Twice a month on Mondays, we have a few friends over for dinner and board games: my husband and I, and four people we like, sitting at a table together. This particular week, we were playing Scythe.
Scythe is not a game you sit down to lightly. It has a forty-page rulebook and takes up the majority of our eight-person dining table. So when I had a question about the best card to use in combat, I went to my most trusted source of advice: my husband. Who then turned around and used his insider knowledge of my combat cards to annihilate me in the next battle. Entirely within the bounds of the rules.
“I think of all the days I hate you,” I told him, “I hate you most on Mondays.”
At that moment, I wanted my husband to be my husband. I wanted him to be the person who puts me before everything else in his life, the person who hates to see me unhappy, the person who once hiked two miles through the woods on a sprained ankle because I asked him to. I want to be the most important. That’s nowhere close to fair to him or the other four people at the table.When done right, games are a magical place where you leave who and what you are behind and inhabit the role of the player.
This mismatch of expectations is common within gaming circles. Roughly once a month in my online communities someone will post a comment to the effect of, “I enjoy X game and want to get my significant other to as well. They played a game with me once and hated it. Now they won’t try anything else. Halp!” Many times in situations like this, one partner wants to play a game they enjoy to the best of their ability, and the other partner wants deferential treatment because of their relationship. Neither person is going to come away happy. And this isn’t limited to competitive gaming, either. Cooperative games might seem like an option to avoid this quandary but can quickly enter the realm of “quarterbacking”—a more experienced player directing the turns of others at the table—if every player isn’t on the same page.
On the other side of the coin, when using games and outreach in conjunction, we often think about how the people we are trying to reach will feel. We encourage the people in attendance to “play nice.” We assume that if someone feels that they are losing a game they will also lose interest in our cause. And I will not say this is impossible, but I will say that the overwhelming experience for me has been the opposite. When playing games, people don’t want to be pandered to. They would rather lose after a good game than win because someone let them. They respect fair play over “nice” play nearly every time.
Some of my favorite moments in games were not when I won, but when I was able to do incredible things in the game because my head and my heart were completely engaged. I could chain eight Mechana Constructs together in Ascension or suss out my fellow werewolf from the smiling faces around me. I stopped worrying about what the people around me were thinking and started thinking about what the players around me were doing. I could see my path clearly.
When done right, games are a magical place where you leave who and what you are behind and inhabit the role of the player. We’re not friends anymore, we’re not married, and conversely, we’re not at odds with each other for any reason other than those defined by the rules of the game. We step into our roles and shed our skin, our bias, our ties. We are transformed.
A healthy gaming table is like the Kingdom of God. There is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. There is no marriage or giving and receiving in marriage (Galatians 3:28). There are no hard feelings because we are each playing in our strengths. We are all equal at the table, and we inhabit the roles set out for us. We are more than what we could ever hope to be on our own.