Play Like A Pagan! Ritual as an Opening to Game Studies

I returned to college for the “Fall” earlier this summer month, and my time has been a little harried. For it being my senior year, I have yet to see my opportunity to do the slide. I’ve crammed 15 credits into this semester alone and decided to take up the minor “Game Studies!” And to top it off, the core class I’m taking for it this Fall is designated for learning how to write and program in the span of five months. Basically . . .

I’M MAKING A VIDEO GAME!

Part of that process also requires me to engage with a lot of game and play theories. Drawing from the last school year and just this month alone, I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern when game scholars define the play space; the word “ritual” comes up again and again, summoning up images of ceremonial and devotional Pagans again and again for me. Despite the stoicism that marks many rituals in many Paganisms, as I’ve continued to read resources, there has been a lot of similarities between Pagan practices and playing around. The point of this post is to point out some of these overlapping properties.

(Despite the terminology employed by these writers and scholars, the sources won’t translate well to technomancy or magic and Witches in general. Likewise, in spite of similarities to Paganisms with ceremonies, there is a marked secular approach taken by the authors. When I make a follow up to this post, I’ll research into Pagan- and Witch-specific play. For now, though, I kind of went through my backpack and my notes for school to put together this intro.)

The Anthropology, Art, and Excellence of Ritual Play

The study of games has its own concept of The Witches’ Circle. In Paganisms and Witchcrafts, The Witches’ Circle denotes sacred and/or magical space, the kind of place where connection (to Goddesses and Avatars, the processes and currents of the earth, the information stream of cyberspace) is most enriched. For those who do ritual, the maintenance of this space is integral to keeping balance and sustaining the magical being. This is very similar to the ludological notion of the “magic circle.” After observing non-European cultures and researching ancient Greco-Roman societies, anthropologist Johan Huizinga (1944/1980) introduced the idea after defining its necessity, “one of the most important characteristics of play [. . .] [the] spatial separation from ordinary life” (p. 19-20). Players need to upkeep the immersive atmosphere of the game in order to be the most efficient in it as well as get the most out of it, similar to the Pagan/Witch and ritual. The point of play, and practice, is to make the “mundane” world melt away, to interact in a heightened state. Game studies’ “magic circle” is analogous to, and in some respects the same as, The Witches’ Circle.

I think it’s also important to point out that to Huizinga, “pagan” and playfulness were synonymous. Contextualizing “play” as it led to the state of modern (1930’s) Europe, one histocultural attitude analyzed was “Humanism,” the approach of Humanists to christianity and faith said to involve a language of “classicistic Latin, which lent it more than a touch of paganism” (Huizinga, 1944/1980, p. 181). A human-centric/focused understanding of movement in the universe lends itself to reconstructing, to experimenting, to engagement—to playfulness. Having the power of creation, to define an argot (as Huizinga depicted), conjure, or establish the rules of a game, is in the realm of the Pagan and Witch. While he was dissecting and discussing anthropological definitions of “paganism,” I believe this part of his work is applicable to modern magic-users and neo-Pagans; Pagans (and Witches) are always playing with primal forces.

“Primal,” presented as internal and post-human at the same time, is the link between art and ritual I keep encountering. It took the computer game Myst, with “all its sound cards and its (then) high-resolution color displays,” for game designers and critics to deem video games potential works of art (Bryant & Giglio, 2015, p. 70). Video games, though, are not the only vessels capable of housing creativity. Art and all versatile media described under this one word “express, enhance, and embody creative energy [. . .] they often act as ritual, magic, and practical technology all at once” (Preble, Preble, & Frank, 1999, p. 4). Art is ritualistic, aware if not focused. The presence of phrases like “practical technology” and “magic,” though, has me returning to video games. If art acts as ritual and video games are art, then are rituals and video games quite similar? Under the study of art, I’m saying yes, they are quite similar. Both are expressive (whether creating a ritual or game or involving oneself in them), moving something from internal influences to an outside locus. The verbs we can attach to that moving include “practice” and “play.”

But the goal of ritual is, ultimately, to take (verb) us out of our own bodies. We are trying to transcend planes to engross ourselves with powers (sometimes higher, oftentimes not). How does “play” compete with that?

Well. When examining the theological fear of “darkness” as a place to reclaim Blackness and the unknown, one scholar highlighted that, “[d]arkness requires performance and each of us is called upon to perform, to play across the boundaries of those worlds we have been told are dark and therefore evil or bad or alien” (Hawley-Gorsline, 2003, p. 71). Granted, I may have chosen this quote because it specifically includes the word “play,” but it still encourages interactivity from a place of between-ness. Consider what “playing” and “play” mean in this context. Playing is not only reclaiming but the act of claiming. Play is the practice of belonging and maintaining. Play is practice.

Ritual and practice are the marking of special spaces, reaching out to the unfamiliar or unrecognizable from inside, as an individual, to contribute to a whole. Games and play are very much the same.

Towards a Pagan-specific Pondering of “Play”

While it’s possible to pull a Pagan conclusion out of what articles are readily available from Game Studies, it doesn’t change the fact that games and play are rarely studied in the lenses of Paganisms or Witchcrafts. The resources I scraped together for this post from the fields of anthropology and the arts almost worshipped the traits of non-European Paganisms and religions, this extreme appreciation often involving racist conclusions; the theological work I referenced, while including the incredible feminist mythopoet Audre Lorde, wasn’t specific to general Paganisms. While the quality of the primer I wrote isn’t too questionable, this shouldn’t be taken as a purely Pagan or Witch guide to game theory.

For now, as long as this post inspires thought on the connection between games and ceremonies, that’s great.

 

As I work on my game, maybe I’ll post updates on it here? I suppose it depends on how strong the Pagan elements end up being in my story and art. Have some great days folks! And for my fellow Fall 2017 college frequenters: Welcome aboard and stay afloat!

 

Bibliography:

Bryant, R. D. & Giglio, K. (2015). Slay the dragon: Writing great video games. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Hawley-Gorsline, R. (2003). James Baldwin and Audre Lorde as theological resources for the celebration of darkness. Theology and Sexuality 10(1) (pp. 58-72)

Huizinga, J. (1944/1980). Homo ludens. Retrieved from http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf

Preble, D., Preble, S., & Frank, P. (1999). Artforms: An introduction to the visual arts. New York, NY: Longman.

About the Author

Liz (short for Ulysses) Tetu writes gag comics, essays, fiction, blog posts, even university assignments on sex and Paganisms. His path is "queer norse technopaganism" (his words), and he does do magic. At Metropolitan State University, he's enjoying a four-year undergrad degree in Creative Sexual Communication (minors in Violence Prevention and Intervention as well as Game Studies). When he finds time to put down the pen, Liz picks up the controller and seduces dragons.

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