In the 1980s, Christians didn’t mind playing Monopoly or chess — but there were certainly games considered too mystical to be allowed.
Evangelical Christian activist Patricia Pulling and her lobby group, BADD (Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons) championed a moral panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons, accusing the game of being a gateway into “demonology, witchcraft, voodoo … divination and other teachings”.
This probably sounds familiar: in Australia, these ideas were repeated by the Reverend Fred Nile and the Australian Federation for Decency.
None of this was proven true, but today there’s a growing sociological and theological agreement that gaming and spirituality might have something in common after all.
Active resting and forming community
Board game designer Phil Walker-Harding has a unique perspective on the growing board game market.
Phil’s most popular game, Sushi Go!, is sold internationally in over 20 languages — but he also helps pastor at Cottage Church, an Anglican congregation in Newtown, Sydney.
“The biblical idea of Sabbath is kind of like pressing pause on regular life, to step outside of kind of our regular cycles of production and work and all those things.
“It’s coming together with people resting, but not doing nothing — kind of actively resting, even playing.”
And here he sees a parallel with board games, where you can press “pause” on the world outside and focus on play.
“You’re not thinking about what we can gain from this experience, you’re just playing — but you’re doing it with quite a strong purpose,” he says.
Another parallel, Phil says, is about how community can form around a game, much as it can form in church.
For example, tabletop games — as their name implies — require physically gathering together around a table. That reminds Phil of one of Christianity’s most sacred rituals, the sacrament of the Eucharist, also called Communion.
“There’s something about sitting together around a table and sharing a common experience — like, embodied around the table — and doing something tactile as well,” says Phil.
“As things get more connected, and we’re on our screens all the time, that becomes more important to me — the physicality of having a social experience.
“I just think that really gets to what human community is all about.”
The ‘magic circle’
It’s an idea gaining popularity with clergy and academics alike.
The Reverend Amanda Hay is a Uniting Church minister with a large board game collection, and who completed her masters degree on religious ritual and tabletop gaming.
Although she plays other kinds of games as well, Amanda’s real passion is tabletop games that are best experienced as a group.
“It’s important for me when I’m playing a game that I can see the board and touch the pieces,” she says.
“But more than that, what I enjoy about having something on the tabletop is that it creates the ‘magic circle’.”
This is a phrase coined by the philosopher Johan Huizinga, she says, to refer to the space created when a few people come together to play.
It sounds like a pagan ritual, and it’s true that the idea has been around for a long time.
Huizinga wrote in 1938 that these magic circles are anywhere “within which special rules obtain” including “the arena, the card-table … the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court [and] the court of justice.”
Amanda says in a magic circle, “rules are set up, particular social structures are made pertaining to that space, and ‘flow’ is achieved — flow being this state of subconsciousness, where time seems to melt away”.
This sense of “flow”, or being “in the zone” is a mental state first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you’ve ever been completely absorbed in a task and lost track of time, you’ll know it first-hand.
“That’s how we should be reflecting ourselves in worship as well … we are connecting together and connecting with God,” says Amanda..
Likewise, Amanda says the physical objects used in church play a similar role to pieces used on a game board, because they both tell a story which transcends the literal experience.
“Religious ritual uses the ordinariness of everyday things for something greater, so it’s the same as flow in the magic circle,” she says.
“It creates an experience greater than the sum of its parts, [and so does] religious ritual.”
Gaming as a religious experience
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become far more difficult for both gaming clubs and religious groups to gather and create these transcendent spaces.
In response, online social games like Among Us have exploded in popularity.
Most of these are cooperative, and many are completely open-ended with no prescribed end goal, such as Minecraft, Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing.
Game store owner Benn Banasik describes these as “perpetual games”, a category which also includes classic arcade games like Pac-Man.
In fact, perpetual games are the subject of his PhD and he holds the world record for the longest ever game of Columns on Sega Mega Drive.
Holding this record has given Benn the opportunity to meet others who see parallels between spirituality and games, including Walter Day, who founded the famous video game scoreboard organisation Twin Galaxies.
“He’s into transcendental meditation and sees the same thing that I’ve sought to identify as part of my PhD, where people are getting into these flow-like states,” he says.
According to Benn, the sense of flow required to play Columns for hours on end is similar — if not the same — as that required for long periods of meditation, ritual or prayer.
“There is a definite overlap of this religious experience that people are unlocking through these onerous activities,” he says.
While Benn understands why people are interested in attending church services, he says he’s more fascinated by people “seeking to have these ongoing lasting experiences through perpetual activity”.
“I think that that’s highlighted in games, [even though] my mother used to tell me they were a waste of time and to get off.”
Blessed and altered
So, were evangelical Christians right about Dungeons and Dragons after all?
Sort of, Amanda Hay says, but in a more positive sense than Patricia Pulling would have meant.
“Dungeons and Dragons and worship both create senses of being,” she says.
“They create liminal spaces where people can come together and be there for one thing, to experience something together and to leave that place feeling blessed and altered in some way.
“Instead of choosing between D&D and church, we should be doing both.”
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