Blackjack Ain’t Blasphemy

Last Spring, Union Theological Seminary approached me to create a games-based chapel service. I was incredibly flattered, and, honestly, terrified. My work—mixing religious ritual and modern game design—has not tended to make me popular either with other designers or the clergy.

But Union is a pretty extraordinary place, and I got free rein to create an afternoon centered around Psalm 23, complete with invocation, contemplation, sermon, and song. As for guidelines, I was told that people would be coming into the chapel for a genuine communion with God and their community. Nothing too flip. The design challenge was to find a base game that people would be able to plug into quickly, something with elegant and familiar rules that would seamlessly lend themselves to the simple rhythms of a church service.

It immediately came to me—blackjack. Why? Part of it was remembering my grandmother—how she would have my brother and me over on Sundays to play for pennies from our weekly allowance. (Both of her brothers were lifelong dealers in Las Vegas, so this has long been a family babysitting ploy.) Beyond that was just how bold and right it seemed to gamble in the house of God. Games have a long history in religion. I wrote about that in yesterday’s feature here at Killing the Buddha about the recent “religion” created by atheist game designer Jason Rohrer. But gambling is the ultimate game, a special subset where everything is heightened: the risk, the uncertainty, the suspension between skill and chance—which, in a religious sense, respectively map to what we can achieve ourselves, and to what we must trust the divine to achieve for us.

I have this quotation from Dostoyevsky above my desk, in the office where I have written extensively about both religion and gambling:

Can one even so much as touch a gambling table without becoming immediately infected with superstition?

In the hundred-year-old James Chapel, under the shadow of all that oak and organ, the seminarians gathered to worship. Things seemed to go all right. No pained looks, and the choir’s rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of Psalm 23 was heavenly. Ron Grimes, a noted scholar of ritual whose work I have followed for years, was on hand to capture it on film:

Jason Anthony is an writer and games designer. His articles about religion have appeared in the Christian Century, Washington Post and Boston Review among other places. His games, including Shabbat-Put! and Sacrifice Play have been staged in the U.S. and U.K., and earlier this year he staged a fully-gamed church service at Union Theological Seminary. His largest project to date is the Ten Year Game, a fully-gamed new religion to start in the fall of 2011.