Insert Coin | Is Church a Game?

ArcadeThe ever-brilliant Believer Magazine took ‘Games’ as its theme for the September issue. It’s left me with some thoughts I want to share, probably over the course of a few posts.

One of the main articles, by Paul La Farge, was an exploration of Dungeons and Dragons, which, in typical Believer style, meant a gorgeous meditation on the history and culture of the game, building to the author playing an actual game with D&D’s founder (sort of), Gary Gygax.

La Farge writes:

“The appeal of D&D is superficially not very different from the appeal of reading. You start outside something (Middle Earth, Dickens’ London) and you go in, bit by bit. Along the way, you may have occasion to think, to doubt, or even to learn. Then you come back: your work has piled up, it’s past your bedtime; people may wonder what you have been doing. D&D is a game for people who like rules: in order to play the game you had to make sense of roughly twenty pages of instructions.”

However, in the course of the article La Farge explores the extent to which D&D actually is a game. He quotes Lévi-Strauss:

“Games appear to have a disjunctive effect: they end in the establishment of a difference between players or teams where originally there was no indication of inequality. And at the end of the game they are distinguished into winners and losers.”

La Farge notes that there are no real winners or losers in D&D, and there is no real difference established. So, rather than being a game, it is instead, perhaps, closer to ritual. Again quoting Lévi-Strauss:

“Ritual, on the other hand, is the exact inverse: it cojoins, for it brings about a union, or in any case, and organic relation between two initially separate groups.”

Having read the article I began to wonder if the Emerging Church was rather too similar to D&D than we might like to admit. Men spending too much time in dark, dungeon-like rooms exploring deep worlds? I don’t even want to go there!

More seriously, I do wonder if this distinction between game and ritual gives us something to reflect on. It is interesting to note that the clichéd D&D player was ‘nerd’ as opposed to ‘jock’. Jocks were definitely into games, because they knew they could win. Nerds went for something more conjunctive, perhaps because they knew they couldn’t.

One might argue that the Evangelical model of faith, with hell for the losers, is very much like a game, with very high stakes. And the Christian ‘jocks’ love to play. But is that what God wanted? Has the Emerging Church become the ‘nerd’ version, the non-competitve, no losers model? We might want to claim that the expressions of church we are involved in are fully based on ritual… but are we ignoring the sense of competitiveness about our success when we do so?

So, I think it is worth reflecting: is the Church playing at game or ritual?

For now I’ve run out of credit.


for more soon…

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6 responses to “Insert Coin | Is Church a Game?”

  1. As someone interested in and supportive of so-called ’emerging’ church but fully involved in what I call ‘submerging’ church, I’d question any notion that emerging church is non-competitive. It would appear that many players in the emerging church game have readily identified thir ‘opponents’ and defined themselves against them …
    … That said, I must stress that this criticism isn’t just about emerging church … we are all fired by this competitive urge in all areas of life … which is why this exploration of the gaming metaphor is a promising line of enquiry to pursue. It’s in a similar area to the immenslely helpful Girardian perspective.

  2. Interesting… Was going to touch on game theory later. Mathematically, it’s about what your best option is to maximise your win probability. There’s a nice scene on it in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – how is he most likely to get laid.
    Question is, who’s using Game Theory in Church? What’s your best strategy to get the most people saved? Or the most people going ‘ooohhhh, how clever’?
    Or are there strategies that maximise the probability that everyone does better, rather than just you? Answer: yes. It’s called random acts of kindness. The gift comes round…

  3. We need to run with this idea of – Emerging church as nerd. I feel much more comfortable identifying as the nerds of the church rather than the “we’re so cool” thing our critics have branded us with (don’t let my heavily tattooed arms fool you, I’m not very cool at all)

  4. I think you’re brave to bring up this comparison because like the point brought by John, I see lots of competitiveness in emerging church. If you don’t then I would say you’re on the winning side. Maybe I need to accept the parts that are competitive like the evangelicals need to accept the ritual. Generalities abound here.
    I wonder why the word “game” seems so harsh to me? I like the word play. That must make me a loser nerd.
    What do others think of me if I decide not to play their way? Will I be put down as “loser”, “nerd”? What is wrong with us that we need these pejorative terms? They should be kept from the emerging church lexicon.
    The mother in me says “play nice!”

  5. damnflandrz

    Oh Kester, Kester. I told you al along it should all be a game. All lo! We see my wasted Sunday mornings blowing people up online from all over the world finally become a metaphor for what I always claimed it to be — church.
    Coincidentally, my wife plays Dungeons and Dagons Online and is thoroughly (unhealthily?) addicted to it — but it aint as bad as WOW; that game wil destroy any social life you have outside of the game. A bit like church can.
    Interesting, so here we find ourselves with different types of online games representing different church-types, I suppose…
    MMOFPS – go-getter, in-the-world mission-style church.
    MMORPG – clique, safe and happy-clappy community affairs.
    Civilisation-type – evangelical.
    Strategy – orthodox/traditional.
    Tic-tac-toe – emergent 😉
    Or not.
    The important thing is that I was right all along, and now my wife can wear her 12-sided dice around her neck instead of her cross (which she never wears).
    When does ComplexChrist – MMOFPS come out on PC?
    PS. Nerds and geeks are too cool nowadays, and rich.
    PPS. Download a weeks free demo of Dungeons and Dragons Online at