Posts Tagged ‘role-playing games and religion’

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

April 11, 2013

            What light does all of this shed on gaming?  Clearly, Fantasy is the primary element in any role-playing game, by definition.  From Bunnies and Burrows to The Sims, the players are playing a role.  They are engaged in a fantasy.  They are engaged in an act of sub-creation, and must give their Secondary Belief if the game is to have any significance—-otherwise it’s just as boring and pointless as pinball.  In some ways, role-playing games may be a purer expression of the imageo dei than any other art form, by their very nature.  First, the Dungeon Master or Storyteller (or whatever the referee is called) really is trying first to create a world.  Second, in most games there is an element of randomness in the world, which generally is used to simulate everything from genuinely random events (from a bar-fight to the weather) to the “free actions” of non-player characters.  In a book or movie, the author knows whether or not the princess will kiss the hero when he lifts his visor; but in an RPG the GM may choose not to control that event, but instead set probabilities and let the dice fall where they may.  A good GM can keep the plot moving in the desired direction no matter what random chance and the choices of players may be, without directly controlling those other events and never, ever overruling the free choices of the other players.  Is that not a good model for God’s Providence in the Primary World?  If the players actions are to be meaningful, the referee must step back, and let the players make free choices.  Some elements of the secondary world have to remain uncreated, undetermined until the players encounter them.  Some elements are delegated to the players themselves, so they become sub-creators within the sub-creation.  In a real role-playing game, the GM sets the parameters and the main features of the world within which other agents may act; given those boundaries, the players then seek to role-play lives they will find meaningful.

            Recovery seems more occasional.  I am not sure any player or gamemaster regularly experiences a re-visioning of the Primary World.  I have, at times, witnessed a player experience a Recovery of himself, where the player began to question his choices as a player and, from there, question his choices as a person.  But Escape is something that any good role-playing experience will offer.  This seems to be the main attraction of the RPG and the main reason these are distrusted by non-gamers.  For a time, the players enter into a world where people can fly, animals can talk, and hard work and talent really do lead to riches.

            But if RPGs can offer Escape, what about Consolation?  How far can they be evangelium, gospel, for the players?  Insofar as the plot of the scenario presents a eucatastrophe, it offers a foretaste of the Gospel, according to Tolkien’s essay.  Generally, this is not a sure thing.  For the players’ actions to have real significance, there has to be real risk.  (Again, this offers a real model for theodicy in the Primary World.)  Sometimes the balrog wins, and everyone has to roll up new characters.  But to keep players coming back, there has to be the belief that ultimately, the players can win.  The eucatastrophe must always be possible.  The arc of the Secondary World must bend towards justice, at least justice for the player characters, such that their virtues as players will eventually be rewarded.

To be continued….

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

March 20, 2013

Perhaps so many RPG scenarios resemble Campbell’s monomyth because of his ubiquitous influence on the fantasy industry; or perhaps it is because it really is as universal as he says.  Either way, this general pattern is embedded in most of the RPG sessions I’ve played in and in the games themselves, to some degree.  To some extent, of course, any adventure has to begin with “a hero ventures forth…”  The hero must encounter hostile forces and win a decisive victory.  Many games do not include the “fabulous” in the narrow sense.  Sword-and-sorcery games are fabulous, of course, and space opera really is even if the fabulous elements are described as super-science rather than magic.  But what about Western campaigns, or spies, or noir/pulp detective games?  What about The Sims, where players simply pretended to be different 21st  Century people?  The answer would be that not all role-playing is a monomyth because not all is necessarily a quest.   But where there is a task to be performed, a goal to be attained, and there is a sense of character development and progressive empowerment through the striving towards and achievement of the goal, the monomyth pattern appears.  In the original RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, the monomyth was embedded in the game itself.  Characters joined together to seek treasure and kill monsters.  As they did so, they improved in their abilities by quantifiable steps or “levels.”  They might have a purpose, a great evil to thwart or village to save, but they just as often simply went into “the dungeon” to fight monsters and gain levels.  However, as they got stronger, the monsters got tougher too; even if it was not their intention, they wound up bestowing boons on their fellow men (or dwarves or elves or whatever) simply by removing so much evil from the world.

However, it turned out that simply killing beasties and getting rich makes a boring game.[1]  Therefore, a narrative structure was introduced, and with that the monomyth emerges full-blown.  It was consummated with the final “level.”  Eventually, the character was such a high level that there was little sense in playing; but by then you had a fighter who could kill Asmodeus in single combat or a wizard who could level a mountain with a word.  In short, the character was godlike, and there was no more fitting retirement than to settle down as either a god-king ruling over other mortals (and maybe immortals) in the material world, or to transcend the material completely and retire to Valhalla or Olympus to hobnob with one’s fellow deities.

From the Campbellian or Jungian point of view, it matters little whether or not anyone in the game realizes that what they are doing has spiritual significance.  What matters is that they are focusing intently and creatively on potent symbols from humanity’s collective unconscious.  Together the players are taking on tasks and quests, entering into a shared dream where they symbolically confront and (hopefully) overcome a variety of existential and psychological threats, to eventually overcome the limits of morality itself, becoming one with whatever divine power exists in that dream world.  It does not matter whether or not they realize they are reenacting the monomyth, any more than it matters in the monomyth whether or not the hero intentionally sets out on a quest or blunders into the Other World.

To be continued…..


[1] As a Kierkegaardian aside, this is basically the message of Either/Or.  In the first part, Kierkegaard presents the life of the self-centered hedonist or esthete, the person who lives for no higher purpose; this life is shown to disintegrate into disconnected, meaningless episodes and to finally be empty.  This emptiness is experienced as boredom, “the root of all evil,” which the esthete fears the most and can never escape.  Only when the individual comes to see his or her life as a task and chooses to seek and express higher values does life become meaningful.  To put it in gaming terms, you need a story, a quest, so that all this striving feels like it means something.

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

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

March 6, 2013

The “Religion and Popular Culture” group for The American Academy of Religion has issued a paper call for “Games and theories of gaming of all types” for the 2013 meeting in Baltimore.  This got me thinking again about the connections and convergences between religion and role-playing games, two subjects I have been intimately interested in since the 1970’s.  I started writing my thoughts down, and I’m still at it.  I’ve submitted a proposal, but this draft is way over the reading time limit, so at this point I’m just writing for my own amusement.  I’ll be posting it here in installments; I hope you enjoy it, and I thank you in advance for any comments that prove useful, stimulating, and/or encouraging.

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

 

 

            The topic for this session is, “games and theories of gaming.”  My first thought when I hear “gaming” is RPGs.  When I began gaming, Dungeons and Dragons was just a few years old, and the first hardcover edition of the rules had yet to be issued.  There were two aspects of the relationship between “religion” and “gaming” in those days:  the fact that “cleric” was a character class, and the fact that many religious leaders and others were “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.”  In the first case, back in the day, there was one role-playing game and, effectively, only two religions.  If you were a “good” cleric, you learned spells to heal, bless, and gained the power to repel the undead; if you were an “evil” cleric you learned to harm, curse and command the undead.  Aside from those differences in the spell lists and powers, all clerics were basically the same:  all used blunt weapons ostensibly because “shedding blood” was forbidden (unless your cleric was “evil” and was offering a sacrifice), all were allowed chainmail armor, and so on.  Supposedly these had religious reasons; but really, the only point was to differentiate clerics from fighters by reserving the best armor and weapons for the spell-less, and from wizards by reserving the best spells for the unarmored mages.  That is, it had a game-balance function that was justified in-game with a religiously-based reason.  The assumption, however, was that all religion was basically feudal European Catholicism, more or less, at least if it was “good,” so all class restrictions, all spells and powers and so on could be justified in terms borrowed from an unsophisticated Christianity; and if evil, then the religion was some sort of mirror image and thus still borrowing its terms from a superficial view of religion based on stereotypes of the medieval Church.

That is to say, when the gaming hobby began, religion was caricatured more than it was depicted.  A real religion was flattened, made to fit gaming conventions, and applied.  And the “real religion” likewise caricatured gaming.  Once cards and dice were the Devil’s playthings; in the 1970’s fundamentalist Christians who had long since made their peace with Pinochle and Monopoly saw Satanic plots in the pages of a rulebook and the spinning of a twenty-sider.  Much has already been written about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons, and about the paranoia and fallacious reasoning of those hunting that alleged evil.

What interests me more is the irony of the whole situation.  It seems quite obvious that a group of miniatures wargamers would not have begun adapting the rules of Chainmail by scaling down the rules for mass combat to individuals and introducing fantastic elements like magic and monsters were it not for the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories.  And Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who wrote out of a religious sensibility.  It is reasonable to say then that role-playing games grew out of Christianity; they are “Christian games” in much the same way that the U. S. A. is a “Christian nation.”  Three years after the publication of Dungeons and Dragons, 1977, a new role-playing game appeared on the market:  Traveller.  This time, the game was based not on fantasy but on science fiction, a genre more often associated with agnosticism and atheism.   However, 1977 also saw the release of Star Wars, a film based largely on the work of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Through the 1980’s the gaming industry spawned dozens of role-playing games, with movies influencing games and vice-versa, and always with the original genetic inheritance of Tolkien and the continuing inspiration of Campbell.  And on one point in particular these two writers agree:  that fantasy writing of all sorts is inherently a religious exercise.  They disagree, however, as to just what that exercise is.

To be continued…..