During the pandemic, we all spent more time at home, often adopting new habits and hobbies along the way. I coped with stress by playing more video games, particularly open-world games. This gaming genre offered me unique virtual scenery and an escape from all too familiar surroundings. Even as the world has opened up, I’ve enjoyed a few hours each week experiencing the creativity and freedom these worlds can provide.
Video games aren’t for everyone, and some video games are even less so. Developer FromSoftware prides itself on creating titles with nuanced and challenging gameplay. I tried a previous game they released in 2019 and was simultaneously overwhelmed by the fantastic graphics and world-building and frustrated by how difficult the game was.
Early this year, FromSoftware released Elden Ring, a new game that melded its role-playing action formula into the open-world format that I love. As I saw glowing review after glowing review, I watched closely to see what people would come to say about how difficult it was. Eventually, I gave in and decided to give it a spin.
After about 40 hours of play, stretched out over 2.5 months, I am still what is called a beginner. Others have logged hundreds of hours into the game, most taking close to 100 hours to finish the main plotline. Looking at my time log the other day got me thinking about the draw of this game for myself and millions of others (it sold 12 million copies in its first two weeks alone). And as a church professional, I stopped and wondered how this game could generate this level of enthusiasm and time investment and what we could learn from that.
Here are four things I am thinking about:
Elden Ring is challenging, but it gives people different ways to engage in this challenge.
As I mentioned, FromSoftware games have a reputation for being difficult; this one is also hard. Implementing the open-world format adds to the difficulty in some ways, but it also liberates the player to approach things differently and at their own pace. If something is too hard, I can leave and come back to it later when my character is stronger. As I do, there are plenty of things to keep me occupied and interested.
Too often, the church works hard to make things easy. While accessibility is a value, we focus on ‘easy church’ and may leave some people with the wrong impression. Instead of providing spiritual growth and depth as a goal for all — at a pace that allows them to grow — people assume development isn’t for everyone. Pastors are the expert players, and the rest of us get to watch. Some people, unchallenged, leave for something that will offer them the purpose they crave.
Elden Ring is confident. It creates a world that isn’t going to appeal to everyone.
While there is evident beauty in the ‘lands between’ of Elden Ring, it is also filled with strange creatures, some you might expect to see again in a nightmare. Elden Ring is not Animal Crossing with its cute animations, but it is striking and supports the game’s narrative.
Sometimes we are too scared to develop faith communities which might be off-putting to some. While knowing that God’s love for all people is good and holy, it’s unrealistic to expect that we can simultaneously appeal to all in ways that deeply resonate. And let’s be honest, while some churches still fight over contemporary and traditional music, often the difference is much harder to notice (with neither often appealing to ‘young’ people).
This tendency we have to universalize church limits our ability to reach people looking for something different. It also leaves us less capable of adapting to the communities God has embedded us in, in meaningful ways. Whenever our congregations don’t look much like their neighborhoods in demographic composition, it is likely an indicator that we have work left ahead of us.
Elden Ring provides distinct play styles for people wanting to try something different.
If you prefer to be a warrior who uses a sword and shield, you can do that. Want to be a magic user or focus instead on stealth? Those are options, too and choosing them will significantly impact how you play the game. The differences are great enough that people are starting over and playing through this giant game again with a new character.
While there are many different ways to respond to God’s calling upon our lives, it can often feel overly simplified in the church. Laity and clergy become big catch-alls and create, at times, unhelpful separations between the gifts needed for ministry and the people we envision for it.
Healthy churches are often less pastor-centered, with programs and outreach ministries offering an array of ways people can be engaged in their mission. It can also be valuable not to assume members always want to bring the gifts or skills they utilize during their “day jobs” to ministry. In fact, the church might be the only place where there could explore or use other gifts they have.
Elden Ring rewards exploration. We can too.
As I mentioned at the top, this game isn’t easy and sometimes, you need to give up on a particular task and come back when you are truly ready for it. Elden Ring is well designed for this, offering many side-quests and curiosities, so one is rarely ever bored. The game is also somewhat mystifying, with answers that need to be sought out.
The Christian tradition is also deep and rich, growing even more so when we approach its roots in Judaism. There is a tendency, especially in Protestantism, to focus on one theological tradition, which is disappointing when so much can be learned by exploring outside of one’s theological silo.
Expanding our view of the Christian tradition allows us to understand our distinctive beliefs better while also allowing us to appreciate a diverse range of practices and beliefs that developed as people of faith interacted with their world. We are sure to find things we don’t like in the process, but we may surprise ourselves by discovering something that strengthens our spirit from well beyond our small portion of the Christian world.
I am nowhere close to completing Elden Ring, and, similarly, I have many places where I could still level up in my spirituality. When I get stuck in Elden Ring, I can find support in the form of the many FAQs and community-based forums dedicated to the game. Christian community, at its best, can do the same for us as we walk the road together.
Engagement got me thinking about this post: my 40+ hour investment in a video game and the church’s challenge in engaging new people (and some of our existing people) in meaningful ways. I hope this reflection will cause you to think about, and maybe inspire you to try, something new in your faith community.
If you have thoughts or questions, leave them below in the comments.