The video game world has had its ups and downs. From the crash of 1983 to the rise of casual and mobile gaming, we have seen tremendous changes in the last 30 to 40 years. With the popularity of eSports, online streamers, modern consoles and phones, a growing number of people consider themselves “gamers.” Video games have hit the mainstream. So, how might we best use video games with our students?
I first got the gaming bug while watching my cousin play Pitfall on his Atari 2600. Even though I knew I was not old enough to understand the mechanics of jumping over the holes and crocodiles, I begged him to let me try. The next Christmas, I watched my other cousins play Super Mario Bros on their new Nintendo Entertainment System. When they handed me the controller, I was apprehensive but excited. I held it in my hands and played World 1-1 for the first time. I was hooked.
Yes, I know there is quite a bit of research pointing to how video games can lead to a host of negative outcomes. I get it and do not want to downplay that truth. We need to be wise. We need to prayerfully consider all of the research and options when choosing any tool for our ministry. I believe video games can be an excellent tool for creating and building relationships when used and leveraged the correct way. Here are some suggestions for using the tool of video gaming correctly.
Invite students over to your house for game nights. If you have the newest system, games, and some food, this is incredibly easy to pull off and can be leveraged for evangelism. At my previous ministry, I had some high school boys ask if they could come over and play Super Smash Bros. After checking with my wife, I told them they could come over, stay as long as they want, and I would order pizza. The only rule was that they needed to bring at least one friend with them who was not yet a part of a church. They accepted the challenge. That night, they brought one friend. Over the next two years, I saw several new students come into our ministry because of the relationships started during video game nights. In fact, right before I moved on from that ministry, that first “invited friend” asked me to baptize him.
Host a Gaming Outing. Mobile video games are becoming increasingly more popular. When Pokémon Go was at its height of popularity, I would go on “hunts” with students in local cities. Maybe that game is not for you or your students, but there is probably another one that has the potential to draw a crowd. Another time, I took a student to a Super Smash Bros Brawl tournament. Not only did we get to compete and play the game a few months before it launched, we got to have great conversations throughout the day and meet other students and adults outside the church. We still share stories and memories that came from those trips. Game Outings help build incredibly strong relationships.
Keep it Simple. You might feel the need to create a giant video game wall that hosts the latest and greatest systems and games. That might be really cool and just what your group needs. However, you might not have to do that anymore. Think about it. With modern phones, tablets, and portable gaming consoles, it might be easier, less expensive and more effective for you to provide a location with solid wifi. A few months ago, we started a new youth group at one of our local campuses. After a few weeks, I witnessed the group growing. I knew God was working, but I had to laugh at the method He was using. Each week, before and after the programming, more and more middle school boys would gather together to play Fortnite on their phones. Again, you could argue the pros and cons of first-person shooters, but you cannot ignore that an increasing number of students are hearing the Gospel because of the relationships formed through Fortnite.
Research will continue to argue for and against video games, but for now, they are here to stay. If used and leveraged wisely, they can be a great tool in your ministry to build relationships, make lasting memories, and create opportunities for teenagers to hear the Gospel. I absolutely love the fact that there are students whose testimonies now begin with Super Smash Bros and end with Jesus changing their lives.
Steve Cullum is the student pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO, where he oversees their ministry to sixth through twelfth grade students and their families. He also hosts The Student Ministry Podcast and writes for several video game and nerd-culture blogs including NintendoFuse and Love Thy Nerd. You can follow him on Twitter @stevecullum.