It happens that as I write this the world again stands on the brink of war, although as you read it that war probably will have been resolved. I’m old enough to know that this happens with alarming frequency, and that whenever it does happen there will be people arguing about whether the pending or realized fight is a just war, that is, one that should be fought in some transcendent sense of should. Does God approve of this war? Are we on the right side in it?
I am not particularly interested in debating the rights and wrongs of the present situation, as to whether any politician or country is acting appropriately. I am interested in the fact that fighting, and even war, is often part of our role playing game experience, and it is a part that sometimes brings negative attention to the hobby. Even those who think that wargames and civil war reenactments are perfectly acceptable hobbies sometimes balk at combat in role playing games, because it is somehow more personal; that is, you’re not moving armies, you’re not primarily engaged in strategy, you’re not examining possibilities, but you are, in your imagination, tearing living opponents to bits with lethal weapons.
I have great sympathy for this argument. There is a sense in which I can liken it to the discussion over vivisection. I have read both the C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll essays in which they argued that vivisection as part of medical training is a dangerous practice. They maintained that the student who practices cutting open living creatures to observe their functioning physiology is inuring himself against a sense of empathy for suffering creatures. Perhaps I do not want a doctor treating me who has learned to set aside his personal sensitivity to pain, who can slice up my body and write me a prescription for some addictive narcotic without ever wondering whether I am suffering. Yet that is a lost battle. The benefits for doctors, and particularly surgeons, dissecting live creatures to understand anatomy and physiology is immense. Arguably the loss of that sense of empathy is a small price to pay for this. Comparably, arguably there is merit in allowing our soldiers and our peace officers to practice simulated combat exercises in many forms, including war games, tactical games, and combat-oriented role playing, so that they will be better prepared for the real thing.
Yet this argument fails to reach the majority of our role playing gamers. I am too old now for the military to have an interest in me. Many players are excluded from combat service for other reasons, including being female, or having medical disabilities. Only a small segment of the gaming population can realistically expect that they will ever be in a combat situation. Even if such a situation unexpectedly arose in my life, it is doubtful that my involvement in such imaginary fights would be much help. It seems that being involved in imaginary war serves little preparatory function in my life, yet may reduce my own sensitivity to the horrors of killing by making it part of a game.
It is certainly valuable to note that the killing I’ve done in role playing games is a drop in the bucket of the cultural emphasis on violence that has pelted me through my life. I’ve seen my share of action movies, and enjoy a good hero story in which a lot of villains get killed, even if a few heroes die along the way. I find such battles in books I’ve read. Growing up through the Viet Nam era, even the news has often been about killing; the most educational of television, such as the History Channel, the Learning Channel, and the Discovery Channel, presents us with combat footage and photos and reenactments that contribute to the barrage of deadening views of death. If role playing games add to this, they are a small addition.
Yet this does not excuse them. If they condition me to expect and accept violence as a solution, there is a valid objection to them.
It is in that if that the answer lies. No one I know advocates thoughtless irresponsibility in our hobbies. If the games we play do in fact make us more violent and more apt to accept violence as a solution, then we are playing the wrong games, or at least playing them the wrong way. There are role playing games that do not encourage violence. It is entirely possible to learn from play even of violent games that violence is a dangerous and losing game, that it is not a solution but merely a change in the nature of the problem. If we can learn this from play, we have benefited.
Pausing on this thought, how have we benefited? In history, we often see the same recurring cycle. Tension grows between nations; insults are thrown about; suddenly there is talk of war. On both sides, young men are called to defend their countries, and they pour into recruitment offices with the naïve belief that they’re going to put on a uniform, go into battle, teach those villains a lesson, and be home in time for school. It almost never happens that way; yet it is always what is believed. Meanwhile, there is an older generation who, whether they experienced war in their lives or not, seems to support this unrealistic expectation and encourage these attitudes. If through playing our games we begin to understand what war is really like without becoming involved, perhaps we will make better decisions about fighting it in reality.
All of this sounds as if war is a bad thing which should be avoided always. It is a bad thing; yet it may be a necessary thing. Whether a particular war is necessary or appropriate is a different question. What is clear is that through role playing we who have never been to war can begin to understand through a simulated experience what war is like, and so can make better decisions about war.
That makes playing war in our games a good thing.
This article was originally published in May 2003 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.