Thursday, September 04, 2014

Hearthstone, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and Play: Faith is in the Cards

It started with Hearthstone. After a lengthy (twenty year) hiatus from role-playing or video game play, I've been back at it a bit. A friend sent me a link to the new strategy card-playing game that Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft, had launched. Reminiscent of wildly popular deck-building games like Magic and Android Netrunner: The Card Game, the attractions of Hearthstone were many. It is free (although to move forward with better decks you have to grind a lot of games if you don't want to pay for upgrades); it is social, with opportunities to play against other live players; it is connected in concept to World of Warcraft, without requiring the same length of game-play and immersion.

After playing a few games, I was hooked, and pretty soon the kids were sitting on both sides of me encouraging us to play a Taunt, or cast a spell, or save a highly strategic card for a later hand. Suddenly, I had that dad moment when the kids are playing a dad game with dad!

So the son and I decided to port our strategy card-playing back into real life. We picked up a copy of Sentinels of The Multiverse Enhanced Card Game (2nd Edition) at the local gaming store, Gear, and spent an afternoon learning the rules. We spent a significant portion of our summer trip to Iowa playing Sentinels with anyone who would join us--my dad, my brother, other gullible souls.

Sentinels ( is what you call a co-op game. You play cooperatively with the other players against a common enemy or scenario. In this way Sentinels is different than games like Hearthstone or Magic or Netrunner, all of which pit players against each other. In the case of Sentinels, all the players play a deck of hero cards against the game itself, which has a deck of villain cards. One additional deck, the environment deck, creates the context or arena in which the heroes do battle with the villain.

So what is up with gaming? Why invest time and energy in it? Perhaps I have no better explanation than it is what a lot of us do in mid-life, we revivify interests from earlier in life. I played some AD&D when I was in high school, and loved Shadowrun when I was in college. I played a lot of video games, especially the role-playing kinds (Bard's Tale, anyone?). And I've always loved comic book heroes. So Sentinels is a modern day mashup of all of these.

Additionally, it's a way to play together that isn't on a computer, and isn't a first-person shooter. As fascinated as I am by the art and story-line of games like Bioshock or Skyrim, in the end all the grinding and killing bores me a bit. Card and board games are, in this sense, more capacious and enjoyable, at least for me.

My only issue with those early RPGs was the time involved. A session could last an entire Friday evening and well into the wee hours of the morning (like cricket).

Recent popular games from Germany and France like Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassone, Ticket to Ride, etc. have acknowledged that most gamers don't have hours and hours to invest, so they design games that last, on average, about an hour to 90 minutes. Sentinels follows this pattern.

So, as much as I am keeping an eye on how games may emerge as the next great art form that can communicate faith and the depth of human life in the way other great art like cinema and music do (see, for example,, I'm genuinely more interested in simply playing games because I enjoy them, and I think they expand my imaginative horizons.

I should also say, my best friend gave me the assignment to play more, and to play more with others. This was a good assignment to be given. It's one of the reasons I've started trying to connect with the community gaming already happening here in Fayetteville. It's a fast-growing industry. We have at least three locations here in Fayetteville for cooperative and RPG type games, and additionally, Barnes and Nobles and other stores host regular table-top game nights. It's a very different sub-culture, and a chance to meet people in town I might not otherwise meet (full geek hipster confession, I've also started playing more disc golf, and for similar reasons).

I know that increasing numbers of philosophers and educational thinkers are considering the ramifications of game theory and "gamification" for education and business contexts. I'm surprised by the paucity of reflection on gaming as it relates to the life of faith. Perhaps we are all still recovering from the embarrassing period in the 80s and 90s when Christians erroneously conflated role-playing games with the occult (presumably said gamers listening to lots of Beatles and Led Zeppelin backwards while gaming).

So although there are plentiful resources designed to aid Christian reflection on film and literature, there is very little written anywhere that intentionally thinks through the faith aspects of gaming, video or otherwise.

This is problematic, for two reasons. First, it is a problem because gaming has now surpassed the music industry in its scope and size, and is on the way to being a larger industry than the movie industry. If there is considerable reflection to be done on film and music, certainly people of faith can and should have something to say about games.

Second, it is a problem because perhaps it indicates that faith communities have themselves forgotten that the life of church is like a game. It is a form of play. Like Sentinels, in worship each person takes up a deck of cards and learns their role. Ideally, everyone at the table is intrinsically inspired to be there, they take on the challenge of learning the rules, engaging the game, because they have imaginatively entered a shared world with others they desire to inhabit.

To pray, you have to role-play. There's no other way. It is a serious form of pretend. You talk to someone who doesn't talk back... and yet there isn't silence on the other end. The rules of engagement are not a burden but the context that creates the space for joy.

And so on. I need to invest some more time riffing on worship as play, Christian community as gaming, in order to get my mind and heart around the concept a bit more. In my admittedly limited experience, I find that the gaming community isn't necessarily the most engaged in church, and I almost feel like perhaps gaming is it's own kind of church, a sub-culture with its own liturgy and form of life.

In the meantime, I would love to gather more resources around Christianity and gaming, and hear from readers where they see God in games, or how they reflect on worship as play. And as a geek, I also just want to hear what your favorite games are, and why you play them!

1 comment:

  1. This is a good article on faith and gaming...