Playing Theology

I’ve just finished a review of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom for Teaching Theology & Religion, the journal of theologico-religious-studies pedagogy. The review only allows 500 words, which I stretch a bit, and it’s formally constrained — so I’ll expatiate a little here, in the manner of a pub conversation about the book. I know that Liz (not here, Liz?)is using this book enthusiastically at RIT, and there’s an online community of academic gamifiers at Gaming the Classroom and likewise a Facebook page for the book and its users.
First of all, I’m dead certain that gamification has significant benefits for theological education if approached and deployed sensitively. The key insight — that people from all walks of life, with varying capacities, willingly (nay, eagerly) learn a great amount in a relatively short while if they actually want to learn — poses a serious challenge to all who teach. If students select your course, but do not show themselves willing to learn, what is going wrong? Surely it isn’t all ‘the teacher’s fault’, but we may too rapidly point to extrinsic obstacles to learning. The widespread tendency to scapegoat teachers doesn’t imply that the opposite tendency (to set teachers above criticism) should prevail. Teaching involves a variety of obligations, but if we decline to frame our instruction in winsome ways, we’ve chosen a way that will predictably deter some students.
To return to Sheldon’s book, much as I’m a proponent of learning from games as an enhancement to our pedagogical repertoires, I don’t find Sheldon’s book as helpful as I wished I would — and I especially doubt that many teachers in TRS will find it helpful. For instance, the preponderance of the book treats topics in academic areas (science, technology, engineering) that don’t transfer very obviously to T/RS. An imaginative teacher will be able to negotiate the distances and differences, but that requires an increment of determination that some teachers — many, I suspect — won’t sense the urgency of mustering. Sheldon lauds his supportive administrators, and bless them, and bless him. Practitioners whose admins look with suspicion on innovation, or who eagerly pounce on possible ‘failures’ to hang on the neck of adventuresome teachers, or who load up teachers with such daily work that they labour and are heavy laden, will understandably hesitate before they apply suggestions that risk disapprobation from higher-ups.
Likewise, Sheldon puts much emphasis on the appurtenances of gaming in the courses he designs. That makes perfect sense when one is teaching game design — but that’s pretty different from teaching the history of Buddhism (‘Our sangha is called the Hillhead Bowling Club!’), or Political Theology. Yes, certainly, one can work out congruences and translations, but the book displays mostly STE (not ‘M’) and especially game-design applications.
A more helpful book — for teachers in Theology and Religious Studies — might have started from the premise that students often find it difficult to master the welter of different terms, rhetorical moves, discursive rules, textures of what counts as ‘evidence’ and who counts as an ‘authority’. By framing a skill-acquisition context in which to develop the background competencies (the way that grinding particular sorts of mobs prepares gamers to face more intricate, more powerful boss encounters), a TRS teacher might distinguish the capacities and background knowledge vital for excelling in TRS (much of which is usefully transferable from course to course) from mastery of the course subject itself. One can certainly imagine a student as a beginning ‘player-character’ without the possible institutional risks of naming your biblical-studies students ‘Hebrews’, ‘Hellenists’, ‘Herodians’, and ‘Hasmoneans’* and assigning them to level up their avatars (from the classes of ‘scribe’, ‘prophet’, ‘sage’, ‘lawgiver’, ‘bandit’, and so on) through quests in first-century Galilee and Judea
Another drawback to Sheldon’s book is his relative inexperience as an institutional academic (he’s been teaching gamers for years, of course), which colours some of his presentations. Other relatively new-minted teachers may read and nod in sympathy, but older geezers may turn up their noses at Sheldon’s rookie mistakes, or his tone of having discovered truths that teachers have been practising in one way or another for years. Again, this isn’t an intrinsic problem with Sheldon’s pedagogy or even the book — it does, however, run the risk of attenuating his uptake, especially among teachers sensitive about their status (and a very great proportion of teachers is either deeply anxious or lying).
And I should acknowledge what some readers will hasten to remind me if I don’t state — that there remain pivotal questions about motivation (intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards) and trivialisation (possibly engendering among students the sense that critical questions about interreligious understanding can reasonably regarded as a game in which the object is to attain Enlightenment by circumambulating the library stacks a hundred times). Those topics are worth working through with practitioners and theorists, absolutely; they don’t occupy centre stage in Sheldon‘s book, though).
So I remain unwaveringly confident about the importance of applied gaming for theological teaching — but I’m not sure Sheldon’s book will win over my colleagues. Maybe someone else will take up the challenge, or maybe TRS pedagogy will so maintain its cloistered seriousness that it forgoes the insight into skill-acquisition and captivating, immersive learning and sticky knowledge that game designers must incorporate into their structures for learning. If what we do is more important than building online games (as many of my colleagues will insist), ought we not know at least as much about how to cultivate willing learners as game designers know?


* I know that proposing two groups, one Herodian and another Hasmonean, is redundant, but I liked the alliteration. Call the last one ‘Hessenes’ if you want.

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