Faith and Gaming: Mechanics

The following article was originally published in June 2001 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.

When I was working my way back toward the fundamentals of our game experience last month, just before I reached the point of discussing social interaction I mentioned mechanics. Mechanics are the stuff that makes games work, that makes games games. In a sense, it is game mechanics that separate games from all other forms of social interaction. That is, a game has rules. It has objectives which are to be sought, methods which are legitimate approaches, and penalties for breach. Like a story, it has conflict and resolution; unlike a story, the conflict is defined and resolved by specific limited tools, the rules of the game, the mechanics.

And if our faith is to infiltrate our lives completely, we may need to ask ourselves how it affects our regard for the mechanics within games.

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In discussing the mechanics specifically of role playing games, three broad concepts of resolution systems have been identified. These have been labeled drama, fortune, and karma. And if we understand these concepts aright, we realize that they are present in all games in one form or another. We also begin to see that each of these concepts has aspects which fit our faith well, but each has aspects which are problematic for our faith. We’ll look at them individually.

Fortune mechanics are the easiest to recognize, and the ones we most normally associate with games. Any time there’s an element of chance, such as the roll of the dice, the lay of the cards, the draw of the number, this is a fortune mechanic. Many Christians are bothered by fortune mechanics because they associate these with other conduct. Gambling (apart from sports betting) is almost always connected to fortune-driven games. There are some who feel that there is something evil about such games merely because the soldiers “cast lots” for Jesus’ garment when He was crucified; they overlook the many times that believers in scripture cast lots when they wished to know God’s choice in an unclear situation. But this in itself suggests another layer of concern: when does God control the roll of the dice, the lay of the cards? Is every roll determined by His will? Are all seemingly random events in our world truly random? It would seem to be much closer to the former than the latter; the more you focus on the question, the more difficult it is to imagine that anything ever happens in which God is not interested and involved. On the other hand, wouldn’t knowing that He completely controls the outcome of our fortune-based games have serious implications for our play? Are we trivializing God’s omnipotence by believing that He chooses the outcomes of our games? Are we minimizing his omnipresence by believing that He doesn’t care about such things?

The answer to this may elude us until we meet Him face to face. But the problem itself is a glory. As Christians, we can accept that the dice probably do not fall at random; we can believe that the deck is stacked—not against us, nor in our favor, but quite specifically in God’s favor. In the same way (although to a lesser degree) that we can believe that He has given us the leaders we need to run our country, and chosen the measure of our lives and the times and places of our births, and led us to our positions in life, we can believe as we sit down to a chance-based game that God has His hands on those dice and is working even this for His glory and our good. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to win (or that we’re going to lose); it does mean that we will have the opportunity to show our faith during the game. Fortune mechanics may be a challenge to our theology of games, but it is one to which we can rise, and from which we can shine.

Karma mechanics are more common than you might expect, given just the explanation of them. A karma mechanic assigns values or strengths to certain aspects of play, and resolves outcomes by giving victory to the stronger. Nearly all card games involve some karma mechanics. In Bridge, Pinochle, and other trick-based games the highest card (or the highest trump) wins the trick, because it is the strongest. In Poker, Rummy, and other card holding games, it is the strongest hand that wins. In Stratego when opposing playing pieces collide, the lesser one is removed from the board. In a much more basic sense, nearly all sports are resolved by karma mechanics: the better team, the better athlete, the better fighter usually wins (although the factors which make one better than another might not be so easy to define and identify). With karma-based play, the fight is to the strong, and the race to the swift, unless the clever finds a way to gain an advantage.

There is something about karma mechanics that smacks of survival of the fittest, of dog-eat-dog competition. The meek shall inherit the earth, we are told, but not in a karma-based system. In fact, if you turned a karma-based game on its head such that meekness was the key to victory, you would gain nothing—meekness would become the strength through which conflicts were resolved, and again the one who was best would win. Karma-based games rely on superiority to prove superiority. It is most blatant with games of skill and strength (from chess to rugby), in which the players themselves are each trying to prove the other inferior; it is present even when removed one place, in which victory goes to the player who controls the strong hand, the strong character, the strong element.

Does that mean that karma-based games are unredeemable? May it never be. Such direct challenges of ability strengthen us and sharpen our skills. We become better people by pushing our abilities to their limits. The athlete who competes against others, whether he wins or loses, becomes stronger and more agile (not to mention often healthier). The card sharp or chess player facing a challenger sharpens his mind. And even when it is not the player’s strengths but the strengths of some element within the game that is the basis for victory, there is something inherently just and fair about a karma-based outcome. “You won fair and square” is not just a phrase, no more than “may the best man win;” each suggests that a conflict resolved in favor of accepted values is in some sense the right outcome. Karma systems are the most fair, the most just; and they are also those which most push us to excel, to develop the gifts God has given us to their fullest potential. These are good things.

For many people, drama mechanics are the least like games. They are more like contests, in which subjective decisions are made by judges. Yet there are games in which outcomes are determined not by random chance nor by quantifiable strengths but entirely by the opinions of others in the game. Fictionary and Malarkey are among many parlor games in which drama plays a major role. In Fictionary, one player selects an unfamiliar word from the dictionary, announces it to the group, and (if everyone agrees that it is an unknown word to them) copies the definition to a piece of paper. Each of the other players at the same time invents a definition for that same word, and writes their definition on a similar sheet of paper. All of these definitions are mixed together, and the individual who chose the word reads them in random order. Each member of the group attempts to choose the correct definition. You score one point if you select the correct definition; but you also score one point for each person who selects your definition. Thus the winner is most likely to be the individual who most consistently gets voted best definition inventor in the group—a decision made by the players during the game.

There is a degree to which drama mechanics are always present in role playing games; the referee constantly decides what rule applies, what rolls must be made, what things are decided by other means. Often referees decide outcomes by fiat, merely choosing the result wanted. Some games go beyond that, giving power to players to decide certain results under certain circumstances. But in some ways drama mechanics are most open to the perception that the referee gets to “play God” in his world—if I get to decide what happens by fiat, then in a sense I am God in my world. And in some ways giving that power to the players only complicates this issue—suddenly the characters in the world have the divine power of being able to cause events, or control them such that they turn out as the characters would desire. We’ve all been in games in which referees abuse this authority and seem to have their own God-complex; sometimes we’ve seen it in players, too. There is a real danger in drama mechanics that we who use them might perceive ourselves as greater than we are.

Yet here, too, we find truth and good in the same place we find danger. For we know that we are created in the image of God—and at the moment in scripture when this is revealed to us, we know very little about God but that He creates, and declares His creation good. So it is fair to conclude that the image of God in us is first that we, too, create, and that our creations may also be good. It is in our creativity that we most reflect God’s image, and thus it is there where we can best glorify Him. And that aspect of god-like control we have in our games is no different than the similar control we have whenever we create—as authors of stories, composers of symphonies, sculptors of statues. It is in one sense less so, because in our games it is always a limited and shared power. Our ability to create may make us most like God, but in our games it also makes us most dependent on each other. Drama mechanics have much to commend them here.

So it seems that, like nearly everything in our lives, the mechanics of our games can lead us into evil or good. They are tools which we use in our creative process. And whether they are good or evil depends far more on how we regard and apply them than on any virtue or corruption in themselves. That’s not to say that mechanics don’t matter, or that faith has nothing to do with them. It is to suggest that the application of our faith to questions of game mechanics is more about us than about them.

And to see that is to understand that most of what is in this world is the same: it is how we regard it that matters far more than how it works.

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