“Wizards Unite” is not only a fun game to play. Similar to the original seven Harry Potter books, the game has deep and compelling Christian theology embedded in the game design.
C.S. Lewis Would Have Loved The New Harry Potter App “Wizards Unite.” Faith Formers Will Too
I rarely meet a Christian who hasn’t heard of C.S. Lewis’s 1952 famous work of Christian apologetics, “Mere Christianity.” Interestingly enough, few people I meet have actually read it cover-to-cover. But most people know that the book does a great job arguing for the existence of God, the legitimacy of the Bible and the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is definitely a good inventory of its genius. But in our current cultural moment of the exploding digital capacity and popularity of role-playing gaming, with virtual and augmented reality, you should know that one of the most important parts of “Mere Christianity” is a short, 3-page chapter near the end of the book entitled “Let’s Pretend.” In this brief and brilliant chapter, C.S. Lewis explains and exalts the potential power of role-playing games of any kind. For Lewis, pretending can be one of the most powerful ways to form faith and discover identity and vocation.
Here is Lewis’ definition and defense of role-playing games:
What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing. … Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grownups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest… C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.187-189
Role-playing games can train us to see and experience the world in new ways. More than merely reading or watching a movie, role-playing games (especially digital games with augmented or virtual reality) let us experiment with virtues and vices and play out the consequences of our choices in a narrative literally unfolding around us. For this reason, game researchers like Jane McGonigal are developing role-playing games for training UN workers in Africa or aid workers in war-torn countries because they are infinitely more effective in teaching and training than written or film resources. McGonigal presents her work on making better games that make better people in one of the most watched TedTalks ever.
We learn better when we are playing games. Much research has documented the rare but real issue of people being addicted to role-playing digital games and being (perhaps) desensitized to violence or evil. But this research also proves the parallel point that if the games we play are structured to make us better people, they might in fact succeed. Research across Europe and the US has already established that even just reading the Harry Potter stories improves slightly but surely the virtues and sense of justice in readers.
So: Is the new Harry Potter role-playing (wizard-playing) app “Wizards Unite” one of those games that might make us better people – specifically, deeper disciples of Jesus? After playing the game consistently since its release and processing the experience with other lay and ordained faith formation leaders in the church who are also playing constantly, I say YES!
I know its summer and if you care about faith formation, you are probably drowning right now in the holy work of vacation bible school, ‘grill and chill’ picnics at church, summer camps, summer-friendly and family-friendly liturgies and program planning for the fast-approaching fall. You’re busy, as always. Do you really have time to think about or play a game on your smart phone?
Whether you have time to play or not, you should know about “Wizards Unite.” It is currently the most downloaded (free!) app on the App Store, with nearly 1 million downloads in the first 24 hours of its release on June 21st.
But “Wizards Unite” is not only a fun game to play. Similar to the original seven Harry Potter books, the game has deep and compelling Christian theology embedded in the game design. Once you set up a profile, you enter the game as a wizard who has been called on by the Ministry of Magic to join a global effort to fight “The Calamity,” which is an evil force that has emerged mysteriously and is stealing, trapping and tormenting all that is good in the world. You learn and use spells and potions to free captives, gather energy, collect useful magical artifacts and help The Ministry restore justice and freedom in the world. The visual effects are stunning, putting Hagrid in your kitchen or a Dementor on the dashboard of your car, all while the original soundtrack of the films and voices of the original cast accompany you on your adventures.
In Part Two of this series, I will explain specifically how the game works and its Christian themes. In Part Three of this series of articles, we will explore the evangelism potential of “Wizards Unite.”
Patricia Lyons lives and teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary with the Department of Lifelong Learning. Patricia also serves as a member of the Presiding Bishop’s Cabinet on Evangelism as well as the Authors Working Group for the “Way of Love.” An honors graduate from Harvard College in the Comparative Study of Religion, Patricia holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Harvard Divinity School and received her doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary. She also serves as assisting priest at the Church of St. Clement in Alexandria, Virginia.