video game controllerThe Sunday New York Times ran a provocative article this weekend called Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church about how some churches holding “Halo nights” to lure teens boys and young men back to the fold. From my life and travels beyond the confines of the Hudson and East rivers, I know that churches, temples and fraternal organizations have raised money by sponsoring “Bingo night” for years. And from my study of games and education, I know that progressive teachers have found that commercial off the shelf games (COTS) can be powerful learning tools. But playing Halo 3… in church? It’s not that I have a problem mixing the sacred and profane, but my brain began a Linda Blair spin when I read the headline on this story.

NYT reporter Matt Richtel writes, “The alliance of popular culture and evangelism is challenging churches much as bingo games did in the 1960s. And the question fits into a rich debate about how far churches should go to reach young people. Far from being defensive, church leaders who support Halo — despite its “thou shalt kill” credo — celebrate it as a modern and sometimes singularly effective tool. It is crucial, they say, to reach the elusive audience of boys and young men. Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church” (article continues here).

Once I settled into the story and got beyond the mind-warp of kids playing Halo 3 under church auspices, I realized it makes sense. Adolescent boys are at a developmental stage where exploring their role in the world is essential to growth. Considered in that context, regressive behavior is appropriate and experiencing the consequences of ones actions – real or virtual – is one of the most powerful learning tools of all.

Looking back at my own adolescence – I’ll spare you the details 😉 – I can see how true this was for me. As academics and authors including James Gee (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy), Mark Prensky (Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning) and Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good For You) have observed, parents and educators knee-jerk reaction that “video games are bad” are well advised to look beyond the surface gloss – or gore – of these products to what underlying lessons can be learned from playing them. The answers are surprising.