Lets Play Online

Maggie Barfield talks to Catherine Butcher about a trailblazing children’s gaming app

Six years ago, a pioneering gaming app was launched inviting children to become ‘Guardians of Ancora’. At the time, few people had a tablet or smartphone. Now, more than 1.6 million have downloaded the app and children all over the world are playing the game in multiple languages.

Like many classic online games, it’s an adventure. The players run, jump and climb, slide on zipwires, achieve new levels in the game and win trophies. Guardians of Ancora – typically eight to 11-year-olds – are invited to explore the imaginary city of Ancora, visiting the ‘Hall of Memory’ and the ‘Theatre of the Saga’. They meet the Guild Master and Keeper of the Keys, unlocking stories and collecting ‘Guardian’s Gear’ in a digital satchel. Players who enjoy quizzes can answer questions. Children who want to be creative can use virtual paints and stickers to create pictures. There are animals to feed and new friends to be made – all in a secure environment which follows the strictest international rules for children’s online gaming.

The game was devised by world-class gamers working with the Christian charity Scripture Union. Their challenge was to capture children’s imaginations with the unchanging stories of the Bible, while still allowing players to influence the outcome of the game. Children can play offline and online. They don’t need to be able to read well but there are options to read stories as well as listen to them.

Players are introduced to a man called Jesus in the ancient town of Capernaum (named after the real town in the Middle East) where he is recruiting his followers. Gamers can read eye-witness accounts of the real, historical Jesus as well as watching the on-screen avatar enacting the story from his birth in Bethlehem to his crucifixion in Jerusalem, followed by his amazing resurrection.

Breaking new ground

Maggie Barfield, one of the team behind Guardians of Ancora, explains how they devised the game: ‘We wanted something really immersive for the children. Six years ago, people thought we were mad going for an app. Smartphones didn’t exist as we now know them and only 4% of the population had a tablet. It felt risky but we could sense how things were moving.

‘We went to a specialist children’s game design company and worked very closely with them. Then we did a lot of research with children – we watched them play and talked to loads of children, as well as looking at other games.

‘Different children play in different ways – some are very intensely playing the game. Others are much more interested in the more sociable aspects such as sharing pictures and creating prayer posts; some are more interested in reading the stories and taking the quizzes. Others go everywhere and do a bit of everything. We wanted to give children choice, so they can choose what they do in the game and when they do it. The journey through the app experience is not totally prescribed. If they don’t like quizzes you need never play a quiz, for example.’

The game is used by children at home and in schools, where there are Guardians of Ancora clubs. Initially the game was mainly popular with church groups and Christian families, but now it has become much more widespread.

One of Maggie’s favourite stories about the players began when a Scripture Union schools worker visited a class and told pupils about the Guardians game. Two years later, he went back to the school and noticed that one of the children seemed to know a lot more about Jesus and the Bible than her classmates, even though she had no links with Christians or a church. He was amazed to discover that she had followed up on what he said on his first visit, had downloaded the app, and had been playing ever since.

So, what’s the feedback from children and adults who have played Guardians of Ancora? Maggie says one of the most frequent comments from adults is ‘I don’t know how to play this!’ But children are digital natives who catch on much more quickly and intuitively than their parents. Sadly, a few children have said ‘We only play games where we can kill people.’ However, millions more enjoy the game and Scripture Union has been able to respond to their requests to provide more virtual costumes for players for example, as well as making other improvements to keep pace with changes in technology.

During Covid lockdowns numbers using the app increased and the Guardians of Ancora Facebook page included regular challenges for players, who were using the app more frequently.

With new generations of children getting online every year, millions more are set to enter the wonderful world of Ancora and play!

Telling an unchanging story

Scripture Union began in 1867, the same year that English law changed so no factory or workshop could employ any child under the age of eight; employees aged between eight and 13 were required to have at least 10 hours of education per week. That’s when the so-called ‘ragged schools’ began.

In June 1867 Josiah Spiers spoke to 15 children in a drawing room in Islington, London, pioneering a new approach to introducing children to Jesus. The following year, Spiers went on holiday to Llandudno in North Wales and spontaneously wrote ‘God is love’ in the sand. His simple, compelling message attracted the attention of local young people, and Scripture Union began, as children began to engage with Jesus. 


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