Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gnosticism and Games

It's no secret that I like a good game. My current obsessions are The Hoard of the Dragon Queen scenario in Dungeons and Dragons from Wizards of the Coast, and Settlers of Catan.  Both of these have a relationship to Gnosticism.

Any game relates a bit to Gnosticism. You're a real person, but you voluntarily step into an imaginary world with artificial rules that constrain your behavior, and you attempt to use those rules to defeat your opponent(s).  From dice to cribbage to chess to Azad, every game has these similar constraints. There are rules, and violating the rules causes you to step outside of bounds, become a 'cheater', and usually is a refusal of other people to play with you. In the end, the outcome of the game usually doesn't have a great deal of effect on your life outside the game. I mean, if you're betting you might get a few extra dollars, or you may gain renown as a great Player of Games, but ultimately there's no great change, other than you've spent a little time with other people, maybe had some fun.

The Gnostic myth says we're real people, who've been pushed or voluntarily dropped into an artifical world with artificial rules that constrain your behavior, and you use those rules to try to defeat your opponents, but ultimately it doesn't have a great deal of effect on your true life. You're only constrained while you're playing the game. If you violate the rules, the referee's get upset, and you might have to start over. The similarities are eerie.

Settlers of Catan is a fairly traditional board game. The rules are fairly simple (3 pages), the goals are simple (10 victory points gained through various building means), the strategy and board are constantly changing from game to game. There's a clear winner and clear not-winners, but if you play with elan and poise, there are no losers.

It's quite Demiurgic.

Your goal is to build. The rules are simple. Violating the rules will disqualify you, cheating is clearly defined, etc. And even if you win, there's not really an effect on your life, other than the joy of winning. It's an entertaining way to spend a few hours, and you can set the game up to play again the next day.

This is living the hylic life. You build, you have your family, you gain your resources and trade them for things that will eventually lead to your victory.  It's fun, it's convenient, it's easy to keep score and know where you are in relation to others. And at the end of the game, you've had a good time but nothing has really changed, and you can set your soul up to do it all over again.

Dungeons and Dragons is an entirely different sort of game. There are no victory conditions, no clear goals, and the rules are complex, varied, and open to interpretation. The basic idea is you assume a role, and in that role you play out scenarios, your success or failure dependent on your stated actions within the game. The board is your imagination, the setup is determined by another person called the Dungeon Master or Game Master. You attempt to progress, to transform yourself, to become better in your role than you were before. It's hard to tell where you are in relation to others, except through their actions and yours. It's a great way to pass the time, and tell an amazing story.

This is living the psychic life. There's nothing in the rules that requires you to advance, but there are mechanisms to make it happen. It's hard to tell where you are in regards to other people. You can play the game like a board game, but that doesn't give you the real experience. However, you're still not real, you are assuming a role, even though you know you are assuming the role. You can cheat in some ways, but that doesn't really help you 'win', as there's no winning. It's also a great way to pass the time, and at the end you have a good story, but you've changed some, but you still go back to play the game again. Maybe with a different character, but you're still playing.

So, what's living the pneumatic life? What game is that like?

Good question. I haven't found one yet. It may be that the pneumatic life is simply: Not to play. I can't say that for sure. All I know is that when the game is done, you don't have to play again, and there are no losers. You might chose to play again, so as to help others win. But you wouldn't have to, you've played and gotten your knowledge.

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