When Gamification Beats Ritual

When Gamification Beats Ritual

Assassin’s Creed will probably be the series that brings me back to consoles.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

- “Plato”

The night Neil Armstrong died we were at an outdoor opera beside a lake in Tuscany.

All through the second act of Tosca (its only good act), the night sky boomed with constant, earsplitting thunder.

Then the heavens opened and caught us in the biggest electrical storm I have experienced in probably twenty years.

It seemed significant.

Significant not only because it was an appropriate grieving response from the night sky for the first simian (at least in the last few million years) to have physically walked on another planet. And while the accusation that he and NASA have been lying to the world for decades remains competently un-refuted, I still think the man should be on currency.

But it wasn’t just that.

It had been one of those days of missteps and setbacks that puts your magical spidersense on edge. As if you’re burning through the karma of another time. Kinda like picking up ghosts in Marseille.

Some of the missteps were literal. Lucca is proper maze-like. If you have a few minutes and don’t mind assholes, watch the boys from Top Gear racing each other out of town.

One of the elemental treasures from ‘Forbidden Island’.

We almost didn’t make it at all as our charter van was waiting just outside the walls of the medieval city we were staying in and we had been instructed to wait inside them.

(And to watch out for a branded minivan rather than a black, tinted Rihanna-transporter.)

Upon pulling back the van door, I got another tingle from the other four occupants.

There’s just something weird about six complete strangers -all from different foreign lands- meeting outside the gate of Saint Peter for a night journey in a large black cube.

We were literally flooded out of the amphitheatre. In the dark, we ended up sprinting through ankle-deep water in an evacuating carpark, looking for our Rihanna-mobile.

And I knew it was going to happen, thanks to forbiddenislandomancy. What’s forbiddenislandomancy?

Glad you asked.

Forbidden island

It’s fucking hot in Tuscany. There is a four hour gap in the middle of the day where everything closes and if you haven’t found a cool place to pretend you are a cartoon Mexican stereotype then you might just catch fire.

Typically, we would park up under a large umbrella on our balcony, drink great volumes of Campari and play Forbidden Island. We were there for my partner’s birthday and it was one of the gifts I got him. Then when it cooled down, we’d tart ourselves up, head out for aperitivio and then onto dinner.

My Campari angel. This is where we aperitivio’d most evenings. Sidebar: How hot is that angel??

If you’re unfamiliar with the product, then watch the video.

But basically you take on the role of adventurers visiting a flooding island and collaborate in a last ditch attempt to extract the island’s treasures.

It’s sacred elemental treasures.

(The game is highly recommended and like I said to my partner when he opened, I can’t 100% promise this won’t happen to him in real life at some stage if he stays with me so consider it good practice.)

You know that feeling you get when you’re shuffling your Tarot cards in preparation for a reading?

It’s like your brain is syncing specific images on paper with specific things out there in the world… like a keyboard you have to boot up each time before use.

Randomly generating the board you are about to use in an attempt to capture four elemental tokens feels like that. This does not mean playing Forbidden Island caused us to be flooded out of Torre del Lago, anymore than the death of Neil Armstrong caused the thunderstorm.

But, soaked to the bone and circling Lucca’s walls at 1am in our Rihannavan, having made several detours because of flooded roads, I had two realisations.

  • All these things literally co-incided.
  • The co-inciding of all these things is a lesson. And the lesson is that things coincide.

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

- Joseph Chilton Pearce

 Magic and the British Museum

Ever wonder why this blog uses ‘magic’ not ‘magick’? Ever wonder why you do?

Crowley coined the ‘k’ word as a way to differentiate the spiritual pursuit from the stage performer’s tricks. Whereas I want to deepen that association. If I thought I could somehow convince you all to do it, I would probably replace the ‘a’ in ‘magic’ with a big top or a ferris wheel or something equally carnie.

Let’s wind the clock back:

The British Museum’s Book Of The Dead exhibit had a whole area describing Senet.

We learned about the game while studying Old and New Kingdom burial customs. And studying burial customs largely means looking at pictures of tomb wall art:

Here is a nobleman eating food in the afterlife. Here he is hunting birds with a boomerang. Look… there he is playing a boardgame.


We never learned this:

In this game of 30 squares set in three rows of 10, both player’s pieces enter the board at one end of a row, proceed to the end, turn and go back down the middle at the end of which they turn again, drop to the final row and go back — the object being to bear off all your pieces before your opponent does. Special spots on the board represent death and being turned away from the afterlife — and rebirth to try again.

Huh. So it’s a game of being able to cross backwards and forwards between the living and the dead, whilst being either living or dead. It’s a gamified version of their cosmology. And you just know that playing it would have ‘synched’ like a Tarot shuffle or Forbidden Island. You can see it used as a yardstick for magical competency and even an omen foretelling a safe journey for themselves or for loved ones.

It’s the original wizards’ chess.

Bear in mind that wherever it was originally created, Tarot emerges from the historical gloom and starts to take on much of its modern form in the north of medieval Italy. And it is patently an allegory of courtly life, a randomised mappa mundi which clearly had a ‘play’ element that hasn’t properly come down to us.

That element of play is too-often undervalued. A game can be a text for thinking about the world. If you want a lesson in the arbitrary nature of Fortune and how easily and regularly she turns on a dime, I recommend a few rounds of Smallworld. (Learn about it in the best episode of Table Top.)

In previous centuries, people didn’t have the words to describe the experience of moving through a universe whose probabilistic nature is expressed from the quantum level right up to the great game of empires.

But there is something very powerful about the joy of play, which in almost every form requires navigating probabilities. It’s like the universe ‘notices’ you. Perhaps it does?

From the solemn gloom of the temple children run out to sit in the dust, God watches them play and forgets the priest.

- Rabindranath Tagore

There is also something very dangerous about play… dangerous in a good way. And I’m not talking about the sometimes-alarming paranormal effects that accompany roleplaying (or the weird dreams). Play is dangerous because it teaches you about rules. When to follow them, when to break them… and when to bet the farm:

Play the game for more than you can afford to lose… only then will you learn the game.

- Winston Churchill




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  1. 1
    Andrew B. Watt


    I’m supposed to be starting up a chess club at my school this fall… and running a game salon for all sorts of games, possibly including this SmallWorld and Forbidden Island. I have to find out what sort of budget we have.

    As for writing “Magic” with a big-top instead of an “a”… I think that can be arranged.
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Example of an Icon

  2. 2

    When talking budget… chess is a two player game. Forbidden Island is four player. So you should be able to spend twice as much on it for double the engagement.

    (We spoke about its potential for kids clubs, actually. It’s MENSA approved and teaches collaborative problem solving. Would be a nice complement to chess’s individual strategy skills.)

  3. 4
    Freeman Presson

    You showed up in a dream last night. I was at an esoteric conference somewhere in the Far East (somewhere where that wouldn’t get us killed). The OTA was represented, but I was there on my own account. I think I thought “such an odd situation, I need some advice on Conference Hacks,” and that was an effective Gordon Summoning.

    Campari used to be a serious Achilles’ Heel for me. Luckily, I am on my last 32768 liver cells now, so I no longer need to figure out how to drink it and still function.

    Funny, though: your first quote is not actually from Plato. It is from some stuffy English twat named Grenville (I think), and if you see it in context, you’ll see it contradicts the Churchill quote with which you ended.
    Freeman Presson´s last blog post ..Review of The Witches’ Almanac #32 (Spring 2013 – Spring 2014)

  4. 5

    Huh. In the dream did I keep the unsourced quote I accidentally found on brainyquote while looking for Assassin’s Creed images unchanged?:)

    Actually, Imma switch it up with speech marks.

    Campari rules!

  5. 8
    Freeman Presson

    In the dream, we optimized attendance at presentations vs hospitality suites using some smartphone app you had found. We recruited others into a kind of Delphi method co-op. You also knew of some people who were throwing a party on a bus. You more than earned your honorarium for the appearance.

  6. 9

    I’ve played senet (actually I made the board itself, a reproduction of one from Tutankhamun’s tomb), or at least a version of senet, since no one really knows exactly what the rules were and it’s a bit of a guess. It’s twisty and turny and full of surprise setbacks; also it can turn on a dime at the very last minute, so it’s not a given at all who is going to win, right up until the end. Lots of fun. Plus it has a square called ‘The Beautiful House,’ which if I’m remembering correctly is the name of the place mummies were embalmed.

  7. 10
    Andrew B. Watt

    “The Beautiful House” seems like a great euphemism for funeral homes. Maybe I should start calling them that… especially since in America, funeral parlors always seem to be in the nicest old homes in town.

    Gordon, if you want the original two sketches of “Magic” as carnival that I did, based on your writing in this post, I’m happy to send it to you… but I’ll likely need a physical mail address to do so.
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Completing a round of Drawings

  8. 11

    At my latest retreat in New Mexico, one thing I was learning approximately around the time you published this, is that Native American gambling, as well as gambling among many ancient indigenous societies, was a ritual activity performed as a kind of divination, and that it was believed that Time (aka Chaos) could not move forward without people engaging in gambling at great stakes. Such high stakes were meant to upset the status quo, disrupt the accumulation of wealth to private parties, and thereby keep real peace (your wealth is dependent on the favors of the divine, so you’d better be making some beautiful offerings ALL THE TIME). Civilized, middle-class values of sobriety and slow property accumulation would only lead to territorial wars, whereas gambling your horses, house, saddles, and silver kept everyone creating more of them, and redistributing them.

    Here’s a taste of what some others have written about it, but there seems to be plenty more about it in the realms of Google: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/467947?uid=3739560&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101203970997

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