MMO) games. Games like Pokemon, League of Legends, and the Final Fantasy series have helped shape their cultural landscape. Some of these students are majoring in fields like “Game Design and Animation” in departments with names like “Digital Communications Media.”

W.C. Fields is credited with the line: “Comedy is serious business.” The same could be said for playing games. Games are powerful; but where there is power, there is danger. There has been concern about physiological and psychological effects in extreme gaming, and controversy around such issues as violence depiction, social isolation, and gender imagery. Studies are inconclusive, but most seem to indicate both positive and negative potential in gaming, depending on how it is used. Industry surveys that track how much time people spend playing video games show direct correlation to age, with younger gamers spending more time playing, sometimes significantly more. There is a fine line between play and addiction. When do we become less free, less connected to reality?

An often-cited longitudinal study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA examined spirituality in higher education, specifically undergraduates’ spiritual growth. Besides noting that “spiritual” and “religious” correlated positively, researchers found that growth in spirituality during one’s college years enhanced academic achievement, psychological well-being, leadership self concept, and the ability to get along with people from other cultures, among other things. Researchers also cited faculty practices that tended to be positive influences on spiritual growth, like: “inner work” (including reflective writing, mediation, and contemplation), service learning, charitable giving, interdisciplinary courses, interracial/cultural interaction, leadership training, etc. Only two negative influences on spiritual growth were noted: excessive television watching and video gaming.

One may presume that excessive gaming has the potential to keep students from engaging in the other, positive experiences that the researchers named, or from tackling real world problems. No developmental stage is a time to escape from life; yet, young adulthood in particular offers the invitation to “jump in” and live the adventure of life for oneself. That said, can gaming, given both its power and danger, offer any lessons for those looking for adventure in the real world? More to the point, can gaming teach anything to those seeking to excel, or to lead, in discipleship and ministry?

Gaming as Art

Gaming is powerful because it can rise to the level of art. Different forms of art do different things well. For example, theater highlights the beauty of language and the use of imagination to create cathartic experiences. Literary forms, like the novel, allow us access to the inner worlds of characters through their thoughts. Film joins visual meaning to storytelling. Like many others, I have used all of these in ministry settings to engage students’ imaginations or to illustrate concepts. What do games do well, and how might that be used to reach those who are fascinated by them?

Educators have tried to address this question by applying gaming concepts in the classroom. Referred to as “gamification,” this may involve not only the use of video games, like Minecraft, in the curriculum, but a pedagogy that incorporates strategic elements of gaming. These include: intrinsic rewards, information navigation, layers of achievement, and creative collaboration. Advocates claim that gamification can advance critical thinking skills, retention, and motivation.

My own modest use of gaming culture has been through peer ministry and leadership training. Many commentators have examined unique qualities of the gaming experience and how they have altered narrative entertainment. Some of these provide useful starting points for discussion among student leaders:

The game requires participation. The “participation” referred to here has less to do with the number of players than with the involvement of players in decision making. Digital gaming is not a passive experience, but one in which the player has to decide what to do, what direction to move. Every decision in turn creates different outcomes and possibilities. In a multiplayer game like Overwatch players must create teams, set strategy, and communicate effectively in order to fulfill a mission, all while overcoming challenges from opposing forces. Participation is a human need and gaming addresses it.

One early transition student leaders make is from wanting to engage only with their friends, to considering the needs of everyone in the group. They have to think: What happens when new people show up at a meeting ready to help or learn, and no one welcomes them or asks them to do anything? Will they leave feeling unneeded? Small things matter: making a call, helping to shop, setting up for an event. Part of leadership planning includes figuring out how each person can be invited into the action.

A related skill for leaders is the encouragement of participation and teamwork among those who are content to sit back or who disparage their own gifts. Helping others to grow in awareness and appreciation for their distinct contributions also helps to form future leaders. St. Paul told the Corinthians that the Spirit was the source of their diversity of gifts, and that all had a part to play for the body to function well (I Cor 12:4-26). Each person is needed. Everyone has a part to play. The game requires it.

The game begins with optimism. At the start of a video game, the player is most likely alert. One wants to figure out a landscape, learn the rules, and tackle the problem. You need to pick up that sword and get to work. There is a sense of urgency and hopefulness from the start. Sustaining that buoyancy then becomes the challenge.

For any leader, goals must flow from purpose. A good exercise for student leaders is to develop mission and vision statements for their ministry. Part of that process will mean listening deeply to the people one is called to serve, as well as to one’s own inner life. With that can come resonant goals and willingness to join a shared effort.

Yet, over time, there is an almost inevitable deflation that comes with difficulty. When coworkers become tired, cynical or discouraged, the leader’s role becomes even more vital. Samuel Johnson once quipped that human beings “need more often to be reminded than informed.” Leaders help others to recall why they are on the journey to begin with, and encourage them to carry it through.

Another exercise I offered to my students is to ask them at the beginning of an ambitious project to write down what they love about it. Why are they inspired to take on this task? Why do they think it is important? I then suggest that they put that note in an envelope and forget about it. If a time comes when they are overwhelmed by obstacles or flawed ideas, and they are tempted to discard it all—that will be the time to open that envelope, and remember why they chose to embark on the journey. Then, even when there is need to reassess goals and adapt to changing circumstances, they can do so with strengthened resolve and restored optimism.

The game has epic meaning. When it comes to video games, there are numerous genres and subgenres to explore. Simulation games like SimCity revolve around the constructing of ordinary lives, jobs, or societies. Most games, though, aim for more than picking up groceries or doing the laundry. They are about defeating the aliens, unlocking the mysteries, saving the world. They tell us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we are capable of the heroic.

Artists, anthropologists, and depth-psychologists all recognize that embedded in the “hero’s journey” is the invitation to see one’s own life as a spiritual quest. We can find correlations between the great stories of our history and the story we are telling with our everyday lives. An important part of a leader’s role is to inspire a community with a sense of higher purpose.

There are times in our lives when we are called upon to rise above ourselves in ways that are truly significant, decisive, and far-reaching. Most of the time, our efforts are more mundane. I tell students that a key leadership skill is the ability to “paint a picture.” They need to articulate the vision underlying our actions, no matter how small, so that others can catch that vision and engage it. They need to express honestly and persuasively how people are counting on us, or why our work is meaningful. It may only be a food drive, a beach clean up, a conversation with a homeless person, or a tutoring session. Still, it is part of our “becoming,” our education in life, our involvement in the common good. We are building something that is more than it seems. As numerous saints have said in different ways: What you do, do with great love. Where you go, go with all your heart.

The game demands perseverance. If you want to get good at the game, if you want to beat the orcs, find the treasure, save humanity—you need experience. You have to learn by trying. Big goals mean big obstacles, which means falling over and over again; but, when you get up and get back into the game, you are also getting better, becoming stronger.

Our campus ministry leaders can learn something about passion and perseverance from their fellow students who are athletes. In sports, after a bad play or a bad call, there is no time for sulking. The ability to get right back into the flow of play is a life skill that will serve student athletes well later in their careers or family life. It reflects the spiritual quality that allows someone to accept weakness or failure, deal with it, let it go, and get back on the right track. It is the gift of staying in the present moment.

Student leaders who learn these qualities model them for others. There may be times when people on their teams experience disappointment and will not want to get up and try again; they will not want to adjust their expectations and make a new plan. But, when they see their leaders persevering, they may find the self-acceptance and courage to do the same.

The Real Adventure

Whether gaming becomes a positive or negative influence in a person’s life depends on various factors. One’s temperate use of the medium is such a factor; the gaming environment itself is another. A game that gratuitously trades in revenge and violence is no different than other forms of entertainment that do so.

Yet, activities that people love and spend time on provide raw material for reflection and personal growth. Gaming happens to be one of those activities for a significant population. Providing links between their interests and their real needs is one way to gain their attention.

The real adventure is not a game, or an escape, or something virtual. The real adventure is found wherever we are in life, in whatever circumstances. We are being called to something heroic. For my college students, that may mean simply to “jump in”—participate, learn, join a group, try something new. One of the pleasures of campus ministry is working with young adults who are very open to seeing this as part and parcel of their spiritual journey.

At the beginning of his public ministry, upon emerging from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descending as strength and guidance for his mission (Mk 1:9-11). His promise is that the Spirit will be there for those who follow him. The same Spirit that filled Jesus can inspire our prayers, projects and goals. Our lives are a spiritual quest, for our good and, through us, for the good of the world. What could be more epic than that?

Featured Image: Screenshot of the Halo series hompage, Fair Use.


Rev. Mark Villano

Rev. Mark A. Villano is a campus minister at the University Catholic Center at UCLA. He currently teaches courses in “Religion and American Popular Culture,” and the “Philosophy of Film.”

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