Just months after the game's released multiple news outletsgrimly proclaimed the death of Pokemon Go. Those stories were based on reports that in the month of August the game had lost 12 million active users. By mid-September this was down by 20 million active users, or half of the game’s peak.
Reports of the game’s death are greatly exaggerated. Even though the game is on the decline, it still has millions of active users. Both in player base and revenue generated, Pokemon Go is successful enough to make all of their mobile game competitors’ green with envy. Despite that though, Pokemon Go is on a long and slow decline. Pokemon Go, like other free-to-play mobile games, was created with the intention to decline. Other big mobile games such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga have followed similar trends. Pokemon Go appears to be ahead of the curve for decline, but its player base will continue to shrink. How long the game’s tail and continued success will last remain to be seen.
Pokemon Go was designed to be extremely accessible and broad appeal. Those things catapulted it to break a number of records when it was released, but it now seems set on a slow but steady decline until only the most committed players are left (full disclosure: I am probably one of those most committed players).
I can not help but contrast this with another highly successful video game: League of Legends. Most video games have most of their success when first released and then taper off. League of Legends is different though. It was released in 2009, and it’s popularity continues to grow. Recently it was announced that League of Legends reached the milestone of having 100 million monthly players. This has made it the most successful video game of all time. As a comparison the ubiquitous Wii Sports, only sold 82 million copies in total.
League of Legends is in many ways the opposite of Pokemon Go. The game is notoriously complex. The game features dozens and dozens of characters. Each have its own unique move set which requires nuance and skill to use. The game requires split second timing that can only e acquired with hours of meticulous practice. This is also a competitive online game against other people. That fact, combined with the time commitment means that League of Legends is not a game that leans itself towards casual play. Unlike Pokemon Go, this is not a game that average non-gamer could easily grasp the basic mechanics of. League of Legends is extremely inaccessible and theoretically only has appeal to a selection of hardcore gamers that favor competitive play. On paper it would seem that Pokemon Go was the game set to take the world by storm, but in reality it is League of Legends that rules the video game roost.
This contrast really sticks out to me because I can not help but see echoes of the comparison between these two games and my church tribe. I am a lifelong United Methodist and I am currently a clergy member of the United Methodist Church. It is my experience and lifelong observation that as a denomination we have tried to be the Pokemon Go of churches. In order to attract people to join us in our spiritual life we have chased being extremely accessible and we have sought to have broad appeal. We have been quick to jump onto programs that seek to lower and remove what we perceived as obstacles to people coming to know Jesus.
Now because I have grown up in it, I find this approach to have an appeal. I do not want our practices or our traditions to be roadblocks to the cross. However, I have to wonder if in our zeal for accessibility we stripped it back too far. It seems that the evidence supports that. We have sought to be so accessible that the rules that are supposed to bind us together in unity (which we call the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church) tend to get treated more like polite suggestions. Also, like Pokemon Go, we are on the slow decline. The United Methodist Church in America has been losing members and declining in worship attendance for forty eight years. If we have not already reached that point, then perhaps like Pokemon Go we will decline until we only the most committed disciples.
When I look at the early Methodist movement, as well as some successful church communities today, I see a model that looks a bit more like League of Legends. The early Methodist movement was unapologetic in how hardcore it was. The early Methodists were fully expected to live out their faith in real and tangible ways. It was not something that could be done casually, and it required an intense commitment. Like League of Legends, the Methodist movement in the late 18th century exploded. The main reason for this was the workings of the Holy Spirit. However, some of the trappings that contributed to the success of Methodism are some of the same trappings that make League a runaway hit.
League of Legends is a highly social game. The game is a five versus five game, and it is always more fun to play with friends. This encourages players to recruit their own squad instead of playing with randoms. In addition to that the game has built in accountability. When a friend is playing the game and you are not, the game sends notifications to let you know. Early Methodism also had a large social component. They met together in classes and bands to spur one another on to holiness. They also held each other accountable and they were brutally honest with one another.
Second, League of Legends is successful because they are the best at what they do. The game developers are constantly improving and bettering the game, which is why their competitors have been unable to catch them. The early Methodist movement was the same way. It was not an institution yet, and it adapted and improved. It did this so that the Methodists could be the best disciples they could be. The early Methodists found innovative ways to spread the message like traveling circuit rider preachers. They did this without lowering the expectations of members. The Methodist movement was based on personal and social holiness. This is an emphasis on being as much like Jesus in heart and thought as possible. This is then living out that transformed life in humble and loving service to the greater world.
I cannot help if wondering if the video game engagement numbers communicate a deeper truth. Is it actually better to have something that has a high level of commitment but provides a high level of engagement and satisfaction over something that is accessible but lack depth? Perhaps it is time for the United Methodist Church (and other Christian denominations) to not worry so much about having a low bar for entry. Instead we should unapologetically seek to be faithful followers of Jesus, no matter how daunting of a tasks that looks like to outsiders. Instead of seeking to be churches full of casual disciples of Jesus, let’s work on being hardcore disciples.