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

These then are the “two ages,” and this perhaps is one valuable function of role-playing games.  In the “real world,” the age of heroes has past; anyone who has truly great dreams can expect to be hooted off the world stage like an opera star trying to sing an aria at a burlesque show.  In a role-playing game, every player is a hero in his or her own story.  You may be Guildenstern or Third Servant to the other players, but you are Hamlet to yourself:   a welcome change perhaps from one’s real life.  And more importantly, in the game world there are still heroes, there are great deeds to do and great people to be.  The good games, the ones that grab and hold the players’ attentions, are the ones that make a player work, and then reward that work with achievement.  The idea that striving can make one better and one can make the world better is a notion that can inspire real accomplishment, if it carries over into the player’s nongaming life. 


            It is in this context that I understand Kierkegaard when he writes:



It does not take nearly as much effort to achieve something with the support of an illusion as it does when all illusions are lost.  And just as scurvy is cured by green vegetables, so a person worn out in reflection perhaps does not need strength as much as a little illusion.”[1]




The translators point out that this does not refer so much to deception or delusion as it does to possibility.[2]  While in the English translation this passage seems oddly out of place, the context does in fact support the Hongs’ reading and may even show how the two notions are connected.  Kierkegaard is comparing the present, reflective age with the age of revolution and passion.  In the story, the character Claudine goes astray, as he puts it, makes a mistake and makes a mess of her life based on her belief that she is acting for love and that is all that matters; but that same passion that led her to a wrong decision also sustains her, Kierkegaard says, and carries her through to the final triumph of her love.  By contrast, a reflective age may be more clear-sighted, may see a thousand possibilities and their consequences, and may understand that fools rush in where angels fear to tread; but that very clear-sightedness may paralyze one who seeks to make a decision.  We may tell ourselves that in an earlier age the alternatives were clear-cut and decisions were easy; and a singer put it:



Now there was a time when it was right and wrong.


It was black and white.


It was easier to get along.


Now it’s only just a dream.[3]





But Kierkegaard says that in fact, there never was a time when it was all “black and white.”  Instead, the passionate person makes a decision, choosing to act on the basis of that passion and the values it presents; the apathetic, reflective one chooses to see everything in shades of grey and cannot make a decision without first taking the energy to run through all the alternatives.  For this reason, it is much harder for the reflective, disillusioned person to make a decision.  A role-playing game, like a novel, can give one a chance to experience a world where passion and decisiveness and illusion still motivate and still give their rewards.


To be continued…..

[1] Two Ages pp. 66-67

[2] Two Ages, p. 170

[3] Bert Jansch, “Just a Dream,” When the Circus Comes to Town; BMG Music, 1995


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