Here at Geeks Under Grace, part of our mission is to “equip Christians and churches to reach geeks with the gospel.” In order to do that, it’s important to know who geeks are in the first place. It’s a model we see presented in Scripture—in Acts 17:16-34 we see how Paul entered into Athens, observed the religious and philosophical culture there, and then was able to apply and build off of what the Athenians already understood when he preached the Gospel to them at the Areopagus. I want to pose several questions for us as Christians who seeks to extend Christ’s love and Kingdom into geek culture: What characteristics define geek culture? What challenges do Christians face when dealing with the geek community in particular? Finally, what practical steps can Christians take to effectively reach out to geeks?
Geeks are remarkably diverse in the specifics of their hobbies. That alone can be seen just by taking a look at the numerous categories of geekdom that we cover here at GUG: video games, tabletop games, TV, movies, comics/books, music, and anime. But even within each of those categories there is plenty of variety. Take tabletop games, for example. There are board games, card games, and pen-and-paper roleplaying games; some people prefer games that are quick to play and easy to learn, like Sushi Go or Splendor, while others love to set aside an entire day to play through a single session of Here I Stand—a highly complex grand strategy wargame—with a handful of friends. The other branches of geekdom are just as varied as tabletop gaming; discussing any of these categories at length would require an entire article, or more!
Given the diversity of hobbies within geekdom, it should come as no surprise that the people who make up geekdom are just as diverse. Geeks tend to form tribes around their particular niche, which could be as broad as “board games,” “PlayStation games,” or “anime”; alternatively, it can be as narrow as a single game, such as Magic the Gathering. In some cases this dynamic can lead to toxicity, as groups see themselves as competing with one another for an audience—and as people place their identity in seeing their own group “win” in some way or another. The so-called “Console Wars” serves as a prime example of this mentality.
Broadly speaking, however, the divisions between tribes are not so broad as to keep geeks from enjoying one another’s interests, and fandoms often overlap. Even the geeks who specialize in one or two things are aware of the other fandoms around them and have at least dabbled in some of those hobbies. And despite the stereotype that geeks are antisocial and spend all their time by themselves, in reality they are often quite eager to share their hobbies with other people, either face-to-face or online. There is a general appreciation for the many branches of geekdom, and for the talented people who create the games/movies/shows we all enjoy.
But something else also holds these disparate groups together, something fundamentally rooted in the brokenness of our world. Geeks often feel like outsiders in society. This sentiment is shared among gamers, anime fans, cinephiles, and other geeks. And as we’ll see, this outsider mentality applies to the geek’s relationship to both secular and Christian cultures.
Up to the 21st century in secular Western culture, geeky pursuits like games, comics, and anime had been traditionally seen as the domain of children; if anyone older than a teenager or young adult played video games, they were likely to be viewed as immature. Some people also considered geeky things to be potentially dangerous to one’s psychological development. Video games in particular tend to receive this treatment; games have often become a scapegoat in explaining young people’s bad behavior. The mental image of a teenage boy raging at the TV screen during a Call of Duty multiplayer match is perhaps the most well-known embodiment of this idea. Instead of tackling all the complexities of such a situation—not just the content of the game itself, but also the player’s personality, home life, work/school life, etc.—people find it easier to pin the blame entirely on games. As a result, geeks correctly sense that they and their hobbies as a whole are being targeted unfairly. And then when a geek has a genuine problem concerning their hobby, such as game addiction, providing aid becomes more difficult; the “adults in the room” have been crying wolf for so long that constructive criticism may well fall on deaf ears.
Even as the broader culture tends to look down on geeks, geek culture has seeped its way into wider society and slowly become more acceptable; comic-themed movies rake in huge sales at the box office, and companies like Nintendo, Apple, and Google have applied blue ocean strategies to expand the reach of the video game market. You might think that geeks would be ecstatic about these changes, and some are—after all, it is exciting to see your favorite superheroes shining on the big screen or find new anime shows popping up on Netflix. But for many geeks, the expanding popularity of geek culture has also given rise to a sense of jealousy; where the creative minds behind all of geekdom once targeted their products solely to the most dedicated fans, now they often appeal to a much wider audience. This can perhaps be felt the most in video games. Many game publishers and developers have seen their budgets increase dramatically over the last couple decades, but stiff competition makes it increasingly difficult to capture peoples’ attention; as a result, the financial risk of producing AAA games has also risen, pressuring game designers to take fewer creative risks and to find new ways of wringing money from consumers, typically through methods such as microtransactions. Diehard gamers frequently feel left behind by these trends, and while plenty of innovative titles can still be found—especially in the indie scene—you have to spend more time just to find them.
Scorned by the Church
While geeks navigate their awkward place in secular society, they typically do not feel that they have a place in the church at all. Distrust between the geek and church communities goes back at least as far as the panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s/80s, when Christians feared that playing D&D would summon the occult or lead people to commit suicide. The disconnect extends beyond just D&D, though. Many in the church have adopted the mentality from the broader culture that games and other geeky hobbies are only suitable for kids, and are quick to dismiss such activities as a sign of not just personal, but spiritual immaturity. The church has done very little over the years to ingratiate themselves to the geek community; the average unbelieving geek’s opinion of Christians is more likely to be swayed by a tweet or an old video of a preacher denouncing Pokémon as satanic than it is by any experience of a Christian befriending him/her or chatting about how the gospel enhances the way we approach culture.
To an extent, times have changed; Christian ministries use D&D as a method of outreach into the gaming community. Nevertheless, the effects of that era still reverberate today, and the church’s general disdain for geek culture has hurt not only non-believers, but believers as well. Over the years I have heard numerous stories about Christian geeks who feel that they have to hide their hobbies from fellow saints. I’ve met a well-respected leader in a church who can’t reveal to the rest of his leadership team that he plays Dungeons & Dragons. A gaming missionary I have worked with tells a story about how he once visited a church to talk about gamer culture, and after his presentation, two people came up to him—back-to-back, but independently of one another—to privately confide that they were gamers, and that they were afraid to tell the other people in their church.
A number of years ago, I had the chance to talk with Mike Perna, a gaming missionary who runs Innroads Ministries, about his experiences in this field. He told me a powerful story that I will never forget about a time when he took a young Christian woman to a steampunk convention. At the time of the convention, someone was claiming that Jesus was coming back that weekend; according to Perna, “the [steampunk] community itself is not exactly super cool on the idea of religion at all,” and so as a result, “there was a lot of smack talk that whole weekend.” While he was used to hearing people take digs at his faith, the woman he brought with him was not, and all of it left her “shaken to her core.” She asked if they could step outside and pray for a minute, and Perna describes what she said after they got out to the parking lot:
[She said] “I dress up and I dye my hair crazy colors and I go to church and I don’t feel like I belong there, like people are seeing me as something ‘other’ and ‘outside.’ Then I come here and I share the fact that I’m a Christian and suddenly I become ‘outside’ again, where I don’t feel like I have a home…” literally after praying with her was when we started the podcast…I know she’s not the only one who feels alone.
Having highlighted some of the particulars of geek community, as well as challenges facing Christians who deal with geek culture, we must now attempt to apply this to our own lives. What practical steps can Christians take to effectively reach out to the geek community? Here are a few ideas:
Engage in geeky activities with them. This can take a variety of different forms: watching movies/anime, playing games, going to a convention, etc. You do not have to be an especially skilled gamer or capable of spouting tons of geeky trivia at the drop of a hat, but simply taking time out of your day to do the same things that your geek neighbor loves is a crucial step in building your relationship with that person. As mentioned earlier, geeks often feel alone in enjoying their hobbies, and expect to be teased or derided for their passions; participating alongside them helps them understand that they are not alone, and that they are not inherently crazy or immature for getting excited over comics or games.
Be patient and eager to listen. Geeks do not often have many people in their lives with whom they can comfortably share their hobbies. As a result, many geeks are hesitant to talk about them, thinking that doing so will further isolate them from others. Alternatively, some geeks are bursting at the seams and prone to rambling because they desperately want to share their experiences. Either way, connecting with people in this community takes patience and a willingness to listen.
Show how your faith interacts with their hobbies. Many stories in games, comics, and anime deal with moral and philosophical questions that are ripe for discussion—and geeks do discuss them. Use that as an opportunity to show how your faith informs your understanding of the issues and ideas that these stories highlight. Investing the time and thought necessary to contribute to such discussions lets people know that you take their hobbies seriously.
Even if the hobby in question does not engage directly with moral, philosophical, or religious issues, there are still ways that you can show how your faith interacts with geekdom. Be the one in a multiplayer match who encourages people rather than tearing them down when they perform poorly in the game; prioritize the success of your team rather than trying to make yourself look good; stand up for people being bullied online. Your conduct will stand out and leave an impression, one that may ultimately have a greater impact than any deep discussion.
Compliment people on their cosplay. If you spend enough time around geeks—and especially if you attend some conventions—you are bound to run into people who do cosplay. Geeks who dress up in cosplay put a lot of thought and effort into the design of their outfits. Some even create costumes professionally! Regardless of whether they make money through their costumes, though, cosplayers appreciate compliments for their geeky attire just as much as non-geeks appreciate compliments for new outfits. If you don’t know where a cosplayer got the inspiration for their cosplay, feel free to ask: chances are they will be happy to share that with you. And if you do happen to know about the source material of the costume, you’ll be able to give better praise. Case in point: one time while working my day job at a local grocery store, I saw a customer come in wearing impressive cosplay of the character Toriel from Undertale. The customer was standing nearby, so I took a moment to walk over and compliment her on her outfit. A huge grin broke across her face as she exclaimed her happiness and surprise that I knew what she was cosplaying!
In many ways, what we are doing in reaching out to geek culture is the same as what we are called to do in regard to any other culture. We learn about people—their lives, their struggles, their likes and dislikes—and then enter into those things by speaking intelligently about them and by adding in the wisdom and insight provided by the Gospel. God has been working through his people to spread his kingdom for millennia, and geek culture is just as much his domain as anywhere else. And that is a great source of encouragement; despite all of the church’s past failures in dealing with geeks, God’s mission is not thwarted. Rather, his love shines through our brokenness, proving that our strength is found entirely in him. I’ve seen it myself—even in the midst of the church’s failure, I’ve also witnessed geeks be transformed by the love that Christians have shown them. Simply being willing to admit that you are a Christian as you engage in geek culture is enough to start turning heads, drawing believing and non-believing geeks out of the woodwork. So follow the Spirit’s lead, and watch how he will take your feeblest of efforts and use them to both encourage your brothers and sisters in the Lord and bring more geeks to faith.