Is Religion a Game?

Live in your world. Play in Ours.

So went Sony’s tagline for Playstation 2 a few years ago, though it is a line that could have been spoken by Muhammad, the Buddha, Shiva, Confucius, or Jesus Christ. I don’t say this to be disrespectful to any of the traditions that these great people helped to found, but rather to raise the stakes of what is frequently involved in the pursuit of understanding religions.

Religions cause people to juxtapose worlds, living in some, playing in others, and setting stark contrasts between them. Sometimes arrogantly, sometimes humbly, religions suggest that, in the words of the late great Christian folk rocker Larry Norman, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through…” Or, if you like, in a more secular apocalyptic vein, to croon with Willie Nelson, “I’ve just destroyed the world I’m living in.” Flanking Norman, Nelson, and Sony, religions collectively operate through a deep understanding that games are more than detached technological environments, but actually can create a world, even if temporarily, for its players.

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 Web site suggests: “This is done by spreading your believers, converting the followers of other gods, or killing them off with Acts of God.” /images/managed/Story+Image_275px-kali_devi_1228264591.jpgThe satiric figurines include a laughing Buddha with an automatic weapon, Moses about to bash someone with stone tablets held high, Muhammad armed with a saber and hand grenade, Jesus wielding a bladed cross, and Kali with a sword, shield, and severed head (oh, wait, that’s Kali’s typical depiction, see left). Carl Raschke, a professor of religious studies at Denver University, claims in USA Today that the new game is “too stupid to go far,” and that may be so.

Yet, I think there is much worth investigating in the relation between religious worlds and games, both in their board and video versions. For those still baffled as to why religion works so well in a modern/postmodern world, games might offer some insight. Take some of the recent board games that deal with religious themes: Missionary Conquest, BuddhaWheel, The Mahabharata Game, Catholic-opoly and Mormon-opoly (the goal of the latter two is not to raise houses and hotels to charge rent but, you guessed it, to raise churches and cathedrals in order get more people into the respective congregations). Each game includes some element of conflict along the way: Games wouldn’t be games without some conflict. While I’ve never played it, I love Missionary Conquest’s write-up. This is produced by the “Bible Games Company” and suggests it is a game of “laughter and strategy,” in which one must learn to finance their missionary trips through wise investment. Competition, strategy, some fortuitous roles of the dice, and we are replaying in microcosm the worlds we are living out in macrocosm.

Video games take the basic concepts of board games and create more comprehensive worlds in three dimensions. Many games created over the last two decades such as Black & White, Power Monger, Sim Earth and Populous, to name just a few, operate through players taking on the role of a god/dess as they try to gain power in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The interest in and influence of these has culminated in the generic tag, “God Games.” Wired magazine’s “Senior Maverick,” Kevin Kelly, was writing about this stuff years ago. In a chapter on God Games in his 1994 book Out of Control, Kelly muses:

I can’t imagine anything more addictive then being a god. A hundred years from now nothing will keep us away from artificial cosmos cartridges we can purchase and pop it into a world machine to watch creatures come alive and interact on their own accord. Godhood is irresistible.

It’s an intriguing statement for a jacked-in society that regularly re-creates the world on screen in myriad ways, simultaneously feeling the power of doing so. Life itself thrives on creation, on re-creation, through the ongoing human desire to make something new (even when using old materials), and the equally important need for humans to develop mythologies of master creators: gods and goddesses, as well as monsters and devils. 

Like games, religions play in differing worlds, with their own sets of rules, beliefs, and behaviors. In his book Religious Worlds, religious scholar William Paden suggests how:

Religions do not all inhabit the same world, but actually posit, structure, and dwell within a universe that is their own. They can be understood not just as so many attempts to explain some common, objectively available order of things that is ‘out there,’ but as traditions that create and occupy their own universe.

The fact of the matter is that we religious humans live in multiple worlds with multiple, overlapping, intersecting, and even contradicting conceptions of space and time. Not everyone understands the here and now to be the year 2008. For many Muslims it is now 1429 and for many Jews it’s 5769. And this apocalyptic Mayan thing about December 21, 2012 only illuminates the creative poverty of Eurocentrism by misunderstanding that “2012” even exists on a Mayan calendar. The Mayan calendar represents a different world from that of the modern West; we may play in it, but we can’t really live in it. The point of all this is that there are multiple, interwoven, concentric worlds that simultaneously exist on the planet earth. Our neighbors are keeping different calendars, and orient their lives to different gods, goddesses, books, and places. Worlds—religious worlds especially—are relative.

“God games” are basically expressions and representations of what many religious traditions have been doing for a long time. Through creative or coercive means, convincing others to follow your way/world and not another has been fundamental to Christianity since the time of Constantine, fundamental to Islam since the time of Muhammad, and fundamental to Buddhism since the Bodhi-Dharma left for the East. There is a certain primal desire to suggest to others that “my world” is the right one. Games, and religions, are about creating ever-new worlds, accompanied by the enticing suggestion to come to my world to play. 

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.