Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Games and Spirituality

“There is no virtue in isolating ourselves from the world. This will not safeguard our spirituality. But it will certainly condemn us to irrelevance. There is also no virtue in being culturally ‘trendy’ and accepting blindly the latest offering in the round of personal and social ‘cures.’ At the same time, there is not merit in being out of touch with the critical issues of our time...." Charles Ringma

Over the last five years, I've thought a lot about games and spirituality and I've encountered different ways spiritual people engage their pastime, dealing with or side stepping problematic issues while respecting their own boundaries. As for myself, I'm a practicing Buddhist with a master's degree in Buddhist studies. Or if you ask my mother, a Catholic who will soon come back to the church. Most people have no spiritual issues with games, while others are troubled by various elements within games.The three areas I want to discuss are evil, conflict and collectibles.

Let me first say I dislike the word spiritual. Like the term "energy," it generally has no meaning when discussing religion. Someone who considers themselves spiritual and engages with our hobby (or hobbies) generally has a set of religious or ethical beliefs that act as mental armor in the world, allowing them to go forth and do good while protecting them from more sinister elements. Where they draw the line is their personal business, and where this gets interesting. As my quote above states, lay practitioners of most traditions wish to be in the world, but not of the world. They draw boundaries to set themselves apart for their own protection. They wish to engage the world, but not allow themselves to be consumed by both the good and the bad that they encounter. But what is bad?

Evil is the usual suspect. Back in the '80's, our now venerable favorite, Dungeons & Dragons was vilified as being a gateway to Hell. There were some misunderstandings, some of which were clearly intentional to vilify the game. Players don't cavort with dark powers. The magic is make believe. Suicide of players is not statistically higher than others in their age group. In other words, by itself there is nothing wrong with the game. After describing the Player's Handbook to one woman, she asked me, "They cast real spells?" I told her, "If people could cast real spells from this book, I would be making a lot more money at this." There's spirituality and commerce in a nutshell.

As a spiritual practitioner, however, there are some real life issues within the game dealing with evil. There are indeed, devils and demons that can be dealt with in your imagination, and spells your make believe character can cast, which for many Christians is problematic. You can also explore the nature of evil quite thoroughly in the game, which can bother some. I ran an "evil" campaign a few years ago where it was interesting to see what players considered "true" evil. How far did they want their evil game to go in this exploration? For some, children and torture where out of bounds. For others, the sky was the limit. Did they want to be sinister evil, or misunderstood master planners who viewed themselves as good? Everyone knows good when they see it, but evil? Evil is nebulous. Perhaps that's why some people have such a problem with the game.

For many spiritual people, delving into this topic is not a wholesome pastime and one they're encouraged to avoid. I drew the line at the evil campaign and I simply found it exhausting and demoralizing to run it. It was like a weekly dose of pollution injected into my brain. It ran at the same time and in the same world as my "good" campaign. The "good" characters in another gaming group ran around and cleaned up the messes of the evil folks. It turns out that it's vastly easier to do evil than undo it. Sometimes you forget that conflict in role-playing game is meant to be resolved. So for me, I think exploring the nature of evil is important and relevant, but it's probably better left at a brief exploration.

Other customers have lines they avoid crossing. One plays Warhammer 40K, but avoids chaos, associating it with the Christian underworld. Another is a serial role-player, playing every role-playing game we sell, but carefully tip toeing around Dungeons & Dragons. He's heard too much about it and wants to avoid the entire controversy. Everyone has their own boundaries and engages at the level in which they're comfortable. Games open up your imagination to the entire realm of possibilities. Some possibilities we would rather limit.

Conflict is a necessary element of games, I believe. There are really only a couple types of games, when you distill them down: the race and the battle. Without conflict, games are boring and tedious, often downright educational! Again, conflict is fine for most, the best example of lightweight conflict being Euro board games. These games are almost always non-violent, with themes of exploration or racing to complete a task. I know several ministers who whole heartedly engage in Euro gaming as a wholesome, relatively conflict-free pastime. One of the photos in the store (until recently) was of a couple of nuns enjoying a good game of Ticket to Ride.

On the other hand, war games make no bones about their goals. Crush your opponent, engaging in clever strategy and tactics. You can argue that playing war games is an important lesson in conflict resolution and learning the limitations of war. It teaches critical thinking, often involves craft work, occasionally delves into history, and provides a social atmosphere for playing. It certainly has more positive elements to it than your average first person shooter video game. Yet, if you're a spiritual person, war gaming can be problematic as you regularly fill your head with violence and carnage.

I suppose it's about moderation and context, but it can be difficult to justify sometimes. Do you become desensitized or are you better able to grasp the horrors of war? I've had few conversation about Dungeons & Dragons and evil over the past five years, but I regularly have to explain my position on war games to anxious mothers. How many times is the word "war" shown on the walls of the store? Flames of War, Warhammer, Warmachine.... I fully accept the grayness of this area.

Collectible games bother me as a business model. This is where you buy blind packs of products in hopes of getting a random item of goodness. Someone will have to explain to me how this is not gambling and why most of these games are marketed to children. My problem with collectible games are not the games themselves, which are often fantastic, it's how they're sold. The result, I've found, is a lot of bad behavior surrounding these games. Theft is rampant and arguments and fighting a constant as card players, much like drug addicts, trade and negotiate to get the item they need so desperately. You might argue that it's the age of the players, but not the game. However, I think it's the acquisition model that's to blame. You don't see this with other games kids play.

I find the model dishonest and regularly think of ways to disengage. What if I were to only sell singles of all product and not sell packs? Would they buy the packs somewhere else or buy just what they wanted from the singles? What would my business model look like if I turned my back on all collectibles and focused on miniatures and role playing games? At this point, my business is too enmeshed with the collectible model to give it up cold turkey, but my disdain for collectibles is strong. This is the issue I feel most strongly about, but I generally don't see it discussed.

So there you have it, my three big issues superficially discussed in a blog post. Fee free to engage and expand.