Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Religion and Games: Beyond Ruffled Feathers to Critical Reflection

The latest email announcement for the always interesting Religion Dispatches included mention of a story that caught my eye. It is by S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, titled "Is Religion a Game?". I will warn my readers who may click the link above to read the story that the subject matter will likely be offensive, at least at first. But I hope readers can move beyond this to engage the more serious issues raised by Plate. As film director Terry Gilliam has said, "Frankly, if your religion is so vulnerable that a little bit of disrespect is going to bring it down, it's not worth believing in."

In the article Plate raises serious questions related to the overlap if not connection between religion and games, especially in light of a controversial new game:
"The buzz last week was a new board game (yes, board game, as in folded cardboard tables and dice and cards) called Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination. Following essentially the same strategy as Risk minus the armies, Playing Gods has each player assume the role of a different god or prophet in their attempt to take over the world. As the game’s website suggests: “This is done by spreading your believers, converting the followers of other gods, or killing them off with Acts of God.” The satiric figurines include a laughing Buddha with automatic weapon, Moses about to bash someone with stone tables held high, Muhammad armed with saber and hand grenade, Jesus wielding a bladed cross, and Kali with sword, shield, and severed head (oh, wait, that’s Kali’s typical depiction, see left). Denver University’s Professor of Religious Studies, Carl Raschke, claims in USA Today that the new game is “too stupid to go far,” and that may be so."
Hearing of such a game readers are, again, likely to have their ire raised, but the connections between gaming, and the broader considerations of play, have been recognized by scholars of various stripes. I have commented on this previously when I drew attention to C. S. Lewis's recognition of an encounter with transcendence in the joy experienced through play, and Peter Berger's inductive theological argument that play represents one of the "signals of transcendence" in the mundane world.

Plate concludes:
"If we want to understand religions, we have to understand their game-like qualities, and that religion might, at the heart of it all, be a game. Which does not make it trivial. Games can have high stakes. Games can entrance people to the point of risking much, if not all: cars and condos, wives and lives, fortunes and families. Games excite, annoy, produce joy and anguish, and take their players to great extremes of emotion and rationality, even as the player may still say “its only a game.” So, here’s a call to learn about religion by playing games. And vice versa. Choice and chance, destruction and creation, role-playing and playing one’s heart, are all at the center of the worlds that we call religions. We may live in our world, but play in another."
It would seem that play and gaming theology represents a fruitful avenue for those willing to take it seriously and to explore its potential. Can Christians move beyond their ruffled feathers to engage in critical reflection on such things?

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