Role-Playing Games

by Jimmy Akin

in Miscellaneous

A reader writes:

I enjoy it when you blog about role playing games, comic books, etc.  During my high school days, I played AD&D and the Warhammer table top game with my friends.  I recall that some Evangelical Christians had a problem with role playing games in general and with AD&D in particular.  But since that was before my conversion, I payed them little heed.

During my conversion, which was heavily influenced by Evangelical Protestants, I came to the realization that much of what I believed was wrong.  Although the subject never came up, I suspect that my Protestant friends would have discouraged me from playing RPGs.  Since my conversion I haven’t played them at all, except for the computer variety, nor do I talk about them with my newer Catholic friends.

So here, finally, are my questions:

1.  When the topic of the "danger" of RPGs was hot, do you happen to know if any Orthodox Catholic leaders at the time commented on it?

I don’t know of any, but then I wasn’t Catholic back then, either. I was maybe just discovering Christ at the time all that was the rage. It seems to me, though, that Evangelicals went in much more for then anti-RPG stuff than Catholics did, though I am quite sure that you can find some Catholics who are overly concerned with "demonic influences" that would diss the whole concept.

2.  If someone did come to you and say that you shouldn’t be playing (or blogging about) RPGs, how would you structure your counter argument?

My defense of blogging about them would be completely different than a defense I would mount concerning playing them. Blogging is simply another form of talking or commenting, and there are no topics on which it is intrinsically taboo to even comment. The question is what is the quality of the contents: Do they accurately reflect the nature of the thing commented about? Do they have a tendency to steer folks toward a correct or an incorrect appraisal of the thing commented upon.

As to the subject of playing RPGs, the instinct to play is built into human nature. God means us to do it. He also built us so that we enjoy stories and coming up with imaginative, fantastic scenarios. All of these are in principle healthy and can play an ennobling role in human life and culture (as in, e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Given the God-given impulses to play and imagination, there is no in principle barrier to Role-Playing Games.

If a person wants to attack Role-Playing Games, then, he’s going to need to come up with a reason that focuses on the evils of an individual RPG rather than RPGs as a group. Presumably, that argument would be directed to the content of a particular game.

In this regard, the game merely having fantasy content would not be enough. If the content of The Lord of the Rings were the same, it would make no difference whether people experience it by reading it, watching it on screen, or playing it as a game. Merely the fantasy content of the work is not enough to make it illicit.

On the other hand, one might mount an argument that the content of a particular game is sufficiently morally problematic that it should not be indulged in. This argument may succeed in many particular cases. The way many D&D worlds are run, the characters regularly engage in immoral behavior in a way that has a deleterious moral effect on their players. (As the game designer Steve Jackson has pointed out, The average party of player-characters, incidentally, considers itself to be lawful good and is actually chaotic neutral.)

There are many individual  games that I would not participate in due to moral repugnance, and so I concede the potential force of the argument, but I note that it applies only to particular games  and not to the concept of Role-Playing Games as a whole.

Who can morally participate in what games will depend on the nature of the game and the dispositions and  moral fortitude of the player. Different people have different temptations, and one ought to stay out of games that foster one’s temptations.

One also might make an argument (as some back during the anti-RPG days did) that RPGs encourage obsessive behavior on the part of players. I would challenge this and say that young males (the majority of RPG players) tend to have obsessive behavior whether they are playing RPGs or not. While it is true that one can devote so much time to this hobby that it competes with other things one ought to be doing (e.g., meeting girls), that is true of any hobby and thus constitutes no objection to RPGs in particular. RPGs have no particular hyponotizing power that is lacked by girls or movies or TV or the Internet or girls or comic books or iPods or girls or popular music or cars or girls or hunting or fishing or girls or duelling or moonshine or girls or any of the countless other things young men have obsessed about in the present or the past.

3.  Do you have any related thoughts about the same subject, applied to books and movies (Harry Potter, etc)?

Bwahhh! You have just asked a question too broad to be answered in blog format. In principle, all of these forms of entertainment are fine of a mature person who is secure in his Catholic faith and not subject to usual temptations. The mere presence of fantasy content does not disqualify them. However, the moral content is important, and not all works are suited for all sudiences, particularly when children are involved.


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Maureen April 1, 2005 at 9:35 am

Good comments. The sad thing about that whole “D&D is a cult” thing was that it was such a general smear that it really served the world, the flesh, and the Devil more than Christ. A lot of young gamers found themselves demonized for things they weren’t doing — and therefore, some lost all respect for religious and moral authorities, and probably ended up doing some very bad things in real life as a result.
When kids who are marginalized by their peers and underserved by their peers and parents finally find something interesting and social to do…well, that’s not the time for members of any church to start wholesale attacks on that activity. If it has any redeeming qualities at all, that should be supported. The bad aspects can be criticized freely; probably the kids themselves are wondering how to get shed of them.
If churches had let kids play D&D in their basements and sponsored tournaments and mini gaming conventions, while keeping an eye on what went on and talking about proper ethics both as characters and players and the historical downsides of paganism, a lot of teenagers would have been a lot better off. And a lot of teenagers would have grown up with a lot more loyalty toward Christianity.

LawfulGood April 1, 2005 at 11:53 am

Great post Jimmy. Insightful comment as well Maureen.

LawfulGood April 1, 2005 at 12:19 pm

RPGs have no particular hyponotizing power that is lacked by girls or movies or TV or the Internet or girls or comic books or iPods or girls or popular music or cars or girls or hunting or fishing or girls or duelling or moonshine or girls or any of the countless other things young men have obsessed about in the present or the past.
LOL! I’m slow today. Only on the second reading did I catch the girls joke… 😛
Sigh… I lost so many good players when they got their first girl friends. We mocked them terribly. Because we were so… um… NOT jealous. Yeah.. that’s it… Not us. Nope. 😉

Matthew L. Martin April 1, 2005 at 3:50 pm

Maureen–Of course, then you would have had to worry about the Mormon underpinnings and themes of the Dragonlance adventures and novels . . .
(No, I’m _not_ kidding. Details available on request. I made an attempt to swing the cosmology in a more Catholic-friendly direction, but it appears to have been repudiated by fans and creatives alike.)
Other games I know well and can comment on:
The Ravenloft campaign setting for D&D has some problematic cosmological elements, but also can be used for strong morality tales inspired by the Gothic horror tradition from which it springs. It also has a mechanism whereby a character who persists in evil will degenerate into a hideous monster and be taken away from the player.
Star Wars . . . it’s Star Wars, with all that implies for good and ill. It also includes a rule that if you’re playing a Force user who falls to the dark side, you’re likely to lose your character. There’s been some material on running dark side games, but they specifically note that the only ‘proper’ endings for a dark side character in the Star Wars universe are redemption or death.
The Hero System (aka Champions) is so flexible you can do just about anything with it. Be careful about the magic-themed Champions supplements for the Fifth Edition (The Mystic World, The Ultimate Mystic), though; what I’ve heard and read suggests they’re somewhat disrespectful of Christianity and rooted in some real-world occult concepts.
Jimmy and I will probably disagree on Call of Cthulhu, since I’m not sure long-term campaigning in a nihilistic universe like Lovecraft’s is particularly good for one’s moral or spiritual health. However, Jimmy has actual play experience in this one as well as a lot stronger grounding in the Faith, so I defer to his judgement.
(Yes, I’m a roleplaying geek too. Could you guess?)

Mary April 2, 2005 at 9:13 am

Alignments have some flaky aspects in philosophy, too. They collapse your beliefs in metaphysics and political philosophy, and your day-to-day habit.
Hence, a “lawful good” person believes the universe is orderly and government should be strong and society ordered, and plans ahead. Whereas a Christian should believe the universe is ordered, but that governments should be trusted as far as you can throw them (but kept, since private citizens should be trusted as far as you can throw them).

Bob December 11, 2008 at 4:32 am

A role-playing game (RPG; often roleplaying game) is a game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters.
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