Play, Culture, & the Sacred

Posted on July 2, 2011


So I’m reading this by turns arduous and enlightening book, The Magic Circle: Principles of Gaming & Simulation (2009).  It’s a full-fledged academic text (which means it has to cost $50 even though it’s just a big paperback–I got it from the library), and I don’t quite understand where the author is coming from. He takes an inter-disciplinary or “meta-disciplinary” approach to what he calls “game science”, which as far as I can tell is a bizarre admixture of game design, game analysis at the structural level, discussion of the meaning of play, and a game- and play-centered approach to any number of academic disciplines.

Which is all very cool, if about as dry as day-old crusts. Like I said, though, the author, Jan Klabbers, does say some enlightening things, and as I read and ruminate on them (especially as they may relate to roleplaying games), I’ll discuss them here.

Which brings us to today, and a little discussion of play, culture, and the sacred. In the midst of a chapter titled “The Gaming Landscape”, which shoots off in a dizzying number of directions, Klabbers drops this nugget:

Since the first Industrial Revolution there is decreasingly little room for the play element of culture. Utilitarianism, rationalism, and efficiency propagated through technological progress, and scientific management with its machine bureaucracy of work and production, have forced an over-estimation of the economic factor in life. Huizinga noted that they have killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. Weber speaks of a disenchanted world.

I’ve never seen the fact framed with such poignant understatement–the fact that yes, this is exactly how we live: with an over-estimation of the economic factor in life. Our mysteries have been murdered; our existence dis-spelled by the promise of efficiency propagated through technological progress.

So, what? This is what people get out of various religions and spiritualities and mysticisms, right? A sense of connection with the great mystery that there is any world at all, let alone this one, with its terror and beauty. Lately–like, the last couple years lately, but reappearing with a new urgency recently–my connection with Christian community and the conviction of Biblical truth (at least as far as the salvation of Jesus goes) has been on the wane. Conversely, my interest in and satisfaction derived from playing games and being involved in gaming community (especially roleplaying games & community), has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last few years.

Which is to say…I’m not sure what. Maybe just that whatever it was about Christianity, whatever ritual, mystery, or truth it spoke to me that seems so absent these days has been replaced in part by a passion for play, for communally discovering stories, and diving into art again. Though for now it’s the art of game design rather than visual art.

There’s something about the importance of play to my human self that is deeply fulfilling, something about crossing the threshold of that magic circle. There is something not too dissimilar between religious ritual and the ritual of playing a game. In ancient cultures sports were religious ritual, as Klabbers says:

In modern social life sport occupies a place alongside and apart from the cultural process. The great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals and were indispensable as health- and happiness-bringing activities. This ritual tie has now been completely severed: sport has become profane, “unholy” in every way and has no organic connection whatever with the structure of society, least of all when prescribed by the government.

My dislike of Klabbers’ use of the term “archaic” notwithstanding,* I think there’s something here that suggests a connection between games (of which sports are a subcategory), ritual, and the sacred. The ancient Egyptian board game Senet, for example, almost certainly had spiritual meaning. Maybe we can make this connection to games and the sacred again, by thoughtful play and design. I’m for sure that we can design games to do this, at least. Let’s see, huh?

*this book does have some weird editing, language, and cultural blindness issues.

Posted in: Readings