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Gamifying the Gospel

Gamifying the Gospel

Wreck it Ralph/Disney

Eugene Gan - published on 11/28/13

Our faith isn't a game, but that doesn't mean our outreach on the Internet has to be boring. Make your site more engaging, and you just might reach more people with the Gospel.

We’ve looked at a few gamification examples, some powerful gamification principles, as well as gamification methods to engage your audiences. We conclude this how-to gamification series with some practical steps, tips, and considerations in applying these methods and principles to your faith-based websites and social media.

Earlier, when we discussed the principle of onboarding, we know that we first give then get. Of course, that’s a foundational Christian principle too! So offer your players something of value immediately. Let players experience the beauty of the faith that Christ offers us through what you offer on your site before asking players to register (make the altar call, so to speak) or invite friends (evangelize). Jesus offered food and healing as He taught. Keenly aware of the needs and experiences of His listeners, Our Lord fed the body, heart, and spirit while tailoring His stories and parables to what His listeners saw, heard, knew, and experienced.

It helps to think of your players’ experience on your site in terms of a journey. In gamification circles, the weight-watchers program is an oft-cited example: I’m not at weight-watchers because I want to master weight-watchers. I’m at weight-watchers to master my weight. Weight-watchers is there as a guide and companion on the journey. The more effectively weight-watchers can provide support as guide and companion, the better the commitment and long-term engagement.

Similarly, your site can motivate players to embark on a journey of faith while offering support and guidance. To do this effectively, you want to clearly state the levels of self-mastery and reveal complexity gradually, creating many short-term tasks that are challenging but achievable. You also want to provide frequent feedback and encouragement which in turn helps maintain engagement. If you think about it, this is really about effective teaching. A good teacher points the way to the steps necessary for students to take, provides frequent feedback and encouragement, and inspires students to “conquer” greater levels of mastery. Additionally, it can prove beneficial to let social interactions accompany every level of this journey e.g., communicating with other players at the same level, or with other players who are at earlier and later points in the journey. In practical terms, a novice player might be welcomed and granted access to ask questions and to view comments and articles. Getting your response voted “Best Answer” can bump you up a level. Attaining still higher levels would require you to post reviews or provide feedback and responses. And by garnering “stars” from others’ ratings, you can earn greater trustworthiness for thoughtful contributions and be granted greater (or priority) access to the site or be given access to limited-edition virtual items. You’ve likely already seen a version of this in action: eBay and Amazon for example, both employ buyer ratings and feedback as ways for a seller to gain credibility.

So ask yourself: What do you really want your players to do on your site? What actions do you want your players to perform? To ensure that you have features that are implementable and practical, you’ll want to use verbs when describing these actions. Verbs like “comment”, “explore”, “argue”, “express”, “give”, “donate”, “greet”, “help”, “join”, “support”, “share”, “reflect”, “vote”, “praise”, and “invite” are good starting points. Then select the top three (or five, but too many and you begin to quickly lose focus). For example, you might want your players to share their goals and invite others to sign up on your site, in which case you want to reward players accordingly when those they invite join your site. Clear objectives and well-defined rules of play greatly aid in ensuring that players feel empowered to achieve their goals.

And while it is much easier and simpler to apply a point-based reward system for achieving those goals, as Christians, the greater challenge is to focus on cultivating a player’s internal motivation, meaning that our goal is to support players in finding meaning in what they’re doing on their spiritual journeys, ultimately in deepening their relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We want to get to the point where even if the external rewards are taken away, the player will still be motivated to stay the course. Your site might be the Areopagus that connects players with one another, providing mutual support for such a journey.

Additionally, avoid over-concerning yourself with players who are going to try to “game the system”. First – and this is a major stumbling block for many – you’ve got to accept that if there’s any value to be had in the system, there will always (let me repeat – always) be players who will try to game the system to extract value. Do your best to remove from your minds the idea that the system (your website, online social forum) has to be forcefully policed. One good way to get over this controlled kind of thinking is to call to mind that because of the great love that God has for us, He gives us free will and the freedom to choose. This is astounding: we’re even given the freedom to reject Our Father and to choose hell for ourselves. So avoid starting off day one with trying to design your players’ experience of your site around preventing players from gaming the system. Begin, as Jesus did, with the good stuff – the Good News. Be smart about building a means to “roll back” to a previous saved state, a way to pause the game administratively and “redo” so to speak. Encourage self-moderation through social “leveling up” and badges, and use status, access, and virtual goods to attract moderators and sysops from the community. In other words, the players themselves can help moderate the system.

It’s helpful also to think of parenting in this context. Kids, like it or not, are going to test any parent and try to game the growing-up system with an I-want-it-my-way gameplay. As parents, we have choices in how we respond to this behavior. We might police them with an iron rod, or choose to turn a blind eye, or we can find ways that both discipline and teach. As any parent can attest, there are times when it takes a timeout or a repetition of the same thing over and over to get the message through. It works similarly online: sometimes it takes several repetitions of the same thing over and over to get the message through. Other times, it might mean a timeout (in online terms, this might mean a player is banned from posting). The fear of our kids gaming the system doesn’t stop us from striving to be loving parents. Similarly, don’t let a fear of players gaming the system stop you from creating an engaging site experience. Build one step at a time and grow with the site and your players.

All the above is helpful when you have a good number of players who can interact with one another on your site. But what if you’re starting out with insufficient players? One solution is to focus o
n creating a system in which a small, core group of players are competing amongst themselves in the beginning, and then gradually grow this group to include other players as the number of players registering on your site grows. Groupon, whose system depends on large numbers of players to function effectively, began by requiring that a player form a group with other players (by sending out an ‘SOS’ to others) to enjoy a discount (the motivation). The effort rests on the player to get others to join. It proved an effective way to move past the difficulty of getting a large number of players in the first place. Gifting (easily transferable or exchangeable points, status, or virtual goods) is another way to encourage others to join. Recall that both Gmail and Pinterest began by-invitation-only: you got an account when someone else invited you to join.

All this said, I’m going to preempt a question that someone, somewhere will sooner or later ask: in building faith-based sites, should we really be using gamification? In more generic terms, should we be “gamifying our faith”? It depends on how we understand that question. Our faith, our relationship with Our Father isn’t a game. It’s a familial relationship. He’s my Daddy and I’m his kid, not his pawn. Knowing this and always cognizant of pointing to the deeper underlying motivation, it’s conceivable to, for example, make it fun to compete with one another in memorizing Scripture verses. In this sense, it’s even possible to have the mindset of competing with one another in charity, in racing to the finish and in competing to become saints (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24, 1 Timothy 1:18, 2 Timothy 4:7). Two of my boys have recently started competing to do the dishes for each other and the family, sometimes even doing it ‘secretly’ so that they can surprise each other with this charitable ‘gift’. I’m definitely okay with this. In fact, I sincerely hope they keep leveling up. Game on.

Dr Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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