GenCon, Polyamory, and You: A Reflection on Covenant Community

On Friday, I wrote the following update on Twitter:

“Both GenCon and polyamory are poor attempts to replace true covenant community. I blame Thomas Chalmers and George Grant. #notatgencon”

So, yeah, this is an example of what happens when you try to compress a train of thought into a tweet. So I’d best unpack this, eh?

Over the past few weeks, the Ben-Ezra family has been spending time with a couple other families in our church, discussing a recorded lecture series by George Grant on the life and work of Thomas Chalmers; specifically, his work in planting churches with a vibrant covenant community. I was unable to listen to the final lecture with the group, because Hope was being fussy. However, I was informed by one of my elders that I really needed to listen to it. So, while I was working on Friday, I was listening to the final lecture and the following Q&A period. During that time, Dr. Grant made an off-hand comment that I found to be fascinating. He said that one source of the stress found in marriages is the expectation that each spouse will be able to fill all the needs of the other person.

And that’s when I flashed to both GenCon and polyamory.

I’ve had occasion to see discussions about the motives and goals of polyamory. The running theme of these discussions is summarized well by a quote from an article in Newsweek entitled “Only You. And You. And You.”: “Everyone in a relationship wrestles at some point with an eternal question: can one person really satisfy every need?”

(In a weird intersection between GenCon and polyamory, I point to the Jeepform Under My Skin, which is an attempt to address precisely these issues.)

Polyamory isn’t really about sex. It’s about loneliness.

And so is GenCon.

Check out this promo text from this year’s website:

Gen Con Indy is the original, longest running, best attended, gaming convention in the world. For over 40 years, Gen Con Indy has been setting the trend and breaking records. Last year, more than 28,000 unique attendees experienced Gen Con Indy. The biggest complaint we hear is that there is simply too much to do, see, and experience. Get lost in a phantasm of art exhibits. Stare at jaw-dropping costumes, or better yet, wear one of your own. Meet the movers and the shakers in the gaming industry. Check out the newest games and get a sneak peek at the latest editions.

And, of course, play your heart out with fellow enthusiasts in a community that understands your passion. What you’ll experience at Gen Con Indy is nothing short of IT. You know, whatever “It” is for you? This is IT! Get ready to get there.

The emphasis is mine, of course.

I visited GenCon 2002 for one day, which was the last year GenCon was in Milwaukee. More recently, I was at GenCon 2007 and 2008 in Indianapolis. If you’re at all into hobby gaming, it’s an incredible experience. The entire city is prepared to take your money…I mean, welcome you to downtown Indy. Everywhere you go, you see gamers, oohing and aahing over new books or games. You see cosplayers in costume, dressed like Darth Vader, Solid Snake, Master Chief, or other geek-related characters. There’s this crazy buzz in the air and this sense of recognition as you pass a fellow geek.

Because, more than any other place, GenCon is where you can be a gamer and be normal.

Let’s face it: hobby gaming is an outsider’s activity. The vast majority of gamers are socially ostracized by the mainstream. (For now, we’ll set aside whether or not this is just.) To be a gamer is to be a nerd, looked down on by “normal” people, laughed at in the media, or rejected by friends.

Except at GenCon.

At GenCon you are normal. At GenCon, stormtroopers wander the streets and no one blinks. Boffer duels break out in hallways, and people stop to enjoy the show, not wonder at the crazies with the padded swords.

More than anything else, I believe that GenCon is selling acceptance.

For those of you who don’t know, GenCon 2009 was last weekend. I wasn’t there. This was a struggle for me at times. I mean, I had a list of good reasons why I wasn’t there. So, why was I disappointed?

Here’s why. At GenCon, I’m a game designer who helped in the early stages of the Forge indie game movement. I published one of the first American Jeepform games. I know the movers and shakers in the community. Moreover, my skills are valued. Last year, I helped construct the booth demos for two rookie designers, and my insight was appreciated.

I was missing that sense of acceptance. For me, it’s a bit more specialized than the average gamer. But yeah, that’s exactly what it was.

And it’s a trap.

Both polyamory and GenCon hold out a promise that they cannot fulfill, because both are founded on lies.

Polyamory tries to locate the solution to loneliness within the family. Oddly enough, it’s really just a variation of the problem the polyamorous are claiming to be addressing. The assumption is that we can pack enough people into a family to meet all our needs. But it doesn’t work. God created us to be monogamous, and violating His will through polyamory will end in tears. For example, polyamorous relationships often blow apart because of jealousy. Another quote from the Newsweek article explains this just a little:

The trio have had emotional moments. Scott had a hard time the first time he heard Larry called Terisa “sweetie” nine years ago. Larry was nervous when Terisa began semiseriously dating somebody outside the group. There are times when Scott has had to put up with hearing his girlfriend have sex with someone else in the home they share.

If someone were to talk like that to Crystal…well, let’s just say that they wouldn’t find the body. Ya know? And let’s not even get into that sexual openness, yeah?

GenCon tries to address the problem through sameness. “Look at all these gamers! You’re not alone! You’re normal!” But this fails for two reasons. First, GenCon eventually ends, and then you must return to “real life”. The GenCon high doesn’t last. Second, the gaming world isn’t remotely unified. Even if you look at the narrow slice I inhabit, there are constant debates over what it means to be a community. The flame wars, the nerd rage…. Yeah. Is that really the foundation of a solid community? I mean, what are we united around, anyways? Gaming? Really? What do boardgamers think of roleplayers? Or traditional RPGers about storygamers? Or storygamers about trad gamers, for that matter? Are they roleplaying games? Storygames? Something else?

Doesn’t seem like a very solid core for unity to me. And I’ve seen the explosions and the fallout that have resulted in this community, simply because one person didn’t like someone else’s game of choice.

Now, this is the point in this post where I’m supposed to point at the Church and say, “But this community is founded on something secure: Jesus Christ. And so all the answers are here. See? Covenant community.” And it’s true. A community founded on Jesus Christ is the only secure community.

But…really? If that’s so, then why are we still so lonely in the Church? Could it be that we’re not willing to pay the price to have community?

A community is more than just shared allegiance; it’s shared lives. And sharing lives is costly.

Consider this: both the groups I’ve mentioned have actually managed to form apparently stable communities. As an example, I could travel to Chicago, Los Angeles, or western Massachusetts and find a couch to crash on. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen others do it. And, to be fair, if some of the gamers I know happened to be in Peoria, I’d probably do the same for them. Shared games have led to shared lives.

Or what about the polyamours? They have radically altered their lives in order to pursue the sort of community that they think will satisfy them. This change in lifestyle has come with significant financial, emotional, and social risk. And yet, people continue to embrace this lifestyle, which leads to shared lives.

If we’re so hot for Christian community, then what are we willing to do to establish it? The goal isn’t to have everyone show up at the same place at the same time. The goal is to share our lives with each other, because we all share Jesus. But are we really sharing our lives?

Ask yourself: what are the barriers that are keeping you from sharing your life with the people in your church? Fear of rejection? Distance? A life that’s simply too busy?

Then ask yourself: what are you willing to do to overcome those barriers?

The gamers and polyamours are already hard at work. What are we prepared to do?

Addendum: as an example of this whole “shared lives” thing, let me tell you about my weekend.

On Saturday, we went to the Evans’ birthday celebration, which was celebrated in the traditional method: dodge ball. Because, really, there’s no better way to say “Happy birthday” than with a foam ball to the head. Later that evening, Crystal and I talked about the whole GenCon thing, and we pretty much decided that I was complaining in my heart about the difficulties of life right now, and I really just needed to get over it and embrace the life that God has actually given me. No, she didn’t put it that way, but that’s about the shape of it. It was a good conversation.

On Sunday we decided not to stay for the normal post-worship meal. Instead, we headed home to spend some much-needed time together as a family. It was refreshing in a way that GenCon could not have been. In addition, another woman in our church had some encouraging words for Crystal, which were exactly what she needed to hear.

This weekend has been a growing experience for me. Often, that equals “a really difficult time”, but not this time. Instead, I think that I have a clearer sense of who I am and who I need to be for the people around me. And that’s certainly not a bad use of time at all.

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7 responses to “GenCon, Polyamory, and You: A Reflection on Covenant Community

  • Graham

    You’re being quick to judge polyamory. Are you judging this from experience, by the way? Do you have polyamorous friends? (This is an honest question, not a challenge).

    I’m not sure I buy the jealousy argument. Monogamous relationships have been known to founder because of jealousy too.

    Polyamory definitely isn’t my thing, but it seems to work for some people I know. If it makes them happy, I’ve got little problem with it.

    Graham

  • Rob Donoghue

    I had to turn this over in my head a few times to hit upon what was bothering me about it, but I think it proceeds in the wrong direction from the premise that we want a partner to fulfill all our needs. I’m not saying that impetus doesn’t exist, but it’s emotionally akin to wanting to never eat anything but dessert, or expecting to be universally loved and respected. These are all things we want at some point or another, but they are bad – sometimes poisonous – goals, and trying to find other ways to accomplish them (such as through more people, whatever group they may be) is solving the wrong problem. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of people who are trying to do just that, but it’s not universal.

    I look at the examples you provide, and it makes the argument far better than I could. A partner who _challenges_ you, who offers a more complex relationship than all chocolate, all the time, makes you better and makes the relationship better. A lot of people know that too.

    Gencon, Polyamory, Church and most any other group with passionate people will always have their share of people who want dessert at every meal, and are striving to find a way to achieve that, but they are far from the only ones there.

    -Rob D.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Graham,

    Actually, the original thought process was based on my readings on Knife Fight. The Newsweek article was pointed out to me *after* my original tweet, though it essentially confirmed what I already knew.

    So, do I know polyamorous folks? Apparently so. 😉 But in my immediate geographic area? No.

    Anyways, I’m opposed to polyamory because of God’s revealed will in the Bible, not because of the jealousy argument. I’m pointing at the jealousy thing as an example of how that sort of relationship fails, not as proof that polyamory is wrong.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Rob,

    Why must you continue to write cogent, thoughtful comments?

    Yes, a relationship that is based on meeting *my* needs first will fail. Rather, a good relationship is based on a mutual desire to care for the other person. Selfishness in a relationship will kill it. And yeah, sometimes that “mutual care” requires challenging the other person. You see that very dynamic at play in my conversation with Crystal on Saturday.

    I don’t think that this invalidates my point, though. Because, if I’m desiring to care for this other person, what does that other person need? And that’s where my points fall into place.

  • Rob Donoghue

    The problem is that there’s a “nice guy” trap in there. If your sole concern is your partner, then you will eventually become a crappy partner – it becomes an eternal cycle of “What do you want to do?” “Whatever you want to do!” It is my wife’s interests in things external to me that give me the opportunities to genuinely step up, and vice versa.

    That said, I’ll agree it doesn’t invalidate the point, but rather highlights that there is a very strong matter of degree. The desire to belong (in any context) is very powerful, but it is far from simple to execute on successfully.

    -Rob D.

  • tonydowler

    Going to Gen Con was certainly a struggle for me this year. I think staying home would have been equally a struggle. Radically altering my life in search of satisfaction? I’m certainly guilty of that (though not in the vein of polyamory).

    Life is full of these traps: the more so as our hobbies, jobs, economics, families, and creative ambitious become thoroughly entangled. The words of St. Mark came to me in this time: “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” Fear of loneliness is *certainly* included in that.

    Friday night at Gen Con over dinner several of use talked of family, business, gaming, and the balance between them. It was a helpful, hopeful moment for me. My new touchstone is to focus on the people I love most, and trust God that the rest will work out.

    Peace,
    TonyD

  • James Brown

    “Polyamory isn’t really about sex. It’s about loneliness.

    And so is GenCon.”

    Hmm… I think that is a focus on the negative, perhaps unfairly. I think it is equally true to say:

    “Polyamory isn’t really about sex. It’s about love.

    And so is GenCon.”

    …beyond that, I don’t necessarily disgree with you. Community is built around shared interest, but if it is not founded on sharing lives (aka: love), then it will ultimately fail. It is not only the church that needs to be built upon that rock, but all human endeavour.

    James

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