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

            What “way out” do role-playing games know?  In a sense, they know “actuality’s way out” even when they are most fantastic.  They may be unrealistic, but they must be internally consistent; and within that consistency the characters expect the assistance of actuality fully as much as do the heroines in A Story of Everyday Life.  Even in Call of Cthulhu, you need to give the players some chance to survive against the eldritch horrors they alone know lurk in the darkness, and chances for victory (however temporary and limited) against the evil plots of insane wizards and fanatical cultists.[1]  On the other hand, the theories of Jung and Campbell suggest that whether or not the myth is understood as actual history or poetic metaphor, it still functions by lifting the individual out of the concrete particularities and trafficking symbolically with great existential and metaphysical realities.  This would seem to be “imagination’s way out” by Kierkegaard’s standards.  Perhaps part of the power of role-playing games is that they uniquely combine elements of actuality and transcendence, by allowing players to act as particular concrete (albeit fictional) characters who still symbolically express and embody universal powers and eternal values.

 

            Kierkegaard says, however, that the escape of imagination or actuality will not suffice; only the religious can save from the power of leveling.[2]  The individual who wishes to escape leveling cannot hope to stand alone against the combined envy of everyone else, not to mention the power of his or her own reflection and the self-doubts it raises.  The individual must choose to stand as an individual against the power of leveling to force everyone back into the herd; but that choice alone is only the first step.  The next step is to stand before God as an individual, and to allow one’s relationship with God to affirm one as an individual.  The fact is that leveling is right, in a way.  Envy says, “Who do you think you are; do you think you are better than us?”  Religious humility says, “I am no better than any of them; we are all equal before God.”  But just as people in the age of revolution were individually oriented towards an idea, and united in being oriented towards the same idea, so in the age of reflection an individual can be oriented towards God and sustained as an individual; and all those who likewise orient themselves as individuals towards God are united with one another as individuals in equality.  Without some greater idea, selfhood collapses, and all becomes crudeness and the herd mentality.  Only those who have something more to live towards than their own selves can preserve their own selves in the crowd, by living as individuals with a great task; but reflection tears down every partial idea and incomplete goal, calls them into question, undermines them and the self-confidence of the individual who looks to them for sustenance, and ultimately reflection wins the day, leaving the essential equality of all individuals to collapse into the mutual envy of the members of the herd.  God is not a partial idea; God is the absolute telos, as Kierkegaard says in another book, the goal that can relativize and also complete all other goals.  For this reason, Kierkegaard thinks, the individual can turn to the religious to find the power to sustain the sense of individuality even in the age of reflection.  Only the religious provides the task that unites all tasks, the “idea for which I am willing to live and die.”[3] 

 

To be continued….


[1] From a Campbell/Jungian point of view, such games seem to symbolize the journey of Life and the struggle against Death, a struggle we know in the end we will all lose.  Horror role-playing seems to accept that dark reality, but seeks to find meaning in the struggle itself for as long as it lasts.  From Tolkien’s perspective, this seems similar to his understanding of the pagan world-view in general, and the Norse view in particular; see “The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 117.  The players, like the Norse warriors, are called to fight on the side of right, knowing all the time that Chaos and Unreason ultimately will triumph; for it is better to be right and defeated than dishonorable and victorious.

[2] Two Ages, pp. 85-90, 106-109

[3] as Kierkegaard put it in his journal on August 1, 1835

 

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