Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On role playing and creating culture

The New York Times ran an article, "Geek Love" by Wired senior editor Adam Rogers, about last week's death of Gary Gygax. If you know that name, you probably played the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game as a kid. Yes, I'll confess it - I played D&D in the early '80s, starting around 6th grade, before moving on to James Bond role playing systems. I also loved the "Dungeons & Dragons" Saturday morning animated cartoon, with the ensemble cast of archetypal characters, each with their enchanted artifact: ranger (bow), thief (cloak), barbarian (club), cavalier (shield), magician (hat), and acrobat (staff). I loved the concept of the TV show, with its fantasy alternate world and the "quest to return home" theme. I even wrote a short story in high school using this template, casting my friends as the main characters.

[Geeky tangent: It occurs to me now that Sheila the thief, with her invisibility cloak, parallels Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four not only as an invisible girl, but also as the older protective sister to a younger brother teammate (Bobby the barbarian). She also predated Harry Potter's invisibility cloak by a good fifteen years. And I'll even admit to having a crush on her, despite the fact that she was merely an animated character. Sigh.]

I gave up D&D because my mom was convinced it was evil and had occult ties. After going to a Bill Gothard seminar that preached about the dangers of D&D, I sadly tossed all of my D&D paraphernalia into the trash.

But as the New York Times article notes, D&D and the fantasy roleplaying motif has thoroughly permeated our collective consciousness:
We live in Gary Gygax’s world. The most popular books on earth are fantasy novels about wizards and magic swords. The most popular movies are about characters from superhero comic books. The most popular TV shows look like elaborate role-playing games: intricate, hidden-clue-laden science fiction stories connected to impossibly mathematical games that live both online and in the real world.
Rogers traces the ripple effects of D&D in influencing and shaping contemporary gaming culture, technology advances, and even Google and Facebook. He writes:
Mr. Gygax’s genius was to give players a way to inhabit the characters inside their games, rather than to merely command faceless hordes, as you did in, say, the board game Risk. Roll the dice and you generated a character who was quantified by personal attributes like strength or intelligence.
By creating and popularizing the role-playing phenomenon, Gygax enabled players to take on characteristics and moral alignments and play out scenarios that gave them a sense of adventure, mission and purpose. There was mystery, challenge, intrigue and drama. Of course, most of us adolescent D&D players eventually grew up and left the role-playing world behind. Real life has enough drama of its own. But on occasion, we might still escape into some role playing or gaming world, such as Heroclix or LEGO Star Wars.

It occurs to me now that in the Gygax vs. Gothard smackdown, Gygax ultimately triumphed. Why? I think because whereas Gothard and other conservative Christians defensively attacked D&D out of fears of Satan worship, Gygax and D&D created an appealing world and fascinating narrative that people could enter into. It was participatory, and it also created community. Rogers notes, "You needed at least three people to play — two adventurers and one Dungeon Master to guide the game — so Dungeons & Dragons was social. Demented and sad, but social."

In short, Gygax created culture, whereas Gothard merely condemned culture. Gothard did not create a compelling alternative to D&D - he merely argued that it was evil. Whatever one might think about his perspective, the larger issue for Christians is whether we will create compelling, dramatic narratives and stories for people to participate in, or if we only react against what other people create. Andy Crouch's forthcoming Culture Making argues that Christians cannot change the culture by condemning it, critiquing it, copying it or consuming it. The only way to change culture is to create more culture.

(BTW, a few years ago Christianity Today observed the irony that Christians were up in arms about Harry Potter but seemed to give a pass to Lord of the Rings, whereas Tolkien's work might actually have more occultish elements and ripple effects than anything J. K. Rowling has written. Mickey Maudlin wrote, "If you want to condemn a work for what it has inspired, then turn up the heat for Tolkien. While neither Tolkien or Rowling has ever encouraged people to mistake their magical worlds for the real one (in fact, both have made quite the opposite point), many fans have voluntarily entered Middle Earth. It would be hard not to link the occult-friendly role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to the influence and popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has provided the imaginative landscape for much modern fantasy.")

At any rate, the NY Times also ran this flowchart/map with the article. See if you identify.


Kim said...

Al, As the flowchart illustrates, D&D stood in stark contrast to the straight-line thinking of conservative Christianity represented by Bill Gothard,

D&D was disturbing in the sense that its characters could turn, shift and change their inherent nature. Disturbing because it was closer to the truth that many endure in real life.

D&D appeals to some romantic notions that we have about a world that we sometimes hope for, sometimes dread, have faith exists, but deny by our thoughts, actions and words.

The pursuit of Christ can be filled with this much sense of adventure, mission, purpose, mystery, challenge, intrigue and drama. We miss it because it's right under our noses and we're not spiritually sensitive enough to perceive it.

Hope to visit your blog again soon! Peace, Kim

LA Nickers said...

WOW - what a tangled web! And how it contrasts with the straight-and-narrow pilgrim path.

Every day, walking with the Savior, I am struck by the simplicity of truth, and how we strive to complicate it.

By the way, I had a little fun with Harry Potter. Perhaps you and your readers will enjoy this:

Harry Potter


Milton Stanley said...

Good word. I linked to your article this morning. Peace.