Getting Our Monster On (or Out!)

On the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, my (Paul S) family gathers, often with other families in our community, to celebrate Carnival. Sitting at tables surrounded by thick pastel crayons, brown paper bags, scissors, and all manner of feathers, glitter, and paint, we set about the serious play of making monster masks. We’re led by prompts such as (for the younger kids) “What’s the scariest monster you can think of?” and (for the older kids and adults) “What parts of who you are scare you the most? What parts of you do you want to hide or are you afraid someone might see?” Then, for the next 30-45 minutes, noise and chaos erupt as young and old alike “dress up” our fear, longing, disgust, avoidance, admiration, adulation—the hidden and forgotten selves that Carl Jung called “the Shadow” and what Jesus called “the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3). Finally, with tables in disarray and scraps of everything on the floor around us, we gather in a circle to share: “Tell us about your mask.” “What is your mask saying to you as you enter this season of Lent?”

The origins of Carnival are (perhaps appropriately) a bit shrouded. Within a Roman Catholic, Western, high-liturgical context, the festival is the last three days of the season of Epiphany: “Shrovetide,” the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. For most in the West, Carnival is best known as the Tuesday before Lent when churches gather to gorge themselves on pancakes, syrup, and butter in an attempt to gulp down Mardi Gras (translated “Fat Tuesday”) indulgence before participating in the lean fasts of Lent. However, for some in our tradition, Carnival invites an even deeper engagement—a reckless and risky make-believe. It is a festival to revel in, and thus reveal, the dark, unknown elements of the heart as the season of Lent begins. It offers us a playful way of engaging what the Spirit is inviting us to turn from, so that we might hunger for—and then turn toward—life abundant. Carnival sets a time and space to remind ourselves of the unintegrated side of our human nature. It gives warning to what disasters are possible if those parts within us are left separate from our awareness, apart from our community’s reflection, and away from the practice of individual and collective repentance.

At least that’s how my wife Sarah and I have sought to practice this prelude to Lent since we discovered its invitation so many years ago. However, this year, as I began to prepare for the season of Lent—in addition to monster masks at our little parish church in Poulsbo, WA—I began to imagine how else I might gain access to what the festival of Carnival seeks to accomplish. Specifically, as a white, cis-gendered, straight male, I wanted to explore the inside of colonialism. More particularly, I wanted to explore where it exists inside of me that I might continue “turning away” from American consumerism and toward something more akin to a Jesus-ward community the Spirit invites me to—for my life and for the life of the world. It didn’t make sense to do such an exploration alone. But given that collective introspection about this subject matter often devolves into polarized stagnation, vacillating between “you can’t talk about it like that” and “it has nothing to do with me,” I knew I’d have to get creative.

It was here that our (Pauls H & S) work around board games as liturgy seemed to invite an approach for Carnival. What if we took some of our thinking literally and applied a liturgical lens to an intentional act of play?

John Company

Attempting to side-step the reflexive neo-liberal “no-no” and the neo-conservative “not-me!”, we turned toward one of our favorite tabletop game designers, Cole Wehrle, and his 2023 game John Company, 2nd edition. Wehrle is best known, perhaps, for the game Root and its many expansions. Yet his more recent work on John Company has pushed the boundaries of what can still be considered a game—what is OK to play. In John Company, Wehrle seeks to create a self-aware simulation of sorts where players take on the role of early 18th century families seeking reputations and prestige by using the historical British East India Company and its state-sponsored trade monopoly in India.

Both of us had been interested in it already as an ambitious attempt to expand the art of games into more direct and honest conversations with history, colonialism, and empire. Many games have thematically engaged with colonialism—though most do so from a more problematic, white-washing perspective that helps the player hide from the historic human cost of empire. Would John Company fall prey to the same problems? Could we ethically enter a state of play around such traumatic topics? The rulebook states plainly that given the subject matter “this game may not be suitable for all players” and then further asks of its participants to, “(p)lease make sure everyone in your group consents to this exploration before playing.” Given its heavy theme, Carnival seemed to offer a fitting container for us to approach the game, and the game provided an avenue for us to embrace Carnival.

John Company’s intensity and ambitions are evident on numerous fronts. It is expansive in its scope, spanning several hours for each play and covering a complex web of roles, actions, victory points, power, and money. It is also, according to Wehrle, “directly concerned with the sinews of the British Empire. In particular, the game concerns the formation of what is sometimes called the ‘Imperial Imaginary.’” He writes of how his design was inspired by postcolonial thought and intended to be “deeply anti-colonial.” Our intention in playing it was not to join the voices of critics and reviewers in how successfully Wehrle accomplished this task, but to allow the game to intersect with ourselves and the monsters in us that we otherwise keep hidden.¹


We invited five members of our gaming community, who are also white, straight, middle-class men living in Kitsap County, WA, and from varying Christian traditions. As such, the influence and insistence of colonialism and imperialism on our individual and communal psyches are particular parts of ourselves we have long learned to distrust, cut off, and hide.² In fact, it takes intentionality for us to be aware of those parts at all. The hope then, in Carnival, is that through play, we would remember these aspects of us. What might this game invite us to recognize about ourselves? What can we listen for as we try to play with such a devastating theme? Is there any eucontaminitive (contamination for good) hope in facing these aspects of our collective and individual identities?³

The Sunday before Lent, the five of us gathered in the downstairs of my (Paul S) home. Over the previous two weeks, Paul H and I had provided information about John Company and Carnival and had shared our desire to create an experience integrating the two. I felt uncharacteristically nervous as the men started to arrive. John Company was set up ready to play on the table. Close by, I’d set out tea and English muffins and had early eighteenth-century baroque playing softly in the background. Once everyone was settled, I began by setting a frame for the day, reaffirming our intentions: that we’d play the game and then reflect on our experience. I then prayed a prayer from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People—aware I had never prayed before playing a board game—and then invited each man, in turn, to share what he was bringing into the experience.

Taking Control—Paul H’s Monsters

My (Paul H) story of joining the others in a play of John Company for Carnival began when Paul S first threw out the idea. I had heard of it and was interested in the post-colonial aspirations of Wehrle. When time came to sit at the table and finally immerse myself in what the game was providing, I could feel a sense of hesitation and excitement.

I arrived at Paul’s house wearing a t-shirt my sister-in-law had created for me that jokingly advertised “shop local” while listing numerous Seattle-based multinational corporations. I thought myself clever in bringing a contemporary tie-in to the game’s theme of corporation and empire. I was very excited for what I hoped the game could be and nervous about its limitations. However, as we began to play, I found myself confronted more with myself than with an academic critique that I had been prepared for. As an educator and writer on the intersection of games and psychotherapy, I often bring games into my classrooms as experiential tools for my students to immerse themselves in the concepts we are learning. This has been a creative place for me to bring together multiple sources of play: the classroom, academic theory, and board games. Yet this time I wasn’t trying to be a professor or a therapist. I was trying to be me, Paul.

Beyond the ambitious intentions of its theme, John Company hit many of my preferred mechanics right from the get-go. I love games with high player interaction and negotiation. I am also a huge fan of push-your-luck elements that include a feeling of risk with limited control. This game offers both in spades. Those mechanics pulled me into wanting to just get lost in the play.

As a result, it wasn’t but a few turns in and I was deeply invested in the sin of what gamers call alpha gaming. I began telling others what I thought they should do, moving their pieces for them, and answering rule questions ahead of Paul S—who was hosting the game and had actually read the rule book. I began to take charge. The narrative playing out in my head wasn’t that I was being a jerk and forcefully bullying my way into everyone’s business, but that I was making sure the game moved along quickly and efficiently. It became clear to me, though, that the others didn’t experience me that way.

A particular moment that sticks out in my memory is when I started moving Paul S’s piece and, while I don’t remember his exact words, I do remember how it felt being caught taking control. He let me know that he did not appreciate how I was doing things for him and others. At that instant, I was suddenly exposed for something that had been apparent the whole time, but that I had been hiding from myself: I was bulldozing over the others at the table. In my haste to play, I was hurting those around me. I tell myself that I play games to facilitate an experience with other people, for an immersive, social interaction. But here I was, 30 minutes into a three hour game, and I was angering my friends.

This realization had very little to do with John Company. While I wanted the uniqueness of the theme to be the important factor in my Carnival experience, instead, something far more simple—and also shameful—was brought to the surface. I can hurt people when I play. John Company can and should be critiqued and analyzed for its ambitions and what it communicates implicitly and explicitly around the history and reality of colonialism. But in this one experience at the table, I was confronted with more of me as monster than I was of the game.

Measuring Up—Paul S’s Monsters

In the summer of 2017, when I (Paul S) took a deep dive into the vast world of board games, I discovered one of the most regulating, relaxing, and restorative practices was to open a rulebook and immerse myself in the theme, movement, and mechanics of how to play a new game. But true joy came in learning a game so well that I could teach others the experience, giving them access to understanding and play. In fact, I’ve often had a hard time discerning what I enjoy more: playing board games or learning board games in order to teach them to others. This Sunday was no different. I’d spent hours and hours learning John Company. And given the complexity of the game, a few hours more taking close to 20 pages of notes about how to teach the various phases of the game.

As we began to play, it didn’t take long before things started to fall apart. After each round, there is a mechanic involving the paying down of company debt that I had initially found confusing when I was learning the game, so I’d devoted additional time to understanding it. As I described to the others what we were to do at this phase of the game, Paul H said tentatively, “That doesn’t make sense to me.” I could see from the look on the other men’s faces that they shared Paul’s confusion. With a mild heat of uncertainty building in my chest, I assured them that, though confusing, these were indeed the rules and moved on. However, at the end of the next round, everything came to a full stop. Paul H, less tentative this time, reasserted that the way we were playing couldn’t be correct. This time, the other men echoed their agreement, and I wasn’t sure anymore. So I picked up the rulebook, the heat in my chest growing, and began to read the rules, first silently and then aloud at the table. After several minutes of reading and re-reading, I heard myself say softly, “You are right. We were playing that wrong.”

It’s still remarkable to me how something as small as getting a rule wrong can send me—a 50-year-old man—into a full-blown shame spiral. The self-accusations were instantly relentless: “How is it that I can spend so many hours learning a board game only to have someone who has never even read the rulebook know the rules better than me?” “I spent so much time and work preparing this game?” “How many pages of notes?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Why do I even do this?” Though I put on a good face, it took me a long time before I could emotionally rejoin the others in the game—if I ever did.

After we finished John Company, the others left, and Paul H and I debriefed the experience on my front porch. I spoke of my experience and how ridiculous I felt. We processed for a while how for me, learning complex games and then being able to teach them wasn’t only about bringing others into the experience, but providing me a standard by which I could measure myself. “See, I am intelligent.” “I can comprehend and explain complex realities.” “I have what it takes to help others understand.” After listening to me speak these things out loud, Paul H said to me with so much tenderness, “It’s as if board games father you.” How lovely to hear those words and, in my search for a father, embrace the monster I become to myself in that void.

Welcoming Our Monsters

There were, for sure, other significant moments in our play together that speak much more directly to our interaction with the theme of colonialism. At one moment in particular, the game fought back against us and our attempt to dominate India—cutting us off from trade and control. Our collective response was one of pure revenge. We were lost in the theme, suddenly more concerned with soothing our feelings of embarrassment and insufficiency through vengeance. We were completely in the game as members of the East India Company, trying to hide what our vengeance would cost humans in that reality. We held tight to the refrain it was “just a game” as our defense and shield from what we all began to do. We began to cooperate as a team of five, joining forces, putting our personal ambitions aside to reconquer territory. The I became we when our position was threatened by them. It wasn’t till the game was over that we realized how quickly we were seduced by the emotions of that moment—losing ourselves in the game, trading engagement with the complexities of what was going on inside of us for our desire to feel powerful and be back on top. How quickly we became the monsters.

As we concluded our time and began putting words to what we had just played together, there was a sense of unease at the table. We both wanted to play again (as we often do after playing a game), but also felt a desire to settle and name something that had just happened. John Company became an aspect of our liturgical preparation for Lent by allowing us, as a community, in ritual, to play out the monsters that live on in each of us. They are there, residing within. The communal act of naming and facing these aspects of ourselves helps us resist the urge to deny, avoid, and dissociate who we are and instead move towards integrating and turning to life abundant.

Before the lean month of Lent and its focus on restriction and constraint, we entered extravagance, excess, and indulgence, because no matter how much we may consciously distance ourselves from it, the unacceptable, irrational, and negative lives on in us. We aren’t proud of what we found in ourselves, but nor is our sense of pride our hope. Our hope is that our messy and beautiful humanity can connect with another human. Our hope is to be able to turn toward the monsters in all of us and say to each other and ourselves, “Yes, you too belong. Welcome to the table.” Our hope is to sit on the front porches of our lives with friends who listen, speak, and then stay, allowing us all to journey through the wilderness of Lent to turn toward Love.

¹For more on reviews and reflections on the efficacy of the design of John Company 2nd Ed., see

² For more on the intersection of whiteness, privilege, and parts of oneself, see Paul Hoard, Beyond Fragility: Interpassive White Rage, The Other Journal

³ For more on eucontamination and the hope of transformation in the object of disgust, see Paul Hoard and Willa Hoard, Eucontamination: A Christian Study in the Logic of Disgust, The Other Journal

Cover photo credit: Llanydd Lloyd



  • Paul Hoard

    Paul Hoard is a professional counselor, clinical supervisor, board game enthusiast, and core faculty associate professor of counseling psychology at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. He has published and spoken internationally on topics related to problematic sexual behavior, adolescent mental health, perpetration-induced traumatic stress, white body supremacy, and sexual trauma. He has taught, lived, and provided mental health counseling in the United States and abroad.

  • Paul Steinke

    Paul Steinke is married to somatic psychotherapist and poet Sarah Steinke. Together they live on the Kitsap Peninsula with their three children. Paul is a passionate advocate of organizations and ministries that invest in the ongoing formation of individuals and communities toward the love of God, creation, self, and neighbor. Paul is the Vice President of Alumni & Community Relations at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology and serves as the President of the Board of Illuman of Washington, a community of men committed to a life-changing spirituality rooted in ancient patterns of initiation and ritual.