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Hardly a day goes by without an editorial or video being published by a concerned parent lamenting their children’s obsession with Fortnite. If you are a parent yourself, as summer dawns, you are likely bracing yourself for the barrage of requests for permission to finally play or pleas for more screen time to play with friends. From June 2018 to March 2019, Fortnite’s player base grew from 125 million players to 250 million1 making it one of the most popular games in the world. Depending on who you talk to, Fortnite is either a colorful game that promotes creative problem solving and teamwork or something more akin to an illegal drug. For many parents it can feel impossible to discern between unwarranted moral panic and reasonable loving concern.
What’s most troubling about Fortnite is not its violence, which is not particularly graphic, but its reward structures. The game essentially trains players to maintain a steady diet of the game to keep earning V-bucks to spend on dances, Skins (clothing, accessories, and such that change the look of your character), emotes (character voices and callouts that players can employ in matches). This isn’t anything new, dozens of other games operate similarly, Fortnite is simply the latest game to employ these compulsion-driven reward systems2 expertly in a way that appeals to massive numbers of players, many of whom are preteens and younger.
At the ministry I co-founded, Love Thy Nerd,3 we’ve addressed how the game’s virtual marketplace causes problems in the home.4 However, there is much intrinsic value in games5 — they can teach us empathy, help us build community, and can be beneficial to our mental health when played in moderation. Games provide us opportunities to connect with people who are different from us around a shared interest — games can be engaged missionally.6 Additionally, it is important to note that the concept of play is a biblical one — the story of the Bible begins and ends with play. After creating the world, on the seventh day, God rested from all His work as a gift and example to us (Gen. 2:1–3). Furthermore, Zechariah’s vision of the new heavens and new earth includes boys and girls playing in the streets of a renewed Jerusalem (Zech. 8:5; see also Isa. 11:8). As author Kevin Schut has pointed out, “video games have tremendous positive potential: the escape they provide can be one of healthy renewal of appreciation for God’s creation.”7
When I hear that Fortnite is causing so many problems in the home, I fear many will take that as an opportunity to be done with games altogether. I think that would be a mistake, particularly when there are so many worthwhile games out there with redemptive themes and benefits, so I would like to highlight some of those games. Since summer is a time when we have more free time than usual to devote to our families, I would like to highlight some board games as well. There are games that provide healthier, less compulsive, reward loops and provide kids and parents with intrinsic rewards that are far more valuable than Fortnite skins or emotes. These are games around which you and your children can have meaningful theological conversations, and games can help them build healthier relationships — both with technology and with you.
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Things get crazy pretty quickly in Overcooked 8, the popular cooperative speed-cooking game which was recently released in a special edition for the Nintendo Switch and launched a sequel. Initially you are cooking in simple kitchens. Before long you are in a kitchen made up of two food trucks speeding down a highway that periodically separate from one another, dividing tools, supplies, and even players. On its face, Overcoooked is a simple cooperative cooking game for 1–4 players. On closer examination, it’s a game about growing in our understanding, patience, and forgiveness toward others. To prepare the orders you are given with any level of efficiency requires working well with your teammates. In doing so there is often a player that is holding you back and, honestly, it can be pretty frustrating. Succeeding at Overcooked requires pushing through this frustration by patiently working out a solution that allows each player to play to their strengths. Success in Overcooked is not that different from how a healthy church operates — it requires acknowledging the giftings of others and helping them use those gifts for the greater good (see 1 Cor. 12:12–27).
Commissioned 9 from Chara Games, is a cooperative game that asks players to take on the role of early Christian Apostles. Players must work together to mature their faith decks, grow the church, collect the books of the New Testament, and overcome persecution. While players do not need to know anything about church history to enjoy the game, they will learn about the subject as they play. The game includes five scenarios that cover the first 150 years of church history, two difficulty levels, and a one-vs-all variation. It’s a challenging cooperative experience that requires teamwork and strategy while investigating and celebrating the efforts of the early church in the process.
Celeste10 is a mountain climbing platformer from Matt Makes Games, makers of Towerfall: Ascension. It’s a game about overcoming your mistakes — this is important because players will make a lot of them. Players will quickly lose track of the many, many times, they slip off a ledge or miss a jump, sending their character careening down a cliff. While the game might fall into the “masocore” genre, a new term that refers to games that are so difficult that they appear impossible to finish, Celeste feels warmer than most similar games. This is due to its vibrant colors and lovely soundtrack and its protagonist’s journey of overcoming anxiety and self doubt which mirrors the player experience. Recommended for teens, Celeste is a game that encourages players to let go of their anxieties (Phil. 4:6) and to refuse to let their pasts define them.
In Awkward Moment11, 3–8 players take turns being the “Decider” who draws a Moment card to reveal a stressful, embarrassing, or hysterical situation. Players will then give a Reaction card from their hand to the Decider as an answer to how they would react to the situation laid out on the Moment card. Like Apples to Apples, the Decider gets to choose their favorite reaction on whatever basis she or he chooses. There are also Decider cards that determine the basis for the winning reaction: “hardest to do,” “most courageous,” or “most kind,” and so forth. It’s a great game for older teens as it acknowledges and thereby de-stigmatizes many of the awkward situations they face on a regular basis. While the game’s primary benefit is the laughter that ensues, it provides players the opportunity to better understand and care for one another (Phil. 2:3–4).
Best known for its iconic supercomputer villain, GLaDOS, the original Portal (2007) wowed players with its superbly designed physics-based puzzles and its surprisingly thoughtful story that poses interesting questions about free will and human depravity. The sequel, Portal 212, adds an extra dose of humor and new gameplay features including tractor beams, lasers, light bridges, and paint-like gels that alter player movement or allow portals to be placed on any surface. The second game features new characters Cave Johnson and Wheatley, voiced by Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant. The sequel also has one of the best cooperative modes of any game in which two players must work together to escape a series of test chambers of increasing difficulty. Portal 2 is rated E-10+ for fantasy violence and mild language. It’s a great game to challenge your teen’s problem-solving skills, get them thinking, and maybe even work on teamwork in the cooperative mode. Even though Portal 2’s most interesting characters are Artificial Intelligence, the game will have teens thinking about what makes them human as well as the grounding for their own moral decision making.
Legacy games, a new trend in board games, are board games that require multiple successive playthroughs to complete. In other words, each game builds off the previous games and introduces new mechanics and challenges. Good legacy games also force players to adjust to both their successes and failures in previous games, making each playthrough more memorable. Board game designer Rob Daviau, creator of Risk Legacy, is responsible for popularizing the genre. Daviau recently teamed up with another board game designer, Matt Lecock, to create a legacy version of Leacock’s popular disease fighting game Pandemic. Like the original, Pandemic Legacy13 is a cooperative board game where 2–4 players work together to find cures for deadly diseases plaguing the world. It’s a great game for team building and a nice change of pace for those who don’t like the tensions of competitive board games. For you and your teen, the ultimate value of Pandemic Legacy is that the game forces you to live with your past mistakes and their impact on the world.
Video games, perhaps more than any other medium, have the power to teach players empathy by putting players in the shoes of others and giving them agency. “Bury me, my love” is a Syrian goodbye phrase that roughly means, “Take care, don’t even think about dying before I do.” The game is a text messaging adventure about Nour, a Syrian migrant trying to find her way to Europe. Her husband Majd, who remains behind in Syria, communicates with Nour through a messaging app, advising her as best he can so that she reaches her destination safely. The game steers clear of making any political statements and instead provides players a window into the lives of fellow image-bearers whose world is quite different from our own. At the heart of the Christian faith is a God who loved us so much that He took on human flesh to love and serve us despite our sin (Phil. 2:5–11). Bury Me, My Love14 is a rare game that challenges us to acknowledge the humanity of our overseas neighbors and love them. While the game is rated for everyone 10 and up, it presents players with some difficult moral decisions that make it best for older teens.
If you’ve played any board game with lots of small pieces, like Settlers of Catan, you’ve probably found yourself stacking the pieces on top of one another for fun in between turns. In light of this Cedric Millet decided to design a board game where the chief object is simply to stack your pieces on top of one another. Meeple Circus15 is a party game where 2–5 players compete to create the tallest, most creative, and most crowd-pleasing balancing acts using a variety of circus-themed wooden figures. There is a free app that plays circus music and times competitors as they play. The game’s final act changes things up such that players perform their act one at a time while navigating some hilarious communication challenges. Meeple Circus is easy to learn yet challenging to master and most importantly provides plenty of opportunities for children and their parents to let their guard down and be silly together around the table.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe16 might just be the definitive iteration of one of Nintendo’s most beloved series. The game is an update of Mario Kart 8, which originally released in 2014 on the Wii U. Nintendo, however, has added several new features including new tracks, characters, game modes, and controls in hopes of making the game even more accessible. The most exciting new feature is the addition of several new multiplayer battle modes that require teamwork and strategy. Deluxe has also added some new control features that make it easier for new players to pick up and enjoy. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is rated E for everyone and is a great game not only for kids but for the whole family to enjoy together.
Set in an alternate-history 1920’s period, Scythe17 is a board game about “farming and war, broken hearts, and rusted gears, and innovation and valor.” In the game 1–5 players (it also has a solo variant) take on the role of a leader of a faction attempting to restore order to their faction by building, exploring, researching, and even battling other players. It’s a race to exert influence on the world in which players must also manage their popularity as well as the threats of other players. Scythe is more complicated than most board games, but it’s also more rewarding — a great game to play with older children who want to test their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. For those willing to dig a bit deeper, Scythe is a window into the world in which we live where nations are constantly competing and even battling with one another for resources and influence. In other words, for the discerning parent, Scythe is a rare game that could provide opportunities for conversations about the state of the world and what it looks like to follow Christ in a world fueled by selfishly motivated conflict and competition.
Splatoon 218 is a rare team-based shooter game because you don’t have to shoot other players. Instead, you can just shoot paint at the level. Shooting (painting) walls or ceilings or trees is just as beneficial to your team as “splatting” (shooting) other players with one of the game’s many ink guns. Thus Splatoon 2 is more accessible and far less violent than most shooting games. The goal of the game’s main mode is simple: shoot more ink onto the map than the opposing team. There are also modes in which players can work together to fight off oncoming computer-controlled enemies, but the primary appeal here is online team battles. Splatoon 2 is rated E10 — suitable for everyone 10 and up and contains some comic violence.
The best thing about Rhino Hero is how easy and fun it is for the whole family. It’s basically reverse Jenga with cards — instead of moving blocks in a pre-existing tower, Rhino Hero19 requires players to build a tower with cards and, when prompted, place a wooden rhino character on top of the structure without causing it to collapse. Its publisher, Haba Games, is known for creating thoughtful and appealing children’s games that don’t operate on mere luck. Rhino Hero is great for kids 5 and up but is honestly just as fun with a group of teens or adults, as the challenge of carefully placing cards without knocking over the tower is great at any age.
Don’t let the horror stories you’ve heard of kids driving their parents mad asking to play more and more Fortnite keep you from engaging the world of games altogether. There are certainly video games you and your children are better off without and the moment games begin to take more from us or our children than they give, we need to reexamine our relationship with them. However, there is much to be gained from engaging video and board games missionally and thoughtfully. Furthermore, one of the simplest ways you can express love for your children is to take a genuine interest in the the things they are interested in and chances are your children are interested in games. So why not try out a game that interests you on this list and investigate it, ask questions, and play together with your children?
Drew Dixon is director of content for Love Thy Nerd, a ministry dedicated to bringing the hope of Christ to nerds and nerd culture. He is the editor of LifeWay’s Explore the Bible: Students and has written for Christian Research Journal, Christianity Today, WORLD, Paste, and Relevant magazines, and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82.
- Ben Gilbert, “How Big is Fortnite?” Business Insider, March 20, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-people-play-fortnite-2018-11
- Alexandre Mandryka, “Compulsion Loop Is Withdrawl-Driven” Game Whispering, August 10, 2016, http://gamewhispering.com/compulsion-loop-withdrawal-driven/
- Zach Carpenter, “Dear Fortnite Mom,” Love Thy Nerd, July 30, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/dear-fortnite-mom/
- More Than Fun: 5 Intrinsic Values of Video Games,” Love Thy Nerd, July 25, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/more-than-fun-5-intrinsic-values-of-videogames/
- Drew Dixon, “Comic Cons, Geek Culture, and the Mission of Christ,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 40, Number 06, https://www.equip.org/article/comic-cons-geek-culture-and-the-mission-of-christ/
- Kevin Schut, “Can God Fit in This Machine? Video Games and Christians,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 36, Number 03, https://www.equip.org/article/can-god-fit-in-this-machine-video-games-and-christians/
- Overcooked, http://www.ghosttowngames.com/overcooked/
- Commissioned, http://www.charagames.com/games/commissioned/
- Celeste, http://www.celestegame.com/
- Awkward Moment, https://tiltfactor.org/game/awkward-moment/
- Portal 2, http://www.thinkwithportals.com/
- Pandemic Legacy, http://www.leacock.com/pandemic-legacy
- Bury Me, My Love, http://burymemylove.arte.tv/
- Meeple Circus, https://www.matagot.com/en/catalog/details/family-games/3/meeple-circus/894
- Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/mario-kart-8-deluxe-switch/
- Scythe, https://stonemaiergames.com/games/scythe/
- Splatoon 2, https://splatoon.nintendo.com/
- Rhino Hero, https://www.habausa.com/rhino-hero/