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GAMES are like complex toys that people can play, provided they know how and will obey the rules. Games can engage people fully. Each player at the checkerboard is there as a whole person, focused on playing. Games are bona fide, God-given invitations to be playful and therefore can open people to God.


Whether the voice of Wisdom in Proverbs represents the Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ, it is striking that Wisdom was playing before God's face at the creation of the world, having fun (Prov 8:31; meshaheqeth JB). God's wild beasts and Leviathan also frolic in creation (Job 40:20; Ps 104:24-26). Integral to the promise of the Lord's restoration of God's people as caretakers of creation on the new earth is that boys and girls shall be able to play in the streets without getting hurt (Is 11:6-9; Zech 8:1-).

In the here and now joy is the primal gift of the Holy Spirit to those who receive the gift of salvation (Gal 5:22-23; 1 Thess 1:2-7). Thus sourpuss Christianity is certainly out of line with the God of the Bible and the communion of saints. Joy, however, is deeper than pleasure, for there is in jubilation a more outgoing, imaginative character than the satisfaction of merely being pleased. So joy, fun and glad exuberance are the normative traits of playing around and therefore form the clue to the meaning of games.


When babies and children play in sand boxes or at the seashore, let mud ooze through their toes and laugh as the waves make them happy with God's slap of wetness. Grownups are often playful in a caress with their loved ones or indulge in wordplay, like puns. There is always an element of surprise in playing, such as the wonderful excitement experienced when riding a swing hung from the branch of a tree. This unpredictable element epitomizes play and other aspects of the ludic dimension of life. So playfulness explores the unexpected ambiguity that inheres all human activity and sometimes comes to the fore, especially in games.

More complex than simple play, games always have rules and usually demand a certain amount of skill from those who participate. Further, everything in the game happens in the realm of a make-believe reality. The players have to imagine somebody as "it" to play tag and must decide whether or not a player can tag back immediately upon becoming "it." Games thrive on uncertainty and usually involve some kind of guessing on what to do next. Should you aim for the wicket in your croquet shot or knock somebody else's ball into the rough? Every player strives to reach the end or goal of the game first, even though the elusive prize is imaginary. A great thing about games is that everyone, technically, begins evenly, and that evenness is recovered every time the game is restarted. So children can occasionally win over their parents, and the stronger may lose to the weaker thanks to the wonderful uncertainty that always goes with a real game, such as when the marble or bocce ball just happens to hit a piece of uneven ground. A game to its players is very close to what Wonderland was for Alice: During a player's turn in jumping rope, reciting limericks while jumping up and down, he or she can cheerfully have the illusion of being a prima donna. And children play the hunter and the hunted in kick the can with shivers of expectation and tables turned. Good games always carry the aura of adventure.


Educators have long understood that children learn through playing games and that play is work for a nursery school child. So games serve a social purpose. Games that last are much more complex than any one person and have been shaped by societal milieux, historical circumstances and the faith perspective of cultural communities. Anthropologists have noted, for example, that Inuit children of the Canadian North played games of physical skill that fostered memory, rather than games of chance and strategy. Inuit childhood games were thus congruent with a harsh, subsistent life and world in which the young were nurtured to do their best but not at the expense of others. The games of the Iroquois in the New York area were more competitive athletic contests, tied to rites invoking rain or ceremonial dances for the blessing of fertility on the crops--matters outside human hands.

Naturalistic psychologist Karl Groos (1861-1946) interpreted games to be a kind of animal survival-kit practice that the young exercise to rehearse coping with adult activities. Pragmatist educator-theorist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) traced the development of games played by children (sensory-motor, then make-believe, finally symbolic games with rules) and found they geared very strictly to stages of a child's preverbal and postverbal accommodation and socialization toward external reality. Games for Piaget are indices of human maturation; full-grown, well-adjusted humans outgrow them. And many a Christian moralist has excused games only if they help Christians take themselves less seriously or help them work more efficiently afterward: Learn to relax and lose--it's good for you. Enjoy games as pleasant lessons in humility, perhaps even as a foretaste of a heaven free from drudgery.

A biblically directed conception of games will take us beyond the mere instrumental value of games. We should not miss the peculiar glory and blessing built into the play that God created us to enjoy, and we should not apologetically twist games into becoming a means for nonplayful ends. It is true that games generally help us discharge pent-up surplus energy, aggressive and otherwise, and games do prepare us to exercise competencies in nonthreatening situations--strength, agility, decisiveness or willingness not to be a poor loser. But games need to be reconceived as a diaconal service for mature people through which they thank God as the games invigorate the players' imagination. Games are not something particularly childish or remedial, nor are they a middle-class luxury or a waste of time. The refusal to play games or the indulgence in a life of constant game playing--each is an indication of an imbalanced and unhealthy spirituality.


There are many, many games for children and adults to play. Within the rough taxonomy that follows the games appear in order of their complexity, with the most elementary appearing first:

basic movement and control (kite flying, roller-skating, swimming, bicycling, skiing, gymnastics)

testing physical properties (making mud pies, molding clay, sawing wood)

chase and capture and lost and found (hide-and-seek, blindman's buff, fishing, hunting)

display (dressing up, participating in parades)

skill competence (catching a ball, spinning tops, shooting marbles, horseshoes, quoits, darts, group juggling, spelling bees) guessing (Who am I? charades, Pictionary)

puzzles (fitting shapes in holes, jigsaw pictures, crosswords, anagrams, Scrabble)

get-acquainted (passing grapefruit from neck to neck, forming group tableaux)

chance (dominoes, card games, board games with dice, mahjong)

combative strategy (checkers, chess, tennis, squash, pickup team sports)

trust-relationships (blind fall and catch, Balderdash) sheer pretense (masquerade party) One can turn almost any fascination or activity that has flair into a game so long as there is an obstacle to overcome or something whimsical that eludes straightforward calculation and implementation. There is much to be said for inventing our own games. Games that are no longer homemade but are standardized and manu