Posts Tagged ‘Psychology and Religion’

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

March 14, 2013

Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, but his theories have roots in the earlier writings of Carl Jung.  As an avid gamer, Jung’s Psychology & Religion fascinated me from the moment I read it, because of how it resonated with my own experiences.  Before I began playing Dungeons and Dragons, I suffered from frequent nightmares; within a year of beginning role-playing I found the nightmares were under control.  I say “under control” because I literally learned how to take charge of my dreams, at least sometimes, because instead of being my own powerless and anxious self I would switch to being my D&D character.  I found too that my friends frequently recounted dreaming they were characters or were in their D&D world or something of that sort.  Jung offers an explanation for why this would be, by linking dreams and mythology to the unconscious.  In dreams, one’s unconscious speaks through symbols and images.  The man who is seeking a pattern for his own life dreams of a “world clock,” a geometrically harmonious construction keeping time by strict ratios of rates of rotation for its hands.  Jung links this image both to the patient’s earlier dreams, which incorporated many of these symbols, and to such religious symbols as the Tibetan mandelas, to pagan mythology and to Christian dogma.[1]  The patient himself was unaware of these connections, Jung reports; but still, even in his private psychological storm he is part of a worldwide atmosphere, which Jung terms the “collective unconscious.”  Campbell largely works by adding his considerable knowledge of the mythologies of the world to Jung’s original discussions of religious symbolism and the collective unconscious.  Campbell says that certain symbols are “collective” because they reflect universal aspects of every human existence:  birth, growth, maturity, moving from the family collective into a larger social world, the struggle for individuality and for social integration, and eventually death.  Because there are biological and social patterns that are common to all human beings, there are stories and symbols that represent these in every culture.  If these were not known, the individual would have to invent them, as Jung’s patient seemed to; but in fact they are common in every culture and every individual can borrow and adapt those symbols to tell himself the story of himself (or herself).  All religions, Campbell argues, are variations on the “monomyth,”  as he writes:

            The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[2]

Campbell argues with Jung, however, claiming that psychologists err when they see religion as merely expressions of the unconscious, collective or otherwise.[3]  The symbols may spring from the unconscious, but the myths are public and intentional attempts to understand life and the universe.  The unconscious is the metaphysical realm; the “collective unconscious” is the universal awareness that all things come from one source (God, mana, Being or whatever) and return to it again.  The monomyth is the product of monism.

Campbell’s theory says that mythology is inescapable and essential, even to the “modern” person, because it is the deeper attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own self, with one’s social identity, and with the universe as a whole.  But as Jung himself said in his treatise on UFOs, the modern person often creates new “scientific” symbols to replace the fantastic and mythological symbols of the past.  Once we told stories of visitors from the divine realm who came with gifts of healing and gifts of love, who worked miracles and were persecuted and died but rose again to return to their former glory; now we have E.T:  The Extraterrestrial.  Campbell’s theories have influenced George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the Wachowskis and others; if any filmmaker for the last thirty years has made a fantastic film that owed nothing to Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Matrix, I am unaware of it.  Campbell’s theories are ubiquitous in film, and the influence of film is ubiquitous in gaming.

To be continued…..


[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Religion, (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1938) pp. 79-114

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[3] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 255-60