On Play

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Let’s be friends. Let’s play a game, or play make-believe, or play around just to see what happens. Let’s play the Massively Multiplayer Offline Game called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Each of us gets two characters – InnerFriend and OuterFriend – and the goal is to keep them together, as closely as we can, while we move them through The Valley toward The Eternal Mystery.

Now, about The Eternal Mystery. No other player can tell you where to find it. Only the Mystery can reveal itself to you. 

In his 1958 pamphlet, Christian Convincement: Quakers and Creeds, Harold Loukes writes, “. . . the very raison d’etre of Quakerism lies in the claim that a passionate unorthodoxy is nearer to the truth than a habitual orthodoxy, learned as it were, by rote. . . We believe that mere orthodoxy has little value, and that confused, muddled thought of God is better than the repetition of formulas without thought: that it is better to think wrong than not to think at all.”

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, strangely, the pokes and prods of the rod and the staff are comforting, like the pokes and prods that coax misguided lambs away from danger. But guidance can be misleading. For although we feel the comfort of the One who guides us towards the Mystery, we also feel the pokes and prods of everyone else in the game.

From Madison Avenue to the Pentagon to MBA programs in elite universities to departments of public health all over the world – the rods and staffs of social engineering poke us from every direction. Twenty-first century findings in psychology, cognitive science, and sociology are enhancing the abilities of the managing class to apply the potent effects of “gamification,” of engineered social engagement, to their goals of social persuasion. Increasingly, our everyday experiences are infused with cues to coax and guide us into being good consumers, good soldiers, good workers, and healthy citizens. This is nothing new, but the techniques of social and political manipulation continue to grow in their subtlety and pervasiveness.

Gamification, as a tool for shaping attitudes and behavior, is quite powerful. According to gamification expert Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken, 2011): “Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work. . . [In a good game] you’re always playing on the very edge of your skill level, always on the brink of falling off. When you do fall off, you feel the urge to climb back on. That’s because there is virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the very limits of your ability – or what both game designers and psychologists call ‘flow.’” She goes on to describe several positive effects that follow from flow experiences, including overcoming depression, establishing a sense of meaning in life, and strengthening social bonds – all, surely, good things.

But in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, beware of mistaking experiences that feel good for experiences of the Mystery. Sometimes these go together, sometimes not. In 1700, Margaret Fell warned, “Let us beware of this, of separating or looking upon ourselves to be more holy than in deed and in truth we are . . . [The weighty Friends trying to standardize Quaker dress and Quaker life] say we must look at no colors . . . nor sell them nor wear them. [And they say] we must all be in one dress, and one color. This is a silly poor Gospel.”

If we are to be anointed in the presence of our enemies, which is to say, if we are to dedicate our lives to The Eternal Mystery in the presence of twenty-first century problems, we must let go silly poor Gospels of conformity and heed the rest of Margaret Fell’s advice, “It is more fit for us to be covered with God’s eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness and to live righteously and justly and holily in this present evil world.”