This is not a game: religion in the 21st Century

From time to time this blog gets preoccupied with religion, which is hardly a digression since we live in seriously religious times.

Furthermore, Mary Douglas, the eminence grise behind the exploration here of cultural theory, had a religious intention. She developed her grid-group typology at least partly to counter the mid-twentieth century claims that Catholic ritual was ’empty ritualism’ in need of modernising, qua Vatican II. She was also concerned in her anthropological work to challenge the idea that ‘primitive’ societies, including their religions, were somehow being replaced by ‘less primitive’ societies and their secularism.

Now I want to explore something written about previously here, the concept of religion as play.

Here’s the issue. As secularisation theory takes numerous king hits from the remarkable political persistence of religion in the modern world it is nevertheless evident that religious organisation is in flux, if not comprehensive decline. Like a balloon being crushed by a determined toddler, it shrinks in one part of the circumference only to pop up unexpectedly in another.

But the proponents of the post-secular seem to jump from a focus on the decline of religion straight to a fixation with its persistence without really examining the other curious phenomenon, its revitalisation in constantly new forms.

The forms envisaged, however, look a lot like the old forms. Proponents of the economic rationalist analysis of religion claim that America, unlike Europe has had a relatively free market in religion, with competing sects as ‘firms’ aiming to meet demand for religious goods and services. They seem to assume, however, that such goods and services, like washing powder and spam, are relatively static and unchanging.

It is as though all that was required was to take the old box of detergent and write ‘New & Improved!’ on it.

Its easy to look to America or Japan and see that religious innovation is taking place exactly where we’d expect it to, in obviously religious forms. But this is a truism. New religious movements can be labelled such precisely because of what they have in common with older religious formations.

They may indeed be new in some senses, but mostly they are familiar. When Christians first encountered the Roman Empire they were regarded as impious because they did not conform to the expectations of Roman religion. They were viewed as irreligious. A truly new religious movement in the 21st Century would not look like Scientology or the Shinshūkyō of Japan. They would not immediately be recognisable as religious.

I’m claiming that new religious movements that really are new alter the parameters of the concept of religion, so that they may not be recognised as fitting the religion category at all.

On this reading, an organisation such as Scientology may be of recent origin, but it isn’t really new. Far from having new features it’s a kind of pastiche of existing religious expectations.

Alongside the conventional religious innovation, in which religions throw up new parodies or imitations of themselves, I think there is an upswelling of innovation around games and play, aided somewhat by new technologies and new expectations of leisure time, that may point to the possibility of genuinely new forms of religion. These will be new not because they look like old religions lightly renovated with new doctrines (like the Mormons, say, or Soka Gakkai, homages to Christianity and Buddhism respectively) but because they go much further and reinterpret what constitutes ‘the religious’. The field itself changes.

Wonderlab, for example, was a gathering of people interested in new forms of play. I find this highly suggestive for religion, where innovation (ironically) is often seen as forbidden.

A previous post here considered the issue of women priests. Whenever the Church hierarchy tries to explain why you can’t have women priests it begins to sound very unconvincing. It is as though the question can only be asked unproblematically in an environment that has no interest in the answer.

Judaism has a long tradition of rules that are to be followed in spite of (or perhaps because of) the absence of an explanatory reason for following them (Shatnez may be one such – the ban on wearing mixed fibre clothing). Reasons may be given but the reasons given all sound contingent. The ‘real’ reason is because.

Games often succeed when they include, but are not dominated by arbitrary rules. Such arbitrary rules are acceptable to the participants because of their arbitrary nature. If you roll three doubles you go to jail. Why? If you need to ask you’re not entering into the ‘magic circle’ of the game. There are no women priests. Why not? If you need to ask…

Outside of totalitarian regimes, play is the main area of social activity in which arbitrary rules can still go unquestioned, because they’re the rules, and rules are what games are made of.

Sociologist Richard Sennett was once in conversation at the LSE with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. They agreed that the main things that hold society together are rituals and narrative. As Sennett claims, ‘the cultural glue of shared ritual and narrative is weakening’. My modest suggestion here is that if we take a more ludic, playful approach to our understanding and characterisation of religion we may better come to terms with the ways in which religion operates in the present age and the ways in which religion may be changing. Indeed, looking ludically (game-wise) at religion may enable us to observe the ways in which shared ritual and narrative are not weakening.

One of the key criticisms of the religion as play concept is that the proponents of religion don’t think of it as a game. They may even be offended by the idea their religion might be (like) a game. In contrast players of games are able to say, ‘relax, it’s just a game’ and cause no offence to their fellow players. Actually, there is a well established convention that some games are to be played ‘as though’ they were not games. In alternative reality games this is known as the TINAG aesthetic – this is not a game.

‘Serious’ game designer, Jane McGonigal, argued that over the next fifteen years more and more people will ask why our lives can’t be structured more like games. While playing a game one enters a social environment, feels competent, has a meaningful task or quest and is rewarded for effort. The time spent gaming can be used productively solving real world problems collaboratively while having fun. This convergence of games with reality via numerous media is already happening and is typical of what media theorist Henry Jenkins has termed convergence culture. It’s a dynamic area of activity, as evidenced by the short lifespan (and dead links) of games such as:

Chore Wars – a multiplayer game in which players gained experience points for doing real world chores.

Shark Runners – was a game which used GPS tags attached to real sharks.

BluebirdAR – an alternative reality game which focused on the real dilemma of geoengineering to resolve climate change.

Killer Flu – a game presented by the UK’s Clinical Virology Network to educate players about the spread and containment of flu.

Although I mentioned the possibility of new forms of religion, what we may well be seeing is new forms of games that look increasingly ‘religious’. It is not that the standard symbols of religion need to be more visible. Where the familiar tropes are used they tend to become ossified and thoroughly non-innovative. For example, in the game Dante’s Inferno, whose promoters hired a fake group of fundamentalist protesters:

“It would be hard to imagine a game that has religion more front-and-center than we do,” admits Jonathan Knight, Executive Producer at EA’s Visceral Games. “I mean, the dude fights with a cross as one of his two primary weapons.” (Gamespy)


Rather it is the sensibility of the game, its purpose and orientation, the way in which religious aspirations and the aspirations of play intertwine and inform one another. McGonigal produced a game that encouraged its players to imagine a world after oil. In doing so, she claimed, they have had a small but lasting shift in their experience of daily life.

Another project of hers was with the World Bank. She has repeatedly referred to the idea of ‘saving the world’ through gaming – a highly religious theme, and one that has been viewed as rather grandiose. But since proponents of gamification got going, the world has indeed been gamified. Ludic elements pop up all over the place.

So here are my questions:

How bad would it be if some people agreed that a religion (i.e. a more or less coherent set of religious practices and dispositions, such as Catholicism, or Soto Zen Buddhism) was ‘all a game’? Would it really be a problem, and if so, what kind of problem?

How could it become possible for the view that a religion is a game to cease being a dismissive claim (as in the phrase ‘it’s all just a game to you, isn’t it’)?

How could it become, instead, a constructive or positive claim (as in Bill Shankly’s claim: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”)?

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