(Image from TechnologyTell)
One of the occupational hazards of working in alt and geek culture is that for every time you get patronized by the mainstream, there’s at least one time where the mainstream cozys up to you in the hopes of getting some money, or some attention, or some extra followers. I’ve sat through far more than my fair share of the ‘Hey kids! Transformers are a bit like Jesus!’ sermons an, whilst Optimus Prime’s life does actually map onto Jesus’ worryingly well, it’s left my instinctively distrustful of outreach programs and most of organized religions’ attempts to connect with alternative culture.
That mindset triggered good and hard at GenCon when I came across the Gamechurch banners. The image of Christ wearing a gamer headset and with a controller in one hand was arresting, even funny and whilst my first instinct was to assume they were the latest version of the same old routine, my second was to find out for sure. As a result, I got talking to Mikee Bridges, the founder of the organization and found myself increasingly impressed. Here’s the interview:
What led to the creation of Gamechurch?
Gamechurch was created out of the desire to intersect what we believe with what we do everyday, which is gaming. We run a gaming center outside of Los Angeles 7 days a week. We really have the vision to change the way people perceive Christians, Jesus and Church. We feel that those words have been basically bastardized and we want to change it. There is a simple message that so often gets lost. Jesus loves you. right here, right now. Doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you believe or don’t believe. He loves you. We have a website that anyone can come to and get fantastic content and the other part of what we do is to go to gaming conventions, set up a booth, give stuff away for free and let people know the simple message that Jesus loves them.
The Gaming Center’s an interesting idea. What sort of activities do you run? Gaming? Seminars? Services?
The gaming center is just that. A gaming center. 31 PC’s with over 100 games on them, an xbox 360 room, a wii room, a playstation 3 room and a lounge for table top and card games. We have some internal meetings like a bible study just for staff. The public isn’t introduced to our faith unless they engage us about it. It’s not a Church in the way society would define that word. We are a normal business open 7 days a week. If people do know we are Christians, they are not bothered by it because we do not proselytize them. For us, it’s more about relationship and community. We just like to play games together.
What led you to this from your previous work?
I have been in weird, controversial “ministry” since 1989. I like things that are a little more bizarre. I was in music and music production for a long time doing the same thing, same message. I was a professional musician for 12 years, made 9 records, and on the other side I built 5 music clubs and a festival that ran for 14 years. After that I was in extreme sports that included helping to run an indoor skate park, etc. That morphed into what I do now. In one of the clubs I built, we had a gmaing room with w12 PC’s and it went well. Fast forward to now and we have a 5,000 square foot gaming facility. 31 PC’s, an xbox room, wii room, and ps3 room and also a lounge for table top and card games.
There’s a very different, frequently negative, counter-culture to computer gamers and some elements of gaming than most pop culture. How do you feel that can be reconciled with Christian values? Do you think it should be?
I don’t think the counter to gaming is inherently a Christian one. I think that most people that don’t understand something usually have a negative reaction to it. Funny that the people that think negatively about gamers are the same ones playing angry birds on their iphones. I think we all fail at educating the public about what gaming truly is and can be. Most probably get the vision of little johnny up in his room 14 hours a day playing WOW, drinking red bull and eating a bag of Doritos. I think society is catching on, in that video games and other gaming is not going away. In fact the growth is accelerating on an unprecedented scale. Video games are now the largest media outlet in the world. People are starting to take notice and it is becoming the norm in society, not an exemption.
That idea, that it’s okay to play Angry Birds on your iphone but other games make you a geek fascinates me, and it’s one I’ve seen with a lot of ‘geek’ culture. There are countless thousands of people who don’t read comics but will go and see a comic book movie for example. Now gaming culture is essentially ubiquitous, and gaming is a near universal experience do you think the popular cultural attitude towards it will change?
It has to. You can’t stop it. And as the Atari 2600 generation gets older and now has buying power, children, business, finance and politics, it will only be easier. Just watch TV sometime. A couple of favorites are the Call of duty limited edition Jeep or the hilarious campaign by one of the hamburger franchises to ‘wear your Spiderman costume’ on a certain day to get a free cheeseburger. Its everywhere and its not going to slow down. I think you will have your blind holdouts. Like those that don’t have a Facebook account or WIFI in their house. But the rest of us cannot deny that geek culture has permeated every facet of society at this point.
What’s the Gamechurch’s goal?
GameChurch’s goal is to tell you that Jesus loves you just like you are. No need for a shower, no jumping through hoops. You don’t need to do anything. You cant buy it, learn it, work for it or fight for it. No matter what race, religion, lifestyle choice or anything else. He just loves you. Nothing you can do about it.
(Image taken from Google +)
That idea, that blanket love and forgiveness is something which seems to get lost almost every time Christianity interacts with popular culture. Why do you think that is?
My opinion from what I read in the Bible and what I have learned through study and I think because of traveling outside of the United States is that western Christianity has basically changed the teachings of Christ. We so often take things out of context and try to apply them to situations in our modern life. When you have a group of people that don’t study deep and ask the hard questions, you have thousands, millions of those that follow along with what some ‘leader’ says is the truth and do no research into actual truth for themselves. I find myself shocked by what other Christians tell me that they learned from the Bible. I have a ton of examples but that would take too long. Suffice it to say that I believe western Christianity has twisted so many things in the Bible that they now believe those things to be true.
What I found really interesting about the articles on your website is how they take a positive, but still critical, approach to computer games. Is that a deliberate approach or has it evolved over time?
Our articles have evolved. At first we were just a review site. But we found that we were not doing anything unique and there are far better and bigger sites that review so who cares what we think. The articles are now focused on story, depth, lesson, and not so much on mechanics and if the game sucks or not. Plus it comes from our opinion. Its what we think about when we talk about games. From our perspective.
That’s one of the things I found so interesting about the site, especially as reading it has come, for me, hot on the heels of a realization that gaming as a narrative form is evolving. Journey is the best example I can think of, where the game is less about achieving a goal and more about evoking an emotion in the player. Have you found the narrative structure of gaming changing from when you first started playing?
Absolutely. I think that it has changed for most gamers except maybe for those that were into text based role playing video games back in the 80’s and 90’s. But even there, story has become much deeper. I find myself missing the characters that I watch evolve in game when I am done with it. I don’t really want some of them to end. Almost like a great television series or movie franchise. There is great fun in a side scrolling, button mashing game but I get wrapped up in story, meaning, depth and like you say, the journey. Our writers want to explore that more than to give you a thumbs up or down on a game. It gives us uniqueness. Like I was talking about previously, we really didn’t want to be just another review site. It’s the same at the booth at trade shows and conventions. We want to be unique.
Gaming in general, and roleplaying games in particular have a long history of clashing with elements of organized religion (D&D being decried, computer gaming regularly being attacked for its anti-establishment tendencies by the right). How do you reconcile this with your mission statement?
Well I think I can speak candidly about the everyday Christian when I say, this isn’t the first time we as a group have boycotted, banned, misunderstood or completely screwed up something like that. In the 70’s and 80’s we were told to burn all of our records because of satanic messages, etc, etc. Now some of the bigger names in music are Christians. Tattoos are another one. A few years ago, tattoos were absolutely out of the question when it came to being a Christian. Now, everybody has them and its no big deal in most places. Therein lies the problem. This is why we are doing what we are doing. Gaming is not wrong or bad. Can it be? Sure. Are there games your 10 year old should not play? Sure. Should you let your kid play all day every day? Of course not. Should you sit around on your couch all day and play games? No. Its really about self control and good parenting. I know a tremendous amount of great people that play Dungeons and Dragons that happen to be Christians. There should be nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately I find a lot of Christians that do not have a mind of their own so they listen to someone who has taken the Bible out of context and tried to apply it to a group of people. The followers just nod their head and we get ridiculous statements like gaming is evil. Its dumb.
What’s your long term for the plan for the Gamechurch? Expansion to other cities?
The longterm plan for GameChurch is to expand into as many cities in the US as we can and hopefully go to at least two shows overseas by the end of 2014. This year we will do 4 more cities than last year so we are moving at a fast pace.
And finally, of course, what are you playing at the moment?
I just got done playing Skyrim and the dlc for it. I went back and played Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare and I think I will go back and play through the dlc for Mass Effect 3. Really looking forward to Bioshock Infinite and a couple of other titles. 🙂
The Gamechurch are online here.