Last Sunday I was stopped in the narthex by an older member, and told very vehemently that I had forgotten to do something of high importance. Now, I’m sure you are imagining I forgot to clean up the kitchen after youth group, forgot to attend an LWML meeting, or failed to contact a member who had been absent. No. In fact, this woman wanted to chide me for not keeping up with my Farmville on Facebook. She noticed I had stopped playing entirely, even though I was points away from level 40, and she wanted to know where I had been. Not to mention, I hadn’t signed on to Sorority Life in months. We discussed my reasons for leaving, mostly because of the time commitment needed to keep games like these active, and her adventures in a variety of different Facebook games. I left promising that even if I stopped planting crops, I would still send her free gifts.

This is not a lone, out-of-left field conversation either. While inviting one of my parents to friend me on Facebook so I could include her in our youth’s Group Page, she asked me if she had to friend me to be a part of the group. She did not, but she certainly became my friend when she heard I was playing Frontierville. I recently got a message from one of my youth that in its entirety said, and I quote, “Play My Empire.” When I asked him why, he said he needed someone to send him supplies and no one else was playing.

If you spend any time at all on Facebook, it’s a good guess that you or someone you know is playing one of the many games available on the social networking site. Farmville, Mafia Wars, Frontierville (all created by developer Zynga), Sorority Life, and more are all booming in popularity. A new poll says 20 percent of Americans (nearly 56.8 million people) have played a game on a social network site in the last three months. The popularity of these games is not specific to age or gender, though teens do make up a huge amount of players. These games generally require you to spend and earn money doing a variety of activities. You create your own farm, homestead, or sorority and help it succeed by completing more and more difficult challenges.

As the games increase in popularity, they have become huge money makers. People are investing hundreds of dollars of real money on the games. (I’ll be calling it real money to differentiate from the game money you acquire for clarity. Game money is free and in many cases, literally grows on trees.) They are expected to generate $1.6 billion in revenue this year and 55 percent increase from just last year. Target will soon sell gift cards for Facebook credits so that players can buy everything from houses to weapons to animals to supplies. One report noted that in April a 12-year-old boy racked up a very real $1400 bill on his mother’s credit card just in Farmville purchases.

There are a few things I have noticed about what makes these games so interesting for us as youth workers. I’ll start with the bad news first.

These games generally teach that you can achieve by working hard but you can achieve a lot more a lot faster by spending real money. Players can take days, weeks, even months to achieve a goal on the game without spending a dime, but if they had spent $20 in real money the task would be done instantaneously. There is no need to wait or work if you just shell out the cash. These games reinforce for teens that instant gratification is so much better than working hard to achieve something. While there are many ways this happens in the real world, it is a predominate theme in these games, and because these games are for-profit, they remind you over and over that hard work isn’t necessary if you have a credit card. Most parents and youth leaders would like to help teens understand that most things worth having require hard work and discipline, not just a credit line. More importantly, an instant-gratification faith is not going to go very far. Faith requires time and dedication to a community and to being in God’s Word. It requires continually being in relationship with God and sharing the Gospel message with others. While these things are rewarding in and of themselves, there are often times where they are difficult, take time and energy, and cannot be achieved with just money.

The neither good nor bad news is that these games are a time commitment. In some if you don’t check on your game daily or sometimes more than once a day, you can get set back rather than forward. In others, if you play in a certain way you only need to play when you have time. While a moderate amount of game use can be fun, it is easy for these games to run your life. When we encourage our students to make God-pleasing choices about their priorities, and as we do as well, we would be well served to talk about how these games can quickly become too important and take up too much time that would be best used in other endeavors.

What caught my attention as a huge positive about these games, and something I’ve noticed by playing them myself, is that they are self-promoting. In order for you to succeed in the game you have to recruit and play well with others. You invite people to be your neighbors, send them items they need, and request their assistance in completing tasks. Without other people, you cannot be successful. The church and specifically youth ministry are the same way. You have to be continually inviting and working with other people to complete the task. You must work together as the Body of Christ in order for you to be successful. I think learning to cooperate in the game world can help teach the skills of working together in the real world. In fact, I have been working with some of my students, who initially demanded I help them with a specific game, to instead work together with me in a way that shows servant leadership. It’s a great training ground for this kind of attitude.

So, I’m off to harvest some of my trees and to clear my land, will you be doing the same?