Sunday, December 25, 2011

Glow-in-the-Dark Occupy Wall Street Christmas

The folks down at Occupy Wall Street organized 24 hours of Christmas activities today, and they invited me to participate!  So I brought glow sticks, pingpong balls, and dog bowls (i.e. Christmas Plinko) to Zuccotti Park.

Christmas Plinko is much like the game Plinko on The Price is Right, in that players drop a ball down a "bean-machine" style pegboard, and depending on which slot the ball lands in at the bottom, the player gets a prize.  Aesthetically, Christmas Plinko has a few unique features:  first, its pegs are made out of glow sticks; second, players cover their balls in red, blue, or green glow paint so that the balls leave a color trail as they descend;

and third, all the slots at the bottom are dog bowls.

(the dog bowls did not normally have glow sticks in them; we took this picture when we were cleaning up)

The most unique feature of Christmas Plinko, though, is that instead of cash, the prizes are suggested random acts of kindness (and everyone gets a prize).  In its inaugural run, the Christmas Plinko prizes were "Compliment a Stranger," "Offer to Help a Stranger," "Ask a Stranger to Share a Joy and/or Sorrow," and "Point out Something Amazing to a Stranger."  

Theologically, the concept came from Jesus' birth in a manger (a feeding trough for animals).  Just as Christmas celebrates finding and sharing love and light in an animal's food dish, so too Christmas Plinko invites players to find and share the love and light that they find in an animal's food dish.  Plus, it turns a game about getting money into a game about sharing love, which seemed appropriate for both Occupy Wall Street and Christmas.
 People really seemed to enjoy playing, and it was fun to see the random acts of kindness carried out and the relationships which resulted.  My favorite was a woman who won "Offer to Help a Stranger" and ended up giving an extra pair of socks to a gentleman with cold feet.
The only let down?  It turns out Zuccotti Park is really well lit (you can see from the pictures that there are both Christmas lights on the trees and lights built into the brick ground). This is great for the protesters, but problematic for the glow paint.  The balls did not create a very impressive painting as they bounced down the board.  Still, people had fun playing the game and being nice to each other, and for me, that made a very merry Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christianity as a Game and My Ordination

What if we thought of Christianity as a game?  

There are households where young men compete with each other to clean the bathroom because of a role playing game called Chore Wars.  There are city centers where teams people commit random acts of kindness towards strangers with the focus, precision, and subtlety of an assassin because because of the game, Cruel 2 B Kind.  
In the book, "Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," Jane McGonigal talks about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).  McGonigal calls ARGs "antiescapist" games.  Like all games, ARGs have four basic elements,  1) clear goal, 2) feedback on your progress towards that goal, 3) unnecessary obstacles to reach that goal, and 4) the freedom to choose whether or not to play.   Unlike many other games, ARGs allow us to get more out of real life by making it easier to generate "more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connection, and more meaning."  Chore Wars and Cruel 2 B Kind are just two examples of ARGs. By giving clear goals, discrete actions with weird obstacles to achieve those goals, feedback, and of course the option of not playing, these games create an alternate reality in which tasks that are normally overwhelming, uncomfortable, and/or tedious become incredibly joy-filled (check out the testimonials on Chore Wars).

Two weeks ago I entered into an alternate reality.  I was ordained as a Lutheran minister. 
 Though I don't believe there was any metaphysical change, there was a change in the rules by which I relate to society.  I vowed to proclaim God's love in the world through word and sacrament.  And in response, the people assembled around me vowed to receive and regard me as a messenger and servant of Christ.  Together we entered into an alternate reality, one in which I had a clear goal of communicating God's love to all people.
This is not a reality or a goal that is unique to me as a minister.   It is the reality and goal which every Christian is invited to share. It is a game which every Christian is invited to play.  Some might think that calling it a game trivializes it, but I disagree.  Calling it a game drives home the basic Lutheran belief that we are free to play it without jeopardizing our relationship to God who loves us whether we win (we won't), lose (we can't), or don't play.  And as any gamer who has gone ten straight hours without eating, drinking, or peeing can testify, games have incredible power to motivate and inspire. 

The problem is, Christianity is currently not a very good game.  It only has two of the four basic elements of a game.  It has 1) a goal (foster unconditional love amongst all the world) and 4) freedom in deciding to play, but it lacks 2) feedback on how we are doing towards fostering love and 3) those random unnecessary obstacles which make games fun.  I think part of the problem is that the main goal is too massive.  There is no way for an individual to get feedback on how their actions are influencing the level of love in the world, much less to have any hope of actually achieving world-wide love (Jesus' job).

I think Christianity needs to be broken down into mini-games with small discrete objects about creating the opportunity for loving relationships.  In this way we don't have to measure whether or not we have created love (which may not be possible), instead we can get feedback whether we have created connections in a positive way and affirmed others as having inherent worth.  In this framework it is also much easier to come up with silly obstacles that make us think in new and creative ways and give us excited puzzles to solve.

I want to turn Christianity into a game.  A game in which everyone wins and the prize is love. Want to help me?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Community Created Family

When I explain that I want to create a church where worship consists of interactive art and social participation games, people wonder what that might actually look like.  I think my wedding is a perfect illustration.  I got married in August.  Elana (the bride) and I wanted to create an event that embodied what this wedding meant to us: the support of our community in the continuing creation of our new family.

The whole thing took place in a park.  Elana and I each started off in tents, whose front flap had a basket attached to a string and pulley.

The ceremony started off with a Rube Goldberg machine that conveyed two kickballs representing Elana and me.
(machine post deployment)

But as compared to most Rube Goldberg machines, ours quickly became composed our friends, to represent the people who had carried us throughout our lives

The human machine culminated by dropping the kickballs in the baskets that opened the flaps to our tents.  Then Elana and I walked down through a labyrinth in which our friends and family made the walls.  The labyrinth was designed so that Elana and I entered the labyrinth at separate locations, met in the middle, and walked out as a couple.  The people were also organized in chronological order, so that our parents and family started at the beginning of the labyrinth, our college friends were in the middle, and our most recent friends were at the end.  The result was that we literally walked through the people who have made the path that led us to where we are today.

As we exited the labyrinth, we were guided by more of our friends to the pastor, who asked them and us why we had come.  The answer:  to create a new family, the McKelahan Family (formed by merging our last names of McKernan and Colahan).  The pastor asked who we call upon to help us with this task.

First we called upon our parents.  We had asked each parent to bring a piece of rope or cord that in someway symbolized their relationship to their child.  At this point in the ceremony, one by one, each parent presented their cord to their child, explained what it meant, and then tied it to the cord of another parent.  By the end, Elana and I were surrounded by a circle of bonds that our parents had tied together.  The parents laid this circle on the ground around us as the foundation of our new family.

Next we called upon the rest of our family, our friends, all of creation, and finally God, to support us, lay hands on us, and bless us in the creation of the family.

In the center of this circle of relationships, we exchanged vows, rings, and were declared a new family.

Then the party started.
In keeping with the theme of participatory creation, we had lots of interactive art.

A hula-hoop making station

A quilt making station where guests could cut interesting shapes and figures out of fabric to design a quilt that Elana's mother will sew together.

A typewriter so that people could write us poems, or other literary works of greatness:

Empty picture frames hanging from trees with costumes and polaroid cameras with film so that people could create a photo-booth.

Several audience participation plays written by guests

A bowling alley in which people could smash confetti-filled symbols of marriage over contact paper to create a beautiful (or at least colorful) collage even as our expectations get destroyed.

And of course, dancing.  We had contra dancing with a caller.  The benefit of this is that instructions are explained as we danced and it is more of a group than partner dance.  This way, no one would be left out for lack of knowledge of partner.

We even roped our guests into helping us clean up!

The event was truly an act of collaborative art, games, and community that celebrated the relationships that are the ground and source of our being.  In a word, it was worship.