Playing games opens up a world of possibilities in worlds that don’t exist. Because that’s what games are – alternate realities – and that’s what games do. They do away with what is real and ask us to do the same. It follows, then, that in the perfect game, players perform foolish acts for no good reason. And in playing out these harmless fantasies, game players discover reality, what it is to live without inhibitions, what it means to finally be real.
The game is central to identity.
God made man in his image, and although we identify God as the source of love, joy, peace, and other virtues, what lies at the bottom of God’s character is creative power. So it is in creative play that we discover God’s image within us, waiting to break free from the oppressive propriety and maturity required in our day-to-day lives.
Imagine a 10-year-old boy teaching adults to wriggle around on their stomachs in a round of Snake-in-the-Grass. Imagine two friends on a road trip, reading billboard messages backwards, pretending to speak in a foreign tongue. Imagine a group of middle school students using dictionaries and a long cafeteria table to create a contemporary version of shuffleboard.
When we create and play new games, we discover God’s creative power in our minds, his presence in our midst. We discover what God created us to do and be: fellow creators.
The game is central to community.
Jesus prayed that God might make us one with each other in heart and mind, unified with the Father so that we might truly worship him in spirit and in truth. But we live in a dog-eat-dog world where people are valued for what they accomplish, not for what they become. Our success-oriented culture pushes people apart, demands that each man and woman be an island, self-sufficient. Reliance is weakness. Need is next to sin.
But the game turns topsy-turvy the world as we live it. In British Bulldog, the strong and the fast become victims to the cooperative efforts of smaller and slower players. Tops and Bottoms – like Lemonade – is designed around the goal of getting everybody on the same team. And no game is complete without an after-opportunity for sharing stories.
When we play together, we create shared experiences that break down barriers to vulnerability and transparency in other areas of our lives. When we learn how to play all out – hard, fair and nobody hurt – then we cease to be islands. We tag shoulders in Elbow Tag, strip off socks in Knock Your Socks Off, wrestle each other to the ground in Whomp-Em or Bloody Wink Em. And every time we touch, we demonstrate that God is forming us into a living breathing body of believers.
The game is central to worship.
First, some background. Dualism is the ancient heresy that claims spirit is holy while the flesh harbors sin. In Western Christianity, we’ve given new life to this system in our practiced separation of sacred from secular. Why else would we believe (or live as if we believe) that worship is only worship if it occurs in a certain place (church) at a certain time (Sunday morning) with a certain group of people (other Christians)?
And what good does worship do as a shot in the arm, a kind of holy inoculation intended to keep us safe from the dangers of greed, sex and road rage? Shouldn’t worship be central rather than tacked on? And must it always include music? Or a sermon?
Here is the problem. We cannot know God unless we know ourselves. We cannot celebrate God’s goodness if we fail to recognize his beauty reflected in the lives of our fellow humans. In order to worship in spirit and in truth, we must know ourselves, and we must have community. Everything else is false.
But our churches too often engage in little more than parallel play. We are in the same place and doing the same things as other believers. But we are alone.
Games bridge the gap.
I once took a group of youth and adults to a grassy hill on the edge of town where we spent hours speeding down the slopes on blocks of ice. As the sun set that evening, we gathered at the top of the hill, recounting stories of close calls and heroic deeds. We dreamed up new adventures. We marveled at the orange-topped buildings in the city below set off by deepening shadows and fiery clouds that shifted from red to pink to purple to blue. We spoke of secret longings and of God. That night, we stumbled down that hill in the dark, drunk with the joy of connecting, of trusting, of being known. That night, we experienced worship.
We are in the same place and doing the same things as other believers. But we are alone.