Faith and Gaming: A Concern

Three months ago, in Deals, I suggested something that flies in the face of much of the common wisdom about what is acceptable in gaming: I suggested that a game that focused on making deals with the devil was a very Christian game, which taught a very important Christian lesson to its players. Some have probably wondered since then whether I think there is anything at all that goes too far in role playing.

That would be at least a bit unfair. I have often said that there are things that go too far for me, and things of which others should at least be wary. Admittedly, I’ve never (that I recall) stated that any particular concept was inappropriate per se for all players, but I have said there were things that concern me, and two months back when we addressed Sex I suggested a few that were inappropriate for me (although not for everyone).

This month, there is something that concerns me. It is appropriate that it should fall in October, the month in which this column has traditionally addressed issues related to magic, because it is a matter concerning magic that has come to my attention of which I write.

TSR's Deities and Demigods--not the book in question here.
TSR’s Deities and Demigods–not the book in question here.

In my discussion of Sorcerer in July, I suggested that fictional characters summoning imaginary demons was not all that terrible a thing for a game, and in fact could be a very good thing, a very Christian story, driven home to the players. I would note, however, that Sorcerer does not at any time teach you how to summon a demon. I don’t know whether author Ron Edwards believes that demons are real, but as far as the game is concerned, summoning demons is something that the characters know how to do. How it is done is decided by the players, invented out of whole cloth to fit with the issues they’re addressing. There’s nothing in the rules about how to summon demons.

This has long been one of the key defenses against charges that RPGs are evil because they teach magic: they don’t. As The Escapist’s wonderful article, Spellcasting 101: Don’t Try This At Home so vividly argues, there just isn’t enough information in game books to know quite how a spell is performed, and what is there is mostly invented nonsense anyway. In Dungeons & Dragons spell descriptions you generally know (as it’s described in Multiverser) that you have to say something, do something, and/or use something—but rarely are you told what to say, or what to do, or what to use. Even when part of that information is given, it is usually intentionally silly, like using the magic words Ron-son or Dun-hill (names of cigarette lighters) to produce a small flame from the tip of your finger. Thus the descriptions are nonsense; but they are also incomplete. This makes them irreproducible: no one could follow the instructions in the book and produce real magic rituals.

At this moment there is a lot of talk in the online role playing game community regarding an as yet unpublished independent game supplement (that is, not from a major company) designed to incorporate real magic rituals into one of the most popular game lines. Let me make clear that I do not know what part of the gossip is true; it could be entirely blown out of proportion. However, it is claimed that someone who practices an occult religion is creating a book which will provide detailed instructions on how characters can work the magic rituals of that religion. It is also alleged that the writer has something of an evangelistic purpose in mind: he wants people not only to use this in games, but to learn how to use it in reality. This is expected to be a book that would explain how a person would perform these rituals, presented under the guise of creating more realistic character actions.

If that assessment is correct, it means that there might well be a book for sale in your local game store that pretends to be nothing but harmless gaming material, but which has a hidden agenda of introducing gamers to a particular brand of occultism. This is not some nebulous teaches you to believe in supernatural solutions to your problems (which is a good thing in my view), but very specifically teaches you how to be a practicing member of an occult magical religion.

I don’t object to the existence of books that teach you how to practice a religion which I regard as false or misleading; I regret the existence of such books, but recognize it as the price that must be paid for the freedom to express and discuss faith and doctrine openly. What bothers me is the Trojan horse aspect of this, that such a book would teach kids how to be involved in this religion and perform its rituals, but doing so under the guise of making their games more “realistic”.

This is intensified by the alleged attitudes of the author. Such a book could have been written by someone who believed it all nonsense and wished to include this nonsense as a play option; books like that have been written before, and at least some of them provide useful material for window dressing. It could have been written by an occult believer who only wished to improve game play by providing some realistic trappings that would work in games, as I might write a book on how to incorporate modern Christian denominations and non-denominational churches in a modern game. I recall that in one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, the detective recognized immediately that the local minister was a fraud because the appointments of his study did not fit with his denominational doctrines (you will find crucifixes in Catholic and some Anglican/Episcopalian churches, but not in any Orthodox or Baptist ones, for example). Having realistic detail for the window dressing of a game provided by someone familiar with it from the inside doesn’t particularly bother me, and if an occult believer wants to contribute something of that sort to play, I accept that. Here, though, it seems that there is a distinct suggestion that this is an effort by a religious believer to involve gamers in the practice of his beliefs. I can’t object to that within the context of American pluralism, but I can say it concerns me. I wouldn’t want my kids playing with such a book. If the book was just an explanation of his beliefs and practices as such, even with a proselytizing element, I would be less concerned; it is the subtlety of slipping these beliefs into the context of it’s just a game that concerns me. Players will describe in detail what it is that their characters do, but some of them will wonder whether these things work in real life.

As to whether they work in real life, that’s more than I know. One of my sons got into a bit of trouble at school on one occasion for preying on people’s superstitions. He’s got a secret code alphabet he and his brothers devised, a simple symbolic replacement for letters. Some guy was harassing him one day, and he took out a sheet of paper, wrote something entirely innocuous on it using these symbols, and handed it to the guy. When the guy asked what it was, he told him it was a curse, and he was going to suffer the effects of it. The guy had a terrible day, and complained about my son using magic against him. The school administrators took it all too seriously, I think—not that they thought he was trying to do magic (and he told them what the page actually said), but that he would have pretended to use magic against someone in a way that would frighten them. People believe this stuff. Give them how-to books and they will try it. Whether there’s any real power in it (I’m skeptical), people will “see” that it “works”, because they’re looking for it (like seeing how your newspaper horoscope has come true).

In what might be an eleventh hour move to scuttle this book, the company which owns the rights to the game for which this was to be an independent supplement has amended their license specifically to prohibit the publication of any materials which promote any particular religion. Many Christian gamers are upset about this; however, they were equally upset at the possibility that this game book might go to print under that license. We must understand that in America there can be no favored faiths. Either all religions are free to proselytize through a venue, or none are. It is regrettable, perhaps, that truly Christian games cannot be published under this license, but is that too great a price to pay for the assurance that truly occult games will be similarly blocked?

I’m not for coercing people to believe any particular thing; that doesn’t work anyway. I’m not for preventing them from learning about such things if they’re interested and mature enough to deal with the material. I am not for book bannings or burnings or even boycotts. I just think that a book that presents real magical religious practices in a way that would enable people to practice them shouldn’t be published as a game book; or at least that if it is, we should be aware of it. If a Christian had written something which does for Christianity what it is alleged this book does for the beliefs of its author, the gaming community would be aghast and angry. It should not take Christians objecting to this to provoke the same reaction in this context.

This article was originally published in October 2003 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.

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