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Theology of Play


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The following story is the second story  in a three-part series from Rev. Daniel Hilty and Kevin Taylor on the Theology of Play. 

For many American Christians, Christmas is the day we are most likely to play games together. It’s often too cold to spend time outdoors. All the stores are closed, no work or school…and our homes can be filled with multiple generations of family members who have run out of things to talk about. So, if there is a more perfect set-up for a rousing game of Uno, we can’t think what of it is! Yet the connection between Christmas and games is more than just convenience:  both afford us a glimpse of what life could be like if we played by a different set of rules.

Most of us have probably had some experience of Christmastime as an invitation to a different way of being. At the college we attended, for example, an annual Moravian Christmas Love Feast in the chapel would bring together students, faculty and staff as we lit candles, ate together and sang of Christ’s birth. There was a deep sense of interconnection and community which felt absent most of the year, but that night reminded us that it could be possible if we answered its call.

The same is true with games and play:  they reveal to us how things could be different if we followed a different set of rules. Play can be an invitation — a calling — from God to live differently.

“The magic circle” is an essential concept in games studies used to describe this “calling.” With roots in an ancient Sanskrit text, the idea of the magic circle has been popularized recently by modern game designers like Katie Salen. It puts a name on the experience of entering into a time of play — like participating in a candle-lit Christmas service or taking baptismal vows — when the rules of reality change.

When we are willing to enter into those “magic circle” times of play, we remind ourselves that living by a different set of rules than what the world teaches us is possible. And for Christians, that reminder can also call us back to the “different set of rules” that shape us as followers of Jesus Christ. Specifically, entering into the magic circle of play and games invites us to live out our Christian calling in at least three ways:
  1. Play nurtures creativity. Each time we enter the magic circle of play, we permit ourselves to relate to reality in new ways. Play trains us to think creatively, even about faith’s most pressing questions — like how to share God’s love more meaningfully and relieve suffering in others more effectively.
  2. Play weakens the forces of oppression. The forces of injustice and oppression desire nothing more than to be taken seriously — to be allowed to impose their terms of reality on everything else. When we play, however, we take away some of their power by offering ourselves and others an alternative way to be. Movies like “Jojo Rabbit” (2019) and “Life is Beautiful” (1997), for example, explore the power of play to offer hope and life against backdrops of World War II Nazi atrocities. Dave Bindewald, director of the Center for Play and Exploration, describes this power of play as “storming the gates of hell with a water pistol.” 
  3. Play protests. Play, finally, is an act of protest. We are indebted to friends who have taught us this truth as part of larger conversations about faith and play. Rev. Chelsey Hillyer, for example, observes that “the play offers us a delightfully subversive option for interrupting, resisting or protesting any demand that we prove ourselves, our worth, or our value. For example, when I spend half a day playing with my kid instead of working at my job, I’ve prioritized joyful relationship and love over income or accomplishment.” Rev. Fabian Gonzalez notes that “in a culture that rewards monetary success, play can be a protest to the idea that our worth is based on our financial gain.”

By nurturing creativity, taking away some of the power of oppression, and protesting against the world’s principalities, play allows us to live out our Christian calling more fully. As we enter the magic circle of play, we may feel as if we are leaving the “real world,” but what we are doing is rediscovering who we are…both inside and outside the magic circle.

All of this raises the question: “if play and games are an essential part of being human, help us to experience the grace, and allow us to live out our Christian calling, how can we incorporate them more into our local congregations?” So glad you asked! Please stay tuned for our third and final article in next month’s magazine.

Kevin Taylor and Daniel Hilty are cohosts of Board Game Faith, a biweekly podcast on the intersection of games, religion, and spirituality. Learn more and listen to the podcast at www.boardgamefaith.com.