Enthusing about a life-enriching experience in the face of perplexed expressions and polite smiles is a common experience for many gamers. Not everyone grants the same cultural importance to video games as we do. One group of players, though, has a double challenge: the GameChurch community, which spreads a twin message that both Jesus is Lord and video games are worthwhile.
GameChurch was created by Mikee Bridges, who “wanted to bring a simple message of hope to the culture of gaming.” Uncommonly in the missional community space, it was founded by gamers for gamers.
You might have seen GameChurch at UK conventions and expos this year: they’ve attended the majority of big shows with a stand displaying their “gamer” Jesus, wearing a headset and holding an Xbox 360 controller (he’s not fussed about upgrading yet, it seems). As I was speaking to GameChurch Media Director Brian Buffon at EGX this year, there was a steady stream of people picking up the “Jesus for the Win” version of John’s gospel and various “Jesus loves gamers” stickers.
GameChurch’s aim is to offer a gamer-friendly story about Jesus “without the finger wagging and off-limits rules about certain video games that are usually associated with christianity”, says Buffon. The core of this, he explains, is to introduce gamers to the idea of a relationship with Jesus that “is not mutually exclusive from gaming”.
I remember being persuaded to burn my prized collection of Fighting Fantasy books by my local Baptist church growing up, but went on to form a strong faith of my own, at least for a for a time. So it was with some vested interest as both a gamer and marginal person of faith that I quizzed Buffon further about GameChurch.
“Many gamers feel ostracised by the church because of the things that are said about video games. There’s a stigma about games that isn’t true: ‘Video-games are anti-social and responsible for acts of mass violence and a waste of time.’ We believe that Jesus is a guy who would hang out at video-game conventions,” Buffon told me.
I asked him if - as it might seem - this problem was inherent to Christianity, given the Bible’s cautious stance on a whole load of other pastimes. He rebuffed, though, pointing to 1:Corinthians, where Paul says that “whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do for the glory of God. We fully believe gaming is one of those things.”
Still, I have trouble reconciling this appealing message with 18-rated shooters, as presumably a lot of Christans do too. I asked: is headshots for Jesus really going to work? “When it comes to violence it’s a subjective thing,” says Buffon. “Let’s say you’re playing with somebody and loving them, and shooting people in the head. Why not? That’s still spreading the love of Christ.”
Outside the Christian world, having religious answers for life’s troubles can be controversial. Being on a mission from God is a quick way to get people’s backs up. However, Buffon was more open than I expected to listening to other people’s experience of life, as well as bringing GameChurch’s truth to bear on the convention.
“We find a lot of spirituality in games, particularly indie games. We write about spiritual experiences in games on GameChurch.com. When we started our ministry we thought we were here to tell the message of Jesus, but the reality is that he’s already here. We’re not trying to win souls, or force the Bible down anybody’s throat.”
Pressing Buffon on which particular games he can point to in this spiritual category throws up some unexpected suggestions. “There are so many great games that teach us about who we are. Journey teaches us about companionship. Hotline Miami, ironically a very violent game, has something to say about how we treat violence in our culture.”
He goes on to talk about That Dragon, Cancer, a game made by developers who are self-confessed Christians, although not affiliated to the GameChurch movement. “A beautiful and heartbreaking story about a father dealing with having a son who has terminal cancer. That pushes the definition of what video games are capable of, on a deeply emotional level.”
Here we stray into GameChurch’s other message: that video games are about more than just entertainment. “They have something to say about the way we live, love, hurt, struggle, and overcome, and that is something worth talking about,” Buffon says.
After hearing how Jesus affects his gaming, I was interested in how gaming has affected Buffon’s faith and bible reading, too. “Movies and games have the potential to expose life like scripture does,” he told me. “Video games have the power to illuminate those things as well, which is a good thing.” It’s this willingness to let both passions exist in tension and harmony with each other that I find most appealing about GameChurch.
The “gaming good” is a narrative that Buffon is as enthusiastic and animated about - perhaps more so, actually - than his Jesus message. It’s something GameChurch is vocal about both inside and outside church culture. Visit GameChurch’s Facebook community and there is as much proselytising about the benefits and joys of games as there is about Jesus.
The combination of faith and gaming is one that initially sounds absurd. But GameChurch shows that these two communities have more in common than first appears. Strangely, the intensity of these two passions is where they most obviously collide. While Christians may struggle to understand a violent game like The Last of Us offering a meaningful or valuable experience, gamers might find the presence of seemingly God-ordained regime change and ethnic cleansing in the Bible equally absurd.
Buffon is able to see past the violence of games like Hotline Miami to something of value, perhaps applying skills and techniques learned in his Christian faith. The porous relationship that GameChurch propagates between faith and gaming ultimately seems a healthy one. While many will have reservations about the underlying motivation of a missional group to gamers, I found my suspicions were replaced by interest and engagement as I spoke to them.
Reading through the gamer bible (extract above) that they give out at conventions, though, there is more of a traditional altar-call than I had expected after talking to Buffon. At the end of the pamphlet it lays its cards on the table. “You have a choice. You can keep living your life without applying what you have read, or you can make the ultimate decision: To believe in Jesus. What will you choose?”
This is standard Evangelical fare, but having spent some time with GameChurch it seemed to me that its literature was simply lagging behind its practice. Maybe I just fell for the soft sell.
Andy Robertson is a freelance journalist specialising in video-games and the family. He runs FamilyGamerTV.