The Reverend Clint Schnekloth
ELCA Youth Extravaganza
New Orleans, February 2012
Through good game design we can leverage deeper and deeper learning as a form of pleasure in people’s lives without any hint of school or schooling.
"In my view video games are a new art form. We have no idea yet how people 'read' video games, what meanings they make from them. Still less do we know how they will 'read' them in the future. Video games are at the very beginning of their potential--'we ain't see nothin' yet.'" James Paul Gee
At the beginning of our time together, I invite you to enter an imaginative space with me. Consider this possibility, that participation in the Extravaganza, and in this workshop, in fact even participation in the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, is a form of gaming. Consider.
First, the network itself is an example of “crowdsourcing.” Crowdsourcing is inviting a large group of people to cooperatively tackle a big project… outsourcing a job to a crowd. The network has as its goal to empower and strengthen adult youth ministry leaders in service to Christ. It does this through networking youth ministry leaders serving and supporting each other. As one example, I’m here of my own free will, non-stipendiary, to conduct this workshop. All the other workshop leaders have also been crowdsourced. As have a majority of the youth leaders who plan the Extravaganza and serve in various volunteer capacities with the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.
Second, and this is more a psychological theory, when you came to this Extravaganza, you came as an avatar. You are in all likelihood not exactly the same person you are in other contexts—with your youth, in your church, in your family. Here at the Extravaganza, you are the avatar you have selected to represent yourself in this socially constructed environment, in New Orleans, at a conference with other youth leaders. Some of our avatars are quite a bit like the avatars we put on in other places. Some others of us “present” quite a bit differently here than elsewhere.
Third, our whole system of workshops is itself a complicated form of gaming. You had a map, and a schedule, and you are finding your way around this hotel seeking out workshop experiences that will gain you experience points you hope will level you up to new levels of ministry when you return home. Attend the right workshop, and you’ll go from being a level 12 youth leader to level 14. Level 14 comes with a brand new cross bow and extra healing spells.
Within this particular workshop, we are gaming according to certain rules. Some workshops have an open, Minecraft-like feel (build whatever you want, wherever). This particular workshop is more directed. You have some imaginative freedom, but I’ve selected a lecture format to walk us through some new territory that, Myst-like, might be difficult to navigate if certain puzzles or wayposts are not navigated correctly.
The Extravaganza is a good game world. It attracts a large number of participants because of the play area (New Orleans), the various collaborative and networking possibilities, and its existence as a kind of “built environment” with lectures, worship, meals, and workshops. The E also has good game mechanics, with variety and flow and open space to roam and explore and chill. Aspects of the E allow for great control over the environment, such as the early Intensives on offer. The mechanics could be improved if there were some kind of real pay-off for attendance, like earning academic credit hours… but perhaps that is available and its simply a part of the game mechanics I haven’t discovered yet. Finally, the E has (and this is its greatest selling point) great game community. There’s plenty of space for positive social interaction and a meaningful context for collective effort.
Before we continue, let’s pause for a minute and consider any other ways in which participation in the E is like a gaming world.
Early drafts of this lecture began with arguments for why youth workers and church leaders should game. I thought winsome and compelling narratives of the difference gaming makes might draw you into the gaming world. I assumed, “Youth workers are missionaries. They’re up for being sent into new cultural contexts and venues.” In addition, my early lecture plans included the goal of disabusing hearers of their patronizing and ill-informed judgments against virtual worlds and the gaming culture. Think of this as a dual strategy of invitation and attack.
Then I started inviting people to participate with me in daily prayer on Second Life. To date, the only person I’ve successfully convinced to create an avatar and meet me at St. Matthew’s-by-the-Sea for Compline is my brother, who I think, though in some ways curious, participated under a bit of filial duress. Over time, I’ve learned that very, very few pastors and church leaders inhabit digital virtual worlds, and in fact most pastors and church leaders have some rather obdurate and steadfast reasons for not inhabiting those worlds (not enough time, boundary issues, not tech savvy, not a high priority, just don’t get it, that’s silly, it’s not real community, and so on). Douglas Estes in his fascinating little book Simchurch observes something similar to what I have experienced in having conversations on this topic around our church: “If we want to reach people in the virtual world, we have to reach avatars, even though the whole avatar thing gives a lot of church people the willies.” Nevermind that the “Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the seventy million people who are active in the virtual world [many of whom are teens]. This means the virtual world is by far the largest unreached people group on planet Earth.”
All of this forced me to reconsider my opening gambit. Since I am convinced, radically convinced, that ministry in digital virtual contexts is an essential next step in pastoral and youth ministry, I had to find some way both to attract participants to a workshop on the topic, and keep you here and interested for an hour. Even more radically, I’d like to build a cohort of ELCA youth leaders who would entertain the possibility of doing cooperative ministry in some of these virtual frontiers.
Hence the World of Workshop imaginative meditation I made use of at the beginning… If the likelihood of convincing you to travel to virtual digital worlds is slim, the next best inception I could accomplish is to come game in your real world and make you doubt, at least a bit, whether your reality is as real as you think—even better, to convince you that you are gaming all the time, whether you recognize it or not. You inhabit an avatar, you inhabit various avatars, you put on different skins for different virtual worlds, and then you play in that world and with that character. I’m not taking you to the game. I’m bringing the game to you.
If I can convince you of at least this much, then I have brought virtual community out of its cave and into the every day, and perhaps that will mean by the end of this lecture you might entertain the (admittedly still foreign notion) that digital virtual worlds are not nearly as far away and strange as they seem, and they are much more every day than we might think. I will also have equipped us with greater proficiency at appropriating some of the core strengths of the virtual world that can “play” in real life ministry contexts.
Here’s how we will proceed. I am going to walk us through two popular and accessible games, and after describing the game briefly, I will draw out one or two key insights into the new culture of learning indicated by these games. Both games are digital, virtual worlds. There are so many games out there that I had to limit this survey, so I followed the rule that I was aiming for massively multiplayer environments that are played by a wide variety of players, games I am personally familiar with, and games people I know personally play. I will walk through games in approximately the order of age group that plays them. World of Warcraft is more a high school and college age phenomenon (although not exclusively so). Second Life is especially a world of young adults transitioning into middle age.
As a busy youth leader, you would be right to be asking at this point, before we jump in, what the pay off is for you. Why does this matter? Two short quotes that convinced me of the profound significance of exploring this topic. First, danah boyd, an ethnographer in the area of teen networked publics had this to say in her recent book: today’s teens are “the first generation to have to publicly articulate itself, to have to write itself into being as a precondition of social participation.” In other words, in addition to what you see teens doing daily in school and church—writing themselves into being through their clothes, music choices, friendship patterns, and so on—they are also doing so in the digital world, and in fact in their digital networking patterns, that is the only way to be there, by writing yourself into being.
The other insight came from Pete Ward, in his book Liquid Church. “Liquid church expresses the way that ecclesial being is extended and made fluid through mediation. The liquid Church moves beyond the traditional boundaries of congregation and denomination through the use of communication and information technologies.” How the church is mediated as new technologies arise is itself a missiological topic. “A central missiological issue for the Western Church relates to how it chooses to react to the mediation of the spiritual in popular culture.” Although my profession is as a Lead Pastor of an ELCA congregation, my tribal identities are deeply tied to youth ministry and mission work. Boyd and others have convinced me that the digital world is increasingly where teens will be, and Ward has convinced me that new mediated forms of pop culture present us with a new missiological challenge.
Finally, a few statistics (because really, you’re going to trust me more if I offer some summary of statistical research, right?). All of this is from a 2008 Pew Internet and American Life study on Teens, Video Games, and Civics:
1. Almost all teens play games. Fully 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.
2. Youth play many different kinds of video games. 80% of teens play five or more different game genres, and 40% play eight or more types of games. Anecdotally, although at the time of the Pew study Madden was the top played game, with Halo a close second, many youth workers I know now report the top games youth play are Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.
3. Gaming is often a social experience for teens. For most teens, gaming is a social activity and a major component of their overall social experience.
4. Playing games with others in person was related to increased civic and political engagement, but playing with others online was not.
World of Warcraft
Perhaps 10% of the high schoolers of my congregation I know primarily through Facebook. Complex family situations preclude them from attending church with any regularity. I receive regular messages, questions, and comments from them, and I would say, without a doubt, that in some cases we know each other well. The ambient intimacy of Facebook as a networked public augments our face-to-face relationships, and in at least a few cases, is the primary relationship itself.
In a couple of particular cases, I have come to know these youth primarily because of their interest in gaming. Some are struggling with various emotional issues. Face-to-face with people, they often feel uncomfortable, even unsafe. Chat on Facebook, or chat on World of Warcraft, is easier. They are literally more open and themselves. For better or worse, increasingly this is true for some youth. Sherry Turkle, in her important nearly fifteen year exploration of our lives in the digital terrain, recently published as Alone Together, writes that many people prefer texting or chat because in a phone call “’there is a lot less boundness to a person.’ In a call we can learn too much or say too much, and things could get ‘out of control.’ A call has insufficient boundaries… when texting, [we] feel a reassuring distance. If things start to go in a direction [we don’t] like, we can easily redirect the conversation—or cut it off.”
So an admission: although I don’t like texting that much because it is a less native medium for me than e-mail or chat, I totally get this impulse. I like control and I bet you do too, even if we feel some guilt admitting that fact. And in fact past forms of media allowed for similar control over the pattern of communication, letter writing being until recently the pre-eminent example.
Back to these high school youth—our shared interest, and a good part of why we are in relationship in the first place, has to do with WoW. They play regularly, and noticed that I had been exploring World of Warcraft and posting about my discoveries on Facebook. One evening, very very late at night (yes, I was on Facebook and playing WoW after midnight) we began messaging back and forth about why they play, lots of conversation about game mechanics, and preferences for either solo or social gaming. Interestingly, they observed that their communal game play had reduced at the same time as some of their RL communality had also decreased. Messaging with the pastor was one step back into greater levels of game sociality and real life sociality.
Generally speaking, as we noted in statistics on game play from the Pew study, teens play games with others. This is not necessarily, or even primarily, by playing with others on-line, but can include playing with others in the same room. With increased band-width and improved game functionality, more and more gamers are playing games on-line with others (very popular games in addition to WoW that function in this way include Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Halo, and Star Wars: The Old Republic). Regardless of whether they play remotely on-line or together in the same room sharing equipment and consoles, gaming is social.
James Paul Gee, professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State University and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, points out the way in which many adults might miss this point via a short story:
Let me tell you a little story about the social nature of gaming. I don’t, in general, encourage baby boomers to rush off and play video games, since the games are often quite hard and can be frustrating for people not willing to confront their own, perhaps rigidified, learning muscles in a new setting. Nonetheless, some older people do run off to play for the first time when they hear me talk (and, indeed, there are a growing number of older gamers these days). One older adult who tried a video game after hearing one of my talks did, indeed, become seriously frustrated. Then his 21-year-old gamer stepson came into the room and asked him, “What are you doing?” The man said, “Trying to learn to play this damn video game.” The son said “For heaven’s sake, why would you do that alone?” Ah, so, here is one good learning principle built into gamers, not just games.
This, I would add, would be a good learning principle to build into church-goers and youth ministers as well. Why do we try to learn the hard stuff alone? [pause here to ponder this before continuing]
So I started exploring some of the ways in which games like WoW are themselves intrinsically formative. In the case of WoW, a signature of the game is that players can join together into guilds. In fact, to really succeed in the gaming world and accomplish some of the most complicated quests, and to earn more XP as a result, the game prefers you work in guilds, sometimes even requires it. Many guilds organize raids with a raiding party of 25 players (from around the world) who go on a 6-8 hour quest to accomplish their goal. In order to succeed at the quest, players also need to extensive research on the WoW Wikia, or use analytic tools to confirm which spells and other items will be most helpful at succeeding. Ultimately, there is also a kind of intrinsic discovery, the group learns together (and sometimes surprises itself) with its success. This raiding culture is deeply and profoundly communal in ways rare even in real world environments.
A friend who is professor of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen in England, and an avid gamer, took some time to describe to me what he has learned participating in a long-standing guild in WoW. He writes:
Relative to your specific thesis, I wonder whether there isn't a comparison to be made between the catechumenate and the process of enculturating new members into a MMORPG guild. I mention this because of my experience as a guild admin and class lead (priest, of course) in the very long-standing Warcraft guild We Know whose guild master is Joi Ito, recently named head of the MIT Media Lab. Joi has lots of published presentations and interviews on how leading and organising a guild taught him about corporate management, and he would probably talk with you if you asked nicely. But I was at work on the backend, so to speak, trying to help cultivate customs for positive social interaction. Our guild didn't allow racist, sexist, offensive language in /guild chat, and regulated group behaviour in a way as grown-up as we could possibly achieve. You may be a gamer yourself, or may know about games — that they tend to bring out the early-adolescent male child in players — and we early on had a lot of trouble with overexcited members saying they were going to fuckin' rape some Horde, or someone else shouldn't be such a girl, or that such-and-such an item was gay, or that their group leader was a retard. We had to pull people aside, gently and persistently, to say that we just don't talk that way in We Know; that we have members who are gay, who are women, who have children with Down syndrome, who have survived rape. Some people quit the guild, some people groused a lot about "free speech", but by the time I retired two years ago, we hadn't had to rebuke anyone in longer than I can remember. If you joined We Know, you signed up for our way. The longevity, popularity, and success of the guild suggest that something is going right.
Notice that AKMA focuses on the development of communal norms in a community that is on “a way.” There is both sensitivity to the real life situations of those who play the game, but also a sense of what can maintain continuity and commitment in the game itself. This is such a different Christian reaction to the gaming context than is typical in places where leaders are focused around boundaries for game play itself rather than seeing boundaries in game as being in the service of gaming virtual community.
James Paul Gee a concise list of what we can learn from gaming and implement in our own teaching and leadership of youth ministry:
1) Good video games offer players strong identities. You aren’t simply a number or statistic in a confirmation classroom—instead, you are lead hunter, or the priest
2) They make players think like scientists. Trial and error are a big part of gaming. Again, this is a non-scientific observation, but I wonder if we allow the same kind of trial and error in our faith formation practices in youth ministry.
3) They let players be producers, not just consumers. In a game like Minecraft, for example, the environment is built by the players. In a game like WoW, there is an entire community around the game producing Wikia content and other resources (see also, for example, the whole phenomenon of “Halo Nation”; http://www.wowwiki.com/Portal:Main).
4) They lower the consequences of failure. If your avatar dies, you can resurrect it, and continue the game from that point. Do we let youth fail, and build a gaming culture in our churches where the consequences of failure are lowered?
5) They allow players to customize the game to fit their learning and playing styles. I don’t even think most youth in our churches think they are allowed to customize the church game, even though the regularly customize other domains in which they are participants, and often at an incredibly high level of proficiency.
6) Because of all the preceding, they feel a real sense of agency, ownership, and control. It’s their game.
This last insight bears special attention. When I talk with gamers, they clearly feel mastery within their domain. They don’t need special advice from experts, or permission to navigate the world. They are self-engaged, self-directed, and often incredibly skilled. I am learning from them, not the other way around.
This happens because there are systems built into the game itself that build this kind of mastery and confidence. Youth ministries and churches would do well to learn from this. “Good games offer players a set of challenging problems and then let them practice these until they have routinized their mastery. Then the game throws a new class of problem at the player (sometimes this is called a ‘boss’), requiring them to rethink their taken-for-granted mastery. In turn, this new mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again. This cycle of consolidation and challenge is the basis of the development of expertise in any domain.”
The power of these learning strategies in game is that they make use of a different kind of rhetoric from church rhetoric, an intrinsic process for learning rather than the typical extrinsic learning strategies so popular in word or information based systems. They engage in what is sometimes called procedural rhetoric. “Procedural rhetoric encompasses any medium that accomplishes its inscription via processes.” You learn the game by playing the game. You learn what the game has to teach by participating in the gaming world rather than reading something about it. You can’t really even comprehend what Wow, or Second Life is, until you actually inhabit that gaming world for a while, because it accomplishes its inscription via processes. “We must recognize the persuasive power and expressive power of procedurality. Processes influence us. They seed changes in our attitudes, which in turn, and over time, change our culture. As players of videogrames and other computational artifacts, we should recognize procedural rhetoric as a new way to interrogate our world, to comment on it, to disrupt and challenge it. As creators and players of videogames, we must be conscious of the procedural claims we make, why we make them, and what kind of social fabric we hope to cultivate through the processes we unleash on the world.”
I inhabit Second Life primarily as a monastic. My avatar, Miroslav Tweedy (Miroslav is one of my favorite Slavic names, and Tweedy is the last name of Jeff, lead singer for Wilco) wears an attractive Roman style cassock that is a case of completely over dressing for mid-week worship. For the early days after my rez date on SL I wandered the world a bit in order to explore (and in those days dressed like Neo from The Matrix—are you seeing a trend?), but more recently have really focused my time there simply praying Compline in Christian community, especially with the St. Matthew’s-by-the-Sea (http://stmattsinsl.wordpress.com/) community, an Episcopal chapel of peace for all people built in memory of Matthew Shepard and all LGBT victims of violence. I have also participated somewhat regularly in a bible study hosted by an ELCA pastor (John Stiles) on Thursday evenings, and visited worship at the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life and a few other worshipping communities.
“Second Life players are engaged in nothing less than the collaborative produsage of the virtual world itself; ‘virtually every object, terrain, and animation is the creative work of its membership.” In some ways, this makes SL less a game, and more a multi-user environment. Like the real world, this means SL varies widely from locale to locale, because every place is built out of the creativity and input of users. Here’s a list of just a few of the possible destinations in Second Life: churches, dance clubs, historical reconstructions of particular eras then available for role playing and game play (Westerns, Steampunk, etc.), built environments that replicate RL (the Sistine Chapel, downtown Moscow), futuristic universes (Star Wars), reproductions of fictional worlds, universities and businesses that offer classes, advertising, etc. in world, shops where avatars can purchase clothing, furniture, carpets, and much more.
Second Life is the preeminent virtual world for exploring the concept of produsage, because at the same time that folks in world are consumers of the Second Life products, and purchase linden dollars to make use of their, they are intimately also the producers of the environment on every possible level. Second Life as a virtual world is what it is because of produsage.
Core principles of produsage:
1) Open to user participation: In many ways it is dramatically open in ways most real life context have trouble imagining.
2) Communal evaluation: I have sat after worship some evenings while the worship leader asks us how we should rebuild the chapel. The community gets to evaluate the built space and give input into what everything should look like.
3) Fluid heterarchies: People come and go from the environment, sometimes they are deeply involved, later they take a lesser leadership role, and there is a fluidity to who is in charge and who is participating that is dramatic. Recently, I have seen an increase in this same pattern in real life congregations.
4) Permanently unfinished: Prodused environments are never “done.” That is one of their great strengths. Ponder how this would work in a church setting.
These core principles of produsage are absolutely the kind of patterns we would do well to creatively appropriate for ministry contexts, or even figure out how to participate in as ministry itself.
I will admit that my own participation in Second Life is probably enabled by my long-standing participation in what I might call sci-fi geek culture. However, there is more to the whole geek thing than first meets the eye, and it is this point with which I’d like to conclude. I’m sure you know geeks. Perhaps you are a geek yourself. Increasingly, educational theorists have been recognizing the extent to which the path to geekdom is itself a profound learning culture.
Here is how it works. Most people who end up geeks start out just hanging around in the world in which they eventually geek out. They rez in Second Life and go where people are clubbing or dancing, just to meet and try out things. Youth in school, even adults here at the E, do this as well. The central question is: What is my relationship to others?
Eventually, some of those who are hanging out start to mess around. In addition to attending to relationships in the environment, messing around includes beginning to pay attention to the environment itself. For me in SL, this happened when I bought my first clothes for my avatar rather than going around in the free clothes provided when you first rez in world. I started to research, at least a little bit, how to buy land and build things. This openness to the environment asks the question, “What am I able to explore?” Finally, when you explore, and go more and more deeply embodied into the world, eventually one day you wake up and realize you are geeking out. “Geeking out involves learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of experience.” The geek question is, “How can I utilize the available resources, both social and technological, for deep exploration?”
I might conclude by simply inviting us to ask what is perhaps the intriguing, challenging, and essential question: How can we invite our young people on a journey that results in them becoming church geeks?” Since geeking out is so engaging, so playful, and so joyous, it is for this reason above all others that we need to learn from the virtual worlds culture, collectives, and varieties of play.
Play is a disposition, not just engaging with a game. It is an essential strategy for embracing change, rather than a way for growing out of it. Even while developmental psychologists are routinely coming to the conclusion that play-based learning has inarguable benefits compared to other approaches to learning, our culture struggles to actually embrace play.
This is unfortunate, because as we might intuit if we sit with the concept of play for a while, openness to play as a way of embracing the world is not dissimilar to ritual and senses of the sacred. By delegitimizing play, or by classifying it as something done only under certain occasions (to relax, to begin a learning session, to do when we are little but not grown up) we fail to embrace it as a disposition. Consequently, we miss out on it as an important resource for faith. “Play provides the opportunity to leap, experiment, fail, and continue to play with different outcomes—in other words to riddle one’s way through a mystery.” Similarly, by discouraging play in social contexts, we are at risk of killing rather than harnessing the power of collectives. “Any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.”
Inasmuch as we have not encouraged children to play with faith itself, to toy with the divine mysteries, and to do so collectively, with each other and their family and friends, we have ill-equipped them to dwell in mystery and paradox. No wonder so many wander away from the faith when they begin to encounter challenges and aporia. We have offered them no playful equipment to gain an epiphany by way of playing with the aporia. We can learn so much from the new culture of gaming. Are we courageous enough to do so?
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Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids, MI:
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Games Mentioned in this Lecture
Minecraft. http://www.minecraft.net A quirky low-res environment that seems almost like an exact mashup of Second Life and Legos. The building process is like Legos, the gaming is like the openness of Second Life. Like a big digital sandbox (with a bit of World of Warcraft tossed in)
Second Life. http://secondlife.com (accessed January 16, 2012). A completely open virtual world created by its users. Not exactly a game, it is an actual virtual world. Always free to play, but you need to purchase Linden dollars if you want to own real estate, etc.
World of Warcraft. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/ (accessed January 31, 2012). Still the largest MMORPG on the web, a vast gaming universe with over 12,000,000 active subscribers (who pay a monthly fee of about $15 to play the game on-line). Free to play to level 20, with some limitations.
Pew Study on Teens, Video Games, and Civics: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Teens-Video-Games-and-Civics.aspx
 James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
 For an approach to Wikipedia as a gaming environment, which is the inspiration for this introduction, see Jennifer McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2011), 230.
 Douglas Estes, 79.
 Douglas Estes, 29.
 I’m in the process of researching Minecraft, a younger youth game, and will add it as an appendix to this lecture on-line.
 Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation, 137.
 Turkle, 190.
 James Paul Gee, 216
 James Paul Gee, 217.
 Ian Bogost, 46.
 Ian Bogost, 340.
 Axel Bruns, 298.
 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 104.
 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 98.
 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 54.