As many Anglican leaders look for alternative ways of being church in the 21st century, one M.Div student at Halifax’s Atlantic School of Theology is investigating ways of branching out into digital gathering spaces. In a research project he’s developing as part of his degree, Blane Finnie, a postulant to priesthood, has built several church buildings and run daily services in Eco, an online multiplayer video game that simulates a world in which players must cooperate or compete to survive, typically harnessing natural resources, taking specialized roles and trading with one another in an in-game economy.
Finnie has focused his efforts on one server, a dedicated computer with its own group of players that hosts a separate game world. Within that server, Finnie has gathered the resources to build churches and held worship services by speaking over the game’s voice chat. He even collects donations to an in-game charity account from which other players can withdraw when they need help to survive or keep their virtual businesses afloat.
The idea, he says, is to get a sense of how players react to an overt Christian presence in an otherwise secular online meeting space. The server he uses is small, with around 20 people total, but the degree of interest other players have shown has exceeded his expectations.
Online games are playing an increasing role in culture and social life; according to one industry report, the global gaming market was valued at $159 billion (U.S.) in 2020, almost four times more than the global movie industry, at $41.7 (U.S.). Games may also allow churches to form relationships with people who might otherwise seldom encounter Christian ideas, Finnie says.
With the data-gathering portion of his project in full swing, Finnie sat down with the Anglican Journal to talk about the response so far. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the game like?
Eco was originally designed as an educational game. Imagine Minecraft, but the world has an ecosystem on it. There’s trees and animals and fish, the players take professions and you need a mixture of professions to accomplish anything. The game is essentially a secular place; there’s no inherent religion in the game in any way.
I’ve acted as transparently Christian as possible and have tried to use iconography as well as gameplay to behave in that way. I started in the server with the church. I conduct nightly services—Compline, which usually precipitates religious conversation. I offer charity so people can come and just take money if they need money.
It’s a social game. I’ve got a lot of engagement with players talking about whatever they want to talk about. When the server run is done, I’ll be contacting several of the people who engage with me or potentially didn’t engage with me and just debrief them on all this.
So it’s a transient community?
Yes and no. It is transient, but a lot of players tend to come back to the same servers because they also get to know each other and they want to play together. We’re now down to around 20 [online at once]. It’s a very community-focused game because if you don’t know your neighbour, you can’t really accomplish anything.
One of the first things I heard about your project is that you were trying to see if you could disrupt the economy by giving things away for free. Is that a correct representation?
Not exactly. I am trying to cause disturbance in any way that would work, whether that be in the economy or in the culture of the server, because I want responses. That’s where the data will come from. I don’t want to damage the economy because that would just be an attack on the community. No one wants that.
There are exceptions. The soup kitchen gives away food that’s getting old for basically nothing. I do give away bread and wine for almost nothing as well as I’m able to. The most disruptive thing that I do is I collect alms from people that have more money than they want, and then I give money away completely free. There’s no strings attached. You just come by and you just take money if you want.
But money is generalized enough that it doesn’t affect any specific person?
Absolutely. Everyone on some level knows that if somebody is poor and they come and they collect some money, that puts them back in the economy. Most of the players look very positively at this.
Engagement has been significantly higher than I expected. The first day, some people were surprised by the church and really surprised that there was actually worship happening in the church. But since then, I’ve had people attend worship every single day. And I’ve had fairly long conversations. I’ve had one request for a pastoral visit. The alms has seen a lot of engagement.
The first night, one of the people that came to worship identified as being pagan, and we have at least one atheist regularly coming to worship.
What would be a typical conversation your worship services would start?
Topics range from what you might describe as theological confusion or religious education components, about the afterlife or about polytheism, about the history of Christianity and just misunderstandings about theology generally.
Some conversations have ended up being about American politics (there are lots of Americans in this group); others have been about sex and relationships, marriage and pornography, things like that. Or [we’ll talk about] the inability to talk about these things in public spaces [in the players’ lives outside the game] or have a forum where this is acceptable conversation; it’s a very broad spectrum. They’re taking these conversations seriously, and I think they seem to value that there’s a space to have these conversations.
What does holding an in-game worship service entail?
I shortened things for the nature of the community, but for the most part, it’s been the Compline service in Common Worship:Daily Prayer, which is a publication of the Church of England. Last night I asked the other players, and we did Compline from the Book of Common Prayer. There’s one person so far that’s been participating in the psalm. The psalm has been done responsively, which is nice, but mostly it’s me. Like I said, data is still being accumulated. The backgrounds of players are very diverse.
What would you say was your average attendance at the services?
Probably four. A small service would be two or three, and a big service would be five or six. There’s some regulars and some that come not nearly as regularly. There’s some also attending as community, so they’re looking for their other friends to show up.
What can we say in terms of application of the lessons you will have learned here when you’re finished? Do you think having a regular project of outreach through online games is a good idea for churches in general?
To be ignoring video games as a cultural force is really problematic. They’re one of the biggest cultural forces in the world. Video games make liberal use of religious imagery and religious content, either in the form of villains, or in some cases there’s now what we call empathy games—games that deal with moral issues head on. It’s a very important part of our culture.
We’ve compartmentalized religion enough that people don’t have access to spaces where this can be explored, and they end up looking for ways to explore it. I didn’t anticipate the level of engagement I got though, which tells me that people are very hungry. The old principle of, if they’re not going to come to you, go where they are—it works. Churches need to go where people are. People are on video games, so we should be there too.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Finnie was referring to around 20 players being in-game at a time, not in total.