2010-02-03

MTG as Ritual, Part I

Armed with a definition of ritual from our previous post, let us examine Magic: The Gathering in light of that definition, and see how the card game fits the bill. Recall Rappaport's definition of ritual:

"I take the term 'ritual' to denote the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers." (Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 24. Italics his.)


We'll proceed through the definition one piece at a time, as before, beginning with "performance." Playing a game of Magic is indubitably a performance in the particular sense of the word we fleshed out in the last post. While the outcome of any given game is not scripted, and neither are the specific plays each player will make, nevertheless the game requires the players to carry out their actions according to its structure. One immediate objection may be that a game of Magic doesn't usually have an audience. Such an objection is on the face of it misguided in the assumption that a performance must be observed by anyone other than the performers, though it is easy to fall into this kind of assumption given the fairly stark separation between performers and observers which remains dominant in western theater. Additionally, however, this complaint misses the fact that the performers are themselves the audience in ritual, inasmuch as each participant observes their own participation as well as the participation of others in the ritual performance. Rappaport has a great deal to say on this point, for which see Chapter 4 in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.

Secondly, "more or less invariant" clearly is an apt description of a game of Magic, since every game must proceed according to the rules, regardless of the twists and turns of a particular game. Players always start with their life totals at 20 points, and once the player taking the first turn is determined, turn order always proceeds the same way (clockwise). Moreover, every turn has the same order of phases and steps in which players may take certain kinds of actions. Of course, not only does each individual game proceed differently, but certain cards allow for parts of the game structure to be provisionally altered. Nevertheless, these cards operate within that structure in their own right even as they temporarily and circumstantially change part of it. Every game of Magic is played according to the same rules.

As for "formal acts and utterances," little need be said for it to be clear that the entire game is a series of formalized actions and speech. Tapping a card (turning the card sideways) is a formal gesture indicating a change in the status of that piece of the total game system. Similarly, saying that one is "entering the combat phase" or that "at the beginning of the end step such-and-such an ability triggers" or "in response, I pay one red mana and cast Lightning Bolt" is to utter certain words according to certain forms which carry meaning in the context of the game. Playing Magic is formal, even if the atmosphere is a casual kitchen table and the players' garb sweatpants and tee shirts. (Remember the distinction between formality and decorum.)

Lastly, since players of Magic do not make the rules of the game, their sequences of more or less invariant formal acts and utterances are plainly not encoded by the players — that is, the performers — themselves.

So I've managed to fit Magic into a definition of ritual. So what? Sticking feathers up your butt doesn't make you a chicken, and finding a definition of ritual which happens to encompass a game like Magic doesn't make it religion. However, keep in mind two points:
  1. Not all ritual is religious.
  2. I'm not concerned to demonstrate that Magic is religious, but I have demonstrated that it is characteristically a ritual performance.
One of my objectives in writing these articles is to illustrate that the lines we draw in classifying one thing as religion and another as not-religion are hardly as sharp as we often tend to think. While I'm not inclined to identify Magic: The Gathering as a religion properly so-called, with its publisher Wizards of the Coast and official tournament organization the DCI (Duelists' Convocation International) cast as some kind of papacy, I can't ignore the ritual nature of the game itself and the cosmological character of much of the game's content.

It is that combination of ritual form and cosmological content which drew my interest to Magic as an object of study. Ritual which imparts and supports cosmology is characteristic of religion, and a card game is indeed a strange place to find something bearing the character of religion. While Magic may not constitute a complete religion, the fact that the game itself resembles religious ritual in certain respects is noteworthy and worth examining as we are doing here.

In the next post, we will consider Magic as ritual from the inside out; that is, from the player's perspective. In so doing we shall cement my contention that the game not only resembles, but actually and genuinely constitutes ritual.

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