Many students consider their gaming life and their spiritual life wholly separate. One is a fun activity, a good way to blow off steam and relax, while the other is serious and consequential.
By imagining how we can use games like Dungeons and Dragons as a ministry space, we challenge that separation of activities and counter a rhetoric of digital media as inconsequential. For many gamers, playing games involves real relationships that we value and invest in.
The challenge for many is a twofold stigma. First, within nerdy spaces, the assumption is that people there aren’t interested in that Jesus stuff. On the other hand, within Christian spaces, the value of gaming is diminished, usually with a perspective of wasting time that could be spent doing more holy things, or lacking relationships and depth because it’s online.
As a consequence, for many Christian gamers, there is a separation of our “gaming” life and our “church” life. Our gaming friends don’t see a whole picture of who we are, but only the parts of our life that we choose to share. Our church friends don’t get to see how invested we are in our gaming niche.
I believe that Jesus’ call for reconciling involves making these halves become whole. He wants us to offer the nerdy, geeky, and niche part of who we are to Him to bless our Christian communities; Jesus also wants us to share about his stories to our gaming friends, so that those relationships can become wholesome too.
What would it look like to share our gaming stories and histories with our ministry teams, and bless them with our skills and experiences? What could it look like for our gaming relationships to be valued and recognized as large parts of our lives - parts that Jesus wants to enter?
Imagining how Dungeons and Dragons can be a ministry space is one place to start.
For more, check out Everyone has an Online History on the MDS Blog.
Check out the official description, and the basic rules of play. From the introduction:
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.
Unlike a game of make-believe, D&D gives structure to the stories, a way of determining the consequences of the adventurers’ action. Players roll dice to resolve whether their attacks hit or miss or whether their adventurers can scale a cliff, roll away from the strike of a magical lightning bolt, or pull off some other dangerous task. Anything is possible, but the dice make some outcomes more probable than others.
Opportunities and Barriers for Ministry
D&D‘s core gameplay has 4 important qualities to consider as ministry opportunities:
Creating Make-Believe Together
Your player-characters (PCs) have fictional backstories, traits, weaknesses, and motivations; your imaginary world will be fully interactive and contain story arcs you directly influence. Because what you can do is limited to your ability to imagine them (and the DM’s ability to narrate the consequences), the entire group is incentivized to buy into the fantasy.
Another way to think about this is: all of the NSO events you’ve ever imagined are possible, through make-believe, without the logistics of actually planning them. Your group makes them up, and the only limiting factor is each player’s motivation and their player-character’s ability to execute.
Together, your group is creating something new, that has never been done - and everyone is invested in the outcome.
Because each player (and the DM) has an equal influence in how the fantasy develops, how you choose to (role)play your character has consequences. DMs often reward good roleplay, and your character the spiritual conversation topic-starter for the group. How you build a character’s backstory, personality, or how a DM crafts their adventure can be filled with spiritual moments that other players (through their characters) have to respond to. Because much of it happens in-character, it’s a lot safer than the players themselves interacting.
Once you get past the learning curve (I promise that the 114 page “basic rules” PDF isn’t as intimidating as it sounds), the game has particular social norms and conventions:
- The players, who role-play as adventurers that team together
- The Dungeon Master (DM), the game’s “lead storyteller and referee,” who creates adventures, determines the results of the player’s actions, and narrates the experience
- Turn based gameplay, which limit and guide how players interact with the world being narrated to them
Because players are given guidelines on how to interact about the game, and because of the logistical limits to party sizes, your group of 5 or 6 will meet regularly, teach each other rules and mechanics, and share a common language from which to build.
Breakthrough moments are “spontaneous events and situations that break gameplay immersion and prompt players to interact as people, rather than assets.”
In D&D, these look like shared moments of hype, thrill, despair, or fear. Moments like a crucial natural 20 (or natural 1); killing a boss or a player character dying; even plot twists given by the DM. The party experiences it together and reacts together.
Because the structure of a D&D game involves a DM’s adventure and the party interacting with it, some things won’t quite go according to plan. One of the most important moments for groups is the post-game debrief, where players talk about their expectations, reactions, and hopes about the next session.
During debrief, the wall of fantasy between the game and the players breaks down. Players talk about how their roleplay (looking for feedback and affirmation), or strategize for future encounters.
Barriers for Evangelism
And some questions to locate the point of tension.
Usually, this barrier involves questioning or not recognizing value:
- What is the value of this game, or group to my life? How have I been building a relationship with them?
- How do I understand this game to be valued by those whose opinions I value or respect? (do my Christian friends or mentors value my gaming and recognize it as a ministry opportunity, or treat it like time to be managed to do more important things? This is a continuum)
- How do I want to keep the respect of my group by not showing my whole identity to them? (am I afraid that their knowing about my faith will make me different or unwelcome?)
Navigating Social Rules
Because the sessions are structured by gameplay (save for the occasional food break, or rules on getting up from the table), it’s easy for the group to only talk about the game, or other safe topics; spiritual topics become risky.
- What topics are safe and often talked about? What topics haven’t been talked about, but would probably be safe? What topics would be risky?
- Who gets to bring up new topics? How did new topics get brought up in the past?
- Where/when does the group expand out from what’s safe into what’s new?
As a consequence of the party’s investment in the game, they share a special form of intimacy and a particular dynamic that only exists here. Unless established, bringing up personal issues (including spiritual topics) can feel violating and desecrating.
- What kind of intimacy already exists? Trust between players as they play; seeing and recognizing each other’s traits and mannerisms; noticing behaviors and tendencies?
- With what do you trust the other players? The obvious: your time, creative energy, and interest. When do outside factors get brought up? (For example, while scheduling sessions, canceling, or being late)
Easy First Steps
Evangelism begins with the game, but takes off around it. A few ideas for first steps to take that neither violate social norms or intimacy, but deepen relationships and test the waters for what’s appropriate:
See them outside of the game
Meet for meals, coffee/tea before or after sessions. Invite the party to play other things or share other hobbies, and ask about what other hobbies other players have.
Ask some easy, first spiritual questions
- How much of your character is actually an expression of you?
- Why did you choose that backstory/trait/action? Did you get it from something you’ve read/watched?
- What did the DM intend and how did we mess it up/play right into it? How did that happen...
- What do you hope happens next/why?
Sharing Moments & Intimacy
- What part of the game world do you wish actually existed?
- How do you feel about roleplaying your character? What’s easy/hard?
- How did you come up with that idea/puzzle/plotline/character?
- As DM: how did you think of that response or action? Where did that idea come from?
I’m A New Player
- Why did you choose your character classes/races?
- What helps you decide how to roleplay?
- What do you care most about when you play? (min/max; combat; story; interacting with the world, etc.)
- How did you get into D&D?
Towards the Thresholds
Just a few ideas on how to go deeper through the Five Thresholds.
See First Steps!
Bring the parables to life through your character’s backstory and character interaction, or post game debrief
Build space/protocol for sharing about outside life before the game
Ask your DM to include some biblical stories or mythology
Make an in-game call to faith!
- Not all players play for the same reason, even within your group! What are their motivations?
- Everyone has a history and experience - a story.
Check out the Ministry in Digital Spaces dIscussion hub: https://www.facebook.com/groups/indigitalspaces/
- Interested in helping test/develop modules for a Pilot Project?
- Invite your small group, leadership team, or NC friends to play!
- Interested in finding strangers to play with online?
- Have stories or experiences to add and share?
- What would an Urbana 18 Missional D&D Lounge look like?
Resources and Inspiration