Lately, however, I’m starting to wonder if there are games and forms of competition that not only aren’t good, but are fundamentally antithetical to a Christian vision and existence. Like some cultural activities, there are games that perhaps the Christian should refrain from playing. With such games, abstinence might be the greater exercise in Christian obedience and formation. Catan, I think, is such a game. Playing Pictionary and basketball can be profitable; the same cannot be said of Catan.
Catan brings out the worst in people. And not just people in general, but good people — fluffy, kind, gentle people. It’s an insidious masquerade of a game that causes the most placid and civilized to degenerate into the most tempestuous and belligerent. It is a spacious vessel that transports masses into the dark abyss of nothingness. It causes you to have the fierce urge to backhand someone you would never raise your voice to — like your mother. I kid you not, I have spoken to couples who have split up because of Catan. Indeed, “irreconcilable differences” has taken on a whole new meaning. I no longer play with my wife.
I’m not calling into question the factual (perhaps a bit overstated for effect?) claims Bennet makes about how Catan often results in arguments and strife. I myself have seen the game give rise to arguments among friends and family. There’s no question that the competitive nature of Catan can get to some people. The question at hand, though, is whether Catan is responsible.
The answer to this is kind of obvious, right?
Most of us know the feeling of getting just a little too angry during any game. Those who play sports are particularly familiar with this. The nature of any game is that we allow the stakes to be artificially higher for a period of time, during which we all pretend to our utmost that the outcome of the game itself somehow matters. But deep down, we all know the truth: it really doesn’t. Unless we’re playing college or professional sports and have a career on the line, there is little reason to experience any true emotional trauma because of the game. But then, sometimes, we do.
Some games really do reward that unchecked aggression. Football players are often encouraged to “save it for the field” and instead, channel all of their personal grudges towards some guy wearing the opposing team’s jersey. But that is not Catan. Bennet has it all wrong. While he claims that Catan is “designed with the most conniving and destructive intentions and methods ever conceived,” and that it “forces you to seek the misfortune of your opponents,” he’s talking about the fact that in order for you to win at Catan, the other players must obtain less resources and have less opportunity to score points. He’s right about that — but this is the case with almost any game. Astoundingly, he claims that “[p]laying Pictionary and basketball can be profitable; the same cannot be said of Catan.” I don’t understand the difference, and he never shares any secret knowledge in the article that clarifies what makes Catan so unprofitable.
The truth is that, yes, some games are more profitable than others. Some push our ethical limits. Balderdash asks us to “bluff”. Games like Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica often force one player to be the “traitor”, sowing mistrust in the group. Many videogames ask us to “kill” other players for points. None of these games are inherently “antithetical to a Christian vision and existence” because as long as they remain games, they take place in a separate context than the rest of life. Like a digital avatar on a videogame screen, the actions we take in a board game are mere representations of real-life actions: they are not the actions themselves. If we are able to keep that perspective, not only are we able to play them with a clear conscience, but we will be able to learn from them.This is far more than a mere compartmentalization of life or an easy excuse. It’s an acknowledgement that games are practice for reality, rather than reality itself. Games provide us with an opportunity to experiment with the cause and effect of our various choices. In the context of games, because the stakes are actually false, so are the virtues. Because the virtues are false, so are the vices. Otherwise, we would find ourselves unable to play chess (a game with the ultimate goal of assassination) in any way that is remotely justified.
Games are only as profitable as we allow them to be, and in order for them to serve their purpose, we must first approach them rightly. Perhaps the #1 rule of approaching a game rightly is as follows: take it seriously, but keep your perspective. The stakes may seem high at times, but they are not high in the context of our real lives. It seems almost certain from this article that Bennet struggles with this rule:
A lot of playing happens, but I can’t say the same about fellowship. About fifteen minutes into the game, the fellowship often ends. Abruptly. Discussing struggles and praising physical, mental, or spiritual triumphs of the previous week is usurped by droves of expletives. And I mean droves. I’ll be honest, after Monday nights, I have to repent.
To be honest, the whole article is kind of heartbreaking for me. You won’t see me arguing that Bennet should suck it up and keep playing: it’s clear that playing Catan is resulting in a string of bad experiences for him, and that’s just unpleasant and not worth the trouble. But perhaps he should consider addressing the root of the issue: that he takes a game, on a board, with little wood houses and roads and in supposedly friendly competition with friends, as seriously as he might take an election or a church meeting or a war. They are not the same. Take a breath, consider the outcome, and just have some fun.
Bennet says he loses a lot. So do I. I love games, but I am awful at pretty much all of them. But I appreciate them nonetheless, because of the way they break the ice with friends and strangers, because of the way they illuminate our personalities, and because they provide a low-stakes playground in which we can experiment with and evaluate our values system without fear of actual transgression or relational hurt.
Settlers of Catan is about more than the ruthless destruction and usurping of our friends’ stuff. It’s about demonstrating patience long enough for that eventual windfall. It’s about exercising stewardship over limited resources. It’s about sucking it up and adapting when your plans don’t pan out as you’d hoped. It’s about learning to be kind when you are able so that your rival won’t be preoccupied with sticking you with the robber. It’s about managing pride, because no one likes a threat. Like any game, Catan is about winning. But it’s also about patience, discipline, humility, and kindness.
My friends and I have gotten frustrated, even angry at one another during a game of Catan. I’ve seen yelling matches, game-long pouting sessions, and even game pieces fly across the room. But in each of these games, we learn something about one another. We take those lessons and move on. We don’t dream of carrying the burden of the game into the rest of the week. We know, ultimately, that our rivals in Catan are not our real rivals. We take our frustrations and leave them on the wheat field.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.