The Gift of Christmas and Games of Betrayal


Et tu, Holleeday?

The Christian holiday of Christmas is built around a gift of infinite mercy, the only son of the Almighty is made flesh, so that he can suffer and die and redeem a sinful world. The death of the Christchild is not so far removed from the celebration of his birth as the carol ‘What Child is This’ proclaims in its beautiful and melancholy second verse “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you.”

And so we have in the back of our mind in the season of peace and good will to all, the culmination of the story, and the story cannot culminate without a heartless and pointless betrayal, that of Judas Iscariot.

In Dante’s Inferno the very worst punishment is reserved for Judas, to be consumed head first eternally in one of Lucifer’s three mouths. But interestingly enough the next worse punishment, being consumed eternally feet first in the other two mouths, Dante reserves for two pagans, Cassius and Brutus for their betrayal of Caeser.

I would thus venture to say (and Milton’s Satan in the Protestant tradition and Benedict Arnold in American history come forward as ready further examples) that betrayal is one of, if not the least forgiveable or acceptable acts that we encounter in human affairs. Betrayal stands on the other side of and against trust, good will, and openness, and a real betrayal, one that we cannot reduce to pure mean calculation, always is to a certain extent incomprehensible.

It may therefore be similarly incomprehensible that some of you may find under you holiday bush, or use to while away some long hours on your glow device, games that add betrayal for a spice of fun or for which betrayal is the main event. We like to experiment with what is dangerous in a safe cardboard setting, though some of you may have already learned, not all relatives know how to separate between play and real life.

Some of these games, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, let us enter a world where the majority of players must defend against and ferret out the player or players with a secret and treacherous identity. The lines here are quite clearly drawn, and no one (reasonably) harbors any animosity for the traitors(s) because even if they win, they were just playing the game well.

The classic classic Diplomacy and the modern classic Settlers of Catan reveal an entirely different dynamic. It is possible to become extremely irrationally outraged by the behaviors of other players in these ‘games.’ (In fact I have never lost at either at these games except through the conniving and backstabbing nature and numbing stupidity of some who will not be named. Kiddiinngg.. geez.)

I venture the guess, that this is because we have no recourse to punish such betrayal except through our limited means within the game. And often our means are so limited that a skillful traitor may very well win. Infuriating!

To draw a further perspective we can look at a soon to be modern classic Eclipse, an economic development and conquest game. Here the penalty for treachery is defined, minus two victory points. I can’t say I felt any anger when the heavily armed cruiser and dreadnought of one of my soon to be former allies ended up unannounced in my sector. Yes, I will blow them to smithereens before they return fire, but I don’t fault the guy. He made his calculation, -2 VP for a shot at him, I may have done the same in his situation (though I certainly would not have missed the star base build counterattack, sloppy, sloppy).

When treachery is just an open and mean calculation, our reaction to it is not so fundamental or primal. But when we have no recourse in our means, and when we cannot understand fully the nature of the act, our reaction could not be more visceral.

At this point in the sermon there should be a point to sum this all up, and tell us how we may think about the Christmas season, and the importance of keeping faith and trust in each other, so as to avoid fear, suspicion, hate, and revenge. And a scientific treatment may propose to test the hypothesis above by further looking at depictions of betrayers in different traditions. But this is neither of those, but rather a blog post.