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The Impact of Gamification on Your Children’s Ministry

We’re all driven by 8 core game principles that’ll transform our ministries—and engage kids like never before.


I’m an unabashed gamer. I’m 40 years old, and I’ve been playing games for nearly all of those years. I played Pong, an Atari 2600, and on our family’s computer— where I had to load games from a cassette player. And, of course, I played on all of the consoles—from Nintendo to Xbox.

But you might be surprised to know you’re probably a gamer, too—a gamer at heart. Far-ranging industries have examined the immense popularity of games and started implementing game techniques into their business models. But they introduce the techniques in a way that people don’t think about the game aspects of what they’re doing. Consider these examples.

  • The Nike+ Running app lets you track how far and how fast you’ve run. It also lets you see how you’re doing compared with friends. This creates competition, and it makes you want to run more often to get faster and stronger. (And it puts the Nike brand in front of your eyes more often, creating possible future sales.)
  • Some electric cars come with a game that tracks how efficient your driving is and compares your energy consumed with drivers in your area. This can prompt you to drive more efficiently.
  • Your Starbucks Rewards card gives you a free drink after only 12 purchases. Somehow we convince ourselves that spending $48 in order to get a $4 drink is a great idea.
  • A street in Sweden has a photo speed tracker that sends tickets to people who speed. But people who obey the speed limit also get their pictures taken, and they’re all entered into a lottery to win a portion of the money from the people who got tickets. That stretch of road saw a nearly 25 percent drop in speeds.

What’s the Point of Gamification?

What’s the point of all of these efforts? Companies want to make their products fun because fun fuels engagement. The process goes by many different names, but one that’s often used is gamification. Gamification expert Yu-kai Chou defines it as “the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities.”

Chou, who is a Christian, has come up with a gamification framework he calls Octalysis: eight core drives within us that motivate us toward certain activities. As you can imagine, many of these bleed over into other drives. For example: Accomplishment, Scarcity, and Ownership are all linked, so even though we’ll talk about these individually, there’s crossover. So what might happen if we take these core drives and look at them through the lens of children’s ministry?

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling

In this first drive, a player believes she’s doing something important—and usually something that only she can do. This is a key component of many video games: You’re the Chosen One who can rid this land of the Bad Guy and free everyone. Players develop a sense of responsibility and want to become that person. One of the ways video games increase this drive is by using “onboarding.” It used to be you’d play a tutorial level to learn the basics of how to play the game. Now, most games don’t have a tutorial level—as soon as you begin playing the game, there are natural ways for you to learn controls as you go. It’s total immersion.

Ministry Takeaway

Your kids are on the most exciting mission ever with God! Look closely at your ministry’s onboarding technique. How do kids experience your ministry for the first time? Are there terms/habits/rituals they might be unfamiliar with—but that you assume they know? That can be a barrier. Kids really are part of an epic and important mission—God’s mission. So ensure they want to be a part of the mission and that they can be fully immersed quickly.

Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment

This drive involves PBLs: points, badges, and leaderboards. It’s the easiest one to implement because you simply give people points for doing things. Or badges for reaching a certain level. Or a leaderboard so they can compare how they’re doing against friends. This drive is also an easy one to mess up. If there’s no strategy behind the badges, or if the badges are disconnected from what kids are doing, kids will sniff it out and become bored.

Ministry Takeaway

How does your ministry unintentionally create competition? That can isolate and shame kids who:

  • aren’t there every week because they live with Mom one week and Dad the next;
  • have a learning disability that makes learning Bible points difficult;
  • are brought to church by grandparents because Mom and Dad are agnostic.

The world is set up to pit people against each other. Let’s not make the church another place of competition. As an alternative to competition, try plugging into Accomplishment by celebrating answers to prayer

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

This is what happens when you give a kid a box of LEGO bricks and an hour. He’ll make something, tear it apart, and make something else. And it’ll never get old; he’ll never run out of ideas. You probably know a child who’s really into Minecraft, which is basically digital LEGO bricks. The things people have created boggle the mind.

Ministry Takeaway

In what areas of your ministry can you insert kids’ creativity? Give kids options and choices as to what they’ll do and how they’ll do it. This can still be structured, but if we stop putting kids on rails, they’ll be free to express their faith in ways we can’t even imagine. And they’ll love coming to church. Here’s a quick idea: Craft a worship experience in which kids use LEGO bricks to worship God. Don’t tell them what to do; just give them the tools to do it. They’ll amaze you.

Core Drive 4: Ownership and Possession

This is the drive to own something—possessions and wealth, whether real or imagined. It’s the child with thousands of baseball or Pokemon cards or the wealthy businesswoman who’s driven to fill her bank accounts with more and more money. It’s the guy who owns hundreds of board games. (Wait, that’s me!) There’s a sense of comfort in acquiring ownership that’s hard to explain.

Ministry Takeaway

One of the hallmarks of Group’s vacation Bible school is its Buddies. No child wants to miss a day of VBS and ruin his set of Buddies. Whether the toys of old or the virtual reality “dog tags” of today, they’re a fun reminder of the day’s lesson. But they also create a desire in kids to own them all. What can kids in your ministry “collect”? How can you help them achieve a sense of ownership?

Core Drive 5: Social Influence and Relatedness

This drive is about social pressure. You see a friend who’s great at something, and it makes you want to be great at it, too. Or you have a friend who’s part of something big, and you want to be a part of it, too. It’s why kids and teenagers are so great at bringing friends to church: “Hey, we’re getting together at my church on Wednesday to play fun games and talk. Wanna come?” Why do we wear “I Voted” stickers on Election Day? It’s not for us. It’s for other people to see it and know that we did something awesome. Facebook has even created a digital version you can attach to your profile. The gamification result of people wearing those stickers is that it can drive people out to the polls, and that’s good for everyone.

Ministry Takeaway

Harness the power of the group by creating a group quest. Make it elaborate, epic, and have meaning and something important to be learned at the end. But make sure it’s something kids have to do as a group. Sure, one or two kids will be motivated by Core Drive 1 and see this as something they’re destined to lead. Great—but the rest of the kids will join in, too, and they’ll have a blast.

Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience

Every parent knows that nothing makes your kids want something more than not being able to get it. That’s just as true of adults, I suppose. And the crazy thing is that something doesn’t even have to be scarce for people to think it’s more valuable than it is. It’s all about perceived value. We often assume that if two similar products have two very different costs, then the higher-priced one must be better. After all, why else would they charge twice as much?

One of the most effective tactics games and apps use is to offer you something cool to help you start on the journey—perhaps a weapon or a vehicle. If you play the game for 20 hours, you’ll get that cool weapon. Or you can pay a small fee to get the weapon now. Most people will just play for 20 hours, but some people will pay real money to get that weapon now. And if enough people do that, the game company makes a lot of easy money.

Ministry Takeaway

Consider the perceived value of your ministry. If everything is second-rate, run-down, or viewed as the “lower quality” ministry, you have a problem. Instead, adopt the mindset that your children’s ministry is top-notch. No matter how plentiful or sparse your resources, do your best with what you have. Communicate the importance of your ministry. Use quality to help kids see and feel that they’re part of something important that’s made just for them.

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity

This powerful drive is what makes us want to read books and watch TV. When a TV show surprises and shocks you, it makes you want to watch it even more, because now you’re not sure what will happen next. But it’s more than just being surprised by media. Think about raffles, sweepstakes, and the lottery—or a slot machine. People pay money for a very small chance to win a whole wad of cash. The chances are small, but not zero…so people spend hours and hours and hundreds of dollars pushing that button. And sometimes it pays out, which only reinforces the unpredictability and curiosity.

Ministry Takeaway

Don’t be predictable! If you’re sitting in a weekly meeting where the agenda is always the same and things are running in the same way, you zone out, right? Don’t worry, we won’t tell your leader. Kids are the same way— probably more so because they grew up in a constantly changing, 1,000-things-to- distract-you world. Change formats or the order in which you do things. Change speakers or rooms. Keep kids guessing and wondering what’s going to happen next, and they’ll be more hooked than a Walking Dead fan.

Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance

This drive is the fear that if you don’t do something, you’ll miss out on it. “Limited edition!” “Exclusive offer!” “Out of print!” The idea that delaying action could mean you miss out on something forever is a powerful drive. But it’s also tied to what we feel we’ve invested in something. If you spend 10 minutes writing a letter, forget to save it and lose it, then you’ll be disappointed— but you’ll get over it. If you spend hours typing out your master’s thesis, forget to save it and lose it, you’ll have a much different reaction. After you go on a Godzilla-level rampage, I can guarantee you’ll turn into a habitual saver. Your loss-avoidance threshold has changed your behavior.

Ministry Takeaway

Chou shares a technique called the Rightful Heritage. This is “when a system first makes users believe something rightfully belongs to them and then makes them feel it will be taken away if they don’t commit the desired action.” We don’t want kids turning to Jesus out of fear, but we can definitely tell them that God has a birthright offered to them thanks to Jesus. And if they don’t act, they could miss it.

The Final Takeaways

This article isn’t about convincing you to “gamify” your Sunday school. In fact, there are compelling reasons to be careful about doing so—the biggest reason being that we don’t want to create in kids a rewards-based faith of, “If I do x, then God will do y.” This only reinforces the all-too-popular notion that God’s just a big, cosmic genie waiting to grant our wishes if we say the right magic words. But beyond that, now you’ve convinced kids to read their Bibles each week just so they get a doughnut. What happens when they hit middle school and the youth pastor doesn’t reward kids for reading their Bibles because he thinks it’s something they should want to do? They’ll stop reading their Bibles. Because when you replace intrinsic motivations with extrinsic rewards, the intrinsic motivation rarely comes back when you remove the rewards.

You might still be reeling from my assertion that you’re already a gamer. I get that. But we can’t deny that games are here to stay, and they’re shaping the way people interact with the world around them. So stop sending me Farmville requests, take a look at your ministry through the lens of these Core Drives, and get your game on.

Scott Firestone IV was an associate editor in Group’s children’ministry department and founder of Theology of Games. He lives with his wife and sons in the foothills of Colorado.

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2 thoughts on “The Impact of Gamification on Your Children’s Ministry

  1. Avatar
    Susie Scheyder

    The Gamification article by Scott Firestone IV was engaging and thought-provoking. Thank you!

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