Nobody believed me when I said the Internet is inherently spiritual. They told me I was an idiot for dreaming up ways we could use devices to fuel our Christian development. I remember having lunch with a software engineer—a deeply spiritual man I respected and hoped to recruit—who told me, “This is a stupid idea. You can’t pray and play at the same time.” I remember an older pastor—a colleague with whom I worked and greatly admired—telling me, “We can’t use the Internet for spirituality. We have to keep people off the Internet. It’s the enemy!”
But I was right.
Those were only two of the head-shaking, eye-rolling, boy-McDonald-could-you-be-any-dumber? scoffs I received in the decade between the mid-nineties and early oughts. In fact, the first time anyone took my ideas seriously was when I completed my doctoral research on the subject and won some awards. Not long after, Apple launched the App Store and a glut of spiritually-themed programs tidal-waved across the Internet: Prayer Notebook, YouVersion, and Accordance, to name a few (to say nothing of just-for-fun oddities like Church Signs and Clean Jokes).
Everyone told me I was wrong on the basis that spirituality couldn’t—or possibly even shouldn’t—be fun, accessible, and include immediate payoffs.
The next thing I’m wrong about is gamefication. It’s a stupid word, I know, but it’s a verb that means “to turn something into a game.” Roughly. My love of video games got me thinking about virtual spirituality. My love of new tech got me thinking about websites and apps. Again, both of these “loves” are massive cultural trends everyone embraced except the Church. Gamefication is a strategy now being employed by nonprofits—the Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance—insurance companies—safe driving rewards and cash back incentives have actually been around for a long time—and the collision of companies like Starbucks and Foursquare.
Coupled with the sharp increase in actual physical board games (even popular video games like XCom, Bioshock, and Warcraft now have “hard” manifestations), I think we’ll continue to see our culture exploit physical games in increasingly creative and Facebook-share-worthy ways.
The backbone of gamefication is game theory, which has four main components: the players, their actions, the payoffs, and the necessary information. We’ll use the acronym PAPI for shorthand.
The players are the people who make decisions and are actually playing the game. But they’re not the only people involved. There are also characters who don’t decide anything. These passive characters are part of the environment (like a damsel in distress or a potential victim of the Zombie Apocalypse) and have to wait for the actual players to do something before they are affected in any way. There is a third category of characters called pseudo-players who have very limited decision-making ability. A pseudo-player might be something like Nature or another “triggered” character that only gets the chance to play once in a while and usually follows strict rules (i.e. roll the dice to determine if Nature has a lightning storm, an ice storm, or does nothing).
The actions are the different things the players can do when it’s their turn. There are usually only two or three actions available, but every player gets to do something.
The payoffs are the big mechanic in game theory. They’re the reason some games are super fun and others are terribly dull. Payoffs are, of course, the reward the players receive for choosing smart actions that benefit their characters. In Monopoly, you receive $200 every time you pass “GO.” You get buckets of cash if someone lands on Park Place and you’ve erected a hotel there.
Finally, the information in a game is the basic stuff you need to know in order to advance the storyline or win the overall contest.
Here’s why I think this matters: if we apply the PAPI acronym as a rubric to evaluate church, our services (and programs and missional endeavors) are the worst games ever. And, in a culture that’s currently gamefying everything, that’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem as time goes on.
Who are the players in church? You might think the members of the congregation, but you’d be wrong. At best, the congregation consists of pseudo-players who get to choose whether to sing, pay attention, or give money. But if we’re honest, we’d have to acknowledge that most people at church are passive characters. They wait for the pastor to say something that affects them. They watch while the people on stage worship, in hopes they can benefit from a little spill-over. In order for church to matter, we have to figure out how to get our people in the game. They have to be given opportunities to make choices, to take risks, and to have some control over what happens to their spirits and how.
This leads us to consider the actions our people are permitted in their spiritual pursuits. I’d guess most people still think about behavior modification when they think about Christian spirituality—they’re still trying to figure out how to sin less and pray more. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with either of those things. However, when we limit our spirituality to a series of DOs and DON’Ts, we’re on a track to boredom, frustration, and lifelessness. Our actions must increasingly include things like initiative—trying significant, passion-driven, risk-intense, forays into personal ministry—experimentation—going against the norm, changing our routines, and delving into unfamiliar-though-orthodox means of knowing God—and investment—giving sacrificially of ourselves, our expertise, our finances, and our attention to people and projects that may only interest us.
Initiative, experimentation, and investment come with inherent payoffs. However, most Christians seem comically limited in their ability to think about spiritual rewards. We tend to think of either “going to heaven when you die” or “getting a bigger mansion in heaven so when you die you can enjoy the view.” Again, these aren’t sinful ways to think about spiritual rewards, but they’re not helpful, either. Scripture promises a host of rewards in the here-and-now: happiness, love, meaning, a sense of contribution, intimacy with God, the fulfillment of cherished hopes and dreams, meaningful relationships, and provocative personal experience. By focusing on narrow actions—DOs and DON’Ts—we limit our available rewards to things that only happen later on, provided we don’t screw up in the meantime. When we expand what we’re allowed to do, we also expand what we receive. The only way we’ll get to experience even the possibility of fulfilling our cherished hopes and dreams is by taking initiative. Experimenting with new ways to pray or new ways to read Scripture is the only way we’ll stay fresh in our spirit, and it’s a great way to ensure our personal experiences with God are both more frequent and more intimate. The only way our relationships deepen is if we invest in others—otherwise, we all sit around waiting for someone else to make the investment, and the long-term result is a culture of entitlement, victimization, and malaise.
We, as churches, haven’t given our people the opportunity to make decisions that payoff in the here-and-now, and as a result Christianity in the Western world often deteriorates into doctrine, dogma, and behavior modification.
Which brings me to the final PAPI component, information. In a game, the information you’re given moves the story along and teaches you how to win. But in church, the information we most often receive is only given so we “do it right,” “say it right,” or “get it right.” We’re taught the creeds, the core doctrines, and the most pertinent scriptures that will ensure we become nicer. But the information we need—the information we really crave—is the stuff about how we draw closer to God, how we hear the Spirit more clearly, how we’re wired spiritually and how to best govern our habits and peculiarities and inoculate ourselves against our own personal temptations, how we show and express love, how we enter into and enjoy community, etc.
In short, we need information about us and our relationships with God, other people, and the world. Most Christian teaching expounds facts about God. But we need less facts and more “marriage counseling” so we can get along with our heavenly spouse.
That’s the game we’re playing, after all: finding meaningful ways to ensure our people are active in ministry, given the opportunity to interact with the world and to experience the benefits of knowing God in the here-and-now.