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Ritualizing Religious Reward: The Dark Side of Play

Nikki Bado-Fralick, Iowa State University
Rebecca Sachs Norris, Merrimack College

Presented at AAR 2006, Work in Progress, Not for Citation

Games may seem an absurdly trivial domain for scholarly investigation, but I would contend that it is precisely their lowly, unexamined status that endows games with extraordinary power to inculcate values within culture. (Kurke 1999: 248)

All play means something. (Huizinga 1950:1)

Although the manufacture of religious games and toys is a burgeoning industry, with sales doubling yearly and new titles and lines added annually, the significance of religious games and toys has been little studied. This is a curious oversight, considering the kinds and types of issues they raise, including uneasy intersections of religious education, fun, competition, and commercialism, and the reduction of complex religious beliefs and embodied practices to easily memorized scriptural sound bytes and ritualized, but simplified, forms of play.

The diversity and scope of religious board games and toys that can be found online and in specialty stores are little short of astonishing. Monopoly, Candyland, Trivial Pursuits--familiar games designed to while away the hours on a rainy afternoon. Less familiar, perhaps, are games such as Mormon-, Bible- or Catholic-opoly (Christian), Kosherland (Jewish), or Race to the Kabah (Muslim). Other spin-offs include Mortality, an LDS version of Life, and Missionary Conquest, a religious version of Risk. Settlers of Canaan represents one of the newer spin-off games, a religious version of Klaus Teuber's recent (1995, 1999) award winning Settlers of Catan game.

Christianity is well represented in the world of board games: in addition to the aforementioned, there is Redemption: City of Bondage, Divinity (the only game to have the imprimatur, the Catholic Church's official seal of approval), and Left Behind, based on the best-selling novels. The Armor of God comes as both a board game and a play set that includes the Helmet of Salvation, the Breastplate of Righteousness, and the Sword of Spirit in order to "play and learn about God's protection for spiritual battle." Eastern religions also inhabit the realm of games, including Karma Chakra, the BuddhaWheel, the Mahabarata Game, and Leela, a somewhat New-Age version of the ancient Hindu game of Snakes and Ladders.

If playing with dolls is more to your liking, put aside Barbie and Bratz and check out the Muslim-American Razanne doll, modestly accessorized with the hijab, but also high heels and make up for more private moments. The Messengers of Faith Virgin Mary and Esther Dolls will talk to you, providing 60 to 70 seconds of scripture, "recorded in an easy-to-memorize style." The Muslim Little Talking Farrah doll can teach simple Arabic phrases along with modest dress. Prefer action figures? Forget GI Joe. Try the Job with Boils Christian Action Figure or perhaps a talking Moses or David doll, which comes with accessories and 60 to 80 second sound bytes of scripture "perfect for easy memorization." Perhaps as a way of teaching racial sensitivity along with religion, some of the Christian dolls also come in either "dark" or "light" and the Muslim Razanne doll comes in a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, reflecting the many ethnic groups of the Muslim community.

Against the serious business of scriptural exegesis and high Church ritual, religious games and toys seem to express an insignificant form of play, certainly, as Leslie Kurke (1999: 248) notes, "an absurdly trivial domain for scholarly investigation." Today studies of religion incorporate the examination of religions as they are lived, including all aspects of religious folklife, ritual practices, and material culture. This can readily be seen in the growing variety of program units within the American Academy of Religion, such as "Religion and Popular Culture" or "Religion, Film, and Visual Culture." As artifacts of religious practice, religious games and toys serve a serious pedagogical function: they educate and proselytize within the context of play--play that raises serious questions.

Most, but not all, religious board games are designed for children and utilized within a family and (institutional) religious context. Of course, one impulse behind such games is to enculturate children into the religion's values--worldview, ethics, morals, cosmology, and so forth. But while games may be instructive and revealing, they must also be entertaining--they are a form of play; they are fun. This is one of the principal motivations for offering religious games to children--they willingly participate in religion because they are having fun. In fact, the word "fun" is used frequently in the marketing of religious board games. That play and fun have their darker sides can be readily seen in the marketing of games such as Mortality ("Finally, a truly fun, uplifting gospel game!") or Missionary Conquest ("One Giant Game of Laughter and Strategy").

Mortality has inner and outer sections to the playing board. The inner section represents childhood, youth, and dating; the outer represents the adult world. The player must get engaged and then married before being allowed to play the outer adult section of the board. The first player to land on "temple marriage" gets to be a bishop and makes the rules for the rest of the contestants. Players advance their pieces around the board by throwing dice and drawing cards. Missionary Conquest provides opportunities to finance missions: some of the most expensive of which are in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, because there a player can earn extra points by being stoned to death, thus becoming a martyr.

At this point, several questions might be raised, any of which would be suitable for discussion in the religious studies classroom. In the playing of board games, embodied and sensual ritual practices are reduced to the "kinesthetic learning" (One2believe website) employed in the ritual toss of dice, draw of cards, and movement of game pieces around the sacred space of the game board. Is such "kinesthetic learning" ritualizing what are usually less embodied aspects of religion? Or de-embodying religion even further? Is the body highlighted or erased in the ritualizing that accompanies game playing?

Play participates in the same power as does performance: "transformation: the startling ability of human beings to create themselves, to change, to become--for worse or better--what they ordinarily are not" (Schechner 1993:1). What creations arise from the playing of the game? What values are incorporated into the game, either consciously or subconsciously? Mortality's successful or winning moves impart fairly clear judgments about gender, sexuality, and power. How does Missionary Conquest, its name more than suggestive of colonialism, shape views about other religions, particularly Islam? How might this affect global religious and political interaction? Of course, one possible response to these questions is "It's a game, stupid! Everyone knows it's not real."

We'll come back to that.

Perhaps the dolls are less problematic. The Messenger of Faith talking dolls seem to emphasize positive role models. While Virgin Mary's position in the Bible is fairly well known, Esther in fact represents a potentially positive teaching moment for both young children and students in the religious studies classroom. Many students in my women and religion classes can easily name the "bad girls of the Bible"--Delilah, Jezebel, and the easily tempted Eve--but very few of them can come up with the "good girls." If they are able to name a few--Deborah, Ruth, Esther--they usually don't have any idea what exactly the women did to make them "good." Talking Esther affords these students an interaction with a moment of the text in which the actions of a woman on behalf of her people were not only valued, but also even heroic.

However, drawing from Diane Long, David Elkind, and Bernard Spilka's discussion of children's conceptions of prayer, to what extent will the doll's simplified sound bytes affect children's understanding of scripture and hinder their ability to develop a more mature and nuanced understanding of religious concepts? Does the story of Virgin Mary boil down to a few easily memorized sound bytes from Luke? Is the story of Esther reducible to 70 seconds of disconnected text? Does such reduction of complex and deeply culturally embedded text to sound bytes contribute to a tendency observed among today's students to read text one dimensionally and literally? But perhaps that's like worrying that children who grow up with Little Talking Farrah will think that Arabic is just 12 handy phrases, or dolls that say "Mommy," "Daddy," or "Math is hard" will limit a child's linguistic or career choices. Certainly, children who play with talking Esther or Virgin Mary dolls will quite likely be exposed to religious scripture in a fuller sense, so perhaps we are overestimating the effect dolls will have on their development.

However, concern with the effect of doll play on child development is not limited to dolls that talk. The world of dolls is a hotly contested ground of seriously disparate, powerfully conflicting, and politically charged meanings. Nowhere can this be more readily seen than in the world of Barbie and her Muslim friends.

The American-based Razanne and her fast-growing Syrian counterpart Fulla (named after a type of jasmine) offer modest alternatives to Muslims looking for a corrective to the moral laxity of Western culture epitomized by Barbie (CNN 10/8/03), which was banned by the Saudi Religious Police as that "Jewish doll, whose revealing clothes and shameful posturesare a symbol of the decadence of the perverted West" (Labib 2006). The dolls are extremely popular with Muslim parents and children, especially Fulla, which has sold over two million dolls since her creation in 2003. Originally produced with her very own pink prayer rug, prayer beads, and pink shoes,

It is nearly impossible to walk into a corner shop in Syria or Egypt or Jordan or Qatar without encountering Fulla breakfast cereal or Fulla chewing gum or not to see little girls pedaling down the street on their Fulla bicycles, all in trademark "Fulla pink".Children who want to dress like their dolls can buy a matching girl-size prayer rug and cotton scarf set, all in pink" (Zoepf 2005).

Outselling Barbie by a 40-1 margin in Damascus toy stores (MacKinnon), Fulla has a wide range of merchandise, clothing, and fashion accessories, including girl-size items such as lunch boxes, silverware, stationery, backpacks, and luggage.

Both Razanne and Fulla are marketed as contrasts to Barbie, that Western symbol of moral decadence, and are designed to appeal to wholesome "Muslim values." Among the many things this means is a focus on personal qualities other than external beauty. According to the founder of the company that creates Razanne, "The main message we try to put forward through the doll is that what matters is what's inside you, not how you look...It doesn't matter if you're tall or short, thin or fat, beautiful or not, the real beauty seen by God and fellow Muslims is what's in your soul" (CNN 10/8/03). At the Online Islamic Store, Razanne is marketed as

The perfect gift for all Muslim girls!

Builds Muslim identity and self-esteem.

Provides Islamic role models.

Promotes Islamic behavior.

Shapes interactive play.

Both Barbie and the Muslim dolls are magnets for the projected fears and desires of the consumer. While Barbie is seen as a tart, with her "improbably pneumatic curves and lanky legs," (O'Loughlin 2005), Fulla is "modest," her assets "never officially on display," (O'Loughlin 2005). Moreover, Fulla is "honest, loving, and caring, and she respects her father and mother" (Zoepf 2005). Fulla is "popular because she's one of us. She's my sister. She's my mother. She's my wife. So as a parent, I'd like Fulla for my daughter" (Nelson 2005).

Now if you think that Fulla and Barbie must look drastically different from one another, you'd be wrong. Ironically both Barbie and Fulla are produced in China by the same subcontractor. They are made of the same material and are the same height. The only change made to the doll's basic physique was to flatten out Barbie's less-than-modest breasts to produce Fulla (MacKinnon 2005).

Parents who buy the dolls hope that their daughters will choose the ways of the good Muslim girl over notorious party-girl Barbie. These ways include the hijab. "If the girls put scarves on their dolls when they're young, it might make it easier when their time comes. Sometimes it's difficult for girls to put on the hijabFulla shows girls that the hijab is a normal part of a woman's life" (Nelson 2005).

While some Muslims think Fulla is a positive influence, others are not so sure. Feminists, many of whom have long criticized Barbie for some of the same reasons Muslims condemn her, might be expected to see Razanne and Fulla as positive role models that de-emphasize women as sexual objects. But that is not automatically the case.

Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women's rights advocate, said Fulla was emblematic of a trend toward Islamic conservatism sweeping the Middle East. "Though statistics are hard to come by," he said, "the percentage of young Arab women who wear the hijab is far higher now than it was a decade ago, and though many of the girls are wearing it by choice, others are being pressured to do so." (Zoepf 2005)

Consumers and feminist critics are not the only ones taking the power of dolls seriously. Saudi Arabian religious police removed Barbie from the shelves because of her decadence. In September of this year, Tunisian security forces removed Fulla from stores because of her hijab (Al-Hamroni and Al-Humaidy 2006). The United States has its own concerns about Fulla. Since her creator, NewBoy, is based in Syria, she is on the State Department's terrorist list and will not be allowed in U.S. markets. For the U.S., Fulla remains on the "do not fly" list.

What makes play so powerful? Perhaps because play/playfulness is so much like ritual/ritualizing. As Victor Turner notes

Playfulness is a volatile, sometimes dangerously explosive essence, which cultural institutions seek to bottle or contain in the vials of games of competition, chance, and strength, in modes of simulation such as theater, and in controlled distortion, from roller coasters to dervish dancing.(Turner 1983:233)

Both play and ritual are forms of metacommunication (Handelman 1976:185). They contain multiple and paradoxical meanings that twist and slide and fold in on themselves in a wonderful dance of subversion. Play and ritual are complementary, the perils of playing masked by fun (Schechner 1993:26). The stylized nature of play, the rituals of game parallel fairy tales and myths and embody fantasies, whether enlightenment, heaven, happiness, or goods. The throw of dice evoke the rituals of divination, the progress of pieces around the board a sacred journey conducted in ritual time (Sugarman 2005). The power of play simultaneously to entertain, to educate, to heal, to establish, and to undermine is easily concealed by "it's only a game."

One of the major questions arising from the use of these board games and toys is what effect they have on the development of religious understanding and identity; the psychological and developmental issues raised by these games are complex. Besides issues mentioned earlier, such as the development of a mature religious understanding, how do notions of competition and ritualized identity play out? According to Baumeister and Senders, competition sets roles against each other in such a way that each person tries to prevent the others from fulfilling their roles (1989: 22). In a religious board game, not only does one person win by going to heaven or reaching enlightenment, but they might win by preventing someone else from doing so. While Baumeister and Senders note that the presence of luck might "reduce any disturbing or threatening implications of losing" (1989: 22), how does "luck" figure into a religious schema of reward and punishment? How does "fun" fit into this schema? Further, might a lack of "negative rewards"--there is no hell in Bibleland--distort a religion's message of reward and retribution?

Identity, understood as an embodied experience of self in the world, is informed by culturally-specific experiences, through sensory and emotional impressions (Norris 2005). The complexities of identity introduced by religious games are manifold. Brian Sutton-Smith notes that "a toy or tool can sometimes become an identity around which the child organizes his or her actions and concepts of the world" (1986: 207) [emphasis in original]. Indeed, parents use the games to deeply instill religious doctrine or ethics during the child's formative years. Religious games can have an enormous impact on the formation of religious identity.

Baumeister and Senders assert that competitive games "depend on a progressive strengthening of the sense of identity" (1989: 22). But whose identity is being strengthened? What kind of identity do religious board games assign? Is it "you" who is playing? If the identity of the player is the player him- or herself, what effects might this have on the developing religious identity of the child?

Jeffrey Goldstein observes with regard to play and social identity that "Children may try out roles to get a 'feel' for them, imagine having control and power that they lack in nonplay settings, and engage in social comparison with real and imaginary companions in an attempt to answer questions about themselves and others" (1995: 139). Religious games and toys ostensibly provide a learning experience that will guide the child with these questions; however the guidance may have little relationship with intended sources of answers to these questions. The bits of "scripture" in one version of the talking Esther doll bear little or no resemblance to the original, for example (see Appendix A), and the game of Missionary Conquest requires no knowledge of the Bible.

Game playing itself introduces a number of problems. Lack of boundaries and rules, as experienced in contemporary Western culture, causes anxiety (Lindholm 2002: 331). Conversely, the game rules and boundaries present a coherent, controlled experience. The game engages and disengages the player at the same time, through the controlled experience of fun through a "game identity." How are these contrasts between "real" experience and game experience mediated? Two other fundamental characteristics of games are distortions of judgment and perception and an emphasis on outcome (Nickerson and O'Laughlin 1980), thus enculturation and the resulting religious identity are partially based on unreal, distorted, goal-based performance.

Finally, the sacred, in any tradition, is typically understood as the most authentic experience and the most real. Conversely, games are not generally taken "for real." Where does this situate the person who later turns to religion to find the "authentic, real self"? Furthermore, how are profound spiritual crises handled when "fun" is a significant factor in religious education? One young woman interviewed by one of the authors in her research on suffering was undergoing a serious spiritual crisis, and she found that the games and methods she had learned in the teen weekends and activities she attended were no longer effective connections. Nothing she had been provided so far was helping. What can she call on?

Religious games are not new; the popular game of Chutes and Ladders, for example, is based on an ancient Buddhist game about the stages to enlightenment. Hindu versions of this game are played by children in India today. In Native American traditions, games and sports find their origins in sacred myths, and at present they are still played. Hopscotch is thought to have been a Christian adaptation of an ancient Roman practice. Hieroglyphs from Egypt portray game playing; in one ancient Egyptian game "the central line of the board was called the Sacred Way" (Falkener 1961: 93).

But these games were embedded in culture differently than the games now being manufactured halfway around the world or influenced by marketing forces:

Toys like this couldn't come at a better time. Parents are increasingly searching for higher quality programming and entertainment options for their children. This demand is creating a whole new market for those companies that want to fill the need for wholesome toys that deliver positive messages.

MarketResearch, an organization that provides market research analysis, reports that during 2004, the retail market for religious-themed products was about $7 billion. In fact, the demand for such products has become so strong that they are available beyond just Christian stores. With such demand for these items, powerhouses like Target and Wal-Mart are now routinely stocking their shelves with them. With this line of products, parents can give their children toys that come from stories and lessons that they are familiar with. Up until now, this has been somewhat of a rarity. But this is changing, as the demand for wholesome and positive toys strengthens. (PR Newswire Association)

Marketing is likely responsible for the choices of phrasing for the Esther doll mentioned above, whose scripture excerpts are a far cry from the originals. Since, as we have argued, these dolls and toys have a tangible effect on religious identity, this means that marketing forces are now decidedly influential in the formation of religious identity of children who are using these games and toys.

The global economy, another factor that makes the growth of these games possible, creates its own potential ethical issues. The Armor of God board game, mentioned above, is meant to teach Christian ethics to young children (ages 5 & up). This game is printed in China, a country notorious for its poor working conditions and use of child labor. Does this have any ethical implications for Christian game-playing?

Contemporary religious board games and toys raise a number of psychological, sociological, ethical and even political issues. Marketed as a "fun" way to provide children with a religious learning experience they impart morals and doctrine along with messages about gender, power and politics. Although seemingly innocent playthings, we have seen that dolls like Barbie, Razanne and Fulla are the focus of heated debate in both the political and feminist

arenas. Parents buy the toys with the aim of shaping children's religious identities, and we have made it clear that these games and toys do, indeed, have that potential, but what kind of religious identity is being formed and what forces are involved in shaping this formation? Religious board games and toys are fertile ground for interdisciplinary research into religion as it is lived today.

Appendix A

Esther 2:12-17:

Doll: "My natural beauty won the king's heart."

King James Version:

Now when every maid's turn was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after that she had been twelve months, according to the manner of the women, (for so were the days of their purifications accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours, and with other things for the purifying of the women;)

Then thus came every maiden unto the king; whatsoever she desired was given her to go with her out of the house of the women unto the king's house.

In the evening she went, and on the morrow she returned into the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king's chamberlain, which kept the concubines: she came in unto the king no more, except the king delighted in her, and that she were called by name.

Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her for his daughter, was come to go in unto the king, she required nothing but what Hegai the king's chamberlain, the keeper of the women, appointed. And Esther obtained favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her.

So Esther was taken unto king Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.

And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.

Esther 8: 3-6:

Doll: "I pleaded with the king to save my friends and family"

King James Version:

And Esther spake yet again before the king, and fell down at his feet, and besought him with tears to put away the mischief of Haman the Agagite, and his device that he had devised against the Jews.

Then the king held out the golden sceptre toward Esther. So Esther arose, and stood before the king,

And said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king's provinces:

For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?

Esther 8:16-17:

Doll: "There was great celebration and Joy because I relied on God and used wisdom to help others."

KJV: "The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour. And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them."

References (in progress)

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