FOUR KINDS OF GAMES
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s remarkable book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he identifies four kinds of games: agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx. Having spent considerable time over the last few years considering how game theory might enhance our experience of Christian spirituality, I’ve begun parsing Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts in worship.
Here’s my big question: What kind of game is worship? And, secondly, can worship be enhanced by multi-gaming the experience?
Let me break down Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking, briefly and simply, and provide a few examples.
- Agon refers to competitive games, like sports. But the root word for competition (Latin con petire, “to seek together”) doesn’t suggest we are trying to dominate one another, but ourselves. That’s right—the best competitions, though they involve others—are truly about self-optimization together. That’s why the best wide receivers enjoy playing against the best defensive backs—since great opponents force us to rise to a new level of competition.
In worship, we see agon primarily among members of our fine arts ministries. Musicians, dancers, and videographers are all trying to outdo themselves, to keep up the standards, and to spur one another on to new heights.
- Alea includes games of chance like dice or cards, and represents an attempt to break out of ruts, habits, and constraints through randomization.
Sunday worship experiences have little in the way of alea, but this is something we ought to remedy. I don’t mean to suggest that we should never plan or that our people should be subject to our momentary whims, but I do think we would be smart to include some randomizing rituals in our preparation process. For example, one of my favorite planning sessions involved assigning the pips on three dice to three banks of service elements: one was 6 kinds of interactive (ritual washing, communion, confession, etc); one was 6 kinds of postures (standing, walking, kneeling, etc); and the final one was 6 verbal cues (silence, shouting, singing, etc.). Creating a service based on the roll of the die was exciting and difficult, but it also made things feel fresh.
- Mimicry, like play-acting and dressing up, involves a powerful sense of identification, resulting in us feeling empowered to live differently than our normal humdrum selves. Every true spiritual transformation goes beyond mimicry, but most spiritual transformations begin there. We imitate Christ, then incarnate Christ. We act like him, and in the process we become like him.
The weekend worship experience gives us the opportunity to lead our people in play-acting—singing, praying, loving, caring—and so normalizes virtue and fellowship.
- Ilinx games are those that transform the way we see reality. A kaleidoscope is a perfect example, as are games like pin the tail on the donkey. They take away our bearings and force us to rely on senses we almost never employ for navigation (touch, hearing).
Can we use ilinx in worship? I think we already do. Every time we engage with scripture, our present reality is distorted in light of the past and the future. Christianity is historical, but it is also eschatological.
I have given only the briefest perspective on these games, and an even flimsier set of examples for how they are (or might be) applied on a weekend. Trust me when I say my experimentation is far from over, and I hope the same is true for you.