Posts Tagged ‘gaming’

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

July 19, 2018

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

 

 

Some of the articles I’ve written have drawn primarily from my experience as a philosopher and student/teacher of philosophy. Others have drawn mostly from my background as a theologian and former candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. And some have been written primarily as a geek. This will be one of those.

Gamers and geeks don’t care much about what you do in your “job” or what degrees you have, so they have that in common with the popular culture. However, they also don’t care much how much money you have or how good you look, at least not when in their official capacity as geeks. If you want to give a gamer advice on how to play a game, you don’t say “I’m really rich” or “Look at my bikini selfie;” we’ll be happy to let you buy the pizza or show off your body but we won’t let you tell us how to play our game. Tell us about what you’ve played, what you’ve won, what you’ve learned, and what your strategy is and whether it’s logical. So I will begin with a brief resumé. I have been a hard-core board gamer since 1973. I was a demon on the chessboard and at Stratego well before then, as a child beating adults, but in 1973 I found Avalon Hill’s “Blitzkrieg” and started studying WWII strategies to win military simulation games comparable to the ones used by military academies and the Pentagon to train strategic leaders. Later I also started on role-playing games, which I played consistently for decades but have been more hit-and-miss the last several years. These also often involve strategic and tactical simulations as well as psychology and history; serious gamers will read books about Roman history to role-play their legionnaire character or read Beowulf to be a more convincing barbarian, just as serious actors do historical research.   Do I win much? As an MIB I focus more on teaching, so I don’t go around beating weak players. When I play good players, I win some and I lose some but they always know they’ve been in a fight. I rate myself as “experienced” and “competent.” And as I like to say, I can read a f@cking map. When you can read a battle map or a game board, you can tell what the other side’s strategy is by their moves, and often predict their future moves as well. This ends the unavoidably pretentious recitation of my qualifications. Geeks can often seem unduly boastful of their mad gaming skills or obscure knowledge, but there’s a reason; it’s how we know how much credence to give the other’s opinion, as well as providing a sort of bonding.

As a gamer, someone who can read a board and has engaged in a lot of military, political and economic simulations of varying complexity and realism with players of widely varying ages and skill levels, I think Trump’s strategy makes a sort of sense. I will leave out the psychological elements, such as the fact that he himself has stated that he judges people on appearances and that someone who “looks” like a general or leader awes him, as well as his stated preference for people who says nice things about him. These are legitimate because they are not based on psychoanalysis but simply Trump’s own words; but I want to focus first on the strategy, so I’ll assume it is rational even if the player is not. There are a variety of games that reflect, with varying realism, the world situation. In different ways, Monopoly and Risk (two you non-geeks may have played) can give you some idea. Diplomacy is another obvious choice. My personal favorite, because it combines elements of all of these, is Avalon Hill’s Advanced Civilization. What these games have in common is that they are all multi-player games where control of the board gives resources which, in turn, allow more control and so on. Picking too many fights or focusing only on bashing people (or worse yet, on bashing one opponent and ignoring another) leads to defeat, as the wiser player who stays out of the fight can swoop in and pick up the pieces.

In multiplayer games like these, young players (even very good ones) and adults tend to follow different strategies. A young player, say 13, who is currently first or second out of six will generally suggest to the other leader that they join forces, crush all the weaker ones, then settle things among themselves one-on-one. Part of this is that it is fun to crush another player; part may be impatience, that wants an immediate “victory” rather than wait until the game is actually over; and part probably relates to the fact that a young brain can’t handle too many details at once and deals with the overload by simplifying the board. This may seem like a reasonable strategy, and sometimes it is. This seems to be Trump’s approach. He took over a game the US has been playing since 1945. We were winning that game, slowly but surely. In that game, the top player was allied with the others against the second and third place players, keeping them in check and slowly squeezing. This required a lot of coordination among allies, a lot of patience, and at times compromise to keep the others in the alliance. Trump has decided to simplify the game by declaring the other players “foes,” his nearest rivals “competitors—and I think that is a compliment,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5riwiNTzck) join forces with the #2 guy and sweep the board.

More experienced players, however, see the danger in this sort of strategy. If you neutralize all the other players, you have no possible allies if you need them. Suppose 1st Place and 2nd Place cripple or destroy 4th-6th, and then 2 & 3 gang up on #1? Is it better to have allies who have a reason and the means to defeat you, or to have allies who are too weak to be a threat but strong enough to be a help?  True, there are times in a game when it is best to just finish off the weaker players as quickly as possible regardless of whether they would be loyal friends. For example, games like Monopoly or Risk not only allow only one winner, but give rewards to whomever delivers the death blow to another. These games force a ruthless, even bullying behavior. Other games may make it more optional or even undesireable. I’ve observed that in Munchkin or Illuminati there is a real hesitancy to eliminate any one player too utterly, at least among my players. In Munchkin it’s because it is expensive, and if you commit too many resources to beating one player you just weaken both of you and aid the others. In Illuminati players generally have their own plans for victory, and would rather try to play the other players off against one another; eliminating another can mean killing off either an ally or an enemy, or perhaps just creating chaos that another player can exploit better. In a multiplayer game, experienced players who can handle treaties and schmoozing allies will often seek to build a network of alliances which they can dominate, while treating their strongest rivals as their foes. They will often, as we say, pick on someone their own size. If they can make deals with others that allow them to save their resources for fighting the other tougher players, or better still if they can turn the weaker players into allies against their toughest rivals, that is much better than simply crushing the little guys in the hopes that you can crush them fast enough to overwhelm not only them, but also the toughest players whom you now must face without allies. That is the difference between an adult and a juvenile player: the adult will attack and try to eliminate a rival for a strategic reason, while the juvenile needs little more motivation than “because I could.” If the adult can win without fighting anyone, the adult will; an inexperienced or immature player may attack out of boredom, or just to beat someone else, without a long-term plan.

To begin to put this in more real-world term: Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France are strong nations, but none entertains the illusion that it can eliminate the US. They’re just happy to stay in the game and do the best they can. The situation is perhaps more like Illuminati or one of those other games where players have different goals that are not mutually exclusive; maybe more than one can win, or maybe one can achieve its personal goal without having to directly confront a stronger power. In Third Reich, a WWII simulation, France or Italy win a decisive victory simply by surviving to the end of the game; they don’t have to beat up anyone else if they can get Russia, America and Germany to beat on each other and leave them alone. That makes Italy and France great allies; they have very little reason to try to stab their partner in the back, and little means to do so.

The “real world” current history is a lot like that game. Currently, Germany, France, Great Britain and most other NATO nations want to provide good lives for their citizens and to continue existing; in short, they want to stay in the game, but don’t need to “beat” the U.S. or anyone else to do so. They are thus perfect defensive allies for the U.S. China has long-term plans to dominate the world, avoiding pitched battles but maneuvering economically and geopolitically to extend its power. Russia has seen its power slipping and is taking ever greater risks to try to regain lost territories and extend its power. And the United States has, until 2017, relied on NATO and similar multilateral military and trade structures to build a bulwark to keep Russia and China in check. Sometimes this meant treating Germany or Japan or South Korea a bit nicer than we would have if they were “foes,” rather than simply crushing them militarily or economically. Sometimes it even meant giving them economic or military support, rather than hoarding our resources for ourselves. To a juvenile player, such an arrangement would seem silly. Why give away anything? But an adult might see greater long-term benefits. For example, we spent much to rebuild Europe after World War II, virtually creating or recreating some countries,. But after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, NATO was activated, for the first time, to help protect us from the threat of terrorism. The resources spent over the decades building up NATO has paid off handsomely, creating a world where we became and remain the sole superpower, wealthy and secure from existential threats. Terrorists may kill some people, but they can’t conquer us unless we help them by spending ourselves bankrupt or falling into paranoid tribalism.

To summarize, I think Donald Trump is playing the Foreign Policy Game rather like a game of Risk where the previous player was pursuing a long-term strategy of slowly building their forces, gathering resources, cultivating allies to contain the only two other possible rivals. But the new player, Trump, does not understand the game or the strategy of his predecessor(s), and prefers a simpler, one-on-one conflict; so he is tearing up old agreements and aiming to sweep away all his former allies to divide the board between himself and the player who controls everything from Kamchatka to Ukraine. Eventually this would lead to a 1984 board with three powers: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania, with the ever-present danger that either of the other two might decide to join forces and divide the other one. Given the similar agendas of Eurasia and Eastasia, is there any reason to think they won’t divide Oceania (that is, the United States and its allies) between them given the chance?

Personally, I say that if you’re winning, aim for stability. Why fix what isn’t broken? The problem is that we’ve been doing so well for so long that many Americans don’t even realize how well we’re doing, and as a result they are risking losing everything. We have a military larger than the next seven nations COMBINED. We have the largest economy and, judging by how many Nobel Prizes we win, how many entrepreneurs and inventors come to live here, how many people travel here to attend college and university, and so on, we have the most innovative one as well. The average American uses as much of the planet’s resources as 53 Chinese. From a gamer point of view, that means we dominate the world and its resources by an almost insane margin. Leaving aside the moral and other implications of that and simply looking at it from a game perspective, that is another measure of our total dominance. We were winning. More Attention to the Game, A-Holes; we were winning, and you MAGAs are screwing up a good plan!

The MAGA claim that all these other nations are taking advantage of us in trade means, basically, that the new plan is going to be to try to grab even larger portions of the world’s resources while simultaneously attacking former allies. This inevitably will drive those allies to find help elsewhere. And in fact, that is what is happening; in response to the USA’s withdrawal from TPP and threats to free trade with Europe, the EU and Japan are concluding new trade agreements and cutting us out (https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/17/news/economy/eu-japan-trade-deal/index.html). China also has been moving into the vacuum left by American withdrawal from the Pacific economic treaty. If we ditch NAFTA, we should expect the EU and China to make deals with Canada and Mexico, so they can trade among themselves without tariffs while we isolate ourselves with a trade war against the world.

We went from a 70 year strategy of engaging the world and building alliances to bottle up our nearest rivals and only national existential threats to a strategy of cozying up to those national threats while casting aside those old alliances, thus unleashing our rivals against us. The result is a simpler board for simpler minds, with fewer moving pieces and fewer commitments to others, plus the ego boost of being able to pat oneself on the back for having “beaten” those “loser” nations who were stupid enough to trust us and too weak to stop us. It would be wise to remember, though, that a chaotic diplomatic world leads inevitably to a chaotic military world—in short, the risk of war and the danger of fighting all our former allies as well as our long-time foes is greater every day. And real war is no game. What we need is a little less Risk and more Pandemic or Flash Point, less chaos and backstabbing and more cooperation; or at least, more Catan with limited conflict and more economic competition, trying to beat your opponent by building better cities instead of destroying someone else’s.

PS:  The same warnings about not starting actual wars, cultivating allies etc. apply to trade wars; you don’t want to destroy your friends just to feel like a “winner,” you don’t want to be left only with hostile rivals, and if you’re #1 with the status quo you don’t screw it up by starting fights.  Play Merchant of Venus and maybe you’ll understand.

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A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. i)

October 8, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. i)

 

 

Hey, did you get starside R and D?

 -No.  I got Games and Theory.

Games and Theory?  That’s military intelligence.

 

—–Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven, Tristar Pictures/Touchstone Pictures/Big Bug Pictures, 1997

 

 

I am not a political scientist.  I have read some political science, and I’ve read a fair amount of political philosophy.  The main difference between the two is that political science says, “Hey, I only built the bomb; I didn’t drop it on anybody;” while political philosophy looks at whether one ought to drop the bomb, or whether it is a bomb or a tool, destructive or useful, good or evil, what purpose it ought to serve.  The political scientist says, “Appeal to the people’s fears, hatreds, lusts, and you will win power;” the political philosopher says, “Appeal to the negative may win in the short run, but it will destroy the society, the people and the one who gains power that way.”  But I am not primarily interested in writing as a philosopher, either, except insofar as I might not bother writing at all if I did not think it was important.  I am interested in tapping my decades of experience as a gamer.  I am old-school.  I began with chess and Stratego and Risk as a child, graduated to Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970’s.  I have played the part of Eisenhower and von Rundstedt, Ben-Gurion and Bismark, and sent the Jesuits to burn the Lutheran heretics.  In 1975 I learned Dungeons and Dragons, and from there played nearly a dozen different RPGs.  I’ve also played my share of computer games; but IMHO they lack the personal experience.  When you play in the same room with the other players, you play the person, not the system.  You learn to “watch your enemy’s eyes,” gauge not just the board but also the manner of the person.  I have not always won, but I have at least been a challenge in most of the games I’ve played. I consider myself a competent strategist.

One lesson I’ve learned as a gamer is that games are not just games.  They are fragments of life, distilled until just the elements that the game designer and players care about are left.  Monopoly was originally designed to show the dangers of unrestrained capitalism, as players spread bankruptcy and ruin across the board.  The players, of course, tend to be more interested in being one of those filthy capitalists; but even though the game has drifted far from its original roots, elements of even this abstract and silly game show harsh economic realities.  Military academies have played war games for centuries, rehearsing strategies and defending against hypothetical threats; the Pearl Harbor attack was carried out after Japanese military leaders realized, after playing various military scenarios, that the only chance they had for a crushing victory was a surprise attack.  As a philosopher, I read that Ludwig Wittgenstein argues in his Philosophical Investigations that all human language, and thus all thought and behavior, can be explained as “language games.”  We learn what it is to be a person, a citizen, a Christian, a liberal, or a conservative or atheist not by listening to the protestations and assertions of others, but much more simply by watching what moves people make and what rules they seem to be following

Another lesson I learned is that you can’t just assume that everyone is following the same rules or aiming at the same target.  You can’t even assume most people are really aiming at the target they claim to be aiming at.  As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, the problem in life is that your pawn to K-4 is often answered by your opponent’s back-lob across the net.  We are often playing different games.  Sometimes we don’t even realize the other person is playing a different game; sometimes (unlike “real games”) we don’t even quite realize what game we ourselves are playing.   At times we need to look at what moves we ourselves are making, what goals we are achieving, and then deduce from this what game we are actually playing.

Role-playing games in particular are mini-labs in group dynamics theory.  In RPGs, the players often have disparate individual goals, but must work together to attain some joint goal and in the process realize their individual goals.  A group takes on a life of its own; it is never merely the sum of its parts.  Who is the leader?  Who has the power?  How many ways are there of gaining power in the group, of influencing its direction and goals?  Which of these help group cohesion and functioning?  What ways can one advance one’s status and influence, only to destroy the group altogether and leave one the leader of nothing?

What games are being played now?  The Republicans claim to be trying to negotiate changes to the health-care law; but if they wanted to negotiate, they had years to do so.  In 2009, Democrats were crawling on their knees to beg even one Republican to sign onto the cause of health-care reform; but none would make any suggestions.  On July 20, 2009, Republican Senator Jim DeMint called for the GOP to fight all health care reform, to “just say No,” arguing, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”  So instead of trying to make health care reform better, or even caring about whether health care was good or bad for the country, it was determined the first move in the game of presidential politics would be to fight any and all possible health care reform.  Well before there was any actual health care proposal, Republicans were fighting “Obamacare,” even though Obama was taking a hands-off approach and leaving Congress to work out the particulars.  In the past, one party would propose policy, the other would negotiate changes based on its bargaining position, and eventually enough people on both sides would get what they wanted to convince them to sign on.  Instead of trying to have any influence on health care, Republicans determined to fight it as a way to weaken the President and win control of the government for themselves.  Even when Republican ideas were adopted by Democrats in an attempt to create a health care plan that both sides could accept, the Republicans repudiated ideas put forward by Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation.  If the goal was to negotiate over the health care bill that was being written at that time, this was not even a move; it was walking away from the game.  But the game was not “Operation” or “Let’s Make a Deal;” it was chess, and the Republicans were playing a gambit.  They sacrificed a piece, hoping to gain the initiative and a superior position for the endgame.  By being the Party of Nope, they were able to disavow responsibility for everything that might go wrong, while sacrificing any right to claim any credit for anything that might go right.  They therefore had to make sure nothing went right; so they set out to delay and sabotage.  This is good strategy.  They may have prevented any meaningful improvement on the jobs market, where they said they would have a “laser focus,” but they made staggering gains in the mid-term elections.  In chess terms, they seemed to have made up their initial sacrifice and then some.  They took over most of the state legislatures in time to control the post-census gerrymandering, rewriting the boundaries of congressional districts to give Republicans safe districts even as they were losing national popularity.  But in the midgame, they made a very risky attack, threatening to default on the national debt (most of which represents money spent by Republicans or at least voted for by them).  As a governmental policy, this was a bad move; it damaged the national credit score, probably permanently, which will cost the nation billions of dollars over time.  However, it was not a governmental policy; it was a political move, another step in the presidential campaign.  It was part of the Republican “Presidential Monopoly” game, and part of the individual game of several Republican politicians with presidential ambitions.  And in the personal ambition game, it was an extremely good move; several Tea Party Republicans gained fame and, more importantly, money from PACs and anonymous donors.

The health care battle remained the central strategy in the Republican version of Presidential Monopoly.  Like a player who sells off all the yellows and greens and reds in order to put four motels each on Park Place and Boardwalk, the GOP staked everything on the “No Obamacare” campaign.  And to an extent, they succeeded; they have so tarnished the idea of “Obamacare” that even though a majority of people say they support the Affordable Care Act, a majority also say they oppose Obamacare—completely unaware of the fact that the two are the same thing.[1]  However, it turned out not to be enough to win the Presidency.  Against the “Stop Obamacare” campaign slogan, the Democrats had “Bin Laden is Dead and GM is Alive.”  Against the “big tent” approach of the Democrats, the Republicans focused on what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham described as “angry white males;” and as he himself said, that’s not a winning strategy.


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

July 6, 2013

            I don’t know that Kierkegaard really helps us understand role-playing games, except insofar as his distinction between “imagination’s way out” versus “religion’s way out” can help us remember that religious fantasy is still fantasy and not religion.  I saw an advertisement once for a visit to a local church by one of the authors of the Left Behind books.  This was said by the flyer to be “prophecy.”  Religious fiction is not prophecy; it is fiction, “religious poetry” in Kierkegaard’s terminology, presenting possibilities to the imagination but not truly inviting the individual to a personal relationship with God.  A religious role-playing game has the same limitations; and both “religious” and “non-religious” games can provide one of God’s secret agents the opportunity to work.  The “non-religious” one might have the advantage of providing cover, making the secrecy easier to maintain.  I think, though, that role-playing games throw more light on Kierkegaard than Kierkegaard throws on the games.  As Kierkegaard said, “boredom is the root of all evil;” and though he said this pseudonymously and ironically, it has truth.[1]  Boredom is the symptom showing that one’s life is meaningless.  The conditions that make a role-playing game boring are not entirely different than those that make real life boring:  pointlessness, lack of goals or values to make one’s striving be “for something,” a lack of coherence (or narrative structure), or a game/campaign that thwarts one’s individuality for the sake of some external agenda (either the group’s or the referee’s).  Likewise, the game is interesting when one has individual goals that are supported by also being part of group that affirms both individuality and participation; when one strives for goals that have a meaning beyond simply gaining levels; and when what happens in the game and in the character’s life has a coherence rather than being disjointed episodes unrelated to the past or future.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, v. 1, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 285

 

 

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

June 25, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

            For Campbell, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are all of one piece.[1]  Religion reveals the structure of the unconscious as this is collectively expressed, and this in turn expresses our understanding of the nature of reality; or to read it backwards, the structure of reality gives rise to psychological themes and symbols that are expressed, codified and institutionalized in religion.  Since virtually every role-playing game will express the monomyth, every such game will be an individual’s using those symbols drawn from the collective unconscious to understand himself or herself, to understand the cosmos, and to understand how the one fits into the other.  Perhaps that is one reason why these games can be so powerfully attractive.  Knowingly or not, players are manipulating the deepest symbols of the human condition, and of their own unconscious.

For Tolkien, any act of creativity is an expression of the imageo Dei.  That does not mean that every such expression is good or healthy; he says that much of human history has shown the perversions of this creative nature, whether in ancient human sacrifice or modern fascism and leader-worship.[2]  But when done properly, fairy-stories present a kind of gospel, a eucatastrophe, that reflects the deep human thirst for the true gospel; and perhaps they can whet the appetite for that true Consolation.  Most sorts of role-playing have the potential to express Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation to some degree.  One major difference is that a reader or hearer of fairy-stories must imaginatively enter into another’s Secondary World; in role-playing, everyone plays a part in creating the shared Secondary World together, so the experience is more immersive and active.

Many years ago, I read an article on the psychology of gaming, examining the question of whether or not role-playing games were dangerous (again, this was before the MMORPG, so the study was concerned primarily with Dungeons and Dragons).  In most cases, the conclusion was “no;” but the author did note that in a group home for boys with behavioral/psychological problems, gaming made them more resistant to therapy and particularly to group therapy.  I think that Tolkien and Campbell show us why this might be so.  In a sense, all fantasy is therapy, an expression of one’s deepest creative impulses, shared together and validated by the participation of others.  If one’s deepest nature is self-destructive, one will create a Secondary World that is hostile and destructive; or to put it another way, one will choose symbols and stories that thwart the hero and embrace chaos and destruction without rebirth.  Role-playing is a therapeutic technique, although therapeutic role-playing generally has little of what makes genuine role-playing games so popular and satisfying; and role-playing games can be a sort of self-medication or self-therapy.  Compared to the other sorts of self-medication that are common, RPGs would seem to be safer and more effective than most.  But having played various games for over thirty years, I can say that they can have some negative effects as well.  Their psychological and religious power can also lead players to compulsively play, to avoid reality rather than using the games as a tool to grow to face reality.

To be continued….


[1] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-59

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

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

June 15, 2013

…The more fundamental problem is that in a very real sense, leveling is right:  we are all equal (before God) and therefore the prophet really is no better than the rest of us.  Where leveling gets it wrong is in reducing the individual to an abstraction or cipher, so that the only importance anyone has is as a member of a group (a voting bloc or demographic, say), with truth to be determined by which side gets the highest poll numbers.  Truth is the individual before God; to bring one to the religious is to help that one stand as an individual before God, not as a member of a party or even a fan of a prophet.  The only way to do that these days, Kierkegaard says, is to be “without authority,” an “unrecognizable.”[1]  It is not so much a question of doing a particular thing at a particular time, being one of God’s moral secret agents 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. M-F; rather, in whatever one does, as one interacts with other persons, the unrecognizable one is to look for opportunities to call others out individually to stand before God and through the power of God.  As he writes:

 

 

Then it will be said:  “Look, everything is ready; look, the cruelty of abstraction exposes the vanity of the finite in itself; look, the abyss of the infinite is opening up; look, the sharp scythe of leveling permits all, every single one, to leap over the blade—look, God is waiting!  Leap, then, into the embrace of God.”  But even the most trusted of the unrecognizable ones will not dare and will be unable to help anyone, even the woman who carried him under her heart or the girl for whom he would gladly give his life—they must make the leap by themselves, and God’s infinite love will not become a second-hand relationship for them.  Yet the unrecognizable ones (according to their respective ranks) will have a double task in comparison with the men of distinction (in the same ranks) in an earlier structure, for the unrecognizables are obliged to keep on working—-and at the same time to conceal their working.[2]

 

 

How is it possible?  Kierkegaard does not give concrete examples; since he is discussing what one individual can do in relation to another in actuality, he cannot really say ahead of time.  But it is what one is to do, and “ought” implies “can,” as Kant said, so it can be done.  And insofar as gaming is one of those activities that bring people together, it must be possible for the moral secret agent to use this opportunity to prompt another to leap over leveling’s blade into the arms of God.  If Kierkegaard could use an historical romance, with tales of sin and adultery and illegitimate birth, as an opportunity to invite others to flee envy and the herd mentality to become individuals before God, then it should be possible to do so with a game; and if there is in fact a game that is so soul-crushing that it cannot be so used, then perhaps the unrecognizable one should politely decline to join in.

To be continued….


[1] Two Ages, pp. 106-109

[2] Two Ages, pp. 108-109

 

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

June 9, 2013

It seems that in Campbell’s view, myths and fantasy work best when one doesn’t analyze them or have conscious awareness of what they are doing, since their power lies in the symbols of the collective unconscious.  For Tolkien it seems that while the storyteller may be intentional in crafting an evangelium it is just as possible that the storyteller and the audience are unaware, without changing the fact that it is a kind of gospel and an expression of the imageo Dei.  But it seems that for Kierkegaard, the individual needs to be aware of the workings of reflection, envy, and leveling in order to resist, and aware of the religious to choose it.  This would seem to be a major difference between them.  However, the story (or the game) can still offer “illusion” that the person may then choose to see as possibility.  It can offer a place of rest before one returns to the journey of life.  It can offer imagination’s way out.  But without choice, it cannot offer the religious.  At most, it can simulate another life, where one tries on the ethical or the religious persona for a time and perhaps gets a glimpse of life beyond the merely esthetic and egoistic standpoint, and beyond the conformity of the herd and a world which has banished heroes.

What if one is intentionally religious?  Can one choose to make one’s game playing a religious exercise, on Kierkegaardian terms?  The game as genre is inherently “poetic” in Kierkegaard’s terms:  imaginative, creative, dealing with possibility rather than actuality.  Deciding to play with overtly Christian characters  (say, in a St. George vs. the Dragon setting, where Catholic priests and pious knights slay agents of Satan) would make no difference; it might even make things worse, since it would reduce a gospel intended to be an existence-communication from a call to existence in actuality to a mere imaginative possibility.  Christian first-person shooters and Left Behind games might have horrified Kierkegaard, although he does write (through Johannes Climacus) that children should be allowed to play with holy things.[1]  What he definitely would have said, though, is that such things are not eo ipso “Christianity” merely because you fight demons or your avatar is dressed as a cleric.  Such things make Christianity ludicrous.[2]  It is only a little better when the work is done well, as in the Christian allegories of C. S. Lewis; having Aslan die to save a boy who ate the witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight both presents the mystery of salvation and trivializes it (the movie studio that optioned the Narnia stories didn’t care whether viewers became Christians or not, so long as they bought tickets).  From the perspective of Two Ages, Tolkien’s more subtle religious metaphor is far preferable to Lewis’ straightforward allegory, as Tolkien is better able to avoid the power of envy.  Kierkegaard argues that in the age of reflection, it will no longer do to have a prophet step forward and thunder, “Thus says the LORD!”  The obvious problem with this is that all attention will immediately be riveted not on the message, but on the speaker.  Instead of being the Word of God, he or she would become interesting, perhaps a celebrity even, to be gossiped about and speculated about, to be attacked and defended, and ultimately to be shown to be no better than the rest of us really (perhaps a tabloid would run pictures of the prophet at the beach in an unflattering swimsuit just to make that point).  In all this flurry of excitement, the one thing no one would think to do is actually heed the prophet’s words. ………

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 601

[2] Fragments, p. 594

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

May 30, 2013

            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

 

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

May 23, 2013

            In this regard, Kierkegaard’s discussion of imagination and the novel seem relevant, since writing and gaming are both imaginative activities by most people’s definition.  He writes that, “The poet knows imagination’s way out; this author knows actuality’s way out; the religious person knows religion’s way out.  The life-view is the way out, and the story is the way.”[1]  What does that mean?  Kierkegaard seems to feel that this novel is closer to “actuality” than a typical poem, which simultaneously transfigures its content into some higher ideality while avoiding the actual concrete reality.[2]  A casual scholar can get a clue what he means by looking at the characters he himself created and which he describes as “poets:”  the Young Man in Repetition, Johannes de silentio in Fear and Trembling, A in Either/Or, for examples.  These are characters who quickly lose themselves in the “intoxication” of their poetic activity.  They do not deal directly with reality and life, but rather deal in abstractions and a mystical sense of union with the eternal; even de silentio discussing Abraham does not deal with Abraham but imaginatively reconstructs him, while admitting that he himself never finds the easy peace with actuality that Abraham does.  Kierkegaard’s models for the poetic are the Romantic and Hegelian poets who were popular in his time, such as Adam Oehlenschläger and  J. L. Heiberg, who always moved away from actuality towards grand spiritual vistas.  Kierkegaard writes that “Where poetry to all intents and purposes stops, this author (of the novel) begins.”  That is, a poet would have taken one of the troubled love affairs and set out to discuss the grand universal power of Love, so that the heroine found her consolation not in actually gaining her beloved but in losing herself in the eternal current of Love flowing through the cosmos.  The novel instead takes the heroine who has fallen under the power of Love and, rather than stopping with a celebration of that power for its own sake, begins instead to look for a way for her to actually find an actual resolution with her actual beloved.  Kierkegaard says this is higher, more advanced, moving in the direction of the religious rather than remaining merely within esthetic boundaries as poetry does.  In his pseudonymous writings, the characters described as “poets” are generally seeking to escape reality and some pain or hardship; for example, the Young Man in Repetition becomes a poet as a result of his own failed love affair and his inability to enter into a concrete relationship with an actual woman.  The religious response, as presented in Kierkegaard’s writings, would be to acknowledge the impossibility and yet to have the faith to remain engaged with actuality (see Abraham, or the merman in Fear and Trembling). 

To be continued…..


[1] Two Ages, p. 15

[2] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

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

May 15, 2013

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

 

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

May 8, 2013

            Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous phase, he wrote a book review in his own name:  Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.  Being one of Kierkegaard’s signed works, it is a much more straightforward expression of his views.      This is a review of a novel; it is neither a fantasy nor a role-playing exercise, though it is fiction.  As fiction, it does share some qualities with the fairy-story. Kierkegaard says of the novel Two Ages that “The author has been faithful to himself.[1]  In this we see that the author has, as Tolkien would have put it, been consistent in creating her Secondary World for the reader to enter.[2]  Like Tolkien, Kierkegaard even compares the creativity of the writer to that of the Creator, although he does not go as far or become as explicitly theological in his comparison.  It is not quite religious, says Kierkegaard, but it tends in that direction; it knows “actuality’s way out” from the pain of life, rather than “religion’s way out.”[3]  And for this reason, it can offer “a place of rest” for the reader.[4]  This sounds very much like the role of Escape in the fairy-story, as described by Tolkien.  And the “way out” sounds more than a little like Consolation.  One difference is that while Tolkien is ready to describe the fairy-story as a kind of gospel, Kierkegaard takes pains to specify that no novel or work of “poetry” could be truly religious, since the realm of the religious is actuality and the poetic deals only in possibility.  But the novel simulates actuality and can thus offer insights into it.  I suggest that in the same way, a role-playing game can simulate life and in the process suggest truths about life (or, if the game is badly written, suggest lies).

 

            The “two ages” Kierkegaard discusses are the “age of revolution” and “the age of reflection,” or “the present age.”  The novel compares these two ages by presenting two love stories, both of which take place in Denmark (the country of publication).  The first takes place with the French Revolution as a backdrop.  A group of French travelers, including envoys of Napoleon, arrives at the house of a well-connected Danish merchant.  Their stay brings the passion and historical power of the Revolution to the home, stirring passion among the Danes as well.  This passion flows through everything from world-historical struggles and ideological debates to clandestine love affairs.  After love, separation, an illegitimate birth and reconciliation, young lovers are finally reunited and the first part of the novel ends.  The second part of the novel likewise revolves around a love affair, but it takes place in the reflective, petty age we live in now.  No charismatic foreigners come to Copenhagen to arouse the passions; there are no passions to be found.  Instead there is backbiting, gossip, envy and indecisiveness.  Instead of lovers who are driven by passion to do forbidden things, there are young people afraid to love because he doesn’t have enough money to support her.  Instead of the dangers and trials of a world at war, there are the snide comments of servants ridiculing the young stepdaughter of the family.  As Kierkegaard puts it, “If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly.”[5]  As his own first pseudonymous work put it, in the Old Testament people have passion:  they murder, they curse their descendents, they sin; today they lack the energy, and at most try to weasel their ways through life with a little self-indulgence here and there.  This is what he sees illustrated in the novel.  The characters are driven by petty concerns to indulge in petty behaviors.  Instead of being united by some great passion and forced to decisively choose whether to be for or against (but all concerned for the same thing, the Revolution), today all are only interested in one another, in who is getting too full of himself or herself, who needs to be brought down a peg.  The only social force uniting people is envy, and the only result is not revolution but leveling.[6]  In the novel, Kierkegaard sees this illustrated in the petty meanness to which the heroine Marianne is subjected, merely because she is a stepdaughter (and hence vulnerable) and because she dares to love and to hope.  Kierkegaard sees this same dynamic playing out in society as a whole, becoming a social force on its own.   In the age of revolution, people looked for a great person, a Napoleon or a Luther, who would incarnate the great ideas and towards whom they could orient themselves either by joining or opposing; but today “the age of heroes is past.”[7]  Now, they only seek out the great ones to watch them, hoping to see them fall so they can all mock them for thinking themselves superior to the rest of us, or so they can tell themselves that the deed really wasn’t so great, anyone could have done it really, so again envy is satisfied:  “whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.”[8]  Whole social institutions (most notably the modern press) exist solely to tear down what is great and noble and exceptional, without anybody having to take responsibility for doing so. 

 

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 13, italics Kierkegaard’s. 

[2] Kierkegaard knew full well that the anonymous author was a woman, but respecting her anonymity he consistently refers to the author as “he.”

[3] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

[4] Two Ages, p. 21

[5] Two Ages, p. 69

[6] Two Ages, pp. 68-96

[7] Two Ages, pp. 87-89

[8] Two Ages, p. 84