Games have always held a particular fascination for me. I love ultra-geeky games like Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, as well as more conventional fare such as Monopoly and Solitaire. I’m not a great player at any game, mind you – but I do get into them!
When I first discovered the world of tarot, I immersed myself in the debates concerning the origins and history of the tarot cards. In one camp were those convinced that the tarot cards had been designed as a cryptic repository of occult secrets. In the other camp were those equally convinced that the cards had been created for the “trivial” purpose of a card game, with their symbolism being accidental. As with most extreme dichotomies, the truth no doubt falls somewhere in between.
My own style when confronted with arguments like these is to question the premises. In this case, both camps seem to take it for granted that no “game” could be designed with a serious or spiritual intention. This assumption is an artifact of our own times, when recreation has become very narrowly compartmentalized. It was not always so, and in fact it is not difficult to find many instances where the boundaries between recreation, instruction, and real-life task blur.
I’ve lately been reading Rules of Play, a book on game design by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This is an interesting but somewhat frustrating read, being a textbook on a subject that has not yet solidified. The authors dip into an impressive range of topics that appear relevant to game design, from cybernetics to complexity theory to behavioral psychology, without ever managing to settle down into any kind of recipe for good game design. They don’t even quite manage to define what a game is, but a key idea is that a game creates a kind of special zone of time and space in which the player faces challenges or competition under artificial constraints. Games, perhaps, are a kind of safe rehearsal area for visiting the struggle of life in microcosm.
The authors favor the term “magic circle” to describe the way the game zone is set apart from the flow of ordinary life. Within the circle, you follow the rules of play, both explicit and tacit, while the rest of life waits outside. This naturally led me to think of the other kind of magic circle – the creation of sacred space for ritual, magic, or divination in my own spiritual practice.
Spiritual work has some things in common with games: the separateness, the immersion, the rules. Yes, rules. Obviously, there are rules for those practicing a formal spiritual system: patterns of ritual and such. But even those who practice a freer, more spontaneous spirituality work within a set of assumptions about the nature of things and the process of spiritual growth – special assumptions that we may not share with others or work with in our mundane lives. Spiritual practice presumes some system of belief and praxis, even if that system is somewhat fluid and permeable.
Meaning changes inside the magic circle. The ace of cups is just a piece of cardboard with art on it when I’m thumbing through a new deck. It is a harbinger of bliss when I’m doing a reading, and fodder for stalling tactics when I’m playing the game of tarot.
The authors return repeatedly to another concept: meaningful play. Play becomes meaningful when we are engaged in actions that move the game forward toward some kind of goal. The player’s actions need to have some visible effect on the state of the game, and that effect must be integrated somehow into the overall arc of play, not an irrelevant sidebar. Game play falls apart of we lose this sense of doing something that makes a difference – and so does spiritual work.
Furthermore, many of the most successful spiritual practitioners are devoted to the importance of playfulness within spiritual work.
So is all this that we do – ritual, magic, divination, meditation, prayer, contemplation – some kind of game?
Although there are many shared qualities, there is an important difference. A game is truly self-contained. Winning at Monopoly just means you won at Monopoly. You can’t bank the play money or go stay in your Park Place hotel. In spiritual work, on the other hand, this is exactly the hoped for result: that what we do inside the magic circle changes how we live outside it.
The promise of spiritual work, it seems, is to capture that special intensity of focus that comes when we set aside a special time and place and take up a different set of rules – capture it and release it back into life at large. We don’t want to just step out like we step out of a game, we want to somehow carry the work along with us, expanding the magic circle rather than stepping over it. (This image has given me a new sense of meaning around the classic Wiccan closing “The circle is open but unbroken”.)