January 5th, 2014

The Gamification of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

When game designers began to leverage the networking potential of the internet to connect players together, a new layer of interaction emerged that has become a standard feature of today’s video games. Through direct competition, players were incentivized to improve themselves and achieve victory over others and were given rewards for doing so. Earning badges, ranking high on leaderboards, and acquiring skill points or other character improvements entice players to dedicate themselves to the game.

Game designers and other cultural thinkers have recognized the benefits that might come from applying these game mechanics to other things. In one of the most popular presentations on this concept of gamification, Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell illustrated the degree to which this incentive system can permeate our personal behavior.

There are numerous positive benefits gamification can bring to behavior modification—encouraging us to improve our hygiene habits, diet, exercise, study, etc. At its core, gamification is merely the encouragement of (and reward for) the completion of small tasks, each of which lead the person to the fulfillment of a larger goal. In a game, it might be the completion of a level; in real life, it might be going six months without a cavity.

There are some areas in life, however, where the obsessive focus over small tasks can be a hinderance. I suggest that this is the case with the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the broader concepts of repentance, forgiveness, faith, virtue, and service are broken down into bite sized tasks and placed on a mental checklist, it becomes far too easy to lose sight of the overarching goal and its spiritual and foundational components.

For example, by pushing everybody to complete their home teaching every month—a program whereby everybody is assigned to visit and help care for a few families in their congregation—church leaders hope to encourage service. Approached correctly, the monthly focus on visiting those assigned to our care can (and theoretically should) help us to think of others, serve them, and look for ways to meet the needs of those outside our family or social circles. But too often, the vision is lost and the checklist becomes drudgery, with a layer of soft harassment on top by those trying to encourage everybody to complete the task.

This highlights the paradoxical element to measuring and encouraging progress. We can and should break down large goals into smaller tasks; virtues and desired character traits are attained by a continuous set of precise actions. Becoming like Jesus Christ requires the fulfillment of many individual tasks, as discipleship requires that we “consistently do more of what we know is right and become better,” as Elder Bednar stated. But it also appears that it is human nature to focus on that which captivates our attention, and by focusing our attention chiefly on the smaller tasks we run the risk of becoming so myopic that we lose sight of why we started doing the tasks at all. Further, our adherence to the gospel should not be predicated primarily upon rewards received for each action performed. Blessings for good behavior are great, but salvation and exaltation is our goal.

A 1984 Ensign article drove home this point beautifully:

I count it one of the great blessings of my life that in my family we do not very often find ourselves keeping track, in a self-defensive way, of what another family member “owes” us by way of favor or thanks (or invitations or phone calls). We seldom make note of some privilege or present we should receive to compensate for what another has received so that things will be “fair.” We don’t give merely to receive a just reward. We give because we love each other and desire to serve each other. We try, consistently, to serve as an advocate for the others’ happiness and well-being. I don’t mean to suggest that lists, patterns, and rules serve no purpose; a “quiz” of some sort may be undeniably useful as a reminder or a starting point. But the actual task of being a successful parent, or husband, or wife—or Christian—requires such flexibility, spontaneity, and creativity that a list of generic suggestions can only hint at what we might wish to do. Then, as we let go of our checklist mentality, we set ourselves free to go beyond the limits of the list.

Checklist items should not become the sole (or even primary) metric of our faith in and adherence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship should resist the gamification our culture has increasingly adopted, and stubbornly maintain focus on core concepts including faith, love, and humility. These should remain in the forefront of our minds as we cautiously carry on with the individual tasks such discipleship requires.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is predicated upon visions, both prophetic and personal. All have eyes but too few have vision, and as the proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” While we should appreciate and act upon the task-based nature of the actions discipleship requires, let’s keep looking upward to Jesus Christ rather than downward at the ground immediately before us.

7 Responses to “The Gamification of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”

  1. JR Peterson
    January 5, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    I think an excellent example of where gospel gamification rules strong, or at least did in the not-so-distant past, is in the mission field. The numbers game of discussions, contacts, investigators, baptisms, etc. never felt right to me and caused constant consternation among companionships and leaders. The tasteless district and zone competitions for best numbers were not really helping bring people to Christ, and their celebration at the mission level was that much more improper training and reinforced bad behavior that carried into post-mission life. Competition is man’s way of feeling accomplished, not God’s. Activities and attributes are broken down into micro entities for good reason, but your assessment of the risks therein is spot-on.

  2. Aaron Bylund
    January 5, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Connor, you are speaking to only a few applications of a few game mechanics in this blog, like status, points, rewards, competition. You may be speaking too broadly of gamification. The Gospel is filled with the use of game mechanics (or game dynamics), which are the devices used to encourage people to accomplish a task or participate in something. Gamification and game theory is really just the science of how to employ game mechanics to get the desired result.

    Below is a list of game mechanics and some examples of how they are used in the church and in the gospel.

    Achievements: Setting personal or group goals, keeping our first estate (and thus unlocking resurrection), receiving the priesthood (and unlocking priesthood keys), receiving a temple recommend (and unlocking the sacred ordinances of the temple) etc.

    Behavioral Momentum: We are taught to endure and daily do those things that keep us on the right path.

    Blissful Productivity: D&C 123:17 “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power…”

    Bonuses: Having a baby blessed after enduring labor, living with God forever after completing a righteous life, ordaining or sending off a young person on a mission, or seeing children married in the temple after many years of intense parenting.

    Cascading Information Theory: Isa 28:10 “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little…”

    Combos: D&C 4:5 “And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.”
    Alma 26:22 “22 Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance”

    Community Collaboration: This one is obvious and a part of almost everything we do in relation to the church and gospel.

    Countdown: 7 seals, signs of the times, last days etc.

    Discovery: D&C 130:18 “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.”
    1 Nephi 10:19 “For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come” others (Mosiah 1:5, Alma 12:9, D&C 6:7, D&C 76:5-7, D&C 107:19)
    3 Nephi 23:1 “And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently…”

    Epic Meaning: Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish”
    “…you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. It is only a little handful of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.” – Joseph Smith
    D&C 4:1 “Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.”

    Free Lunch: The atonement, because Christ died for us we get the incredible gift of redemption.

    Infinite Gameplay: If You Could Hie to Kolob, verses 3-5

    Levels: Nursery > Sunbeam > CTR > Valiant > Deacon > Teacher > Priest > Elder > High Priest
    Scouts: Bobcat > Tiger > Wolf > Bear > Webelos > Boy Scout > Varsity > Venture
    Godhood: Premortal Angel > Spirit & Body > Postmortal Angel > Resurrected Being > Exalted Being > God
    Telestial > Terrestrial > Celestial

    Loss Aversion: We already have our first estate and fought so hard to have agency and come to Earth and receive a body, it would be a shame if we wasted our lives and did not return to God and lost all that hard work.

    Lottery: God will randomly choose certain people to appear to or send angels to (e.g. Samuel, or Enoch, Mary or Amulek), even though there may be others just as worthy or more worthy. Also, some are blessed to live in glorious days (like those in the beginning of 4th Nephi) and others in dark times (like those at the end of 4th Nephi). Although there are likely premortal choices and awareness that went into this, because of the veil it is the same affect as a lottery.

    Ownership: In the church we are entrusted with our hometeaching families and youth and even entire congregations. We know that if we do not care for those things they will likely decay.
    We are also promised ownership: D&C 84:38 “And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.”

    Points: Used to track progress in missionary work, attendance, indexing.
    This is one game mechanic that is often controversial and can be used less effectively at times.

    Progression: Not used often in the church as this mechanic is generally accomplished with a progress bar. Some things are close however, e.g. when the church reports total membership growth every year at General Conference.

    Quests: Alma 8:23-30 “Now do ye remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites…And now behold, we have come, and been forth amongst them; and we have been patient in our sufferings, and we have suffered every privation; yea, we have traveled from house to house, relying upon the mercies of…God. And we have entered into their houses and taught them, and we have taught them in their streets; yea, and we have taught them upon their hills; and we have also entered into their temples and their synagogues and taught them; and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks; and we have been stoned, and taken and bound with strong cords, and cast into prison; and through the power and wisdom of God we have been delivered again. And we have suffered all manner of afflictions, and all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul; and we supposed that our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some.”
    D&C 99:1 “Behold, thus saith the Lord unto my servant John Murdock—thou art called to go into the eastern countries from house to house, from village to village, and from city to city, to proclaim mine everlasting gospel unto the inhabitants thereof, in the midst of persecution and wickedness.”
    Every young person called on a mission is called on a quest. We also take young men on weeklong campouts, often on 50 milers or we send the youth on a trek (mini-quests).

    Reward Schedules: At age 12 get Aaronic Priesthood, become Deacon receive keys, At age 14 become Teacher receive keys, at age 16 become Priest receive keys, at 18 or 19 become Elder, receive Melchizedek Priesthood, receive keys, At 18 or 19 become missionary, receive missionary title
    Also used in scouting.

    Resurrected Being > Exalted > God

    Urgent Optimism: The missionary commitment pattern

    Virality: Used in missionary work often. Also used in wards and with youth. Used often in General Conference talks.

    There are more mechanics than these including competition and appointments. There are also many different ways of implementing these game mechanics through game features. Gamification is an unfortunate term as it implies anything gamified is stripped of anything sacred or of real importance because it is now a game and most people see games as frivolous and only appropriate for recreation. I think a more appropriate term would be “Funification”.

    The term gamification however means using basic principles of human motivation that often are found in games, to bring about positive results in human beings. But gamification is just a term and it may never change, so it’s important we use it appropriately or people may develop a negative impression and never be open to the value it provides.

    You can learn more about game mechanics and gamification as a whole here:

    • Connor
      January 5, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

      To be clear, I’m not knocking gamification generally, nor am I suggesting that game theory doesn’t have relevance to the gospel. I believe it does. I simply believe that the focus on rewards for small tasks performed can have a downside when the gospel encourages us to focus on the “big picture.” I think of it like this: yes, let’s grasp on to the iron road and cling to it as we take each step forward, but we should be looking towards the Tree of Life as the destination of our journey—our goal. While we should look down from time to time to ensure proper footing and such, we shouldn’t only be looking down at our feet.

      I brought this up in Elders Quorum today and had several affirmative head nods as I suggested that there is a tendency to get lost in the minutia and lose vision of the more fundamental goals. The head nods became especially vigorous when I offered the home teaching example. 🙂

  3. log
    January 7, 2014 at 12:38 am #

    The institution of things like home teaching and the other minutiae mentioned is analogous, exactly, to how the Jews defaced the law of Moses such that it could no longer point souls to Christ.

  4. Chris
    January 7, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

    Conner, great article! However, I am struggling with one of your premisses.

    “We can and should break down large goals into smaller tasks; virtues and desired character traits are attained by a continuous set of precise actions. Becoming like Jesus Christ requires the fulfillment of many individual tasks, as discipleship requires that we “consistently do more of what we know is right and become better,”

    “While we should appreciate and act upon the task-based nature of the actions discipleship requires, let’s keep looking upward to Jesus Christ rather than downward at the ground immediately before us.”

    I think this is a false trail to discipleship. This seems to be how we develop habits– not how a Christ-like character is realized. I can develop almost any behavior I can conceptualize by “a continuous set of precise actions”, but those behaviors are Christ-like only insofar as I have received Him and been sanctified through His atoning presence in my life. As we received Him our behavior is more a product of love and revelation than habit, hence the “flexibility, spontaneity, and creativity that a list of generic suggestions can only hint at…” Habits are our to-do lists that have been written into stone. On the other hand, a Christ-like character can never be habitual; it is aways responding to the will of the Father.

    Just some thoughts…what do you think?

  5. Arthur B
    April 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Speaking of gamification of the Gospel of Christ (I love that concept and all your comments)… an excerpt from a talk on tithing I gave earlier this year

    “…there are as I see it, four levels of spiritual development:

    1- Slave
    2- Servant
    3- Friend
    4- Joint heir

    As we examine ourselves and find that being a Slave seems to fit our energy level in the gospel = We might find that we are on the path to personal apostasy. We literally fear God because we don’t really know Him and even want to hide from Him. Some of the requirements of living the Gospel, in asking us to obey and sacrifice is a real burden; our leaders ask us to do things and we reluctantly say ok… or agree and then don’t do it. We become or behave more like spoiled children or slaves to God than servants… We are approached with a project and we anticipate with some disdain having to do something for the church or our fellow beings – after all there are so many others in the ward to take care of that… Rather than spend my time doing what “I” want to do! We don’t make a sacrifice for our love of God or brothers and sisters needs. We really don’t know how to subordinate our wills, i.e. what I want, for what He wants or needs for an hour or two a week. Whether it’s helping a brother or sister move, following through with assignments, home or visit-teach, helping to cleaning the chapel, or just showing up at a ward or stake activity…

    One of the timeless messages (and personal examples) of King Benjamin is about service. In his address to his people, he repeats the legacy given to his forefathers, by Joseph in Egypt who, remembering the stories in the Old Testament, was sold by his brothers as a slave, and learned that being a slave is a “mental” choice or attitude. He [Joseph] simply decided to be the best “slave” and became a servant instead. He was unusual in that he learned what the Savior would say later in history as a mortal – as Matthew records in Chapter 23: 10-12:

    “Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

    As our desire to participate in the blessings of heaven increases we may reach the level of:

    Servant = we strive become a helping hand to Christ. We become more acquainted with Him through reading His word. We still have to be told what to do but we are working on seeing what needs to be done and doing it. The Lord becomes our employer, as it were, and everything we do, we do for Him. This is where many of our priesthood leaders are… This is where we have the opportunity to take Christ as our mentor… our Master.

    And then when we struggle with negative personalities or requirements of our priesthood or other leaders – who are in reality, fellow servants – it is really nice and brings us peace to have built and developed, to have an established relationship with the Master… Then and only then the behavior of others really doesn’t matter as much as it used to because, well… we don’t work for others… really.

    As we serve the Lord in this way, the Holy Ghost will strive with us – correct us, prompt us, help us see… And as our love for Christ increases, we become His…

    Friend = where we reach a point we can anticipate the Lord’s needs and act more out of love for Him and for our fellow beings. Where He prompts us and we respond… out of Love, we recognize the principle that his servants are representatives of Him; and we also do many good things of our own free will. And perhaps begin to see the value of our own efforts to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

    Jesus’s Friends…
    Exodus 33: 11
    John 15: 13-15
    Ether 12: 39
    D&C 84: 63, 77
    D&C 88: 62
    D&C 93: 45
    D&C 94: 1

    Eventually we become:

    A Joint heir with God = we have a place at the right hand of God, where we literally gain the mind and will of God… and He, ultimately, shares everything He has with us… This is referred to in the scriptures as receiving Eternal Life… or, here on this planet, having our calling and election made sure.

    … As His servants, we pay our tithing, we serve our brothers and sisters, his children; we read and feast on His words, and we receive his love. We begin a process of conversion… We in turn love more. We receive revelation, personal revelation regarding our lives, our difficulties, struggles, and successes. Another miraculous thing happens… Christ heals us:

    See 3 Nephi 9:13
    13 O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?

    2 Nephi 16:10 – (Compare Isaiah 6)
    10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes—lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed.

    3 Nephi 9:13 –
    13 O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?

    He can heal us of any injustices we have suffered as children, any injustices we have suffered at the hands of the government or other unscrupulous humans, and even perceived injustices from God. Indeed the Windows of Heaven open and expose us to more light and Heavenly Knowledge concerning everything in our lives. Who here doesn’t want this blessing…

    As we do what he asks, and as we read His words, He reveals himself to us. He heals us! We learn His mind, His will. We become prophets in our lives and in the lives of our families and our work and over whatever other stewardship we have.

  6. Travis Dommert
    October 17, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    Conner, thank you for this article.

    As a believer who works in this space and felt called to it by God, as did our founder who created a gamified action-tracking app (irunurun – not a running app, but an accountability app designed to encourage people to run at the big things that matter in their lives the way David ran at Goliath), I applaud your points.

    That said, I also believe that rather than suggesting people not get too-action oriented, too-myopic, too gamified…I think we need to instead just encourage them to think twice about their action selections. ‘Looking up’, praying for discernment, praying for the spirit to renew our hearts and inspire us to be the hands and feet of Christ are still actions…still trackable…still worthy of reinforcement (perhaps even gamification).

    The part I so strongly agree with, however, is that using this method can indeed get people too focused on the actions, not the purpose behind them. Hence, I strongly encourage people to make chief among their actions, some daily time to get quiet, worship, praise, read, and reflect…i.e. get their hearts right…so the rest of the business is not just for points, a silly badge, or improving their status among others.

    Thanks again! -Travis, irunurun

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