The Devil Plays Catan

A game can be a fecund womb through which habitual evil is birthed.

February 1 st 2012
"The ironical, as the individuality of genius, lies in the self-destruction of the noble, great, and excellent."
—G. W. F. Hegel

I used to think that one could excel in defeat. I mean that literally. I used to think that through the tutelage of patience and nurture, one could become excellent at being defeated. It is possible to find joy in defeat and use it for growth and development.

However, over the past few years, my confidence and perspective has—how shall I put it?—dwindled. It all started when I was introduced to Settlers of Catan. In no way for the better and only for the worse has this game changed my life.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past ten years, the game needs no introduction. Nonetheless, in the interest of being all things to all people, including the philistine, I'll give one. Settlers of Catan—or Catan for short—is a German-designed board game in which players attempt to build settlements through trading and acquiring resources. The more settlements players place, the more points they are awarded. The first to ten points wins.

A key component of the game is the size of the board and the recommended number of players. While there is an "expansion pack" one can purchase, you are encouraged to play on the standard board with 3-4 players. Herein lies the diabolical genius of the game: the board is designed in such a way that one is certain to come into conflict with others competing for particular resources and spaces. To win, if I can so put it, you must "unsettle" others. And "unsettling," in more ways than one, is just what the game brings about.

I know a thing or two about conflict and competition. I used to play Pictionary, Uno, and various other games growing up. I played organized baseball in high school and basketball in college. While playing Pictionary with my family and basketball with strangers was accompanied by intense conflict and competition, these activities turned out to be helpful and good. Indeed, as I've written elsewhere, sports and games often have virtuous effects that we as Christians can and must, on certain levels, appreciate and encourage. (We should also see their creational goodness in and of themselves.) Playing games is not a means to pass time. Nor is it simply a form of entertainment. Au contraire, playing games can be a profound exercise in Christian obedience and formation.

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.

The guys I play with from church are my band of brothers. We're close. Real close. Amidst our busy schedules, we chisel out about five hours on Monday evenings to play and fellowship. 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. 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).

I lose a lot. A lot. But I don't think that's the source of the problem. It's not me; it's the game. Truly. This is a game designed with the most conniving and destructive intentions and methods ever conceived. It forces you to seek the misfortune of your opponents. Imagine that. It's almost as if its designers wanted to give birth to conflict and bring madness into your relationships. One would think they are interested in breaking up friendships and ties with family. The game makes the harbouring of joyful thoughts, emotions, and interactions nearly impossible. Such a game, if played enough and by enough, could lead society into disarray.

Perhaps I'm being facetious.

It's naïve to think, though, that this game doesn't affect our life and behaviour in unconscious or unperceived ways. "You argue and fight with others during this game. Things get a little heated. So what?" Point taken. However, for those of us who have these experiences, we know it's a little more than heat. With that in mind, the question we must ask ourselves is, should we willingly walk into these situations fully aware that we will argue and fight, and eventually that we will have to repent? Is it wise to walk through hell even though we know Christ rules over it? While fights have inevitably taken place in my marriage, I didn't ask my wife to marry me so that I could fight. Why play a game that encourages fighting? Why play a game that discourages virtue? I would think that taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) in honest reflection on this cultural phenomenon would lead us to some realization and concern with how it affects our imagination about relationships, our behaviour in social settings, and our spiritual state before God (coram Deo).

I believe in common grace. Humane value and meaning can be discovered everywhere. Directed by the Spirit's creative force in and through human invention, and the public good that can materialize as a result of them, games like artifacts and institutions can be means for enjoyment and fun as well as significance and virtue. But they can also stifle enjoyment and fun and direct us toward misguided significance and vices. Some can even make us insensitive to our contribution to a culture than shouldn't be cultivated. To wit, games can cultivate evil and vice—vice that leads to vicious people, institutions, and society. A game can be a fecund womb through which habitual evil is birthed. Plato saw this, as did Augustine. Not all games do this, just some—those that are designed with such intentions in mind. Catan is such a game. Designed for social calamity, there are no humane values and meanings to be had here. This is a game that produces no virtues, only vices.

Indeed, if there is one thing I am certain of it is this: Catan is the game of choice in hell, and the devil loves playing it.

Topics: Justice Games Death
 

Kyle David Bennett is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Caldwell University in New Jersey. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with his wife, Andrea, and their two kids, Elliott and Miles. You can connect with Kyle here.

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