Written by Aaron Helman
Depending on which statistics you choose to believe, the average teenager plays anywhere from seven to twelve hours of video games a week.
And if you know the same kinds of teenagers that I do, you know that many of them spend a lot more time than that.
That’s because among the one-third of American teenagers who consider themselves gamers, they’re spending 22 hours a week, on average, playing video games.
That’s a part-time job’s worth of video games, enough time to take three college classes, and definitely enough time to make youth group a priority, right?
It’s enough to make a youth worker want to throw a PlayStation from the top of the church steeple.
They’re playing video games more than three hours a day, but then they say they’re too busy to come to youth group on Wednesday night!
Except it’s not exactly like that.
Let’s dive into the life of a fairly typical gamer so we can figure out exactly how and when they’re playing all these video games.
MOST GAMERS ARE ‘BINGE’ GAMERS
Saying that the typical gamer spends 22 hours a week playing video games is probably accurate.
Saying that the typical games spends a little more than three hours a day playing video games probably isn’t accurate.
That’s because most teenagers game in huge and significant binge sessions, lasting anywhere from five to ten hours.
It’s not uncommon for a high-achieving high school student to avoid video games altogether Monday through Thursday, choosing instead to focus on practices, rehearsals, and homework.
But then, on Friday, they come home from school, grab a mountain of snacks and sit with the Playstation from 4:00 p.m. until sometimes well past midnight.
A similar thing could happen on Saturday.
For a ‘binge’ gamer, it’s not at all difficult to spend 16 hours playing video games in a single weekend.
Add in all of that time spent playing mobile games, and suddenly you’ve got 22 hours playing video games without ever impacting their availability to attend youth group on Wednesday night.
MOBILE GAMES ARE A HUGE DEAL… AND THEY’RE PLAYED VERY DIFFERENTLY
A not-insignificant number of those 22 hours are accumulated through time spent playing mobile games.
Most of these are relatively simple apps with gameplay and graphics that are simple even compared to your old Gameboy.
Slither.io, for example, is a slightly more advanced version of the snake game that I played on my graphing calculator in high school calculus.
These games are not particularly exciting, but they are addicting, and they do one thing exceedingly well.
They help you kill five minutes when you have five minutes to kill. While your teenagers are waiting for the dentist, hanging out between classes, or riding in the car, they’re playing these kinds of games.
Just last week, my own 14-year-old clocked six-and-a-half hours playing mobile games despite the fact that his single longest mobile gaming session lasted 12 minutes.
That happened when we were late to pick him up from track practice. Oops.
Students are so tethered to their smartphones that every single one of life’s tiny pauses provides the opportunity for a moment to be filled.
Teenagers who don’t do mobile games will refresh Twitter, check Instagram, or browse through a set of sports scores that have only barely changed in the last six minutes.
Adults do all of these things too, by the way.
Remember back in the day when you’d be standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and all you could do was look at the tabloids or consider the merits of different candy bars?
Look around next time and you’ll see adults, habitually checking email, surfing the web, peeking at Twitter, and yes, playing mobile games.
In order to increase our influence with a generation of teenagers (and adults) that instinctually reach for their phones in every second of downtime, we need to be able to give them something spiritual to do with that downtime.
Ideas like breath prayers or devotional Tweets or Instagram posts are great ways to impart the Gospel message into a hundred moments of otherwise nothingness that fill a student’s day.
VIDEO GAMES ARE NOW SOCIAL ACTIVITIES
Fifteen years ago, video games were primarily a solo activity.
Sure, you could play multiplayer games over the internet, but it never felt like you were really “with” your friends.
That meant that, for gamers, youth group filled not just an important spiritual hole, but a social one.
Coming to youth group was important because it was real time to spend with your friends.
Today, teenagers have microphones and headsets to go along with their multiplayer cooperative games.
While they’re playing, they’re scheming about the best ways to defeat the enemies or find the treasures, but they’re also talking about school, sports, whatever else comes into their mind.
Fifteen years ago, gamers had to put down their controllers and agree to meet in a common location (like youth group!) if they wanted to really spend time with peers.
Now, there’s no need. All of my friends are already on X-Box and talking. Game on.
That means that life applications from your Biblical messages have a place in these virtual, online worlds too.
When I talk about taming the tongue, I’m likely to talk about what happens at school and at sleepovers and on the football field.
I need to also talk about the way we speak to each other in World of Warcraft.
Gamers spend dozens of social hours a week in digital worlds.
The things we talk about and the way we speak to each other matters there too.
VIDEO GAMES ARE (IN SOME PLACES) LEGITIMATE SPORTS
This is totally true. E-sports are huge in Asia and are gaining traction in the United States.
It’s not impossible to think that in the not-so-far-away future, professional gamers will enjoy the same prestige as baseball players.
That means that we should not minimize video games as a hobby anymore than we minimize other extra-curricular endeavors, like sports or music.
This is the single biggest mistake adults make when trying to reach gamers.
We don’t speak derisively about a student on the football team who spent 20 hours in football-related activities last week, but we do when we replace football with video games.
Gamers already tend to belong to an admittedly less popular social class (although that is beginning to change).
The Church doesn’t need to be one more place that tells them that their hobbies and interests are less legitimate than someone else’s, because when your interests aren’t valuable, that usually means that you aren’t.
We don’t want anyone feeling that way when they come to youth group, even if they have a hobby or passion we don’t fully understand.
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Written by Aaron Helman.
Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.