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A History of Spiritual Games

Updated: Apr 1

Spirituality and religion in games, from its ancient origins to its great potential.

The earliest game, wrestling, is at least 15,000 years old, we know this thanks to cave paintings in Lascaux, France, with football arriving in ancient China around 10,000 years later. Then we get the first ostensibly ‘spiritual’ game, a type of semi-lethal Dodgeball, in which one team represented demons and the other team gods, the ball represented the sun and, naturally, the losers were sacrificed.

Ancient football China Tsu Chu
Ancient Chinese Football - Wikimedia Commons

The oldest complete Board Game ever discovered is The Royal Game of Ur from Mesopotamia, the purported ‘birthplace of civilisation’ some 5,000-10,000 years ago. The very first ‘Spiritual’ Board Game may well be Senet, the Ancient Egyptian game of strategy; though it’s believed the spiritual aspect was only applied following the games’ inception.

Thy Body is a Temple

The first wholly religious games are in fact the Olympic Games. They’ve been played for over 2,500 years and were originally held in honour of the Greek God Zeus, abound with ritual sacrifices, feasts, and ceremonies. It is even said the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the games due to their pagan nature, though this appears to be a myth; the Games came to a halt due to that timeless killer - a lack of funding.

Olympic Pool Ruins Disused Abandoned Athens Greece
Abandoned Athens Olympic Pool - Getty Images

When the Games restarted 1,500 years later, it was at the hands of a Christian, Pierre de Coubertin, who really believed in the phrase ‘your body is a temple’, alongside viewing the Olympics as a way to promote peace. The religious connections are still there to be seen - the Olympic anthem was originally a hymn, there are rituals and ceremonies, and there’s even an oath taken by the athletes to play with respect and not to cheat. I'm surprised we haven't seen a few lightning bolts thrown down from Zeus over the years...

Snakes and Ladders - A Matter of Life and Death

Returning to board games, I was surprised to find Snakes and Ladders has spiritual roots. Created in India either 800 or 2000 years ago (yes I know that’s a huge difference, just read it as ‘a long time ago’), Moksha Patamu, as it was previously known, was a game born of Hinduism. The game centres around Karma and the principle of cause and effect, with the snakes representing different vices and the ladders representing various virtues, resulting in regression or progression respectively.

Ancient Snakes & Ladders Indian Hinduism Moksha Patamu
Moksha Patamu - Wikimedia Commons

It’s been used as a teaching tool for centuries, informing children about good and evil. The original game had 68 squares instead of 100, with more snakes to signify the greater threat of vices. The modern, western adaptations turned the game from a moral lesson into a simple luck-based race to the finish line, read into that what you wish!

The famous spiritual divining cards, Tarot, actually began life as mere playing cards around 700 years ago. As a trick-taking game, Tarot was initially comprised of four suits, with the Major Arcana ‘trump’ (triumphe) cards added some 100 years later. It wasn’t until the 18th century people began to assign spiritual significance to the cards, with a French Freemason, Antoine Court de Gebelin, claiming the cards were hiding esoteric knowledge.

Pamela Colman Smith Tarot Artist Creator Rider Waite Cards Deck
Pamela Colman Smith - Wikimedia Commons

The most common tarot cards used worldwide today, the Waite-Smith deck, were designed by Pamela Colman Smith. I highly recommend this article offering a brief glimpse into her fascinating, but ultimately tragic, life in Southern England in the early 20th century.

The Games of Revelation

With the invention of electricity and computing, games changed dramatically, and with this change came greater opportunity to combine spirituality and gaming. However, while new technology and tools allow us to create more games than ever, and apply any themes we wish, spiritual and religious games seem as rare as ever. This is in direct contrast to the sheer volume of games which could be argued to be detrimental in a spiritual or religious context.

Video game cafe Dubai computer games
The Pubs and Cafes of the Future?

A recent study looking into World of Warcraft, an online game played by ~130 million people worldwide, claims the game provides a spiritual connection for the players involved (largely Chinese Atheists). The study author, Alex Hornbeck, observed the players reporting spiritual experiences, moral connections, and holistic communities within the game, which are missing from their real-world lives.

Can Virtual Reality Provide What We're Missing From Life?

Whether this is a good thing or not is yet to be seen; are people benefitting from this, or are they being hindered? Are these feelings genuine or are they superficial experiences born of dopamine reward mechanisms cleverly designed to keep gamers coming back for more? To paraphrase Karl Marx, video games may be the new opiate of the masses, which isn’t so very far from the truth considering an estimated 3-4% of gamers are addicted to gaming.

While I know many online-gamers who enjoy a lot of online social interaction, my personal experience playing video games has almost always been one of escapism; similar to getting lost in a good book, but without many of the associated benefits. I believe this is one of the reasons why Board Games are becoming hugely popular once again - people are seeking real-world connections in lieu of the hollow virtual arena.

Lonely Zuckerberg Empty Metaverse
An Empty Metaverse - Oleg Krugliak (Shutterstock)

Studies have shown the brain doesn't know the difference between real and imaginary stimuli at levels below the conscious. While we can see the effects of virtual reality on the brain through various scans, we don't know what impact it has on a spiritual level. Online gaming could be like fast food - it hits all the senses whilst being ultimately empty. Tabletop games and sports, with that physical interaction and personal connection, provides our soul with genuine nutrition.

Video Gaming Has a Lot to Offer

This is not to say there is no place for spirituality and religion in modern video gaming. I found some excellent games whilst researching for the Spiritual England gaming section. There appears to be a growing desire for truly beneficial games as opposed to merely ‘fun’ games. I see a future with games in a similar capacity to what guided meditations are to regular meditation, a tool to assist people with their spiritual development.

There are also many positive studies regarding video games and mental wellbeing, with moderation being an unsurprising influential factor. Almost 80% of gamers say their hobby provides them with relaxation and stress relief, and there's plenty of data to back this up. It's fair to say this subject is certainly not black and white.

Eventually, we may stop wanting to occasionally escape the Game of Life, but we’ve done so through games for as long as we can recall and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. As always, we must compromise, educate, and innovate, to ensure the steps we take lead us to ladders, not snakes.

There's far too much to write on this subject to fit into a short blog article and do it any semblance of justice; therefore, I'll continue to delve into this subject in further articles you will eventually find either in Adam's Collection or Spiritual Games.

There are several excellent books on gaming through human history for those interested, such as It’s All a Game, Games of the World, and Oxford History of Board Games.


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