Every year, over one weekend in January, we gather in Poulsbo, Washington with more than 100 others of all ages to enjoy a shared passion for rolling dice, dealing cards, and moving meeples. Together, we play games with titles like Great Western Trail, Cascadia, Terraforming Mars, Pan Am, Spirit Island, Crescent Moon, Root, Undaunted, and hundreds more. This event—KitsapCON—is one of tens of thousands of board game conventions that occur across the globe each year.¹ In defiance of a world addicted to screens, we meet in solidarity to a completely different approach to play—one that embraces a slower, reflective, participatory engagement.
Many of us Millennials (Paul Hoard), Gen-Xers (Paul Steinke), and older, grew up only playing Monopoly, chess, and Risk, but ever since games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride reached American stores in the early 2000s, the world of games has grown exponentially more diverse and expansive. This movement seems counterintuitive in a world embracing the digital and electronic landscape with greater and greater intensity. Yet, the analog revolution for wooden pieces, plastic figures, cards, and dice is spreading. Global board game revenue hit 18 billion USD in 2022 and is expected to keep growing.
Playing tabletop games has become—or perhaps has always been—something more than just a way to spend an evening; it shapes us in ways for which we don’t always have words. Sometimes the experience of a game can take you beyond the game and provide a transcendent feeling that is almost spiritual.
Using the frameworks of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Celtic spirituality, we want to explore how games can become liturgical practices that deepen our faith and communities. Games, we believe, provide a way of thinning our world to encounter a real beyond our limited imagination.
Why We Love Tabletop Games
My (Paul Hoard) journey into board gaming really began in the early 2000s with a game of Catan. After feeling bitten by an awe for what games could be, I remember reflecting on the cost of keeping up with the latest video game console (my preferred hobby at the time), as well as the groggy feeling video games left me with after a few hours of play. A day of board games, however, left me energized like a pot of coffee. Board games seemed to offer something that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Games gave me a chance to engage my analytic and strategic thinking in ways that didn’t foreclose the social and playful. Instead of passively consuming, I found myself enlivened by the different forms of agency—the various versions of me—that board games welcomed into my social world. I could be a silver-tongued diplomat, self-sacrificing teammate, or efficiency-minded capitalist—all while deepening my real friendships instead of hurting them. I have incorporated their form of play into my practice as a mental health counselor and graduate school professor, as well as my personal recreation time.
For me (Paul Steinke), I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play tabletop games. I grew up in a small home in rural Nebraska—the eighth of nine children. Life together with my four sisters and four brothers was loud and chaotic and sometimes–for me as one of the youngest of the brood—scary. But, games weren’t scary. Board games and card games provided the context for us to gather as a family, bringing the competition we felt toward each other to a space where the rules of that competition were spelled out, cheating was clearly defined (and to be mastered by us youngsters!), and partnering together for the win was celebrated. Not everyone in my family enjoyed them, but I loved every minute.
I have vivid memories of myself as an eager pre-teen waiting outside on the front steps of our home, snow falling, wind blowing, straining to hear my siblings drive up Clark Street the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Once they were home, we’d eat the soups my Mom had been simmering on the stove all day. It wouldn’t be long before someone would say, “Who wants to play Pitch?” and eventually, “How many do we have for Risk?” The games would go late into the night, and if I was lucky, into the early morning. Those moments were a feast of connection with my family, a safe place for me to show up, to be seen, and to play that didn’t exist anywhere else.
The Thin Space of Gaming
Within Celtic mythology, geographic locations between shifts in landscape—shore to sea, valley to foothill, etc.—and the periods of time between night and day, day and night (dawn and twilight, respectively) carry spiritual significance. In these liminal times and locations, the veil between the material and the immaterial is believed to be thin. The material and immaterial could pass into each other’s realm through these thin places. As a result, liminal spaces are spoken of as haunted or sacred and can be both transcendent and terrifying, depending on what we experience and how we respond to them. They help us recognize the in-breaking of the unimaginable into our lives, as they are found at the point of fissures—cracks in our world where our meaning-making systems begin to fail.
The Celtic Christian tradition has incorporated this concept of thin spaces into its understanding of the liturgical work of the Church.² One way to consider the work of the people of Christ is to cultivate the capacity to see and engage these liminal, thin spaces in our lives and our communities—including the more than human world. In such a frame, our liturgical and spiritual rhythms become the work of recognizing and responding to the disruptive, in-breaking of the Divine into our lives and those of our neighbors. We practice what it’s like to exist in the both/and of here and beyond, living in today’s world while hoping for the age to come. Liturgy reminds us that the rules of our world—with its versions of worries and successes—are only ever finite, and are always haunted by the infinite. This haunting calls to us to hope in what can’t be seen, to hold faith in a perhaps beyond our imaginations.³
However, thin spaces also disturb our certainties and securities. The unseen keeps us awake at night. What is beyond our imagination hovers between sleep and wake, dream and nightmare, excitement and anxiety. They are often disruptive, unwelcome guests we work to keep out instead of welcoming in. Out of fear of these disturbances, our liturgies and spiritual practices run the risk of becoming a form of thickening insulation, working to keep the unseen at bay. Instead of inviting the unimaginable, they can be used to shut out the disturbing, uncanny, and unexpected.⁴
For both of us, tabletop games have become a liturgical practice of thinning. Through their cultivation of a nested reality—or fantasy world—inside our own that requires our active engagement in both the world of the game and our own reality as people at the table, games can help us practice living in the liminal and communal. Board games can deposit us directly into this thin space, curating a curiosity and hope for the thin, uncanny place between realities where something beyond breaks in.
The Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic of Board Games
To help explain how cards and dice can become liturgical practices, we need to explore some thoughts from an influential French psychoanalyst named Jacques Lacan. Lacan posited that reality for humans is constituted by three interlocking registers: the real, imaginary, and symbolic. The imaginary and symbolic work together to create our conscious, subjective experience and meaning making systems. They help us understand, locate, and contextualize our lives. They are, however, not the real, but our experiences of reality. In this way our imaginary-symbolic structures help us inhabit a world that makes sense and provides a way for us to interact in that world with others. The imaginary-symbolic provides context, narrative, and rules of engagement. The register of the real, however, is that which can’t be put into words—can’t be consciously thought inside that world. It pushes into our reality from the outside, irrupting and disrupting—like the unseen and the unimaginable. It remains unsymbolized, beyond our linguistic structures, always there affecting our world—keeping us up at night—but only occasionally breaking in to reorganize everything.⁵
Board games are helpful illustrations and microcosms of these registers. The theme or pretend-world of a game is its imaginary, while the rules or mechanics are the symbolic register. So for chess, medieval combat is the theme or imaginary, for Monopoly this is real estate, and for Settlers of Catan it’s settlers on a new island. Alternatively, how pieces move, what happens on a turn—the structure of a game—are the mechanics or symbolic. They express the limits of the interactions that are possible or what you can do on a turn. For example, at the symbolic level of chess, a rook could be called—or imagined as—a tank, tower, or Peanuts character as long as it interacts with other pieces by moving in straight, perpendicular lines. In other words, the theme or imaginary of the game (medieval combat) is a description of what the game is about and the mechanics or symbolic (the rules) are its how.
Board game designers have long used these two registers of theme and mechanics (imaginary and symbolic) in developing games to create a synergy between them that invites players into what we call a nested reality. Good games are often described as those that integrate their theme and mechanics well. This makes learning a new game easier, as a theme can help certain rules seem less arbitrary and more intuitive (i.e. a rifleman’s attacks in the recently popular war game Undaunted: Normandy are not as likely to do damage as a machine gunner’s). A good synergy between them also helps to immerse the player in the world of the game. Like reading a novel, players experience a sense of being transported into the game world when a strong theme pulls them in and connects so easily with mechanics. Players step out of their material reality and into the fantasy nested reality of the game. They are thus simultaneously humans sitting around a table, rolling dice and playing cards, as well as real estate tycoons viciously competing to make the others bankrupt (as in Monopoly).
The real, however, is everything that can’t be contained in the nested reality of the game. This includes things like the intelligence or skill of the humans playing and what is happening around and between the players. The real is constantly pressing in, impacting the game, but can’t be captured in the imaginary-symbolic registers. Going back to chess, a bishop can’t appreciate its relationship to the grandmaster, or the emotion the grandmaster holds as she moves it to put an opponent in check at a tournament. The bishop in the game is always just a bishop moving on a board. When I (Paul H.) play chess with my eight-year-old son, the theme and mechanics are exactly the same as when I play with my adult friends, but the real of being a dad playing with his son—as opposed to friends competing with one another—completely changes the experience and my relationship to it. The real speaks to the world outside of the nested reality of the game.⁶
The Liturgy of Gaming
In this way, games are a microcosm of our lives. When playing games, we are engaged in a nested reality that provides meaning and purpose for our choices; so too in our material world, we are engaged in our own imaginary-symbolic realities that provide directions for us as we navigate identity, agency, meaning, and community. What games threaten to expose for us, though, is that these realities are distinctly not the real, but nested inside a higher order. Just as games are constantly impacted by the real of the players and the world external to the game, so too are we lost in our own imaginary-symbolic realities: constantly being impacted and moved by a real beyond us. Like Russian nesting dolls, we inhabit multiple realities situated within one another.
Being a good gamer requires this dual immersion into multiple realities. The implicit house rules of a game night are always haunting the rules in a manual and the actions of the players, changing and directing their moves. People who are too lost in the nested reality of the game can be sore losers, obnoxious winners, and can risk damaging relationships with others. These players sacrifice the infinite game that desires to keep playing for the finite game of a passing victory.⁷ Alternatively, those who aren’t able to move past the rules and components to enter the nested reality of the game are not much fun to play with. When the material reality of those around the table is so thick it prevents the immersion into the world of the game, the playfulness is lost. It’s not much fun if everyone’s not into it.⁸
Playing games, thus, gives us a chance to openly straddle two realities, and in doing so, thin those realities. It is this practice of inhabiting both the world of the game as well as our own that can become a liturgical act of cultivating thin spaces. Games help us remember that the imminent is insufficient—that something more insists on us, that there is a real beyond our imagination. Games point beyond themselves in their very nature. The idea of “winning a game” is inherently meaningless and futile unless two or more take up the arbitrary goal in order to participate together in the experience of play. In other words, we take up the sacred seriousness of play for the sake of playing, not winning.⁹
Games help us remember the importance of play—the importance of being swept up in a world beyond ours, while not losing our place in reality. Playing a game is not just a way to pass the time, but a way to help us practice opening the door to the unexpected, the unimagined, the perhaps. It teaches us to be committed players, while not sore losers. Joining together for something more—though not forgetting who we are—is an act of faith, trusting in something beyond what we can currently imagine. Games help us communally cultivate hope and welcome for that disruptive in-breaking as we work to live in the liminal. Next time you sit at the table with your friends to play a game, consider the invitation for disruption that you may be making as you open the box and start organizing the components. When you enter into that fantasy world, keep an ear out for what may be slipping into your own.
Cover photo credit: JESHOOTS.com
¹While we acknowledge the difference in scope and nuance between the terms “board game” and “tabletop game,” they are used interchangeably in this essay for simplicity.
²For more on the integration of thin spaces and Christian practice see Stanz, Braving the Thin Places: Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace, (Loyola Press, 2002).
³For more on a theology of perhaps see Caputo, The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional, (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016).
⁴ For attempts to indict even the most basic Christian practices of eucharist, prayer, and baptism as damaged by sin, see Lauren F. Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018). For more on liturgies and habits as formational see James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For more on the disruptive, unwelcome nature of liturgies and the in-breaking of the divine see Paul Hoard and Willa Hoard, “Eucontamination: Enacting a Centered-Set Theology in a Multicultural World” The Journal of Psychology and Theology (2023).
⁵For more on Lacanian theory applied to liturgy, see Tim Suttle and Paul Hoard, “Lacanian Virtue Ethics? Cultivating Virtue Through Failure,” The Other Journal 35 (2023). For a discussion of Christian theology through a Lacanian lens, see Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003). For Lacanian psychoanalytic theory as it intersects with community and tradition, see Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, UK: Verso, 1989); ); Todd McGowan, The Racist Fantasy: Unconscious Roots of Hatred (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).
⁶For more on the real versus reality see Paul Hoard and Willa Hoard, “Queering as Eucontaminant Reorganization,” The Other Journal 34 (2022): 51–60.
⁷For more on finite and infinite games, see James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1986).
⁸ For more on the art of games and how different forms of play lead to different forms of transformation see C. Thi Nguyen, Games: Agency as Art, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020) and Adrian Hon, You’ve Been Played, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2022)
⁹See Nguyen, Games: Agency as Art; for more on the sacred seriousness of play see Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusion Without Owners, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014).