Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. i)

The “Religion and Popular Culture” group for The American Academy of Religion has issued a paper call for “Games and theories of gaming of all types” for the 2013 meeting in Baltimore.  This got me thinking again about the connections and convergences between religion and role-playing games, two subjects I have been intimately interested in since the 1970’s.  I started writing my thoughts down, and I’m still at it.  I’ve submitted a proposal, but this draft is way over the reading time limit, so at this point I’m just writing for my own amusement.  I’ll be posting it here in installments; I hope you enjoy it, and I thank you in advance for any comments that prove useful, stimulating, and/or encouraging.

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise?  Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. i)

 

 

            The topic for this session is, “games and theories of gaming.”  My first thought when I hear “gaming” is RPGs.  When I began gaming, Dungeons and Dragons was just a few years old, and the first hardcover edition of the rules had yet to be issued.  There were two aspects of the relationship between “religion” and “gaming” in those days:  the fact that “cleric” was a character class, and the fact that many religious leaders and others were “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.”  In the first case, back in the day, there was one role-playing game and, effectively, only two religions.  If you were a “good” cleric, you learned spells to heal, bless, and gained the power to repel the undead; if you were an “evil” cleric you learned to harm, curse and command the undead.  Aside from those differences in the spell lists and powers, all clerics were basically the same:  all used blunt weapons ostensibly because “shedding blood” was forbidden (unless your cleric was “evil” and was offering a sacrifice), all were allowed chainmail armor, and so on.  Supposedly these had religious reasons; but really, the only point was to differentiate clerics from fighters by reserving the best armor and weapons for the spell-less, and from wizards by reserving the best spells for the unarmored mages.  That is, it had a game-balance function that was justified in-game with a religiously-based reason.  The assumption, however, was that all religion was basically feudal European Catholicism, more or less, at least if it was “good,” so all class restrictions, all spells and powers and so on could be justified in terms borrowed from an unsophisticated Christianity; and if evil, then the religion was some sort of mirror image and thus still borrowing its terms from a superficial view of religion based on stereotypes of the medieval Church.

That is to say, when the gaming hobby began, religion was caricatured more than it was depicted.  A real religion was flattened, made to fit gaming conventions, and applied.  And the “real religion” likewise caricatured gaming.  Once cards and dice were the Devil’s playthings; in the 1970’s fundamentalist Christians who had long since made their peace with Pinochle and Monopoly saw Satanic plots in the pages of a rulebook and the spinning of a twenty-sider.  Much has already been written about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons, and about the paranoia and fallacious reasoning of those hunting that alleged evil.

What interests me more is the irony of the whole situation.  It seems quite obvious that a group of miniatures wargamers would not have begun adapting the rules of Chainmail by scaling down the rules for mass combat to individuals and introducing fantastic elements like magic and monsters were it not for the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories.  And Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who wrote out of a religious sensibility.  It is reasonable to say then that role-playing games grew out of Christianity; they are “Christian games” in much the same way that the U. S. A. is a “Christian nation.”  Three years after the publication of Dungeons and Dragons, 1977, a new role-playing game appeared on the market:  Traveller.  This time, the game was based not on fantasy but on science fiction, a genre more often associated with agnosticism and atheism.   However, 1977 also saw the release of Star Wars, a film based largely on the work of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Through the 1980’s the gaming industry spawned dozens of role-playing games, with movies influencing games and vice-versa, and always with the original genetic inheritance of Tolkien and the continuing inspiration of Campbell.  And on one point in particular these two writers agree:  that fantasy writing of all sorts is inherently a religious exercise.  They disagree, however, as to just what that exercise is.

To be continued…..

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4 Responses to “Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. i)”

  1. The Bible Salesman Says:

    A fascinating topic. I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this. Just two weeks ago I posted on Video Game RPGs as religious experience–seeing your post today has me believing that perhaps this topic is being picked up by a wider community. I find your suggestion that RPGs are “Christian games” interesting. I had not thought of coming at it from that sort of a historical perspective. I think that RPGs (video game and dice-based) provide not just a religious exercise, but also a religious experience–albeit, not always a Christian one. I come at this via a sort of Platonism (a la Lewis) and Rudolph Otto’s idea of numinous experience. I think the best RPGs are those that transport us to a place where we experience something transcendent. I am looking forward to exploring the role that this sort of experience can play for us as Christians

    I look forward to more of your thoughts on this.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Thank you for your comments. I did do a little research on the on-line games, but the vast bulk of my playing experience is old-school, face-to-face rolling dice and scribbling with pencils. I do wonder how significantly the MMORPG environment changes the experience, but more to the point, I wonder if the differences matter from the particular perspectives of the theories I’m examining. I’m still working on this, so maybe I’ll gain some insights as we go along.

  2. Introduction | Sword & Pen Says:

    […] Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. … (philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com) […]

  3. run games Says:

    As an major games fan, I just wanted to post you a quick note to say thanks for placing this article up.

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