Warning: This article contains spoilers for the video game Spirits of Spring.

Video games have become among the more prominent avenues for reflecting on ethics and morality in recent years. We see this not only in the vociferous denunciations of video games as engendering violent behavior and misogynistic stereotypes, but also in the growing number of games that allow players to interact with complex and nuanced human questions and situations; one developer has even called them “empathy games.” What’s interesting is that many of the games that deal with alcoholism (Papo & Yo), environmentalism (Flower), and war (Spec Ops: The Line) are primarily single-player games, but the problems they address are not individual issues; Andy Robertson realized this several years ago when he brought Flower into the church as part of a service focused on creation. Congregants passed a controller around the cathedral, and the game enhanced the service by incorporating evocative imagery of nature into the service’s meditation on creation. Robertson’s experiment suggested that video games could become a new facet of communal experience.

Of course, bringing a video game into the physical space of the Church is only one way to demonstrate the capacity of this medium to impact religious life. More broadly, Christians and the Church can and should explore the possibility that video games can be an important facet of our cultural communities, just as literature, film, and music already are.  Furthermore, faith communities might find that “empathy games” can be brought to bear in difficult situations as a way to inform institutional and communal responses to a crisis.

Conflict and Church Leadership

Not long after I started graduate school, the church that I had grown up attending with my parents—where my father had served as an elder for many years and where my mother had taught and nurtured children, where my own faith first took root—experienced a difficult (and by some accounts nasty) separation from its senior pastor. This was the man who had officiated my baptism, helped to cultivate my love of literature, and brought the gospel to life in so many ways during my adolescence; now he and his family were separated from the community in which they had worked and lived for so many years. I know that my pastor’s children, with whom I had spent most of my childhood, felt betrayed and even abused by the church. In the aftermath, one blog post insinuated that members of the church leadership had behaved like bullies. The details of precisely what happened and why the break occurred with such animosity have never been clear to me; I saw everything from a distance, learned details second- and third-hand, and watched as people who had been so important in my upbringing seemed to turn on one another.

This story is in no way unique, and just last week another (albeit more prominent) church experienced a similar separation. The furor surrounding Mark Driscoll’s departure from Mars Hill has been fomenting for quite some time. Writers like Rachel Held Evans have been vocal in their denunciations of Mark Driscoll, accusing him of bullying both his congregants and a variety of groups through his sermons. Indeed, in the recent release from the Mars Hill leadership, they acknowledged that Driscoll was guilty of being both short tempered and domineering. Of course, the term “bully” does not appear in their findings, perhaps because it is so politically charged at the moment, but at the very least, it appears from the reports as if Driscoll’s style of leadership was borderline bullying, if not outright abusive.

What strikes me about the pattern of discourse surrounding Driscoll is how often his abusive language has engendered almost equally harsh rebuttals. This is not to suggest that victims of bullying or abuse don’t have a right to express their hurt, anger, and outrage; however, Driscoll’s behavior has created an environment rife with harsh and strong rhetoric. Although Christ said that his followers would be known by their love for one another, the Church is often known for its ability to alienate, divide, and harm. What is remarkable, then, about Driscoll’s resignation letter is the fact that its style is so tame. On the surface, the tone of the letter might suggest that Driscoll has learned from his experience. But the third paragraph, although presented in a calm manner, implies that his accusers were either lying or too afraid to make their complaints formally (since they declined to meet with the committee investigating Driscoll). Furthermore, Driscoll’s suggestion that “aspects of his personality . . . have proven to be divisive” obfuscates the seriousness of this situation by suggesting that the issue is with how others viewed his personality, rather than with how he actually conducted himself.

In a way, then, Driscoll’s turn to this reserved and toned-down style further exacerbates the problem by suggesting that the problems at Mars Hill are external to himself. I should note that Driscoll does admit to struggling with personal failings, but these are presented as prior, and therefore resolved, issues, whereas Mars Hill’s problems relating to Driscoll’s leadership appear to be ongoing. As a result, for those who experienced the domineering and quick-tempered Mark Driscoll, the almost sanguine tone of the resignation becomes further fuel for the flames of indignation.

Spirits of Spring in the Church

As this story has unfolded in the news and on social media, I have been playing Spirits of Spring, a newly released game that addresses bullying directly. Minority Games, the development studio responsible for Spirits of Spring, has specifically referred to it as an empathy game. The serendipitous overlap between the findings against Mark Driscoll by his own church and my playing of Spirits of Spring led me to consider how such a game can inform our responses such situations in the Church. (The irony of discussing video games as a way to learn from Driscoll’s resignation will not be lost on those who remember Driscoll’s diatribe against video games in 2011.) Minority Games already has a track record of producing games that wrestle with difficult subjects in imaginative ways. Their earlier game Papo & Yo conveyed the challenge and danger of alcoholism through the make-believe world of a child living with an alcoholic father. In Spirits of Spring, Minority shows how bullying tarnishes everything in the lives of both its victims and its perpetrators.

The game’s protagonist is Chiwatin, a Native American boy living in a fanciful world full of talking animals—but their typically idyllic environment is being transformed into an eternal winter. Parallels to the Narnia books notwithstanding, Spirits of Spring draws players into its world by allowing us to experience the profound impact that bullying has on the attitudes and motivations of its victims. Chiwatin is at first demoralized by the crows who constantly torment and mock him. They are envisioned as large bird-like creatures, who seem almost like humans in disguise; their grotesque presentation is both alienating and awe-inspiring. Their appearance may be disturbing, but their power and abilities entice Chiwatin.

While the game opens with Chiwatin working with his animal companions in order to reverse the negative effects that the crows have had on the surrounding environment, his adversaries’ constant harassment lead him to consider more extreme approaches to the problem. A devious fox tempts Chiwatin with the power to destroy the forest in order to claim vengeance against the crows, and while his animal friends caution him against trusting the fox, Chiwatin is seduced by the chance to return to the crows the same abuse that they have levelled against him. This strategy works for a time, but as a result, Chiwatin alienates his friends, and ultimately finds that his newfound powers fail to prevent the crows from continuing to torment him.

Part of Spirits of Spring’s power is that it can be extrapolated to so many contemporary scenarios. In the case of the Church (and individual churches), the game suggests both the insidious allure and destructive power of repeated abuse. Bullying is not limited to school playgrounds and hallways; it can root itself in any community where social influence and power become more important than the values that the community espouses. Furthermore, the presence of bullying can itself create a pattern of abuse that becomes endemic. In the case of Mars Hill, it seems clear that Mark Driscoll’s power outstripped his capacity to lead with the kind of charity that the Church should always show in abundance.

On the other hand, I have been disheartened by the extent to which the Christian community has often seemed to “pile on” whenever Driscoll made a boneheaded comment or when new allegations of his misconduct surfaced on the Internet. We must be careful not to adopt Chiwatin’s mistaken belief that uncharity demands uncharity in response.

How to Remember

Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously remarked that the whole of the Bible can be encapsulated in one word: remember. Ultimately, Spirits of Spring is a meditation on how to remember the experience of bullying. The game eschews easy answers; Chiwatin’s attackers do eventually relent in their abuse—but even then they mostly offer excuses: “Get away from me! I was raised in darkness, surrounded by hate. Don’t come looking for an apology here!” But perhaps in the case of Mark Driscoll, the second crow’s justification is more appropriate: “What do you want? It made me feel part of a group. Can you blame me?”

The Church has at best a checkered history in the ways that it has wielded social and cultural influence to attain power over people. Pope Francis’s refusal to accept many of the illustrious perks of his office were so refreshing precisely because they indicated a man who wanted to resist the temptations of wealth and prosperity that his position offered. Still, throughout the world, leading a church carries with it special dangers. In the case of Mars Hill, Driscoll’s hard-hitting style won him many fans, and the church’s meteoric rise over the last eighteen years suggests the extent to which his message resonated with a significant segment of the population. It’s tempting for us to make smug references to Icarus, reveling in the fall of one whose power grew so quickly, but interactive narrative can help us to resist the dehumanizing impact of condemnation.

Spirits of Spring offers a way for players to attain an awareness of how bullying can become attractive for those with power over others; as a result, we can recognize the humanity in those who oppress others without excusing or glossing over their actions. In the game’s conclusion, we discover that the kindly narrator, who has been guiding us through Chiwatin’s experience, was the third bully, the crow who felt he had to abuse Chiwatin in order to prevent the first two from picking on him. The narrator laments his role in Chiwatin’s suffering, and we discover then that the entire game has been an act of repentance. The narrator tells the story of his victim as a way to atone for his participation in Chiwatin’s suffering.

In the same way, the Christian story is one of remembrance—and in considering how to respond to Mark Driscoll, I hope Spirits of Spring helps to underscore how our focus should ultimately move away from Driscoll himself and toward those who have been harmed and hurt. We’ve been so engrossed with Driscoll’s story that the stories that deserve more of our focus have been obscured. If empathy is what Spirits of Spring strives to instill in its players, then in the case of Mars Hill, our empathy can work toward reorienting the narrative focus of our encounter with this story.

As part of the service of the Eucharist, my church recites the following reminder: “Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us.” In Holy Communion we are called to remember Christ—who was a willing victim. We remember the one who was broken in order to heal our brokenness. Reorienting our narrative of what has happened at Mars Hill means directing our focus away from Mark Driscoll and toward those unwilling victims who have been broken. In other words, the Christian narrative is one of remembrance of a victim; we are called to turn our eyes away from ourselves and toward Christ. Similarly, Spirits of Spring suggests that the right way to remember wrongdoing is to focus on the story of those who suffered from it. Playing through such a game, serves as a helpful reminder that it is better that we turn our eyes away from the spectacle of a falling celebrity and toward those like Chiwatin—those are the stories we should strive to remember.


  1. Very helpful, Stephen. I have been tempted to rejoice in the downfall of someone who has brought about so much pain, and it is good to be reminded of why that is simply not a Christian response.

  2. Wow. This is super great, Stephen. I can’t iterate how useful this is to me, even as somebody who has played through the game. I love how clearly you drew things out in your spoilers:

    “The narrator laments his role in Chiwatin’s suffering, and we discover then that the entire game has been an act of repentance. The narrator tells the story of his victim as a way to atone for his participation in Chiwatin’s suffering.”

    I don’t know why, but this didn’t resonate with me when I finished the game as much as it does now. Truly valuable points.

  3. Excellent article!!! Well crafted and wonderful. Absolutely, the focus needs to shift to the victims. And empathy is a vital skill Christians need to develop and practice. However, I would like to push back a bit. One of the effects of being groomed and abused is that the victim’s empathy is in overdrive focused primarily on the abuser to the exclusion of being able to recognize their own value and feel empathy for themselves. Therefore healing for a victim is gaining the ability to reduce their empathy towards their abuser, feel and express their anger at the violation, and gain empathy for themselves. Conversely, healing for abusers is marked by gaining the ability to recognize the humanity of their victims and empathize with them. Experts note victims do not have difficulty with the abuser’s humanity, instead abusers are the one’s who do not recognize their victim’s humanity. Christians need to remember this and hold abusers accountable not victims.
    Christians (and I am one) need to understand abuse dynamics so that we do not exacerbate the harm victims have experienced. So for example, no one should counsel or suggest victims to empathize with their abusers. To do so is harmful because it echoes the abuser’s abuse, and keeps the victim bound within the effects of abuse. Also, no one should attempt to provide a moral judgement on a victim’s tone, manner, or response to their abuse. This is far too common in Christian communities and needs to stop. Anyway, again, I love this article. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    1. Maureen, I appreciate your comment, and I agree that victim’s are far too often put in a position of being told to “tone it down,” so to speak. I worried about this, honestly, when I was writing about Chiwatin’s decision to adopt the methods of his abusers, because I specifically wanted to avoid implying that victim’s are somehow at fault for their situation. So yes, empathy is important, but I agree that it is counter-productive (and wrong) for us to expect victims to foster empathy for their abusers. Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory, offers a great meditation on the possibility of such empathy, but only after many many years, and never as a result of moral pressure from the Church.

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