This is Faith in Play #15: Gamism, for February 2019.
Glancing back over previous articles, I am often reminded that although I did an article on DFK—Drama, Fortune, and Karma, Faith and Gaming: Mechanics—I never addressed the more controversial three-letter set found in Ron Edwards’ Big Model, GNS. After all, what we get out of playing our games is a significant part of how our faith is involved, and ought to be considered.
If you don’t know what GNS is, or have never heard of “Creative Agenda”, or simply aren’t sure of the meanings of these frequently-bantered terms from previous decades, my own summary is available at Places to Go, People to Be as Theory 101: Creative Agenda (or on their French site as Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives). The short version is that a creative agenda is what any given player enjoys and seeks to maximize when he plays a game. Ron hates short versions; he does not think them accurate, and he’s probably right. Meanwhile, players hate to be labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, so if you tell someone he’s gamist, he’s likely to challenge you.
There’s a joke there. Never mind.
Gamism has a particular stigma, because it is the agenda of munchkins and rules lawyers, and these are regarded by many as among the most irksome players in the games. However, despite the fact that such players usually are gamist, they don’t define gamism. Gamism is typically that which people find fun about competitive sports—at least, what the players enjoy. It is rising to the challenge. Whether it is a football game in which the outcome depends on that last five-seconds-on-the-clock field goal attempt or the tabletop role players imagining a battle against a huge ancient red dragon or a fleet of space pirates, win or lose there is going to be a story to tell there, in which players did their best and either overcame the odds or went down in flames of glory. Gamism is about testing your own ability against a challenge, whether another player as in chess, another team as in basketball, a computer program as in Final Fantasy, or the Dungeon Master’s handiwork as in Dungeons & Dragons. It is ultimately about winning, but also about losing, about rising to face the foe.
As we have noted before, there is something about being the best that glorifies God, and Paul encourages us to strive in our spiritual life as athletes strive for physical superiority. There is something good about being good at something, and we become good by honing our abilities against challenges. Gamism encourages this, particularly if we can take the lessons we learn about applying ourselves to the game or sport or challenge and apply them to our spiritual life.
On the other hand, we want to avoid arrogance. One of my novel characters noted about himself that he wanted to brag, but not to people who had never done anything significant, to people who had also done great deeds that were worthy of bragging. The bragging itself is part of the challenge. We tell others how well we’ve done, and they tell us their stories, and we are inspired to work harder, to do better next time, to produce more stories worth telling. There is merit in that, as long as we recognize that those to whom we brag are equally praiseworthy. It is when we brag to those who have no impressive stories with which to respond that we have overstepped. It is one thing to stand among talented people and say, “I am equally talented.” It is another to tell people that they are not worth as much as you because they do not have your abilities and achievements. Gamism is good as long as it motivates us to improve ourselves; it becomes bad when it permits us to disdain the lesser achievements (or different achievements) of others.
So there is nothing inherently unchristian about playing the game to win, to face the challenge and rise above it. The danger comes in whether the attitude you build is one of perpetually improving yourself or of disdaining others.
We’ll look at the other two agenda in future articles.