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


            As so often happens to me, I find I can’t help bumping up against Kierkegaard as I write this essay.  In this case, it is the question of what makes a life meaningful.  In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, this problem appears in Either/Or, which is a debate between an egoist (or “esthete” in Kierkegaard’s terminology) versus a moralist (or “ethicist”).  The first volume of Either/Or is presented as the collected writings of an esthete, a person who lives for his own amusement and the pleasure of life.  He seeks to avoid entanglements of any kind, whether they be romantic, career or moral.  He treats everything as trivial except as it suits himself at the moment, in order to be free to pursue pleasure wherever and whenever it might appear.  As the book unfolds, the reader sees the result of this life, and its ultimate self-refutation.  The esthete says, “Boredom is the root of all evil,” but cannot escape boredom.  Instead, his (or her) entire life disintegrates into a series of ultimately disconnected and meaningless episodes, each increasingly resembling what went before.  In pursuing spontaneity and novelty above all else, the esthete ultimately falls into a life where true spontaneity and true newness disappear.

The second volume of Either/Or is presented as a series of letters from a judge, addressed to the young man who wrote the first volume, urging him to adopt an ethical life.  The judge argues that the boredom which plagues the esthete is itself a symptom of a deeper psychological malaise, which he labels “despair.”  To the judge, despair is the recognition that one’s life is meaningless.  All merely esthetic lives are meaningless, so despair is the universal condition of the esthete.  Instead, the judge argues that an ethical life actually preserves the beauty and joy of life better than the esthetic alone is able to.  The ethical life is the life lived for the sake of higher, “eternal” values, such as good over evil.  It is the attempt, the judge says, to take up the universal moral duties and make them actual in one’s own life.  This gives one’s life a continuous structure, by making one’s life a task to be consciously reflected on, willed and carried through instead of simply a drifting from one pleasure to another.  It puts one in relation with others, and in doing so puts one in relation to the past and the future.

Insofar as role-playing games are simulations of life (that is what “role-playing” suggests), the challenge for the players is to create characters that are fun.  This is an esthetic criterion, of course, and a subjective one.  However, in the long run, a character whose life consists of meaningless events, just fighting and getting stuff over and over, is more likely to get tedious than a character who has long-term goals that are important in the context of the game.  Killing 3,872 orcs is fine, but killing 3,872 orcs in order to save the village or clear the valley for one’s castle, from which one will establish one’s kingdom and change the world is much more satisfying, even if in fact all of this is just a game.  For this reason, most role-playing games have opportunities for just such a narrative structure, with a past history, present challenges and the hope that by striving the players can make a better future for themselves and for others.  While playing the game may be an esthetic occupation, it has more esthetic value when the fictional characters have ethical goals.

Another aspect that perhaps makes Kierkegaard particularly applicable to understanding role-playing games is the fact that Kierkegaard wrote most of his philosophical works while himself role-playing.  In writing Either/Or, for example, he did not merely describe the esthetic and the ethical lives; rather, he took on the role of an esthete and wrote as such a character would write, then took on the role of an ethicist and wrote accordingly.  To varying degrees, Kierkegaard’s most famous philosophical works are all written in character.  These characters are not mere pseudonyms; for the most part, they are different from their author, and some have fairly significant backstories and other personal details which are as important as their written arguments.

To be continued…..

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

  1. klovax Says:

    Very thought provoking. I too have noticed this when playing role-playing games, and find that the characters I have applied true personality to are the ones that I find engrossing. I will have to look into Kerkegaard now.

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