To Hell With Catan?

Over at Comment, Kyle David Bennet has a really big problem with Settlers of Catan:

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.

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • Nathan

    Such pieces are heartbreaking. The sentiment is right up there with prohibition and “kissing dating goodbye.” There is no inherently evil game. Even The Binding of Isaac, disturbing though it may be, exhibits characteristics of excellent design and development process. As you said, Richard, games often bring out the inner self, sin and all. That doesn’t mean the game should be shunned, it means a reality should be faced.

  • Marq

    Sounds like the issue is more with the player than the game. If you’re really losing control over a boardgame, then you have anger management issues, and Catan is simply a trigger for that. Removing it won’t help you be a better person; learning to deal with your anger in a healthy way will though.

  • http://paintedwithoutmakeup.wordpress.com Amanda

    Interestingly, after playing Catan for the first time, my dad noted that the lose-1/2-your-cards-if-you’ve-been-hoarding-when-a-seven-is-rolled rule is encourages us not to store up our treasures in barnes. :o) Also, my dad vocally decided not to ever use the robber to another’s detriment…and then won. My husband now refuses to use the robber on principal.

    I think Bennett needs to take a break from Catan…and maybe try Carcasonne? Or Ticket to Ride? Can I get an “amen”? :o)

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Amanda – I think your dad’s rule can work quite nicely in Catan, because it’s as much a political game as anything. If people feel as if you are an ally rather than a threat, they’re not going to be doing a lot of gunning for you.

    Ticket to Ride has the potential to get kinda ugly – though you can always feign ignorance in that one. ;-)

  • Jason

    I could be missing something, but I kind of felt like Bennet’s piece was a tad tongue-in-cheek. Regardless, great article, Richard.

  • Kiel

    “If people feel as if you are an ally rather than a threat, they’re not going to be doing a lot of gunning for you.”

    Unless, of course, your name is Rich Clark. In that case, everyone is gunning for you regardless.

    Joking aside, that was a fantastic article. I think you nailed it. On a related note, that’s my new favorite illustration from Seth. Way to go – it looks awesome!

  • http://twitter.com/giftsoutright Matt

    @Jason:

    I have genuinely being trying to figure out whether that piece was intended to be humorous since I read it. The rhetoric is so over-the-top, but he never seems (to my eye) to tip his hand.

    Thanks for this good response, Richard.

  • http://www.kellenfreeman.net Kellen Freeman

    Catan rarelyo ends up in rage when we play it. Annoyance, frustration, and “game-long pouting sessions,” yes. But I still love to get it out and play again. This game was one that the campus ministry I was a part of in college revolved around. I learned so much about others from this game it has become a staple in our house. If Bennett was being sarcastic with his article, he should probably let it show a little more next time. I think he just needs to step away from the board and realize, this isn’t for him, rather than Catan isn’t for anyone.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Jason – I considered it, but I felt like I would do the author what I assumed was a favor and take it at face value. I think there are several parts where he is exaggerating for effect – at least I hope so. Maybe even some humorous overstatement in there. Still, there’s no obvious tell anywhere in the article, so I went ahead and took it seriously. At the very least, I figured it would be a good opportunity to write about games and the best way to play and think about them.

    Kiel – Also I am always the traitor in Shadows Over Camelot. it is a curse. Thanks for the comments! I want seth’s illustration on my wall near where we play board games.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    I’ll be honest, after Monday nights, I have to repent. Sundays I awake with dread. I get tired of dragging my dejected face across the sanctuary, giving them hugs, and apologizing for my sins—”sorry about Monday.” Call me pious, but this past year, I’ve participated in the Lord’s Supper the least I ever have (1 Corinthians 11:27; Matthew 5:23).

    If that’s meant to be humourous, he has the worst sense of literary comic timing, like ever.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    Also: thanks, Kiel!

  • http://goannatree.com Anna

    This is a really helpful piece, thanks Richard. I really struggled with the Comment piece. Comment isn’t known for satire. If it isn’t satire it is an example of really lazy cultural criticism. I feel for him too, but maybe he should stop playing rather than declaring the game evil….it’s a little arrogant a claim. If it actually satire (i tried to ask comment mag via twitter and didn’t get a response) then it is poorly constructed.

    Cultural criticism with a theologically informed perspective is important and when done well (like your piece, Rich) it is helpful in promoting discussion about what it is true and worthy and honorable. I’m just disappointed that Comment would publish such a sloppy piece.

    ps: no games of Settlers of Catan i’ve been involved have ever been as vicious or tantrum laden as the ones he describes…get us playing backyard cricket, however, and blood has been known to be spilled (does it follow that Christians should play Cricket?)

  • Jason

    Rich – Good way to approach it. If the author was even remotely serious, it makes me terrified to see what would happen if he played a genuinely cutthroat game like Android.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Anna – Yeah, I really have no desire to pile on the guy. Everyone has their struggles, and I don’t want to attack him for quitting Catan out of necessity. I like a lot of Comment, and Bennet obviously has a lot to do with that stuff, so I respect the guy automatically. Just had a real problem with this one.

    Thanks so much for your incredibly nice comments!

  • Jeff

    Two points have been helpful for me in thinking through a lot of issues, and apply here perfectly:

    1. When tempted to sin with a created thing – games, food, alcohol, sex, money, etc. – the problem is almost never with the thing itself. It’s a perversion of the heart that leads you to sinful use of what God has given.

    2. The proper Christian response to that kind of temptation is almost never abstinence. Abstinence can be a helpful short-term strategy, but in the long run we need to deal with the heart issue and learn to enjoy the created thing as a good gift from God, with thankfulness, for His glory.

  • Gus Mastrapa

    My big takeaway from the original article was the author’s willingness (maybe even eagerness) to blame an outside force for his bad behavior and unruly emotions.

    Thanks for this response. I have to admit I was a little surprised that you too had emotional experiences playing Catan. I’ve seen things get heated with other boardgamers before, but such instances were usually a result of personalities wearing on each other rather then the rules of the game.

    I find with Catan that it is very easy to detach when someone makes a play that impacts you negatively. It isn’t personal — they’re making the smart move. You don’t trade goods with the leader. If you can build a settlement which will block someone else you do it. I can’t harbor a grudge because in the same situation I’d make the same play.

    To be honest I get more annoyed when someone DOESN’T make the smart, aggressive play. I’m sitting down around a board game to test my wits, not be handed a win.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Gus, I am less apt to do the emotional response thing. I’m like you basically. But there are definitely ppl who hate losing, and that’s just a struggle that people have I guess. I’ve found that some people get less upset about losing and more upset about just not having much to do. They’re frustrated about boredom, basically, which I get. But it happens.

    As far as getting annoyed at those who don’t play smart – YEP. I’m right there with you, man. I mean, I restrain my annoyance – you have to have some measure of understanding. But when people know the right thing but restrain out of fear or a weird loyalty… that’s annoying.

    Lately I’ve dealt with that annoyance by amplifying the political aspect of the game.

  • Ciara Kay

    Wow… if Kyle has experienced that much of a problem with Catan, then there are deeper issues going on (which has been said again and again in previous comments…). ;) I LOVE that game. Yeah, I get loud and belligerent when my husband wins (which is 80% of the time) and I love to rub it in his face when he doesn’t, but that’s my problem and mine alone and it translates to every game we ever play. I’ve found Catan to be very engaging, not only in the gameplay itself but in the relationships I form with the people I play with. As a matter of fact, I have a Catan night planned tomorrow and I can’t wait! I love having the excuse to sit around with people I like for 2+ hours.

    Amanda, I like the “no robber” rule… I might adopt that one for myself! ;)

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I’ll be honest, I spent a lot of time laughing about that Catan article (and we’re still discussing it here at work). It was so over-the-tlop, but like Anna said, it’s not typical for Comment to do satire, and, as my coworkers observed, there’s no “winking” in the article to let us know that it’s satire (I work with the guys who run ThinkChristian, by the way, just to make that connection for you). I’m glad that you took it at face value and broke it down because, even if it is satire, what you’ve said here is still very valuabe.

    I love Catan. At Baylor, it was a great way to fellowship with my neighbors – they didn’t have a TV, so they’d invite us over to play Catan. Back in August when I went on a trip with my then boyfriend, teaching his mother how to play Catan was one of the highlights (and playing games was a fantastic way for us to grow closer). Catan for me has always been a source of fellowship, so I was particularly baffled by the Comment piece.

  • http://adventuresinthriftland.blogspot.com/ Laura’s Last Ditch–Adventures in Thrift Land

    As one who like to win games more than the average person, and can’t stand playing with people who aren’t really trying, I think I’d like to play a game with Kyle David Bennett.

  • http://www.joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/ Josh Foreman

    Very interesting topic, and one I haven’t thought about recently. I am about on the opposite side of the competitive spectrum as this guy. I’d much rather lose while facilitating a good time for the other players in any game. So I don’t “get” where he’s coming from except as far as pointing out that high-stress situations lead to heightened and raw emotions. I think the difference between the games he listed as Jesus-friendly, and Catan is that the former don’t necessarily pace the tension the way Catan does. They are more prone to very fast bursts of tension/release, whereas Catan is all tension building until the end.

    It’s interesting, I’m reading a book about the formation of al Qaeda called The Looming Tower, and one bit of biography that jumped out at me for some reason was the fact that Bin Laden felt that all music was “the devil’s flute.” He stopped attending the horse races because they wouldn’t turn off the music as he demanded. I am in no way attempting to connect Bennet and Bin Laden. But I think the impulse behind the total rejection of a medium that one does not like is the same. It’s a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    P.S. Mr. Clark, you should check out my blog, the last post I have there is about C.S. Lewis and game design. Don’t know if you saw it on Gamasutra or not.


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