The games we pray: What is this ritual–game–story thing?
The desire to create and play games may well be “a fundamental human tendency” (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith and Tosca 2008, 45). Games have been played for tens of thousands of years, with performance that often intermingles with religious and ritual practices. In Egypt during the twenty-seventh century BCE, people played Senet, a game that resembles today’s Backgammon. The oldest game known to history, a form of ancient Mancala, has variations that “are found at sites of the world’s ancient civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and in areas now known as Cyprus, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Jordan” (Flanagan 2009, 64). Many of these games seem to have possibly had ritual purposes as well,
such as the Mesopotamian game Ur. The Chinese game Wéiqí (called Go in Japan) is “believed to have developed from divination practices by emperors and astrologers in Zhou culture” (69). Go’s ritual purposes were obvious; it “was given as a special gift at weddings and was a documented pastime of Zen monks, shoguns, and tea ceremony masters.” As Flanagan notes, “in its entanglement with ritual, [Go] itself reﬂects cultural and social characteristics of the times in which it was developed and changed” (105). Indeed, many of these games seem to reﬂect the complexity of the relationship between rituals and games in the ancient world. Flanagan explains: “Games of chance and divination were closely aligned for many thousands of years, for humans have long sought guidance from the changeable, powerful forces they believed may rule over one’s destiny and control the probable outcomes for hunting, war, and successful harvests” (68). Games and rituals also have often had a commingled relationship with
storytelling, with some rituals and games either building on, creating or revealing stories as part of the interactivity engaged in by the practitioner. Consider, for example, a ritualized re-enactment of a mythic battle, as in the Kecak, the Balinese monkey chant that involves dozens of men ritually performing a battle from the Ramayana. In such a performance there are elements of ritual (the movements, staging, actions performed), game (the battle that is re-enacted with a winner and loser), and story (the Ramayana, which is the larger mythic context for this rite). Another example is from the medieval Christian era; the
twelfth-century Corpus Christi College Manuscript 122 describes a form of the game called Alea Evangelii (“The Board Game of the Gospel”) in which the battle portrayed in the game becomes a form of religious allegory (Flanagan 2009, 71). Flanagan even suggests, drawing on historical research, that “image-based
games such as Sugoroku [a wooden board game] may have been incorporated into the monastic life of Buddhist temples during the ﬁfteenth century.” She suggests that Buddhist teachers “used game boards to teach neophytes how the suﬀering that originated in human weakness could and must be conquered to reach purity and the higher goal of paradise” (75). Rather than consisting of discrete forms, the ritual-game-story thing has always been something of a hybrid, representing some of the most foundational forms of human expression and meaning-making. It is as old as human civilization and as new as the latest hit video game. As Zimmerman observes, the study of video games in relationship to other
genres like storytelling is fraught with controversy as “terms and concepts run amuck like naughty schoolchildren” (2004, 154). Catherine Bell says something similar about ritual theory: “The wide variety of activities that have come to be analyzed as ritualized behavior patterns – aggression and combat, song, play, sport, grooming, courting and mating, drama, dance, humor, art, and even thought itself – testiﬁes to the promiscuous tendencies of this approach” (1992, 73). The concepts that Zimmerman and Bell address (play, games, narrativity, ritual, ritualization and interactivity) are surprisingly hard to hold onto. But it does seem clear that they have some intriguing relationships with one another, as all seem to exhibit overlapping qualities having to do with story and interactivity via performance of directed activities. As Flanagan has noted, the study of traditional games has “lagged behind”
other areas of study in current scholarly interest in popular culture. But as Flanagan argues, “games are legitimate forms of media, human expression, and cultural importance,” and deserve as much attention as ﬁlm, literature or visual art. Further, “the ways games reﬂect the norms and beliefs of their surrounding cultures [are] essential to understanding both games themselves and the insights they may provide to human experience.” Flanagan dubs this the “playculture approach to media,” and proposes that “board games become one of several artifacts of material culture used to trace social practices and beliefs” (2009, 67). Digital games have just as much potential today to reveal important facets
of human culture and meaning-making. For both traditional and digital games, “game actions and rules can be characterized as principal play features, and these foci are not unique to games but are also shared across language systems, social orders, and ties of kinship, law, and ritual” (Flanagan 2009, 67). By transcribing and reﬂecting ways that humans tell stories and engage in performative acts generated via carefully scripted experiences, games have as much to tell us about who we are as any other powerful human medium. And if games really
do have something fundamental in common with rituals and stories, then they are inextricable from these characteristically human endeavors as well. In his discussion of a cluster of concepts relating to games, Zimmerman sets
out some parameters that apply well not just to games and stories but also to ritual: these concepts are “not mutually exclusive” but work by “overlapping and intersecting the others in complex and unique ways.” Such “naughty” concepts are “things to think with” and function as “signs for clusters of concepts” that are “dynamic conceptual tools” that “represent a network of ideas that ﬂow into and through each other” (2004, 155). By looking at rituals, games and stories and the characteristics they share, I hope to oﬀer new “things to think with.” Bell seems to approve of such an approach when she says: “I do not wish to
imply or designate some independently existing object, namely ritual, with a set of deﬁning features that characterize all instances of ritual.” The concept would suﬀer “distortion in the process” and require taxonomy of “a whole galaxy of independent [but related] pure entities with static features” (1992, 219). Instead, Bell proposes that we “hold on to our battered terminology” as best we can, recognizing its limitations and modifying it in ways that respect the legacy of theory that brought us to where we are today. Accordingly, she is interested less in “ritual” than in “ritualization,” which she sees as “a strategic way of acting” (43). By emphasizing the process over a product, she opens up a consideration of ritual more squarely situated in what real people do and how they generate meaning. The focus here on process and performance allows for a much richer engagement with ritual, and also marks it as more attuned with the interactivity we ﬁnd in games and in the performance of stories in games. Rather than try to separate ritual, game and story with artiﬁcial bounds,
instead we should let them be messy, using the complexity and hybrid nature of the terms to open up new avenues of analysis. To varying degrees, rituals, games and stories all exhibit interactivity. All also can be perceived as a sort of play, broadly conceived. All also exhibit certain rules that shape our interaction with them. Rituals, games and stories also all manifest a complex but rich relationship with narrative, and all can be examined in terms of their portrayal of conﬂict. Using these ﬁve concepts as focusing lenses, or additional “things to think with,” I argue that the ritual-game-story thing is a profoundly hybrid creature, calling for our recognition of the deep relationship between playful, religious and storytelling activities in our lives.