One term useful in discussing religious games is “transitional object.” This is a term coined by Winnicott. He discusses it as an object that serves as a sort of stand-in to fill the space between mother and child in the process of weaning the child/the child becoming more and more separate from the mother. It is something that helps to navigate this intermediate area of experience. He says “I am here staking a claim for an intermediate state between a baby’s inability and his growing ability to recognize and accept reality.”(Winnicott, 3) He also states that “the term transitional object (…) gives room for the process of becoming able to accept difference and similarity.” (Winnicott, 6) Winnicott’s idea of a “transitional object” can be used as a tool to understand some of the work that religious games do but in some senses the way the term itself is framed may need to be changed. While the transitional object that Winnicott explicitly refers to helps in the move from the inability/growing ability to recognize/accept reality, the concept of the transitional object in reference to religious games may only fit this model in some situations. In others it seems more plausible that the transitional object is working in the other direction, not towards a reality but towards something else—not exactly something that is a non-reality/unreality, but more something that is an a-reality. We cannot necessarily make the argument that games are not real, but they are also certainly not the reality that Winnicott is speaking of.
The first and easiest transitional object to recognize is the actual medium through which players access the game. The computer, the controller, the deck of cards, etc.; its what players use to negotiate the space between their own being/self and the conceptual/virtual nebulous thing that is the game. This sense of the transitional object is what brings the non-physical (the rules of the game, the coding and images of a video game, etc.) into the physical reality. It makes the sense of separateness and difference between the game and the player less acute or possibly even nonexistent. In this sense we are talking about a transitional object more in the way that Winnicott presents it as well as the opposite of the way Winnicott presents it: it seems that the transitional object (in this case the medium of access to a game) brings the player closer towards this a-reality and the game itself closer to reality.
Games that are particularly religious in nature (in a very explicit and instructive way) can also be seen as transitional objects. Here the space being negotiated is between the individual and religion (or even the Divine). Winnicott writes that “the use of an object symbolizes the union of two now separate things (…) at the point in time and space of the initiation of their state of separateness.” (Winnicott, 96) So, as in the example of the computer/controller/etc., the transitional object is something that has a lot to do with dealing with the problem of separation. Games in general (i.e., those not necessarily religious in nature) could be seen as a time separate from religion/God, especially games that are considered by the religiously devout as immoral, violent, sexually explicit, etc. The religious game then is a way of resolving this separation of gamer and religion by replacing the non-religious game with a religious one while still attempting to maintain the entertainment/fun aspect present in non-religious games.
Religious games can also be transitional objects between the gamer as a “real” individual and as an idealized self. In a game you are not required to be yourself or even act the way you would in out-of-game life. Thus in a game there is the potential to be perfectly religious, perfectly devout. A very nice example of this is the game Second Life. Players create their own avatar to look however they would like, can teleport and fly, and can do it all from the comfort of their computer. So in Second Life you could make a pilgrimage to important religious sites and pray without having to move anything in out-of-game life other than your hands. In this way the religious game (or, like in the case of Second Life, religious spaces/experiences within games) can be seen as transitional objects between an assumedly “limited” physical self and an idealized religious self.
These are just a few of the ways that Winnicott’s idea of the “transitional object” can be a useful tool in studying religious games, there is a the constant potential for more and more applications of the concept throughout the entire field of study as it begins to grow.
Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1971.