“Let’s kill Jesus!”

Such words are not often heard from evangelical students at Christian colleges, and such playfulness is not usually associated with the sort of serious academic encounters that are expected in higher education. Yet, I listen to my devoutly religious students utter words like these every semester in the context of “The Jesus Game,” an elaborate role-playing game in which students encounter the familiar story of the Gospel of Matthew in a new light.I first encountered gaming pedagogy at a workshop on the use of classroom role-playing games at the annual meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education. There, I met colleagues who introduced me to “Reacting to the Past,” a curriculum of “elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas.”[1] Enamored with a pedagogical tool that promised to get my students more engaged in the classroom, I quickly revised my syllabi to include a new addition: games.

My “Jesus & the Christian Community” course uses the Gospel of Matthew as its primary text. This text records the reactions of several historical figures to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of my students seem to assume that it is a foregone conclusion that Jesus had to be killed, but they are often less sure of how various historical pressures may have played into this outcome or how this eventuality might have been prevented. To remedy this problem, I could have structured a series of complex lectures on the topic or assigned a research essay. Instead, I designed a game.

“The Jesus Game,” which spans over a week of class time in a 15-week semester invites students to adopt the role of one of several character types: Pharisees, Sadducees, Roman soldiers, farmers, and a host of others. In the weeks leading up to the game days in class, students research the historical beliefs, traditions, and actions of the group to which their character belongs. These assignments test the students’ information literacy, note-taking, and synthesizing skills. Using this research, then, the students compose a persuasive speech that they deliver during game play. These speeches, and the debates that follow, are often accompanied with impassioned gestures, excited outbursts, and raucous laughter. In short, the learning that takes place in “The Jesus Game” is just downright fun.

To be sure, gaming pedagogy requires a lot of work from instructors. Designing the game situation, writing character descriptions, being prepared for the possibility of unexpected turns in the debate, and answering student questions about this seemingly bizarre method of learning requires the time, patience, and investment of an instructor who embraces this method of teaching.

Nonetheless, for the instructor who is dedicated to exploring new teaching methods, increasing student motivation, and truly implementing a student-centered classroom, the incorporation of role-playing games can be the perfect addition to almost any discipline. In my own classes, I have witnessed several positive outcomes from asking my students to “play well with others.” First, by adopting a role that could be very different from their own, students gain proficiency in sympathizing with and articulating the perspective of a different viewpoint. In several classes, some of my most religious students have been cast in roles that required them to argue that Jesus posed a threat to society and should thus be killed. In the debrief time that follows each game play, such students often reflect that while this was a personally challenging position to advocate, they could now understand why it was that some Pharisees in the first century may have actually been exemplifying their own commitment to preserving what is best about a given religious tradition.

The second positive outcome that gaming has accomplished in my classrooms is in increasing student motivation and participation. Research on gaming pedagogy suggests that I am not alone in this observation. John P. Hertel and Barbara J. Millis suggest that several other instructors report similar findings.[2] Likewise, other researchers point to how the use of games, especially role-playing games, increases student motivation.[3] This motivation arises no doubt from the position of power in which gaming places students. Students cannot afford to be passive instruments in the learning process when it is their decisions, arguments, and leadership that are driving the classroom.[4] However, it is not only students who benefit from this increased motivation. Corinne Auman reports (and my own experience confirms) that such gaming can even increase the motivation of instructors.[5]

Finally, the use of gaming pedagogy has the potential to increase deep learning in student participants precisely because it is fun. In a large-scale, quantitative study, Francesco Crocco, Kathleen Offenholley, and Carlos Hernandez uncovered evidence for a correlation between self-reported student enjoyment and improvement in deep-learning.[6] Unsurprisingly, students who learned with game-based learning methods reported higher levels of enjoyment and, subsequently, displayed greater improvements in deep learning of course material.

So, when my evangelical students excitedly exclaim in class, “Let’s kill Jesus,” are they actually learning anything from this experience? Both the research and my personal experience with gaming in the classroom would suggest that learning is, in fact, taking place, albeit in an unusual way. Through the written assignments connected with the game, students are assessed on their critical thinking skills, their understanding of the first-century cultural milieu, their understanding of Jesus’ influence on Christian history, and their ability to empathize with unfamiliar perspectives. In debriefing reflection papers that the students compose after their experience playing “The Jesus Game,” they often admit that they did not know what to expect from this exercise, but that they were pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed the experience. Likewise, they often share their own self-assessment that they have gained the very competencies and knowledge that the game is designed to increase.

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[1] Description from the RTTP website at https://reacting.barnard.edu/about-program.

[2] John P. Hertel and Barbara J. Millis, Using Simulations to Promote Learning in Higher Education (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2002), 2.

[3] Mark C. Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 13; Rosemary Garris, Robert Ahlers, and James E. Driskell, “Games, Motivation, and Learning: A Research and Practice Model.” Simulation & Gaming 33, no. 4 (2002): 441-467.

[4] Cf. Corinne Auman, “Using Simulation Games to Increase Student and Instructor Engagement,” College Teaching 59 (2011): 155; Carnes, Minds on Fire, 240; Hertel and Millis, Using Simulations, 2.

[5] Auman, “Using Simulation Games,” 155.

[6] Francesco Crocco, Kathleen Offenholley, and Carlos Hernandez, “A Proof-of-Concept Study of Game-Based Learning in Higher Education,” Simulation & Gaming 47, no. 4 (2016): 403-422.

By Melanie A. Howard
Melanie is an Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Fresno Pacific University where she teaches New Testament courses. Her doctoral research at Princeton Theological Seminary studied the portrayal of mothers in the Gospel of Mark, and her current research engages questions of how the Gospel texts might be read from feminist and disability-studies perspective.