Ready Player One, Geek Culture, and the Church

ready-player-one-new-poster-1

Geek culture made headlines on Easter weekend with the release of Ready Player One, a novel-turned-film that’s jam packed with references to movies, comic books, anime, and video games. The movie brought in over $181 million worldwide on its first weekend, giving director Steven Spielberg his biggest opening in a decade.  For those who haven’t heard of it, Ready Player One is a story of a dystopian future in which the last place of exploration and wonder is the OASIS, a virtual reality world where everyone goes to be who they want to be.  With all of the ways that the story references geek and pop culture (even going so far as to incorporate movies and video games into the plot itself), it’s very much a celebration of all the creativity found there.

It’s also a story that rejects the idea of God.  In the book, the main character Wade Watts describes his disbelief in any sort of higher power or authority, and how he felt lied to by everyone who suggested that God or heaven existed.  James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS and Watts’ role model, was an atheist as well.  Even when Watts describes his relationship with a kind old Christian lady who lives in the slums with him, he chalks up her adherence to organized religion as “a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going.”  While the story doesn’t spend much time focusing on religion, it’s clearly grounded in the humanistic idea that we are all that we have; there’s nothing beyond what we can see and create with our own hands, and all we can do is make today better for ourselves.

In a sense, Ready Player One is an embodiment of geek culture as a whole.  It’s full of creativity and imagination, expanding the mind in new and unexpected ways and challenging pre-conceived ideas; at the same time, it lacks an understanding of where that creativity comes from, and the true foundation that we need to stand upon in order to evaluate the ideas that it challenges (as well as the new ideas that it presents).

And for the church, it’s proof that the need for Christian involvement in geek culture is greater than ever.

Ready Player One movie cameos

Geek and gaming culture has a huge (and ever growing) impact on Western culture as a whole; U.S. consumers alone spent $30.4 billion dollars on the video game industry in 2016.  The popularity of comic book characters has expanded beyond paper pages to now dominate the box office, with movies like The Dark Knight, Logan, and The Avengers gaining critical praise and/or breaking box office records.  Tens of thousands of people flock to gaming conventions like Gen Con and The Penny Arcade Expo every year.  Even the sports world has taken notice, as ESPN now has a dedicated Esports section on their website.

Yet the church has been slow to react to these developments, and sadly, many of the times they have reacted have been more harmful than helpful.  The panic in Christian circles in the 1980s surrounding Dungeons & Dragons left many non-Christians with a bitter taste in their mouths, and the effects of that era still reverberate today.  The church has done very little over the years to ingratiate themselves to the gaming community; the average unbelieving gamer’s opinion of Christians is more likely to be swayed by an old video of a preacher denouncing Pokémon as satanic than it is by any experience of a Christian befriending him or chatting about how the gospel enhances the way we approach culture.  As a result, Christianity (and organized religion in general) is mocked and derided by geeks and gamers, and geek culture has grown up largely without Christian influence.

The church’s general disdain for geek culture has had negative affects on believers as well.  I’ve heard stories from people about how geeky Christians can feel as if they have no place to turn to for support: the geek community views them suspiciously for their faith, while their fellow Christians view them as outsiders for dressing in cosplay or playing video games.  A friend of mine often tells of a time when he spoke at a church about gamers, and after the presentation, two people came up to him, independent of one another, to tell him that they were gamers and that they were afraid to tell others in their church.  I’ve even heard of respected leaders within churches who are unable to tell the rest of their leadership teams that they play games, for fear of the backlash.

dungeon master

With gaming becoming more prominent in all of our lives, Christians simply cannot afford to stand on the sidelines making dismissive comments.  If we want to reach out to those around us, we need to understand geek culture, and be able to provide the kind of insight and constructive criticism that will earn people’s respect and trust.  In doing this, we have a biblical example to follow: the account of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

While Paul waited for his companions in Athens, he took time to look around the city and learn about its inhabitants and their customs.  He noted the idolatry in the city, as well as the Athenians’ love of discussing and debating new ideas.  When Paul had the opportunity to address those at the Areopagus, he appealed to their own religious customs, connecting their altar to an “unknown god” to the true God that he wanted to share with them.  He didn’t try to scare them with fire and brimstone or entice them with empty sentimentality; he learned about their beliefs and interests, and presented the gospel to them in a way that they could understand.

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

The same principle applies today as we reach out to those that God has put into our lives.  Francis Schaffer reiterated this idea, stating it this way:

“Each generation of the church in each setting has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought-forms of that setting.”

A Christian sharing the gospel with a car enthusiast should know something about cars; a Christian ministering to a group of athletes should be able to talk with them about sports.  And a Christian who reaches out to geeks needs to learn about geek culture.  How does one do this?  It means learning how to play various games with people and creating a healthy, toxicity-free space in which everyone can have fun.  It means going to conventions and complimenting attendees for the work that they put into their cosplay.  It means consuming enough geeky media that you can recognize some of the references you see in a movie like Ready Player One.

As a church, we’ve kicked the can as far down the road as possible.  Geek culture is taking center stage in our society, and Christians need to be able to speak into it, constructively, in order to reach the world around us.  God’s kingdom extends not just to our work and family life, but to our recreation as well; let us throw ourselves eagerly into building that kingdom, in confidence that God will do incredible things through his servants.

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