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Help TOPCON! take flight

Office of Christian Formation crowdsources its Theology of Play Conference

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Phil Walker Harding, an award-winning game designer and theologian from Australia, will speak at upcoming TOPCON! (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — When the Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s coordinator for Christian Formation a few of years ago, he never dreamed he’d be hosting a conference on the theology of play and tabletop (board) games.

But because he was experiencing so much joy playing and designing card games, his hobby interest began to intersect with his formation work.  Since 2016, Santos has designed three card games for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  The third was birthed out of a think tank gathering that occurred last fall.  Dubbed TOPCON! as well, that theology of play conversation explored the role games play in how people think about formation.

The resulting card game @CHURCH was released at the 2019 Presbyterian Youth Triennium.

Santos has been researching the relationship between play and intergenerational formation. His epiphany came while playing a board game with his 72-year-old mother and his 18- and 7-year-old sons.

Jason Brian Santos displays the card game that Christian Formation developed with input from other game enthusiasts at the TOPCON! event last fall. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

As they all played, he realized board games offer an incredible way for generations to intersect in a “third thing” and foster a way of interacting with authentic mutuality and reciprocity — two key concepts in intergenerational formation.

“When playing board games intergenerationally, it doesn’t matter what age you are: you’ve got a chance to play well and even win,” he said.  “Where else in society do children and adults engage one another with that type of equity?”

For Santos, then, board gaming is “quintessentially intergenerational.”

“At face value, tabletop gaming provides a third thing that is non-threatening in a shared space,” he said. “It’s remarkable the way adults, teens, and children intersect together while playing board games, in real and genuine ways.”

Two weeks ago, after reviewing his budget for this year, Santos realized that the Office of Christian Formation had just enough money to host TOPCON! Time was of the essence, so he partnered with Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett, Oregon, which hosted the first TOPCON! last fall.

And he decided to crowdsource the conference because Christian Formation needs a minimum number of participants to attend to make it happen.

“Thirty people need to sign up by Tuesday, Oct. 1 if we’re going to have TOPCON!” he said.

Using his budget to subsidize the event, registration fees were kept intentionally low at $100 for the first 50 people (and $200 thereafter). With registration, participants will receive three nights lodging, eight meals and a free autographed board game designed by the conference speaker, Phil Walker-Harding.

Even more, when Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry partner Financial Aid for Service found out what Christian Formation was doing, that office decided to offer travel scholarships of up to $500 for inquirers, candidates, and pastors in the PC(USA).

Santos has been taken aback by the excitement and collaboration already generated by TOPCON! Although it’s only been a week since registration opened, every day the participant count increases, the Facebook group grows and people share this event with others.  Maybe, he says, “that’s because we live in a culture that is so accustomed to staring at screens all day — one that glamorizes being busy all the time — that it needs an excuse to pause and have genuine interaction with others.”

“Board games provide spaces and times for free play that engage all and provide emotional connections between them,” he says. “But it’s within limited boundaries. And these limitations give rise to creativity, build relationships, and stimulate the mind.”

You can help make this theology of play conference happen. Click here by Oct. 1 and follow the steps to register, apply for a travel scholarship, and learn more about TOPCON!’s feature speaker, Australian Phil Walker-Harding, an award-winning game designer and theologian who is known worldwide for his game Sushi Go!

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