Many years ago, an ancient civilization suffered severe famine that lasted years.
During this famine, people struggled with their very survival. Eventually, as the historian Herodotus writes, the people of Maeonia developed games involving dice, knucklebones, and balls. They ate every other day, and on alternate days, they played games. Herodotus said it was only because of these games that people endured and survived. For millennia, games have helped people survive difficult times, gather a community, and inspire society.
Fast-forward to today, when we ask how we will survive these difficult times and how we’ll be a church when our physical churches might not meet our need for a sense of community. With the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are turning to games to get through these difficult times. They seek tools for resilience in the face of the unknown.
Occasionally, the world around us doesn’t feel fair, heroic, or just. Those who play games often seek inspiration in the stories of heroes, playing games with known rules and where fairness and justice take center stage. In this way, games inspire us to create a better world. This is one of the things we’ve discovered with CrossFire—an online gaming ministry I helped create. I didn’t start an online faith community in order to endure a pandemic or change the world, but the pandemic has made the necessity of such a project more evident than ever before.
“What does church look like when it doesn’t look like church?”
This question assumes we have an idea of what church is. Whether a building, an hour on Sunday, or an organization full of committees, most of us agree to a common definition of church.
But if we push things a bit, we might ask more questions. Can church be a fishing trip? Lunch in public? A dip in a pool? Games? These events occur in scripture, but they might not be what we think about when we imagine church. (John 21:1-6, Matthew 14:13-21, John 5:1-15, Matthew 18:3)
In 2017, I asked the question, “Could church exist as a group of gamers with a shared purpose, faith, and community?” The answer has become a resounding “YES!” Since 2017, Crossfire:faith+gaming has actively created a faith-based community of gamers who engage in life-changing fellowship and share practical tools for resilience in a challenging world.
In 2020, the world around us changed. Church buildings closed, worship moved online, and live broadcasts of communion invited congregants to eat juice and crackers at home. The long-standing debates about whether online church was “valid” ended. For most of us, online church was the only safe way to do church.
With this shift, Crossfire:faith+gaming was in a unique position to showcase the resilience of gamers and be a model for how to do ministry.
Our weekly fellowship on Discord (an online chat platform popular among gamers) felt similar to the way churches shifted to video-chat Bible studies and live-streaming worship. We no longer need to inhabit the same physical space or worship at the same time to consider ourselves a faith community.
So how do we “do church” when the community is defined more by shared interests or the online spaces we inhabit and less by our zip codes or town boundaries?
For decades people have talked about churches “meeting people where they are.” This method of getting out of the building and into community requires speaking the language of the people, being where the people are, and engaging deeper than a pre-church coffee and cookie.
So, where are the gamers?
It’s a trick question. Like asking, “Where are Christians?” They are everywhere. Pew research says that, 49% of adults play games, and 10% consider themselves gamers.
60% believe that most people who play video games are men – a view that is shared by 57% of women who themselves play video games. But the data illustrates that in some ways this assumption is wrong: A nearly identical share of men and women report ever playing video games (50% of men and 48% of women).
Why aren’t gamers more visible?
In exploring this question in our Crossfire:faith+gaming Podcast, my co-host Russell Dornisch and I have come to understand there is heavy stigma around gaming. Often, gamers struggle to engage in community since many communities don’t look like them.
The work unfolds before us – destigmatize gaming, create a community where gamers feel belonging, and seek deeper connection in faith. We knew we were on to something when several parents contacted expressing gratitude that their children found a place of welcome, acceptance, and belonging.
This past year, our podcast explored various topics including: parenting, violence in games, race, faith, gender, and more. We also started streaming on Twitch – a video game streaming service where streamers can raise money. In November, we raised over $600 for the Colorado Children’s Hospital in one day by participating in the Extra Life charity stream.
The community of gamers at Crossfire:faith+gaming is still new and we are still learning. We have only begun to take shape and learn the potential for our future, but we are resilient. We have learned to persist through difficult times: a cancer diagnosis, the loss loved ones, and now, a pandemic. We believe that as followers of Christ, we can learn to thrive in the most challenging times. And, as Herodotus noted, games help us make it through.