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Ministry Secrets From a Gaming Guru

Discover the keys from a video-game worldbuilder to capture kids’ attention through gaming in ways that’ll impact their minds, hearts, and faith growth.


Games are everywhereFor kids, the world in games is often better than the world out here., even if they don’t seem like games. Games aren’t just the business of the lottery commission and the bingo house anymore. They’re woven into nearly every part of modern life. Marketers and educators use games to get us to buy more, learn more, and engage with brands like never before. Your airline entices you to play games to earn miles through credit card offers. We choose to shop at certain stores to get reward points. Your credit card rewards you with cash back for spending. We’ve turned as much as we can into a game. Why? Because, for young and old alike, games are incredibly motivating.

Ministry Secrets From a Gaming Guru

To learn lessons from games, we must unpack what makes them motivating—because as children’s ministers, we can discover a huge amount about kids’ motivation and implement some of these things into our ministries. After all, games are more and more becoming the language of future generations.

But you already play games, right? Those crazy youth group or Sunday school games like Duck, Duck, Goose and Pin the Tail on the Pharisee. But we tend to think of games as something we do before the stuff that really matters, right? I’m saying games can be the stuff that matters.

Before we go too far down this path of exploration, I want to make something clear. I really like games. If this were a debate, I’d be on the side of games. They’re useful, engaging, entertaining, and immensely educational—if used correctly. But I look at games very differently from most people because I make them for a living. I’m part of a team out of New Zealand that’s created a game to teach kids the power of the biblical experience. (Yes, you read that correctly—a game that teaches the Bible.)

We created a game rather than another kind of resource because of the way kids learn, the way they’re growing up, and the increasing use of games in education. I’m not going to tell you about something I simply researched or discovered from someone else’s experience. I’m about to share with you the things we’ve learned firsthand by creating a game for kids.

1. Kids expect to have active-participation experiences.

In the last 30 years, there’s been a fundamental shift in the way young people learn. A generation ago, propagated by TV, Sunday morning church, and the educational establishment, learners could be categorized as passive recipients. They were used to the “sage on the stage” and soaking up information in large chunks. Learners could sit and consume information for hours on end; and sermons, lectures, and TV programming were often lengthy.

Today’s young people have grown up in a very different world. Most have never known life without the world wide web. They don’t know what it is to wait weeks for a package to arrive or be delivered. They don’t remember life before we all became participatory. Their lives are completely connected by mobile phones and social media.

They just aren’t consumers in the same way their parents were. (Though I think we can all agree they’re still very much consumers.)

Young Activists

Young people are growing up as activists, wanting to contribute and believing they’re entitled to a voice and an opportunity to participate. Whether they actually are given a voice or not doesn’t really matter; they firmly believe they should be allowed to have one. These kids don’t learn by passively consuming data; they learn by doing. And more often than not, they learn by doing together. It’s the reason they watch TV with a smartphone in hand. They’re researching, connecting with friends, dialoguing and debriefing in real time what they’re consuming.

And without even realizing it, you may have started doing this as well.

It’s this active participation that’s caused a shift in your children’s ministry, and it’s certainly changing today’s learning environments. How do we engage a generation that’s grown up digital? Which ways do we reach a generation that requires learning in new models and education to have entertainment attached? How do we motivate and connect today’s kids?

The answer is through games.

41% of people who play online video games say they play as an escape from the real world.2. Gamer “immersion” is really preparation for our broken reality.

I was in a Starbucks in Portland when a prominent ministry leader asked me, “Aren’t games simply mindless escapism?” He was commenting on the fact that when kids are playing a game, he can’t seem to get their attention. They seem to be totally engaged in that experience—but at the expense of everything else. We call that immersion.

And I believe it’s a good thing.

The Importance of Immersion

Do you know that people are confronted with hundreds or even thousands of marketing messages daily? As adults, we don’t realize this because we’ve either tuned out the messages or become desensitized over time. Young people don’t do this nearly as well. This is why my 4-year-old son asks, “Daddy, can I have that for my birthday?” with every single advertisement he sees on TV. It’s exhausting—for both of us.

51% of U.S. households own a dedicated game console.

Games are immersive and therefore provide an escape and a safe harbor from the constant barrage of messages. Much like a good book, they take you somewhere else— somewhere safe and engaging where you can experience something new. Sure, it’s escapism, but it’s also preparation.

See, for kids, the world in games is often better than the world out here. As visionary alternate-reality game designer, Jane McGonigal often says, “Reality is broken.” Jane is also an author and speaks around the globe about the ability of games and gamers to change the world. In games, McGonigal says, players are immediately trusted with a world-saving mission, perfectly matched to their ability. They’re surrounded by willing collaborators. And they’re constantly receiving positive feedback through leveling up or earning achievements that highlight what they’ve learned or where they’ve improved. Gamers are experiencing a better world, and it’s part of 

91% of parents believe that parental controls in new video game consoles are useful.

the reason they escape.

“Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer’s sense of being fully alive, focused, andengaged in every moment?” asks McGonigal. “Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment and where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games.”

The Preparation of Gaming

I call the gaming experience “preparation.” That’s because, in the game space, kids are experiencing how a better life can be lived. They can learn the value of collaboration, how it feels to achieve goals, how they can overcome obstacles and more. Games are preparation because they also provide insight into failures that happen in a safe space. This is similar to reading books, but rather than passively reading, players find themselves as the case study.

75% of parents play video games with their child because "it's a good opportunity to socialize with the child."

“The real-time feedback loop of electronic gameplay allows a child to immediately identify and correct mistakes or know instantly that she’s on the right track and feel confident to forge ahead,” note Dr. Jeremy Richman and Jessica Berlinski, the authors of the article “On Newtown Anniversary, a Call to Use Video Games to Encourage Empathy” (gamesandlearning.org).

They conclude, “One of the key components of persevering is how our children think: children need to believe that ‘failure is OK’ and with enough effort, ‘they can do it’ in order to pick up and try again. Yet children rarely receive these messages. Games are one of the only environments that message to children that ‘failure is OK’ and ‘they can do it.’ ”

The Positives of Gaming

Here are just some of the positives that gaming provides, according to edtrainingcenter.com.

  • Games allow young people to explore together and on their own.
  • Gaming challenges players to compete with themselves and others.
  • Games offer a mastery learning model, where kids must learn the material before they can move on to the next challenge.
  • Games allow players to fail “softly” in a safe environment.
  • Gaming offers constant feedback loops.
  • Games match a struggle with the player’s ability and often offer exceptional collaborators to play with.
  • Games are fun.

Life Lessons in Gaming

In many ways, games offer us insight into what life could look like. Those of us who grew up playing games see collaborators as an advantage, while many without a gaming approach see them as a threat. We value and enjoy problem-solving, and we’re generally hopeful people. More often than not, we take it upon ourselves to embody the missing and broken parts of the world—the missing pieces and places that are a given in games. “To-do lists” are more fun as quests. Encouragement is something I actively work to give others because I know how much it affects my performance. It’s the sort of encouragement (leveling up and earning achievements) that happens within game mechanics. Because games are social, there’s an expectation of connectivity and teamwork. For gamers, this is natural in the real world. This connection is vital to digital kids.

I attribute these positive traits to time spent with games; and while games aren’t a silver bullet for a disconnected audience, they quite simply engage kids like few other things in this world.

3. All kids have play styles; your mission is to seek them.

Just as different styles of music appeal to different people, so do different styles of games. You
and I already know that no two children are the same. We must appeal to different kids in different ways. As we were developing a game for kids, we had to keep this in mind. We had to remember kids’ various play styles to make sure as many of them would be engaged as possible in the game we created.

The Difference in Play Styles

Kids’ play styles can vary widely. Consider these examples:

  • “Conquerors” who like to win
  • “Managers” who like to plan and strategize
  • “Hoarders” who want to collect (You should see my office!)
  • “Hotshots” who like to race and love the adrenaline

By understanding the different wiring of our young people, we can target part of our time together to their style and discover new ways to talk and connect with them. For instance, you may send kids on a quest to find the real reason Jonah ran from God. The following week, you may have kids decide whether to bury or increase their talents.

Identifying Play Styles

You don’t have to play a computer game with kids to find out their play style. You don’t have to ask them what their favorite game is. Simply observe them as they play and connect with the activities currently in your ministry, but do so through the lens of play styles. When you see what gets individual kids most engaged and then tie in experiences to match that, kids’ overall engagement in your ministry will increase. That’s because while you’ve probably always spoken kids’ language, now you’re communicating in the nuance of their native dialect.

4. To spread the Word, we must speak their language.

What has all of this got to do with kids’ faith growth? Deuteronomy 6 encourages us to write God’s law on our hearts, to immerse ourselves in the character and call of the Creator. There’s that word again: immersion. The writer of this chapter tells us to keep these things in front of us, going over them “again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).

We can safely add “when you are gaming” to that list.

Picking the Right Games

Find games that help kids explore the world in a way that reflects the principles of a life lived before God. Use the victories and failures they experience to examine who they are in Jesus. Let the communities, conflicts, and cooperation speak of the people of faith who continue to wrestle with God and one another. When you think about what Jesus called us to—the Great Commission— you see a grand adventure that requires all the skills, courage, ingenuity, and enthusiasm gamers thrive on. When Jesus talks about the opposition to the gospel faces and the struggles of a broken world, we can see the hurdles and puzzles of those imaginary worlds made real. And when we help kids realize they have the resources to conquer mountains and they have the strength to go the distance, then they will take on those challenges with passion.

This is what games are good at. This is what this generation is good at. If we can embark on the journey to meet them there, we can help them harness this amazing phenomenon and see them make the kind of difference we could only imagine in this world.


Tim Clearly is a worldbuilder for Scarlet City Studios (scarletcity.com). He and his team created The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance (theaetherlight.com), the online action-adventure re-imagining of the Bible.

For more great ideas like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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Ministry Secrets From a Gaming Guru

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