The Anti-Game: Better than Materialist Magic

I grew up on technologies but became more and more suspicious of inattentive use of technologies as marketed to us. Enough so that my reaction to having my cell phone disappear was almost, “I have a GPS. Beyond that, I might be experiencing an early start on one of the privileges of monasticism already,” a reaction that would not surprise a reader of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

I am also a former gamer, and I have long wanted to put down on paper why one might unplug from games as I have unplugged from TV as far as I reasonably can. “Everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial,” and this applies to games and iPhones apps alike.

Let me start by looking at the archtypal Game.

The Game

In the movie The Game, there is a game which the player is dumped into that has a profound element of transcendence. Nothing that is portrayed as happening is presented as intrinsically supernatural; the creators, so far as I know, are materialists, and so far as I can recall the audience is never taxed with a request for even a willing suspension of disbelief: the viewer is in the movie and in the end never asked to entertain that there could have been even one faintest magical blessing from the tiniest fairy.

Nonetheless, there is something that is transcendent in the movie, and though Hollywood normally capitalizes movie titles, capitalization convention is not the real reason I believe that this is not a movie about a “game,” with a lowercase G, but the Game, with a very uppercase G. Some very bizarre things happen at the beginning of The Game that are ordinarily what Christians would associate with the bizarre operations of demons, and there is a long plot with questions about what is real and shifting sands until everything is unveiled at the end as impressive, but believable on terms of materialism. On the recommendation of my brother I also watched The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects, but I was disappointed in because they did not drop you into an obvious maze of a Game specifically. In retrospect, I was disappointed after my brother recommended to me some astonishingly similar movies to one which with I was enthralled. Nonetheless the other movies’ essentially isomorphic plots unfold with much shifting sand and bewilderment about what is real, until in the last minute everything is clear and the stage magician explains, on materialist terms, how all the big illusions were pulled off.

My sister-in-law’s mother, an independent bookstore employee, has talked about how people have a right to know what they’re getting in a book, and (without divulging explicit details for the rest of us to struggle to un-see mental images) talks about speaking with patrons about The Hunger Games to let them know that they contain XYZ. However, everything I’ve known about the books is that they are books dealing with an epic Game, capital G: again, shifting sand, a hidden rules game, and the question of whether the strangeness of the details are literally supernatural really seems to matter less than one might think at first. Apparently another capital ‘G’ Game.

If I may pick a title that has not to my knowledge been Hollywoodified, the milder An Invitation to the Game has characters trapped in an unfortunate ersatz leisure class in a ruined world; someone gives children golden tickets to go to play a game, and they get temporarily knocked out of the game when they make a mistake that would kill them; and when they say in the game, “I wish So-and-So were here,” and the other person, who had been much better off, suddenly gets kicked down into the leisure class. Eventually, the game becomes real, and a pod of eight kids are sent among others to begin a new life on a beautiful new world such as they had virtually visited in the Game. Now in this instance the roller coaster activity is rated PG instead of being rated R, but we are still talking about something transcendent: the Game, with a capital G please.

Switching our attention from the Game to (g)ames

The English language, and some religious communities, have a distinction between God, with a capital G, and ‘gods’, with a lowercase G. The pagan gods of the Israelites’ neighboring nations, or the Greeks, have been described as little more than humans with super powers and endless life, and sometimes much less. The Christian God is something different, enough so that it represents confusion to place another god alongside him or speak of another God, and Orthodox Christianity goes through this looking-glass to say that its children are made gods, because the Deity has a Oneness so thorough that to let humans share in the divine Life and become themselves gods cannot threaten the One God, but fulfill his oneness. And at this point I would like to comment that games, with a lowercase ‘g’, are in the shadow of the Game that appears in literature, and in a dilute and less sharpened peak offer a participation of the characteristic of the transcendent Game.

Materialist Magic

One point is that whether or not the entire tale of the Game is told as involving a single physically occult feature, the Game is occult. It has the same heart as magic. For a fantasy version, The Labyrinth that enthralled me very much asks for major willing suspensions of disbelief, but as a hidden rules game, the shifting sand and the question of what is really going on has the same heart as The Game in any materialist implementation. The heart of the Game has an occult resonance such as I dissected in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics, and this is not irrelevant to the heart of games, in which something is overlaid atop real life.

C.S. Lewis, in and outside discussion for The Screwtape Letters, says that demons have two lies to offer us: that they do not exist, or that they are all-powerful. He says that which one you believe matters less than one might think: they are both devastating, and he asks the reader to avoid both errors if we are to have spiritual health. He also, and more pointedly, posits that demons might have a holy grail (he does not use such language) in the “Materialist Magician,” given that demons are equally satisfied to make of us a Materialist or a Magician, but it is not at all clear how one would go about making both of the same man. I would pose that The Game, The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects offer a maelstrom of magic, unveiled to run materialistically at the very ending. The Game, whether or not it is available to us in real life, is the locus of Materialist Magic. The ordinary (g)ames we can buy, download, or create, and become absorbed in, are never as impressive as the Game, but they participate in its Materialist Magic. The mechanism appears materialist; the resonance is in a real sense occult.

A journey of repentance

The usual reasons Protestants leave role playing game is that one is in one’s heart, pretending to do magic or do other things. The issue of violence may be treated less forcefully, but I remember in college when one friend was trying to recruit me back to Dungeons & Dragons, and he made the point that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t just battle. He talked about how in a recent campaign, in actions that the players imagined, his character had used magic and charmed a jeweler, and conned him into giving him jewels, and he didn’t say much more than “bad example” so that his picture of Dungeons & Dragons being more edifying was saying that his character:

  1. Used magic,
  2. Lied, and
  3. Stole bigtime.

My conscience boiled down to the question, essentially, of “Would you be right to do with your hands what you are doing vicariously in your heart by saying that your character does XYZ?” And I left Dungeons & Dragons with concerns of imagining one’s viceroy to be using magic and violence well beyond the bounds of any version of “just war” theory I’ve heard Christians assert. People training with firearms can be told, “The second last thing you want to do is pull that trigger.” Trying to “stop” real, live opponents with a real, live gun is one notch away from being the last resort. By contrast, Dungeons & Dragons makes getting into at least some fights to be desirable, a form of entertainment, and a way for characters to gain experience to advance in the game. The combat rules are very different from traditional duels in the West, where there was a protocol to try to avoid duels, but usually there was not so much a winner or a loser as:

  1. One disputant who died one to two weeks later as a direct result of injuries sustained in the duel, and:
  2. One disputant who died six to eight weeks later as a results of indirect infections stemming from injuries sustained during the duel.

I’ve never heard of a game in Dungeons & Dragons where there was a significant chance of dying due to infection from a wound from an enemy’s dirty blade. I’ve heard of pacifist characters every once in a blue moon, or players refusing to use violence, but I’ve never heard of gashes and wounds that modern medicine could heal ending up getting infected and a character dying from sepsis.

But the real, central reason Dungeons & Dragons and kin have been called demon games is vicarious magic use, and I believe that the temptation and what Orthodox would call the passion are the same thing. Some time after leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I decided that imaginary play as such was not wrong, and pioneered and playtested The Minstrel’s Song, set in an unfallen world. And possibly it could be played in weaning someone from harder-core activity, and I missed the second point argued in Escaping Reality: The Danger of Role Playing: that role playing games, including The Minstrel’s Song, deliver an escape from reality.

And this brings me to various points that are often not given any connection with gaming. It is a spiritual problem that is like stepping on a water balloon: a problem which I called, for lack of any other name that was better, The Hydra. Though I do not mention it in the article, I think of a very unpopular website I made in the early days of the web, called “The Revenge of the Hydra.” (If you visited, nine popup windows appeared, and if you closed one of them down, two more appeared.)

What I say in The Hydra, in which I criticize C.S. Lewis, is something I bundled up with in my recent title “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis, is:

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” added Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

When I read this, many times, I never was amped up to find Christ. I didn’t want Christ, at least not then. I wanted to be in Narnia with Aslan. And stay there in Narnia. And this relates to a recurring thread of what might be called my “sin life” that I found entirely deadly. And there is a spiritual poison I found in the Chronicles of Narnia that I have reproduced to varying degrees of my own work. Within the Steel Orb contains much real wisdom, but is laced with escapism.

On the point of escapism, I would briefly comment that monks, in the ancient world, were perennially warned about the perils of escape, which when they were tempted, were advised to pray through the temptation until they were through it. And without further ado, I quote below a work that already expresses my
concern about escape and Narnia…

Some of the heads of the Hydra sound related to gaming; some sound unrelated. For instance, I long had a futile desire for something from another world, and my heart ached when I read a story about a saint being given a ring that had miraculous powers: which I coveted, not for the miracle, but for a ring that (it seemed) did not have its origin from earth.

I’ve heard of an alcoholic who had a rum problem, and gave up rum altogether and tried whiskey, until he found he had a whiskey problem and foreswore whiskey in favor of vodka. In my case it was more a matter of developing a Moonlight Sonata problem, and then avoiding Beethoven and finding I had a problem with swimming, and dried up inside and out and then found myself repeatedly tripping over my shoelaces. The number of substances an alcoholic might get in trouble with can all be identified as including something you can get from a liquor store; the The Hydra neither begins or ends with (g)ames, though its trunk is hinted at in the (G)ame.

What we don’t see when we look into The Hydra:
The Silhouette and the Full-Color Portrait

G.K. Chesterton, writing on an immediate topic of madness (and not games in particular):

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, “All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.” Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Today Chesterton’s use of the term “infinite” is opaque; a high school student studying classic geometry will be told of finite line segments and infinite lines, but the term “infinite circle” does not arise. However, there is a sort of logic that connects with where the term “infinite” comes from. It means, “without end.” On a geometric line segment, you can go a certain distance in either direction and have to stop cold, while on an infinite and proper line, you can go as far as you want in each direction and never meet an end. The same thing can be said of a circle that modern mathematicians would call “finite;” you can travel along the curve of the circle as far as you want in either direction and never have to stop before the circle runs out of curve and you’ve reached the end of the circle. In that sense Chesterton is saying something mathematically as well as literature-wise coherent when he talks about a circle that is infinite as any other, but cramped. And though Chesterton does not speak of it, there is something relevant in the Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose perimeter is nowhere.

I said that Chesterton is talking about madness and not games, but I caught myself crossing my fingers… but may have found a way to say it without crossing my fingers. Here’s what I think I can say: I see no evidence that Chesterton was thinking about games in any sense, and I do not recall reading him condemn games when he mentions them elsewhere, much less make the clain that I make here. None the less, a game is a way to step into another, smaller circle. It is the Materialist Magician’s way. In addition there is a scale of hard- to soft-core games, and I remember when I was trying to push the envelope on gaming, from tabletop role playing into a (re)invention of real life role playing, to make it harder core, that an occultist who respected me more than I think was due gently said that this is how magic works, and it’s real enough when you get a call at 3:00 AM to take down a Brujah (a type of vampire in the “World of Darkness” role playing game Vampire, the Masquerade), it feels about as real as you can get.

It is known even among secular behavioral health professionals that involvement in the occult can make you lose your mind and end up detached from the real world; as another head of the Hydra, the nexus of games, gaming and gamers seems too close a relative to this to dismiss the danger. The figure of the role player who has fallen off the deep end is known to role players as much as anyone else, and I can’t help but sense an implied need to establish that role playing is OK even among geeks, as stated in Lifehacker’s The Surprising Benefits of Role Playing Games and How to Get Started. Games in general are attractive enough, at least to some, that one might be surprised that they would need defending, as it is a pariah Protestant thing to warn about the evils of role playing game. The “Surpising Benefits” mentioned in the title evoke a French proverb, “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse,” literally “He who excuses himself (by that very fact) accuses himself:” or more loosely, “You only rationalize when you know you’re wrong.” Lifehacker mentions that role playing is a way to get instant friends. The same is true among bikers; come alone on a motorcycle to a group of bikers and you have instant friends. But there is something unsavory to both alike.

A corresponding silhouette and full-color portrait facing each other.

What does a gamer have if gaming is taken away? It’s not about changing which part of a silhouette you are in, but seeing a portrait in full color.

Watching a DVD of The Game is a whole lot more attractive of a proposition than turning around your chair and facing the wall while other people are at least watching the DVD; and if your pleasure and sense of well-being is drawn from the Game, only the Chesterton quote really hints at what could possibly be better if you think losing your participation in the Game and games is simply turning around and staring at a wall.

But in fact it is not a matter of being more constricted. G.K. Chesterton, if applied to gaming, does not stop at giving arguments or critiques. He wants to give the gamer air. He wants the small circles to be abandoned, not to be even more constricted, but to enter that Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He wants gamers to let go of their Game Master’s plans to be swept into the galaxies by the Lord of the Dance. A famed Far Side cartoon says:

A Far Side cartoon saying 'In the Days Before Television' and showing a family crouched around an empty space in a wall.

Some humor provokes laughter by pointing out what is clearly and painfully true. But this point, and even its truth, is accented by saying something ludicrous. The days before television, in the West, were not characterized by people vegging out in front of a blank wall. People often spent time in what geeks call “The Big Room,” namely outside. Children read, threw paper airplanes, built things, spent time playing with pets, built model airplanes, danced, manipulated physical toys such as jacks, played hide and seek, and for that matter played some make-believe games that bore a living and healthier organic link to today’s grown-up role-playing games. And what I believe is offered to gamers is not to turn a chair around and stare at the wall; it is to turn your chair a bit, get up, and go to the Big Room and get some fresh air. And start, just start, to see the Divine Face in full, living color that is not even hinted at in even a remote white part of a silhouette.

The Apocalyptic Anti-Game

There have been several earlier works which I tried to write, but the time was not ripe, or at least I had not grown enough to write them. I tried and failed to write an article called “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” but now consider The Luddite’s Guide to Technology to be one of my best books, even if it was years before a similar voice was heard in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. At much less of an interval, I tried and failed to write an article on “St. Clive” before writing St. Clive: An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (the Kindle edition was for several days the #1 topselling new title in “Christian Literature and Arts.”) This work, incidentally, began life as an attempt to write a dialogue called “Medieval Anti-Game”, in which the Middle Ages are not the medieval theming of classic role play, but the historical root that has now developed into what has now been called “Western cultural singularity;” we live in the logic of the medieval West played out; and the Middle Ages were thought of as a bridge that can go both ways and that we can follow the medieval bridge the other way into a greater sanity: the Middle Ages offer a kind Anti-Game, rightly understood. It is increasingly difficult to fail to see that we live in one spectacular unfolding singularity. We seem to be in the kinds of circumstances where saints are made. It is not in easy times that the arm of the Lord bares its power.

I had earlier hoped to wind this down with the classic monastic advice given when one is tempted to escape: “Persevere in alternating prayer and work, and one can eventually emerge a victor,” and with an anecdote that one of the times I repented of another layer of this vice I desired, instead of God putting me somewhere else as I sought escape, that a loving God had put me in quite an awesome place without escape, and that in the here and now where God has placed me I am in a very real sense in communion with the stars in the sky and the salt in the sea. And that is where the lesson ended when I began working on this article… but there is more.

In a discussion where conservatives said that liberals were well enough able to have one point on which they were conservative, one friend described a liberal launching off about how bad the possibility is that we might be ruled by one world government. My friend mentioned commenting, “I suppose this would be a bad time to mention the Book of Revelation,” and watching the color drain from the other person’s face. Gamers who have played Call of C’Thulu, in which a sleeping Old One is coming to life and wants to destroy the world, might let go of the game only to come to terms with the possibility that we might be in something very much like the Call of C’Thulu, in which an Old One that has been trying to come to this world may in fact show up. Such is called the Antichrist, whether he will openly appear in two years or two millenia.

Another friend (from what source I do not know and do not know whether I should trust), claimed that there was a prophecy that the present Pope would be the last real Pope and after him would only be anti-Popes. I do not know if that is true, but I am not terribly impressed with Poop Francis. He says deliberately ambiguous things that can be interpreted in an (o)rthodox way by Roman standards, but can be read in very different ways and sound pretty much like something a leftist journalist would want once his words pass through the alimentary canal of mainstream journalism.

It is increasingly known on the left and the right what Amazon represents, not only in closing regular bookstores but even in teaching bookworms to own fewer and fewer physical books, and rent rather than own Kindle books. I remember years back reading Richard John Neuhaus sounding the alarm that all of the major components of National Socialism were being redeemed in academic circles. I also remember my grammar professor at the Sorbonne saying how he would never forgive a former French president for earning political advantage by splitting the right into the right and the far-right: in hard economic times, giving all kinds of at least apparently preferential treatment to immigrants, and then insisting that the far-right Le Pen be given ample coverage and time to speak (“Les votes pour Le Pen sont a cent pourcent les troues de balle!“—”One hundred percent of the votes for Le Pen are bullet holes!”). Now we have a new white nationalism emerging after racism being un-respectable in most conservative circles for a while, and (I haven’t paid attention to what is this year’s installment) the taking down of Confederate flags and statues of Confederates is a masterful way to get white nationalism alive and kicking (I once wrote an Onion-style article about how frustrated filmmakers in our day erected another statue of a smiling Martin Luther King because they couldn’t figure out how to deal in film with their hero’s difficulties keeping something in his pants). But the problem extends beyond white nationalism. And it’s worse.

National Socialism in very large measure motivated by eugenics, one pillar of which was to hope that certain races be eliminated. Google, which no longer goes by the motto “Don’t be evil” of its former days, is open and direct in supporting the successor to eugenics: transhumanism, Eugenics 2.0, a transhumanism which I discuss in part of my thesis. A eugenic hope was that the only people left in the world would be people who were sufficiently white and acted sufficiently white. Transhumanism goes further, no longer satisfied to phase specific human races out, but instead hoping in its ideal that the human race itself be phased out in a posthuman science fiction eschaton. And what eugenics was to Nazi Germany, transhumanism is to Google. It’s just in an incubation stage.

Other things are playing out in the small. An increasing number of young people in the U.S. aren’t interested in driving; they are also not interested in earning their own income. One deacon I know said, “Conversation is like texting for adults,” and the concern is raised that youth are learning social skills that are anemic at best. Some people have said that Romans 1 might as well have been written about people today… and furthermore that reading Romans 1 aloud might be legally classified as hate speech in a political climate increasingly resonant with Terreurs past and present. Meanwhile smartphones are no longer any kind of rich kid’s syndrome; 85% of African homes have a television and many families incur debt for multiple mobile devices.

We’ve had several shellshocks now: Islam is finding its kairos or decisive moment, the U.S. Constitution is used to defend gay rights over and against the free and proper exercise of religion, and it’s been something like two decades since I heard journalists giving attention to our society’s increasing use of porn. I don’t think we’ve seen the end.

But there is more than this. When we have let go of the last dear shred of games and gaming, what we may need to face is that were are in fact in a real Game, that we are in a real game more spectacular than the most brilliant of created games, with the best possible Game Master of all. And there is one more thing to say: as an undead pirate in Pirates of the Carribean tells an unbelieving woman, “You best start believing ghost stories, Miss Turner… You’re in one.”

Read e.g. The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. We may be the last to remember the medieval institution of face-to-face universities; perhaps as discussed in The Dying of the Light Christian colleges and universities may have disengaged from the Christian faith but they have kept as strongly as Anselm of Canterbury a face-to-face conversation for centuries; and companies and even unions may act unlike the practices of a medieval guild, but until recently work was part and parcel where you went and not only what you did. There is an unbroken stream of saints shining in Heaven, and they still beckon us to join their august College. And though we may only go into outdoor parks for picnics as a special occasion, comparable to medieval “Maying,” we do much more than the dungeoneer in classic Dungeons & Dragons: we are summoned to a company in age-long war against am ancient red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. We may be in a unique place to live cyberpunk; in a spiritual sense many of us are there already. And lastly, we may be in something more “Call of C’Thulu” than “Call of C’Thulu” itself, where an Old One has long been knocking on our door, and the door may be open soon. It may be that everything that is compelling in role play is in the real world setting offered to us today, where all games come together and, having long repented from the foolishness of infantile games, we find before us an embossed card saying, “An invitation to The Game“, and if we look at it closely, it is covered with etched letters saying, “Love, God.”

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.