This is a Theological Reflection using the Whitehead and Whitehead, Correlation Method. I will proceed through Attending, to particular pastoral concern. Secondly, Assertion to expand and deepen religious insight. Thirdly, Decisions moves decision making for action based on the insight gained.
Taking Computer Games seriously and thus the potential to do church in the cultural communities around gaming seems too trendy and gimmicky to be real. Surely serious time and attention should not be spent on a pursuit of something supposed to be an entertaining diversion?
What I am noticing here is a question around the validity that there is a distinct culture here or whether what I might be doing is trendy nonsense! Or perhaps Minecraft church is more a gimmick for hooking the attention of the young to draw them into church?
If it is the former then I would assume that the cross-cultural pioneering approach would be appropriate of creating followers of Christ in their own cultures and forming church there. This is where my instinct is drawing me.
If the latter, then I should be working in an attractional manner, to bring young people out of video game culture and into church.
If Minecraft gaming culture is a new form of human culture, then other gaming cultures would also naturally be similar. I will call this 'Game Space' to denote it has a cultural boundary and physical boundary, taking place inside computer generated images or table-top miniatures.
A Wu cites Gee and Hayes for coining the phrase 'Affinity space' to cover the different forms of communication and socialisation that fans/players of an artist/story/game form around it. In Affinity space, new content is formed, creations are shared, socialising happens, news is published and new developments and modifications are made and shared. There is a whole world around the Game. Minecraft has hundreds of YouTube channels dedicated to it (one excellent example), myriad websites, spinoff servers (I use 'PaperMC' a great-grandchild of the official server). Minecraft has T-shirts, pickaxes and all sorts of merchandise too. Wu describes Affinity spaces, "are spaces where groups of people are primarily oriented toward a common set of endeavors and social practices in terms of which they attempt to realize these endeavors" Wu goes further and likens Affinity spaces as "related to the concept of 'communities of practice.'" I will fold affinity space into gamespace recognising that each game in Gamespace has a surrounding affinity space.
Thus, I consider Minecraft a new form of gamespace for humans to create society and culture. It has limits but is just as valid as other new forms (carriage on a train to work, gym culture, clubs, pubs, in fact we may spend more time online in Minecraft than in church)
Eric Raymond, is a commentator on new forms of collaboration made possible by the internet and primarily of the hundreds of thousands of shared software projects. He takes a pioneering metaphor of the old West of America. As the pioneers moved out in their wagons they would come across new territory. (Well new to them, the First Nations peoples thought differently!) To claim their land they would settle and construct homesteads; showing their ownership by their meaningful appropriation of the space. Raymond takes this metaphor further into the new possibilities and dimensions that internet connected and mediated people can create. He terms this the 'Noosphere'. The World Wide Web is one such noosphere. Sir Tim Berners-Lee opened this noosphere that once was empty.
Taking the language of Raymonds Gamespace is a homestead in the noosphere. Minecraft did not exist 10 years ago, nor Second Life 20 years ago. These are new spaces made possible by technology. More immersive forms are possible such as using Virtual Reality (VR) where a mask over both eyes blinkers out the real world and gives a stereoscopic vision into the virtual world. Gloves with sensors and other controls enable movement and simulated touch. Three senses are used here.
Minecraft's gamespace is termed a ‘sandbox’, as in a child's box of sand that can be formed into anything they imagine. In it you can form worlds and build and construct realities. Minecraft starts with a procedurally generated landscape but almost infinite plasticity means you can reform it and make it. Bringing this technology onto a computer server, connected to the internet, means others can join creating possibility for interactivity.
Minecraft is not the first form of online sandbox space. 'Second Life' is the predominant example of this. It is a game intended to create a virtual world in a space viewed on screens, inter-networked to central servers that recorded changes and mitigated all events that change the world; a wall here, a bench there, movement here, text speech, financial transactions. The game aimed to simulate a virtual world at least as big as the earth.
Second Life has been studied by academics seeking to examine how people are using the space and what they might become. An Anglican cathedral has been constructed in Second Life. In fact I discovered my TI had spent much time there talking to people of faith and no-faith! Second Life is huge and has players numbering in the millions.
Where Minecraft differs is that servers tend to be smaller (because they demand higher computing resources) numbering thousands rather than millions. However, there are hundreds and thousands of servers! Our server has a limit of 40 at the moment. We have used just over half that capacity. What we have in comparison to Second Life is a small tribe, rather than a nation state.
If we accept that we have a special tribe from the broader culture within the Noosphere of Gamespace, then the Song of the Lamb becomes relevant to us. "And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9) From Jesus' declaration of the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) to the gathering in of people from every tribe (Revelation 7:9), the mission thrust of God's plan is for all ethnic groups to hear the Gospel of Christ. In his Easter sermon my TI made this point in reference to Minecraft church (we had provided the gospel reading as a dramatised version see here). He referenced the Ordinal vow, the Declaration of Assent, all Anglican priests make to hold to the historic faith of the church and "to proclaim afresh in each generation".
I solidly identify with this vision in my calling to be a Pioneer priest. Raymond's metaphor also feels very familiar given the thrust to engage in the spaces people inhabit out of the current easy connection to the church.
There is much ongoing scope for ongoing thought and reflection here. For example it is not at all clear how sacraments will fit into gamespace. The current pandemic has raised questions about the Eucharist and whether it is possible or not to truly share it over Zoom or other media, except from when physically gathered together. There are questions of how we can integrate discipleship in the real world as well as the virtual ones. Although my other reflections point towards possible answers to this.
There are perhaps two points of caution that commentators have raised. The first is the possibility that by seeking community within a commercial offering the players may be open to exploitation by that entity. Different gamespaces will differ on this, some games have a strong emphasis on add in content, loot boxes and other draws. Minecraft seems free from this; there are numerous aspects of merchandise for purchase but the only required cost is a one-off fee (£17 in our case). Exploitation is important to bear in mind even if marginal in our case.
However there are concerns for access to broadband and the devices needed to join the server. This can very clearly be a cause for discrimination for those who may be marginalised or suffering poverty. This is a point for ongoing consideration. Again, the bandwidth requirements are low. However, we have adopted a PC based platform which may require extra resources. Many families have limited bandwidth and devices limited to cheap tablets or console systems. I am aware of this and in fact two of my sons join using third-hand laptops and a cheap tablet for Zoom. This is an artefact of our own introduction to Minecraft nine years ago when it was a PC only product and that Minecraft church has developed in a pandemic when face-to-face meeting was not possible. As restrictions on meeting lower, it becomes possible to meet in premises which offer both face-to-face meeting spaces, well-funded broadband and provided devices to share.
I feel confident that gamespace is an important new aspect to human cultural life and that pioneering here will be both possible and fruitful! I can see my decision is to move ahead, continuing to guide and reflect on Minecraft church and being open to new possibilities.
As Minecraft church grows, the possibility for face-to-face meetings will be an important and rich addition to our community life. I feel this will be really important to engage with. The pioneering aspect needed will be remixing and combining gamespace culture with more familiar community gatherings, enriching both and not diminishing either!
I would like to draw more like-minded pioneers together. I have had fruitful conversation with a curate in Hereford who is also a pioneer in gamespace and Minecraft church. A recent BBC news item highlighted another Anglican minister who is gathering a community in Gamespace. In his case it is the affinity space created by live-streaming his game playing and chatting with those watching. I will attempt to call a conversation group together informally from those interested in this area. The Centre for Digital Theology is a new initiative that may also have insight to offer.
There are other games which may offer a rich gamespace. Roblox is one. An American 'VR Church' is attempting to engage gamespace in several online games with 'MMO Church'. Games which offer 'sandbox' freedom to create alongside goal driven and survival play seem to offer scope. One example would be Valheim. Tabletop and role-playing games which have existed for many decades now may also be useful to look at using the lens of gamespace. There is much homesteading in this noosphere to do.
(For full bibliography see Bibliography)