Playing Games with Christian Education: Exploring Embodied Faith in Media Production

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Playing Games with Christian Education: Exploring Embodied Faith in Media Production

Kevin Schut, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, School of the Arts, Media + Culture; Professor of Media + Communication

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice Home Page


This article considers two interdisciplinary projects to create video games at a Christian university in 2008 and 2011 in light of James K.A. Smith’s call for Christian education to embody Christian values and develop a Christian social imaginary.  After examining Smith’s vision in light biblical narratives, this paper evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the game development projects as truly distinctive Christian education.


What do indie rock bands and 19th century chemistry industries have to do with media production at a Christian university?  As it turns out, a lot, in our case.  These were the subjects of two video games I built with students, and they are ideal case studies to consider one way in which we can help set the conditions for a profoundly Christian experience with faith-based post-secondary curriculum.

This paper is a thought-piece, not a theory-piece: it is a reflection on a project I have only run twice.  I evaluate this experience in light of one significant reading.  While I have extensive experience with Christian education—since 1979, I have spent only four and a half years not involved with Christian education as a student or teacher—I am not a specialist in educational theory, philosophy, or theology.  Nor am I primarily a media production instructor, although I have a little more expertise in that area, having taught some introductory graphic design and video production (in addition to the project I am writing about here).  I am a cultural theorist interested in the experience of media production, launching a new program in video game development, and trying to understand whether and how such a program might be distinctively Christian.

To consider this issue, I am evaluating a project at my university I co-led in 2008 and again in 2011 in which a team of students built a working video game.  While these experiences were far more limited in scope than the program I am currently building, they modeled various pedagogical approaches that I hope to replicate in a more fully-featured future curriculum.  Since we teach at a Christian university that has regularly pushed us to consider the integration of Christian beliefs, practices, and values with our course content,[1] my co-instructors and I have attempted to deliver a faith-based game development curriculum.  Developing and articulating this, however, was challenging.

We knew what we wanted to teach, but was it Christian enough?  What would make game development curriculum distinctively Christian?  For a variety of reasons, we had no desire to make an explicitly Christian game.  We wanted the content to bring glory to God, but that, we felt, did not necessitate telling Bible stories or creating material for proselytizing (for interesting discussions related to these issues, see Crouch, 2008; Detweiler & Taylor, 2003; Schultze & Woods, 2008).  So what did it mean to be Christian programmers, designers, artists, and business-people?  How would our Christianity impact the way we ran our team and chose our lecture topics?  Would it be enough to pray before class?

These are, of course, not new questions in Christian education.  Part of what we were struggling with, however, was what James K.A. Smith (Smith, 2009) has identified as the limitations of  Christian educational theory that puts a heavy emphasis on worldviews.  As I have grown up in Christian schools, I have heard a great deal about ideas and beliefs—head-oriented stuff.  I received an excellent education on how to think as a Christian.  But as Smith argues, focusing on the head exclusively can mean neglecting the heart, or “gut” as he puts it.  Effective Christian education, he believes, should move beyond what we think, and address what we love.  Smith’s vision of Christian education visualizes teaching that fosters a radically different approach to life than does secular education: Christian education should embody faith in Jesus through liturgies based on worship.  In other words, teaching should extend to actions that connect ideas to real action that builds the Kingdom of God in this world.  This is at least part of what we see when we look at the Biblical narratives.  God’s people always live in a distinctive manner from their surrounding culture—although the nature of that distinction shifts over time—and that distinction is never just about thoughts and ideas.  God’s followers must live in a way that demonstrates who they belong to.

The challenge, of course, is to put these inspiring ideas into practice in the classroom.  So as I look forward to the new program I am building, I am evaluating the two projects we ran to consider to what degree we embodied Christ in our curriculum.  The experience has been similar in many ways to other arts and media projects: we did a good job of putting ideas into action, and an even better job of building healthy community, but at the same time, we could have been more explicit and intentional with the application of our Christian beliefs.  I also believe that even though I value the experience of teaching these courses, they are not feasible nor desirable as a replacement for all traditional lecture-and-discussion courses.

The Idea of Embodied Christian Education

Smith on Liturgical, Embodied Education

James K.A. Smith’s 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation asks whether Christian Education had perhaps missed the full dimensions of its calling.  Surveying the landscape of Christian colleges and universities in North America, Smith suggests that the faculty of these institutions focus too much on ideas, beliefs and perspectives: “According to this dominant paradigm, the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective,’ and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society’” (p. 218).

The problem, Smith argues, is that by focusing on an education of the head, we are missing people’s biggest motivators: “Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?  By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework—a ‘perspective’ or a ‘worldview’—we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship” (2009, p. 218).

Smith argues that the philosophy of Christian education has an incomplete understanding of human motivation.  We are not, Smith believes, primarily thinking creatures—although clearly we have the capacity for thought and this is important.  Instead, we are motivated primarily by our heart, or “kardia,” which Smith also likes to translate as “gut.”  That is, humans make decisions less on the basis of their ideas, and more on the basis of their core desires.  “What constitutes our ultimate identities,” says Smith, “is what we love” (2009, p, 26).

And that love is not formed so much by ideas, or even beliefs, but by liturgies.  His metaphor throughout the book is the shopping mall, an informal, yet undeniably powerful temple to modern consumerism that does not ask the shopper for conscious assent to a set of doctrines, but instead engages the individual in rituals and surrounds him or her with the iconography of consumer goods.  Life as a whole is liturgical, Smith argues, even when we don’t identify the ways of living and thinking behind our everyday activities.  Worship liturgies match words with actions, and teach and reinforce not so much through argument as through repetition and embodiment.  So education that focuses exclusively on our thinking misses the emotional and physical components of living.

So what does all this mean for Christian education?  First and foremost, Smith’s vision for education focuses on liturgical pedagogy—that is, teaching that embodies ideas so that students (and teachers) are not just talking or thinking about them, but living them and putting them into action.  Desiring the Kingdom doesn’t have many concrete examples of what this might look like, but the subsequent edited collection Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, put together by James K.A. Smith and fellow Calvin College professor David I. Smith, gives a number of practical suggestions.  Contributors talk about emphasizing hospitality in a course on Adolescent Psychology (Call, 2011), practicing pilgrimage in an introductory liberal arts course (Woodiwiss, 2011), integrating traditional Christian time-keeping practices in a philosophy course (Smith, 2011), and using shared meals to build community in a nursing course (Walton & Walters, 2011); the book gives many more examples.  The key to all of these pedagogies is that they recognize the necessity of “intentional practices that are tactile, bodily, repetitive, and ‘narratival’” (Smith, 2011, p. 140).  Christian education, when it embodies ideas in practice, becomes capable of facilitating “the formation of the kinds of persons that constitute a ‘peculiar people’” (Smith, 2011, p. 140) focused on building the kingdom of God.

Specifically, Smith (James, from here on) believes Christian educators should use liturgical practices to build a “Christian social imaginary,” or a desired vision of what the world could be like.  Like Jacques Ellul (Ellul, 1967) in his book The Presence of the Kingdom, Smith (2009) argues that a distinctively Christian way of life will provide an alternative to the dominant paradigm of the culture of the world.  Thus, a Christian education that starts modeling and enacting this alternative way of life is critical.  A related goal of liturgical practices in the Christian classroom is to produce disciples for Jesus, to prepare students to start building that Christian social imaginary in this world.

Smith’s Vision of Christian Education in Light of the Biblical Narrative

These goals of producing embodied ideals and an alternative Christian lifestyle are articulate and compelling, but do they align with biblical testimony and narratives? That depends, to a large extent, on how we engage the Bible. The great variety of Christian approaches to scripture is well known, so to ask whether these ideas are biblically grounded is perhaps more complicated than the question first seems. Theologian Allen Verhey (1996) summarizes an approach to scripture that suggests, among other things, that due to the great diversity of material in the Bible, Christians must communally and faithfully read and discern its meaning—that the meaning and unity of God’s word is not objectively self-evident, nor purely subjective. Drawing on the tools God gives us—Verhey describes the importance of prayer, while theologian Richard B. Hays (2008) describes the importance of narrative—the various communities of the church must together wrestle with the testimony of many writers with many purposes across many times and places in order to understand how God speaks to us through scripture.

What I propose to do here, then, is not provide biblical proof for the validity or shortcomings of Smith’s vision. Rather, I want to consider where I see resonance between biblical narratives and Smith’s ideas, and where biblical narratives suggest other possibilities approaches to the challenge of living our faith out in Christian education.

To start with, I see a great deal of resonance between biblical narratives and Smith’s call for Christians to embody the principles of their faith.  While the Bible is only a collection of words itself, the narratives it tells show a mix of word and deed, and the two typically go hand in hand.  The Pentateuch is full of law accompanied by ritual: the ideas connect with action, such as a burnt offering of thankfulness (Numbers 15: 1-16).  The Old Testament also frequently notes how prophets taught via demonstrative action, rather than just proclamation.  The book of Hosea, for instance, tells the story of the prophet’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer as a symbol of God’s relationship with Israel.  Likewise, Jesus frequently illustrated his new message with dramatic actions that signaled the coming of God’s kingdom.  Jesus dined with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and other publicly scorned people.  He took the role of a lowly servant and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:4-18).  Most powerfully, of course, Jesus re-wrote the traditional expectations for the Messiah by allowing his arrest which led to his crucifixion.  The early Church likewise modeled their ideas in their behaviours, sharing their wealth communally, regularly commemorating the Lord’s Supper together, and meeting regularly.  I would suggest it would be hard to find much in the Biblical narrative that challenges Smith’s notion of an embodied education.  The ideas that God’s people espoused were not just ideas—they became meaningful via some form of enactment.

When it comes to Smith’s (2009) emphasis on the importance of Christians providing a distinctive witness in a world that needs God, I see a complicated biblical testimony.  When it comes to Christian education, Smith believes Christian schools, colleges and universities are missing opportunities by being too imitative of secular education.  His quote above questions the strategy of Christianizing existing academic disciplines—if we can’t reconsider things like professions and disciplines, we may well end up with graduates who know how to think about their faith, but don’t know how to apply it to actions.  He goes so far as to warn that a truly Christian education might not prepare students well for careers in the modern economy, as the very values of the world are built into that economy.

He can certainly point to elements in the biblical narrative to support such an approach.  In a variety of ways, the Bible tells the story of a people that make a radical break with the world around it.  Non-image-based monotheism was a strong countercultural concept in the polytheistic, idol-worshipping ancient Fertile Crescent.  Many of the rituals of the Hebrews, such as the dietary ban on pork and other common foods, also marked the people as separate from the neighbouring cultures.  Likewise, the early New Testament Church’s sharing of wealth and communion suggested a strong alternative to the Jewish, Hellenized and Latin cultures it lived within and next to.

But I would suggest that the biblical narrative also shows a frequent accommodation or engagement between God’s people and some aspects of the surrounding culture.  The Israelites were sometimes slow to adopt the technological innovations of their neighbors—as evidenced by the problems caused by the noteworthy Philistine monopoly of ironworking in the time of King Saul (1 Samuel 13:19-21)—but they did eventually do so.  Early church leaders, while focused on evangelization as their primary occupation, seemed to see no shame in engaging in secular economic activities, such as Paul doing tentmaking (Acts 18:3), and the disciples going fishing (John 21:2-8).  There is nothing in the scriptures themselves that clearly indicates that most new church members dropped their previous occupations upon conversion.  More profoundly, the overall circumstances of God’s people shift fairly dramatically throughout the Bible.  The story takes us from the cities of Mesopotamia to nomadic herdsman in Canaan to slaves in Egypt to tribal theocracy to Middle Eastern monarchy to semi-Hellenized province of a worldwide empire.  Even more substantial is the shift from a semi-cloistered chosen people to a universal people of God that knows no ethnic or social class distinction (Galatians 3:28).  Through all these very substantial economic, political and social changes, the Bible tells the story of God at work in the hearts and lives of people.  In other words, although God’s people are consistently called to be distinct, that distinctiveness does not always manifest itself in occupation, economics or politics.

This doesn’t necessarily contradict Smith’s call for a Christian education that diverges radically from the form of secular education, but it does suggest it is possible to have a biblically-based vision where the people of God can engage in the established arts and professions of our day. The Bible provides testimony of different approaches to the challenge of God’s people being distinctive witnesses to the surrounding culture, and this will be an important point in evaluating how we taught our students to make games.

Explanation of our Projects

Our first game development project was born of a discussion at our annual faculty retreat many years ago.  One of our retreat exercises was to consider projects that could pull together faculty from multiple programs.  I had a good friend who was a professor in Computing Science, and as soon as we thought of creating a project to build a video game, the interdisciplinary possibilities were obvious.  Such a project would easily involve software engineering, art, music, business, writing, design, and could possibly incorporate insights and contributions from other areas of the university, like education, psychology, or any of the sciences.

In addition to building interdisciplinary connections, we had several other goals for the project.  We wanted students to learn how to work effectively in teams where every contributor had a specialized role.  We felt this would be a valuable experience for our students’ future careers.  We wanted students to see how the theories and ideas and skills they had learned in their standard lecture-and-discussion courses connected with real-world projects.  And finally, we wanted to provide students with a capstone experience: a kind of high-end, demanding project that would build on the previous three years of lessons they had taken at our University.

Actually running the project took a great deal of administrative work, but the Provost’s Office was supportive, and in the first half of 2008, we ran the first game-making project.  I co-taught the project with my colleague in Computing Science.  The overall project was twelve semester hours, the equivalent of four regular courses, split into a spring and summer semester, meaning that the project ran from January through June. Although we had a few preparatory meetings the previous fall, very little work happened until the course officially started.  Participants had to undergo formal interviews in order to be accepted into the project; they had to prove their capacity to contribute to the project.  Most applicants were accepted, but a few were rejected, which indicated we were serious about the quality of the program.  A little over 20 upper-level students from many different departments across the university participated, with students broken into teams focused on different aspects of the game: design, software engineering, art, sound, and business.  Most students played some role on more than one team: the game design team, for instance, was made partly of programmers and partly of communication students who also worked on writing and business.  Some of the students took lead or management roles, and others focused exclusively on the work.

The resulting game was Label: Rise of Band, a strategy game where the player guides a small indie music label in the 1990s taking on the forces of corporate rock.  We specified the basic genre and design parameters of the game, but the students chose the theme, title, art and music style, and all the specific mechanics.  My co-instructor and I functioned as producers, giving advice, arguing for this or that choice, but mostly empowering the students to do their work, whether that be management or production.  Given that none of us had ever made a video game before, the end result was encouraging, even with all its faults.  Today, I typically describe it as a playable game that is eighty-five percent complete.  The program is fully functional, but all of us agreed it needed more polishing and redesign. We simply ran out of time, which is unsurprising given the ambitious nature of the project and our collective inexperience.

Three years later, in the spring of 2011, I ran the project again.  My original co-instructor helped teach again, but as she had moved into an administrative position, she had limited availability and worked with us off the side of her desk.  The other main instructor was a newer Computing Science faculty member.  Learning from our previous experience, we stretched out the production cycle, and ran a number of pre-production courses in the fall of 2010 so that production could hit the ground running in January.  The other main difference was that due to budget cutbacks, the Computing Science program was significantly diminished in size, meaning that in order to build a large enough software engineering team, we had to rely on a largely inexperienced group of Computing Science students.  Through no fault of their own, they simply hadn’t taken a large number of courses prior to joining the project.  Otherwise, the project ran in much the same manner as the previous time.

This time, rather than go for a purely entertainment-oriented title, we tried to make something more educational.  At the suggestion of a faculty member in the Chemistry program, we decided to work the theme of the early artificial dye industries in 19th century America, as they were the foundation of the modern chemical industries.  The project’s game, Dyeworks: A Commerce in Colour, was, for a number of reasons, not as successful as the previous one.  One factor was that we discovered too late that the actual chemistry of artificial dye-making was complex enough that it was beyond our capacities to model in game design, so the resulting mini-games had very little connection to actual chemical research.  Another was the above-mentioned inexperience of the team, which resulted in a slowed-down development process.  Most of the game is functional (although one mini-game is not), but it needs a significant round of redesigns and improvements that we never got to.  Nevertheless, I felt that our teaching improved, as did our understanding of the development cycle and how to make it work effectively.

Despite the differences, it is worth emphasizing the key features the projects had in common.  First, this was not a case of expert teachers dumping knowledge into students’ heads.  Rather, it was a co-exploration.  Especially the first time around, we (the instructors) were quite open with the students about our own lack of experience in making games.  We invited them to learn with us.  Second, the fact that this was project-based, rather than lecture-based, made for a very different kind of course.  This is, in fact, a common feature of all media production courses (this is also true of other courses in the arts).  Students do not just learn theory—as much as this is a valuable educational activity—but have to put ideas into practice.  In such learning, theory gains relevance due to its applicability to the task at hand.  Third, as already mentioned, students brought a variety of specialized skills and knowledge to a team; everyone had something important to contribute.  They had to coordinate their efforts in order to be properly effective.  Finally, the projects helped students gain quasi-professional experience.  There’s no question that our students did not experience the full reality of working as an indie game developer.  They didn’t have salaries to pay, and although we had hoped to sell the game, we didn’t, and nobody went bankrupt.  Nevertheless, all the aforementioned dimensions of the projects were closer to professional experiences than a standard course would be.  Students were working in a team on a project to create an actual product, and the process would succeed or fail on the basis of their efforts.  Few of these students actually went into the games industry, but the experience still provided useful lessons for many other lines of professional work.

The Positives: Embodied Christian Education

So we return to the original question: did these projects represent the kind of Christian education Smith and our biblical narrative advocate for?  We will start by looking at some of the successes, and then move on to the challenges.  As we run through these features, it is worth noting that people familiar with theatre or film or other original collaborative art productions will note many similarities.  I am not claiming that our experiences in these game development projects are completely unique.  Rather, I am evaluating game development as a relatively new field of media production and considering its connection to Smith’s vision of Christian education.

Integration of Theory and Practice: a Kind of Embodied Education

One of the clearly positive features of game development projects was its application of theory to a practical outcome, as is frequently the case with education that uses projects for pedagogical purposes, such as film or theatre production.[2]  We saw firsthand that students took ownership of their work and poured in effort in a manner that would be unusual in a standard lecture-and-discussion course.  They had a clear purpose, a defined end to their efforts, in contrast with a standard course’s promise of being valuable at some unknown point in the future.  The projects also brought previous education into focus. The knowledge they had accumulated in coursework over the previous two or three years suddenly gained extra relevance.

Such benefits, however, are not limited to Christian education: any secular school could do likewise.  An embodied Christian education needs to demonstrate some aspects of kingdom living and must help develop the Christian social imaginary.  One way this happened was in our deliberations over the nature of the content we produced.  The co-instructors established the basic premise and game design parameters of each project in advance, and the appropriateness of such projects coming from a Christian university was always at least implicitly present in our deliberations.

Once we had the overall premises established clearly enough, the whole team had to consider how our faith mattered to the narratives we weaved, the artwork we established, the music we composed, and game mechanics we designed.  We had to consider standards of decency and wholesomeness, for instance.  DyeWorks in particular was built for children, but because of its historical setting and rather inoffensive content, was not difficult to manage in this regard.  Such issues were more present in Label: Rise of Band; the indie music scene is weird and wild and chockfull of offensive material in reality, and if we wanted some degree of verisimilitude, we needed to find a reasonable boundary between edgy authenticity and common decency.  We had to make sure our visual characters were interesting without modeling the unhealthy sexuality of the contemporary music industry.  Our composers created dozens of song clips, and we had to make sure the lyrics were interesting, amusing, and appropriate to our topics and audiences.  The game had a narrative, complete with villains and heroes.  We wrote something like a thousand different band names, and again, we had to continually judge what we felt we could and could not release to the public.

More positively, in both projects, we had to face the challenge of creating redemptive content.  Neither game was explicitly dealing with the Christian narrative, so how could we make something that helped build the kingdom of God?  I don’t believe in either case we ever settled on an answer, or even formally articulated this problem and our possible answers.  Nevertheless, there were certain positive characteristics we were always pursuing.  First, we attempted excellence.  Our capacity was limited when compared to an experienced and well-resourced game development team.  But to the degree that we could, we dreamed, and we executed, and we revised by striving to reach the highest quality in art and design and music and coding.  Similarly, we tried to be as creative as possible.  Both excellence and creativity are artistic values that develop our capacity as humans and thus bring glory to God.  We also continually considered ethical issues surrounding production, most obviously in the areas of plagiarism and copyright.  This was of particular concern in Label: Rise of Band, where we wanted to create a light-hearted representation of 90s indie music.  Our composers had to recreate a wide variety of sounds and thus were constantly imitating actual pop music songs.  While parody is a well-recognized form of artistic expression, we nevertheless had to continually make judgment calls about whether a particular sequence of notes or the sounds of the sampled instruments had crossed the line from (purposeful) imitation into plagiarism.


As much as the content of the games mattered, however, it was the community we formed with our game-makers that was the strongest embodiment of Christian values in our educational projects.  After graduating with my BA, I taught in Africa and Eastern Europe for almost four years in schools for Missionary Kids, and I have never since experienced the kind of tight Christian community my wife and I saw there.  I have come to realize over the last decade and a half of post-secondary teaching that the University classroom is a very difficult place to build a strong sense of fellowship.  At my school, course participants typically only see each other twice a week for seventy-five minutes at a time.  And usually, we don’t have time in those sessions to build the strong relationships that form true community.  These projects, however, were the closest I have ever come to revisiting the strong bonds of Christian fellowship that I experienced with the missionary communities we lived in in the late 90s.  Because of the large number of course hours and the even more significant amount of teamwork done outside of formal class hours that all the participants did—including the instructors—we simply got to know each other better than we ever could in a normal course.  With the DyeWorks project, we even had a room essentially dedicated to our team, which gave a strong sense of home base.

All of this meant that we knew each other’s personalities, our skills and weaknesses, our hopes and dreams, and we could invest in each other’s lives.  We had team parties (complete with video games, of course).  We could and did pray for each other and for the project, as well as the other issues outside the project impacting our lives.  It was an embodiment of what the church can be.

Not all of this community building was sentimental warm fuzzies.  Team work inevitably leads to conflict, and we experienced plenty of that.  Some students didn’t consistently pull their weight, some students had disagreements over just about any aspect of the game, some students had irritating personal mannerisms (as did this instructor!).  One of the strongest aspects of the community building in the project was our management of these relational difficulties.  The co-instructors were in a role of senior management, meaning that we tried to minimize our direct involvement in day-to-day work; one of the most encouraging aspects of both projects was the leadership that many students took in both formal and informal ways to produce cohesive teams and sub-teams, and to help resolve the many troubles people ran into.


Is it Christian Education?

In short, I loved running both projects, and they were, in many ways, tremendously successful.  I plan on applying much of what I picked up in those projects to the BA in Game Development that we are launching at Trinity Western University.  However, in the process of writing this paper, I have been forced to evaluate the projects on their merits as Christian education.  By the standards laid out by Smith, and by the biblical narrative as outlined above, I have to admit the projects fell short.  It’s worth enumerating some of the specific problems in order to help the development of our new program.

For instance, the projects fell short of Smith’s call for education that differs substantially from that of secular institutions.  I don’t mean to say that in all particulars our projects were or are essentially offered at secular colleges and universities.  But in most regards, they could have been.  Smith calls for an education that does not necessarily mimic the patterns of the world, yet we had designers, artists, musicians, software engineers and business people do (or try to do, anyway) what they would have done in a truly professional setting.  In fact, in the first case, we had hoped to finish the game enough that we would be able to sell it off our website.  These projects did not model a truly alternative way of living: they were much closer to the pattern that Smith criticizes as probably inadequate—do what the world does, but with a Christian perspective.  As I argued when discussing other possible interpretations of the biblical narrative, however, I am not certain that a wholesale rejection of the world’s way of making video games is a necessity to effective Christian education.

In addition, although we wrestled with the idea of Christian content in video games—my lesson notes on different approaches Christians have to making art (and video games in particular) make it clear we discussed this quite explicitly—I am not convinced that we went very deep on that particular issue.  While we did indeed work hard on the content issues I described above, we did not typically talk about these issues in an overtly spiritual manner.  We did not regularly bring our content decisions back to biblical principles, nor did we articulate clear standards for doing so.

I would say the same for the way we built the game.  The community we built was special and powerful.  But we did not constantly and consciously bring it back to a spiritual standard.  As already noted, prayer was part of our team interaction.  But the connection between that and the community building was not something we typically discussed.  We tried to model effective and ethical interpersonal problem-solving.  We tried to model responsible use of authority.  We tried to treat everyone with respect, encouraging students to use their gifts, and discouraging tendencies that led to strife or anger.  To the degree we were successful in these attempts, we were experiencing hallmarks of the kingdom of God.  But we did not typically make explicit connections between our behaviours and Christian teachings.

In other words, it is an open question whether the projects were explicitly Christian enough to provide the kind of alternative to secular education that Smith envisions.  An intuitive modeling of faithful team management and spurring creativity are both valuable.  But to help students understand what they could apply in future situations, we probably needed more discussions about how biblical principles applied to what we were doing.  We did discuss such issues occasionally, but the ideas were not as tightly integrated with actions as a truly embodied Christian education should be.

Is it feasible?

Even if we were to practice more intentional and explicit connection-building between Christian beliefs and the project practices, it is worth asking one last question: would such a program be feasible and desirable?  I ask this because as a person concerned with pragmatic issues, I had a hard time with Smith’s call for a truly radical education that might well produce students unlikely to easily plug in to common occupations and economic systems.  There are ideological reasons for questioning this, such as how, in the biblical narratives noted above, God’s people did not necessarily differ in all regards from their neighbors, or the fact that it is difficult for Christians to be witnesses in large segments of our culture if we have no training to be there.  But much more pragmatically, I wondered: who pays for this education?  If the alternative Christian community is little concerned with providing educations that contribute to our current economy, then are we likely to have the resources necessary to provide it?  It is possible I’m misreading Smith or being uncharitable, but any proposed curriculum needs to face similarly pragmatic and challenging questions.

It is, for example, unlikely to be beneficial to have all our standard curriculum replaced with project courses.  Quite simply, lecture-and-discussion courses are frequently more efficient for certain tasks.  Information dumps and non-applied discussions are usually faster ways of covering necessary lessons.  I value the stickiness of applied lessons—they’re easier to remember—but real exploration and application has many dead ends and frustrating wastes of time.  That’s productive sometimes, but not all of the time.  In fact, the distinction between project courses like the ones described here and the more traditional university course is not quite as hard and fast as some might assume.  Research papers are, in a sense, projects, and plenty of other traditional assignments, such as group work and presentations, also qualify as projects—they’re just not as extensive as this game development work and they’re less like professional work.  The game development projects we taught also had formal lessons and even an exam.

In addition, significant project courses like ours are resource-intensive.  Given the diversity of skills the team employs, team-teaching is likely a valuable pedagogical approach, but this makes the course more costly (for that reason, we do not intend to typically do team-teaching in the program we are building).  Software is typically getting cheaper, but hardware requirements for multimedia production, for all the increase in quality and decreasing prices of the last decade or two, is still expensive enough that it would require significant investment to run many projects of this scale.  Perhaps more importantly than this, though, projects like this are time sinks.  While the students were signed up for the equivalent of two regular courses (six semester hours) both in the spring and in the summer session (eight weeks in May and June), everyone realized that participants (and instructors) were doing a lot more work than two courses would normally require.  Media production is time-intensive, and can really take over people’s lives.  Doing such work constantly would have implications for the health of individual students and for entire program (as it does in the real games industry).


I believe our game development projects conformed in some ways to a vision of an embodied Christian education, but there are clearly issues to work on if we are going to use it as a model for our new game development program.  The ability to put our principles into practice both in terms of media production and team building were great opportunities to build the kingdom of God.  But we will have to work hard to make this kind of project feasible in our new program, and we will also have to be more intentional and explicit with both students and instructors about the way in which our faith shapes our practice.

Again, I think many of the issues I’ve noted above are common to other forms of art and media production.  To the degree that we experienced familiar issues, the importance of this evaluation is to point out that game development is a legitimate area for Christian education to invest in.  To the degree that we faced unique problems and opportunities, this paper will help us focus on what issues need special attention.  Either way, my hope is that the blessings we experienced will be something we can experience again in the years to come.


[1] It is worth noting that my University has shifted recently from the language of “Christian integration” to the language of “spiritual formation.”  Part of this move aligns with the theory we will discuss below.

[2] While the benefits of this approach are currently in vogue due to the Project-Based Learning movement, we were not aware of these educational approaches at the time we ran our projects (and the idea of putting theory into practice is hardly new).



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