Stories That Shaped My Faith
Gamification: The Art of
Problem-Solving Through Play
by Kendall Churchill | October 8, 2019
When people hear of my passion for strategic board games, they often respond with some degree of skepticism: “You mean, like Monopoly? Um, okay….”
To be fair, I recognize that playing Monopoly can be extremely unpleasant. Although it’s one of the highest selling games of all time, it’s an experience that usually results in boredom or hurt feelings, or both. In fact, Monopoly was not designed to be fun. Elizabeth Magie created the game in 1903 as a protest against monopolies of the day. Her aim was for “men and women [to] discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.” I think Magie has accomplished her goal—Monopoly is a slow, unfair, harsh simulation of an economic monopoly.
The good news is that loads of games today are educational and fun. Players of Compounded will learning about chemistry. Players of 7 Wonders and Timeline will learn about human advancement throughout history. Playing Escape the Curse of the Temple, a cooperative game with a time limit, will teach you how to keep calm under pressure. Chinatown focuses on bartering ability.
Some games allow us to take part in worlds we only dream about, such as Legendary, a card-based superhero game. Others, such as the beloved classic Clue or my preferred variation, Mystery at the Abbey, teach critical life skills like deduction. Playing Village will help you learn resource management.
While many people still associate board games with sheer luck and childhood, my appreciation for games comes from viewing them as a framework through which we can learn about and explore the world in fresh ways. A few years ago, I designed a board game for my congregational vitality class that taught players about four types of church health (missional, stable, critical moment, and at-risk). My game had a play structure similar to a beautiful game my wife loves called Tokaido, and it demonstrated how the choices a church makes affect their journey toward vitality.
Games challenge us to identify our priorities,
make sacrifices, or take calculated risks.
There are many different styles of games—simulation, cooperative, competitive, trivia—and many of them have proven to be effective in teaching. Education professionals continue to find new ways to “gamify” their content, but too often adults miss out on opportunities to learn through play. Games can also help to break the ice in conversation and bring different kinds of people together for fellowship. I believe games should be a staple for faith development and community building of all ages, especially within the church.
A good game can raise questions and spark conversation the way a good sermon can: what should we do, what resources do we have, and how can we be most effective? Because games usually have a very specific condition for winning, they can help us understand leadership practices such as narrowing our focus, thinking about the steps we need to take to get where we want to go, or the importance of delegating tasks among a team. Games can challenge us to identify our priorities, make sacrifices, or take calculated risks.
And games can just be fun. We get to relax, laugh, build friendships, try new things, and explore new ideas.
One game that has particularly impressed me is the Pursuit of Happiness. In this game players move from childhood through adolescence into adulthood, and finally conclude in the sunset years. In each season of life, players make choices around relationships, work, hobbies, stress, and rest. Everyone has the same limited amount of time, so saying yes to one option inevitably means saying no to another. Prioritizing healthy, long-term living allows for a longer life in which there may be more opportunities, but may mean more difficult activities in the short-term.
It can be both invigorating and frustrating to watch a lifetime pass by within an hour or two. It is convicting to be reminded of our mortality and to understand that we must not squander the gifts we have been given. As players review how they have chosen to spend their time and resources in the game, they inevitably reflect on how they have used those same resources in life. The words of Annie Dillard sink in more deeply: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Over the past decade I have owned, played, and traded more than a hundred games. In addition to friends and family, I especially enjoy sharing games at youth events and game nights with the adults in church. In addition to those listed above, further recommendations for families and church include: Ticket to Ride, King of Tokyo, Codenames, Splendor, Coup, Carcassonne, Snake Oil, Concept, and Dixit.
I encourage you to step outside the box of traditional children’s games and explore the benefits of playing and learning together at church. I pray you’ll experience the unique way faith can intertwine with the mechanics and concepts of an engaging game.