Spirituality (finding God in the virtual)
Does God inhabit the virtual? How might he be encountered and known as we enjoy video games?
This might sound strange yet it seems ok to talk about how God spoke to us in a piece of artwork, or a movie or a song, why not a video game?
#1 Video Games are epic works of art
I remember my first experience of playing the game Halo. Vividly I can still recall the scenery as I journeyed around this new world – strange trees and skies and treasures hidden around each corner all accompanied by an epic soundtrack. Playing Halo for me was more than wasting time or entertainment but an experience that stirred my emotions and provoked me to find meaning in the journey.
Alastair Jones & Andy Robertson have written a really helpful booklet on this topic, they write “similar to a painting they are useless objects in the good sense of that word – having no other true purpose but to be encountered as beautiful, unsettling, troubling, joyful, sad or maybe even worshipful”. “They have the potential to create spaces where we can encounter meaning”.
#2 Noticing God at work
The task of a youth minister is to inhabit young people’s spaces and lives and to be attentive to the action of God. Mark Yaconelli (2006) suggests a helpful model for equipping young people to become more aware of the work and action of God within their life – Noticing, Naming and Nurturing.
Noticing, Yaconelli suggests,’refers to the way in which we help people (through careful attentiveness) become more aware of their experience of God.’
This requires the youth worker to position themselves alongside the young person, perhaps by programming reflective and meaningful activities and to ask questions, to invite them to pray and to encourage attentiveness to the Spirit’s work.
Inhabiting the online life of a young person should be done cautiously, this is dangerous ground for keeping our work public and appropriate (Langford) and adhering to safeguarding and best practice principles. Certainly this is an area for further reflection and innovation (The YFC “Rethinking culture” research found that 94% of young people are on social media daily and 73% game), if this is where young people are – then this is where youth workers need to be!
Gaming however can easily be done within a public youth club setting and even be done reflectively (see below).
Naming, according to Yaconelli, is all about finding a language and theology for their experience of God. As we reflect on the reality of God (whether made known through prayer, scripture, creation or video games) how do we come to understand him. What stories, testimonies, scriptures and symbols help them to articulate their experience of God?
Nurturing, Yaconelli writes “concerns the ways we help people develop practices and disciplines that deepen their relationship to God”. An aim in youth work is to aid young peoples journey to interdependence. It would be unhealthy for them to rely on us for their spiritual encounters with God. Nurturing is about encouraging young people to continue pursuing and enjoying encounters with God, even when we are not around!
Jones & Robertson encourage us to increase young peoples capacity to mine deeper meaning from the interactions they have on screens. To come alongside young people through playing games and helping them to notice where God might be at work. To discuss and eventually name something about who God is and to nurture this by encouraging them to continue seeking God in the virtual (but not just the virtual!) Allowing them to mine deeper meaning within their on-screen experiences.
In their booklet Jones & Robertson give examples of when games have been played within a worship context. The game “Passage” is one example of this. Within Passage the player moves towards the right of the screen beginning young and ending up in the grave. Within the context of worship the game enabled participants to mine for meaning from their faith and to spend time in prayerful reflection and contemplation.
Through Yaconelli’s model of Noticing, Naming and Nurturing there is real potential for youth workers to help young people encounter God within video games. Such an activity inhabits the life of young people and breaks down the sacred/secular divide by pointing to God’s sovereignty in all things (God is not just found in church but whilst you are playing games). Such an endeavour could also lead to young people mining for deeper meaning within all of their onscreen activities.