We realized that there is a decent amount of opposition towards video games in the church, particularly from older members. I wanted to have a place where Mormon gamers could talk about games without feeling ostracized or belittled. For almost a year it was just me and zoomop on my old account until about a year ago LDSG Ghost approached me. He had made a similar community elsewhere and wanted to combine them.
— TheKaelen, moderator of /r/ldsgamers.
Video games aren’t yet known for their portrayal of the full spectrum of human diversity. While the medium is arguably making slow progress when it comes to race, gender and sexuality, other building blocks of a person’s identity are still waiting to be tackled. One of those is religion.
Aside from a rudimentary JRPG that tells a story from the Book of Mormon titled Book of Mormon Heroes: The Servant of Helaman and Fallout: New Vegas, Mormons haven’t seen much representation in video games to date. Despite this and even though the average gamer might not know a lot about the religion or its adherents, apparently (confusing Mormons with the Amish is still prevalent), a bustling community of Mormon gamers has been quietly growing in a small corner of the internet since 2012. LDS Gamers grew from its members’ need for a family-friendly space to play games like Destiny, Minecraft, or Call of Duty, and the guy who started it all is Justin Thomas, or LDSG Ghost.
Justin grew up in an area in Maine with only a handful of Mormons around, “During the long winter months there isn’t much to do, so we spent a lot of time gaming. I loved gaming with my brothers and the few LDS friends that lived within an hour of us who I would see a few times a year”. After graduating and moving out of his home state, he found it hard to meet new people, “I only made one or two new friends. Online gaming became my go to. So I started playing Halo again and came across vulgar gamer after vulgar gamer”.
Getting tired of joining one community after another just to find the people there not as welcoming as he’d hoped, he started exclusively looking for Mormon gamer groups. At the time, the largest one out there was Mormon Battalion, which was started in 2005 around Guild Wars. “When I found it in 2012, it was dwindling as a community. I believed that to be because the game’s popularity was fading. I found other LDS/Mormon Gamer groups sprinkled throughout the Internet but they too were in decline due to people moving on to different games or not having enough people to begin with. I found there wasn’t one source, one common group that brought them all in under one banner”.
And so he set off to unite the scattered groups of Mormon gamers under one banner, so they would have a space to “come together and share not only their values but also their love of gaming”. Justin initially outfitted LDSgamers.com as a simple chatroom for the community, “No more having to race for the mute button.” It was underwhelming and largely unused, until a volunteer web developer from Utah, Christopher Bishop, came on board and helped completely revamp the whole thing. With a Minecraft server up and running and the freshly-released Destiny attracting scores of new people to join its ranks, the community started really taking off in 2014. Zoomop, a moderator of /r/ldsgamers, says, “I didn’t realize there was a larger ldsgamer community in existence when I made the subreddit. It was only after LDS gamer ghost approached me to ask about modding did I realize the full scope of what I had unknowingly stumbled into”. Said Zoomop, a moderator of /r/ldsgamers.
Aiming to create a long lasting community, Justin realized that chatrooms and game servers weren’t enough, “Producing content was the next big hurdle, if people were going to be a part of the community they need something to stay interested in the community, so creating videos, podcasts, blog articles and the like are a great way to keep your members interested in the core of the organization. Bringing in people to help in all these areas has really been what has made LDSGamers.com, the LDS Gaming community, such a great success.”.
Despite being predominantly Mormon, the community is very open to members who simply want a clean, vulgar-banter-free environment to play video games in. “We don’t talk Church much, we have our local meetinghouses for that. When people do wander in with questions they are directed to http://Mormon.org/chat where they can chat directly with missionaries who are perhaps better equipped to handle a wide variety of topics”. Aside from preventing gamers from spreading misinformation, Justin says that this policy helps keep trolls looking for doctrinal debates at bay, “We are just a group of humble Mormon gamers who gathered together online, that’s it”.
Zoomop says that despite the community-building efforts of Mormon online gamers, the reception of video games in the broader Mormon society, and especially by the Church itself, remains negative, “I think this is due to a few reasons, the most prominent of which being that Gerontocracy is the church’s mode of governing. None would have grown up with video games and thus may only see them as something to distract people”. Justin admits to having struggled with video game addiction in the past and blames Mormon hostility towards video games on the medium’s most lauded strength — immersion. “To a Mormon, if you are lost in a fake reality you are robbing others who could benefit from your service, love, and talents”. The lack of consequence for in-game acts is also something he believes drives negative perception, “A scenario where bad behavior has zero consequences can possibly lead to dangerous thoughts that can potentially bleed into our actual reality”.
Despite sharing similar values, members do, on occasion, disagree about whether certain games should be officially included under the LDSG banner,. Justin says, “We decided that to ‘endorse’ a game meant that we would feel comfortable providing a text-channel for it on our Discord chat server, as well as streaming gameplay of it for our Twitch viewers […] Some games have been unanimous “No” (i.e., any GTA game) while other games have been close and gone with the majority of staff members choosing ‘Yes’ even when I personally voted ‘No'”.
While being skeptical about the Church ever officially endorsing video games (LDSgamers.com is completely unaffiliated), Justin remains hopeful about the future, knowing that Mormon society is slowly growing to appreciate gaming as a perfectly sensible way for their members to spend their free time — given that they don’t fall too deep down the rabbit hole, “When you do get a free moment after kids go to bed or at the end of a very productive and stressful school week and you’re looking to kick back and relax with a good game, LDS Gamers will be there to help make sure you’re laughing and having good, clean fun”.