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Video games have a spiritual level

As shops and the internet gear up for the busy time of Christmas shopping, technology expert Andy Robertson tells Claire Brine why he believes gaming is good

Video games can help people connect to God

TOO violent. Too expensive. Too addictive. These are some of the concerns that Andy Robertson hears when parents of young children talk to him about video games. But as a video gaming journalist and technology expert who also has a theology degree, Andy wants to help parents see a bigger picture. He believes that when used in the right way, video games can provide a rewarding, enriching and sometimes even spiritual experience for all the family.

‘Video games welcome the player into a brand new world – and once inside that world, anything can happen,’ he says. ‘The more commercial games are often about power fantasy, so a player might become a heroic soldier taking part in a battle, but there are also other types of video games that tell stories about loss, illness, hope or faith. I believe that the potential benefits of video games are similar to the benefits that people can find through reading, going to the theatre or sitting quietly in a cathedral.’

A freelance journalist based in Exeter, Andy writes articles about the intersection of technology and family life for magazines such as Forbes and Wired and national newspapers including The Guardian. He has also debated the subject of video game addiction with Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and taken part in gaming discussions on Radio 4.

When he is not writing about gaming, he makes videos on the subject for his YouTube channel, FamilyGamerTV, which has more than 367,000 subscribers. Aimed at kids and their parents, his mini-story programmes provide information about the latest games and toys.

‘More recently, I’ve also started making videos for parents on a web platform called Patreon,’ Andy says.

'For £1 a month, parents can receive weekly videos in which I try to take away the fear and confusion around video games and technology. Once a month, I’ll play a game as part of my video upload and try to explain what’s happening, why that game has been rated as a 12 or 18, and I’ll describe the experience of playing.

‘Sometimes, if the game is particularly violent, I’ll be playing it through half-closed eyes. But the point of these videos isn’t to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t buy for their kids, I’m just trying to help them make informed choices.’

While parents may feel a little out of their depth in the world of video games, young children seem to be spending increasing amounts of time in front of a screen. Andy explains why he believes that video games hold such attraction for them.

‘Games are bright, colourful, engaging and all-encompassing. They can be competitive, which children like. Often the games reward them for completing a level. And every time they play, they can have a different experience.

‘Video games today can also be very social. When I listen to my kids playing games with their friends, they’re discussing the game, of course, but they also talk about school, their homework and what they’re doing at the weekend. And this is where it becomes tricky for parents who don’t like their child playing games – because if they tell them to stop playing, they are not just banning a game, but they are also banning their child from a social group.’

While Andy can see the benefits of video games, he understands that not all parents feel the same. Some fear that exposure to violent games may encourage their child to behave violently. Others feel anxious that their child may become addicted to gaming. Often, concerned parents are advised simply to ‘cut down on the child’s screen time’ to keep gaming habits under control, but Andy believes that there are other options.

‘It’s about engagement,’ he says. ‘Parents need to find a way to make gaming a positive experience for themselves, so that they want to get involved with it. If they don’t like what the child is playing, then perhaps they could do a bit of shopping, find some games that they do like and then try to guide the child towards playing them together. It’s a bit like guiding your child’s diet. You don’t ban all foods because your child likes eating a lot of sweets. You try to introduce them to more healthy food instead.

‘There are some great interactive racing games that the whole family can enjoy together. And often when a parent says that they want to play, the child is really keen for them to do so. It can be fascinating for a child to watch their parent playing a game and discover that they are surprisingly good at it.

‘There are also some video games which address topics that may be important to the whole family and therefore open up conversation. One example is Bury me, my Love.’

Earlier this year, Andy talked about the game at the Christian arts festival Greenbelt, where he was leading a drop-in gaming session about how to find spiritual meaning through digital experiences.

‘The game is about a Syrian refugee,’ he explains. ‘It’s a companion game that you download on your smartphone. You play Majd, the husband of Nour. Her family have been killed, and as a couple you agree that the best course of action for her is to travel to Europe while you remain behind in Syria.

‘As she travels, you send each other text messages – in real time. That’s how the story of the game is told. So you might receive a text one day from Nour saying: “I’ve got to the bus station, but there are no buses and it’s dark.” Then you choose how to respond. You might text back: “I think it’ll be OK because some buses will come soon.” Or you might ask her how she is feeling.

‘The way you interact with Nour affects the journey she takes. So, although every game starts from the same location, there are about 1,000 routes she can take, and about 20 different endings. Sometimes you play the game and don’t hear from her for a couple of days, because she’s travelling by boat and her phone has run out of charge. Suddenly, you get a text saying: “I’m OK, my battery died at sea but now I’m safe.” But not all the possible outcomes end happily.

‘Playing this game made me feel completely differently about the refugee crisis. I always thought I was a well-informed guy who was engaged with social justice, but now I feel much more connected to the issue. Not only have I learnt more information about the plight of refugees, but I also went on an emotional journey. No other medium could have provided me with that encounter or level of engagement.’

For years, since he took a theology degree, Andy has been talking at Greenbelt about the spiritual dimension of video games and how they can enhance people’s experience of faith and the world around them.

‘Just as beautiful buildings and landscapes can create a context in which people connect to God, so can gaming,’ he says. ‘Some video games are made by Christians and include parables and prayers as part of their fabric, but there are other games that are not “Christian” and yet fit really well with the message of Jesus.

‘Several years ago, I used a game called Flower during a Communion service at Exeter Cathedral. We set up a big screen behind the Communion table, and the congregation took it in turns to play the game while the service was going on. In the game, there is a moment where the players control a flower petal, and they’re blowing it around a beautiful landscape. When the priest was breaking the bread and preparing the wine for Communion, a splash of red exploded on the screen as some new flowers were beginning to bloom. It wasn’t planned, but it was a beautiful moment. It affected people in a way they weren’t expecting.’

When journalists heard about Andy’s video game church service, they asked him if he was ‘trying to make the cathedral cool’ to attract more young people. But Andy felt more excited that older people were becoming interested in the spiritual benefits of gaming.

‘A big role of the Church is to help people make sense of the world, and it can use video games – just as it uses music and art – to do that,’ he explains. ‘Some people argue that games can’t be meaningful in a faith context because often they are so violent. But I would say that the Christian faith has a violent story at the heart of it, and yet we are very good at not letting that violence eclipse the value of the entire text.’

Over recent years, more churches across the UK have been getting on board with Andy’s idea that gaming can enhance a person’s spiritual experience. He has provided training sessions for ministers in how they might incorporate video games into their Sunday worship.

‘I explain that just as people might encounter God while gazing at a painting, so they can encounter God while playing a video game,’ he says. ‘Games can refuel people and bring something to life for them.

‘Playing Bury me, my Love connected me to the heart of God in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I just been watching the news or reading an article about refugees. It was a video game that enabled me to feel God’s compassion.’

Whether or not his arguments are enough to convince parents of the spiritual virtues of gaming, Andy remains convinced that playing video games can be enriching for the whole family. As Christmas approaches, and many adults worry about the hours their children will clock up playing games, Andy encourages them to see the opportunities for connection and conversation. He recommends a game called Tricky Towers for parents and grandparents who want to take their first tentative step into gaming.

‘The big Christmas games this year are likely to be Fortnite and the new Call of Duty, but I think games you can all play together are good,’ he says. ‘They don’t even have to be new releases. Over the years, my family has enjoyed playing Tricky Towers. It’s a bit like Tetris, except there are no sides to the well, so when players are stacking the bricks up, they need to balance or they’ll topple over.

‘It’s a fun game for older children to play because there’s a lot of skill in it, but younger children can also enjoy stacking things up and watching them fall down. It’s a game that works really well in a family setting.’

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