There’s something primal about play: it’s instinctual, it’s intuitive, it puts us in the moment.
And it’s where we learn competition and collaboration, strategy and spontaneity, bluff and honor — “poker face” and “fair play” alike.
- We’ve seen Kriegspiel used in training the Prussian officer corps.
- We’ve seen a chess set Harun al-Rashid supposedly sent Charlemagne as a diplomatic gift.
- We’ve seen chess in Reykjavik as a continuation of the Cold War by other means.
- We’ve seen Mao as a student of strategy in Go.
- We’ve seen the Olympics as a time of truce among the warring states of Greece
- We’ve seen soccer as a triumph of peace-making in South Africa.
- We’ve seen a soccer match trigger war between Honduras and El Salvador.
- We’ve seen the Olympics as a killing field in Munich.
Once you start thinking of play as a significant category in its own right – not just as what kids can do with their free time, but as the very essence of freedom – correlations between games and current affairs take on a whole new coloration. From a Jungian perspective, you might say that our play time strikes an archetypal chord in us: it carries profound and generally unrecognized meaning.
Our games are as close as peace can get to war, while remaining peace – and when the whole wide world plays games, our feelings can get mightily involved.
I also think, for similar reasons, that it’s important to notice when games and play meet religion.
Back when I was Editor-at-Large for The Cursor, a magazine for game designers, I wrote a piece which was the featured article in their April 1997 issue under the title “Doom Goes to Church” — (there’s a version titled Games Lamas Play still available online). Edward Castronova recently hosted a discussion of “virtual communion” on Terra Nova – and just a couple of days ago, Lisa Poisso posted an interview with a Lutheran pastor titled When WoW meets real-world religion on WoW Insider.
I am reminded …
- that Hindus speak of the activities of the avatars of Vishnu as lila – sport, play, theater.
- that Christians are rethinking the role of Jews in the passion play at Oberammergau.
- that Shi’ites commemorate Huseyn’s martyrdom at Kerbala in ta’ziyeh passion plays.
- that Hesse’s Glass Bead Game has been compared to a Papal High Mass of Easter in St Peter’s.
And Hesse’s contemporary, the historian Johan Huizinga, tells us something of the power of sacred play when he writes in Homo Ludens:
But with the end of the play its effect is not lost; rather it continues to shed its radiance on the ordinary world outside, a wholesome influence working security, order and prosperity for the whole community until the sacred play-season comes round again.
So when I read yesterday that the Commonwealth Games scheduled to take place in New Delhi in ten days had been threatened by the “Indian Mujahideen” who recently attacked the Jama Masjid, I was concerned at the volatile mix of games and religious warfare on the world stage.
I was particularly struck by the jihadists’ phrasing, “We will now rightfully play Holi with your blood” – a reference to the Spring festival of Holi, in which Hindus douse one another playfully in colored water in memory of a devotee named Prahalad, until they are literally and metaphorically awash in the “colors of devotion”. The jihadists consider their Hindu fellow-countrymen to be “Indian idol-worshippers”
Also relevant, it seems to me, is this ruling on India’s equivalent of the disputed Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem — the Ayodhya Babri mosque / Ram Janambhoomi dispute:
Indian Court Delays Ruling on Mosque Site
India’s Supreme Court on Thursday postponed a ruling on whether Hindus or Muslims would control the country’s most disputed religious site.
A lower court had been scheduled to issue a verdict on Friday, and the Indian government had issued national appeals for calm. The case involved the site of the former Babri mosque, which was destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992, sparking riots that killed about 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. The Supreme Court’s intervention came in response to legal appeals arguing that the mosque ruling could incite a new wave of violence as India is preparing to play host to the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi for two weeks starting Oct. 3.
We can only watch and pray.