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Game and ritual

I have been reading an excellent book by George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, and K. Robert Gutschera called The Characteristics of Games. Although they avoid giving any final definition, they offer various rough attempts to define what a game is.

They quote the definition of two philosophers (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman): a “game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” They then go on to challenge the choice of various words in the definition, such as “conflict” and “quantifiable,” as academics are wont to do.

Another definition they entertain comes from making a distinction between games and other rule-based human behavior: a game is something we do “for fun.” They then question this defining factor as well: What about professional sports? Are they done for fun (other than for the spectators)? If not, are they still games?

As a Christian “Platonist,” one of my very favorite points is that games are not defined by their rules but that the rules are defined by the game: logically, the game is more important than its rules. When we feel that rules aren’t helping us play a game we change the rules, we do not change the name of the game!

So Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera only offer what they consider “working” definitions, though they drop this amazing definition right into a footnote: “games are to some extent abstract and purified models of everyday human existence.”

Wow. Now that is interesting. And it sounds like something else I know a little (and think a lot) about. I cannot help but connect this “game theory” to “ritual theory.” How is ritual like a game, and how is a game like ritual? Can what we know about one inform the other?

In Infancy and History (1978), Giorgio Agamben argued that Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropological work taught us something important: “rites transform events into structures, play transforms structures into events” (Infancy and History, p. 73).

I just love that. And I learned it first from someone else. C. S. Lewis says, in An Experiment in Criticism, that literature, as a verbal work of art, when treated as such, becomes something in which one “rests.” For the person willing to engage the work of art in this way, the work becomes its own end. “That way, it may be compared (upward) with religious contemplation or (downward) with a game.”

Contemplation, art, game: an interesting list.

What if our Christian ritual is a divine “game”? Perhaps it is a “two-player” game: God and humanity. And let us use this fast-and-loose definition “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” In this “game” of the Divine Service, both sides, according to clearly defined rules, make various moves. In the end, God always wins. He takes everything, “ourselves, our souls and bodies.” For “all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” And those who rejoice in God’s victory also have a share!

But isn’t this comparison of the Divine Service to a game trivializing something sacred? After all, aren’t games just for “fun”?

I offer two things to consider in conclusion. First, perhaps “having fun” isn’t the real point of a game, or, if we broaden what we mean by “fun” — away from mere entertainment into genuine enjoyment — then perhaps “having fun” is a pretty sacred matter, especially for a God who commands Sabbath rest. If so, then, secondly, perhaps the “fun” of the divine service is not that of diversion but of enjoying God, and God us, in restful union.

Everybody wins.

Nathan Jennings’s other posts may be found here

The featured image of medieval backgammon is from Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal. germ 848 (Zurich, ca. 1305), folio 262v. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 



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