This is Faith in Play #40: Harry Potter Series Follow-up, for March 2021.
This was originally published as an entry in the Blogless Lepolt web log at Gaming Outpost under the title Opinion Vindicated, and recently recovered thanks to Regis Pannier of the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be.
Many of you will by now have seen the news that J. K. Rowling has stated her heroic and much-revered character Dumbledore is “gay.” Already I have been asked about this, and I will be giving my answer here in a moment. What interests me more is her revelation, more quietly reported, that the entire Harry Potter series is, and has always been, a Christian story. Rowling kept this “secret” close to her breast while dealing each book, as she feared giving it away too soon would lead readers to guess the end before they reached it. This pleases me. I’m not the only person to have noticed the Christian influences in the Harry Potter series, and I’m certainly not the most vocal of those defending it, but I have taken a stand in defense of the stories as part of my unofficial position as defender of Christian fantasy in the modern world. Having her say what I have been saying is rewarding.
On the other report, over on MySpace, a mysterious friend through a friend who often asks me odd questions, Dr. Jack Centipede, asked me my opinion of the report. My comment there was truncated—apparently I failed to keep to some unstated word limit imposed by MySpace—so I am going to copy what was saved and attempt to complete it here.
I don’t want to say that an author is wrong about her own character, so what I’ll say instead is, I don’t see it.
There is something of a pernicious error which grew in the twentieth century, which holds that two men who care about each other and who bond with each other are therefore homosexuals. C. S. Lewis complained about this, saying (I think in The Four Loves) that when you have these close friendships, that “philos” “brotherly love,” someone will say that of course they are “really” homosexual—and that what you feel is pity for the one who says this, because it suggests that he has never known real friendship. It is quite possible for men to care about each other without being homosexual, but in our age every effort is made to characterize such relationships as homosexual, because those in homosexual relationships want to be able to claim that their relationships are “normal.”
I see nothing in Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald that indicates it to be more than a very close friendship, the kind of friendship I have had rarely in my life. Dumbledore is not gay, but caring and sensitive and eager to know people and to forge relationships with them. It is not the same thing.
Let me make two more points on this, briefly.
First, if Dumbledore is gay, then any man who has ever felt a close connection, a bond of sincere friendship and mutual interest, with any other man, is also gay. I think—indeed, I would hope—that that would be all men everywhere. By this definition, then, every man is gay; and if that is so, then the category is meaningless, and no man is.
Second, it is significant in my mind that the same is not said about women. We assume that women forge these dear and close friendships with other women, and that this says nothing about their sexuality. It is only when men forge such relationships that this becomes “homosexual” or “gay.”
This puts men in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, we are accused of being cold, uncaring, unemotional, self-centered and self-interested, failing to bond with others, failing to share our true feelings. On the other hand, should we venture to warm, care, emote, reach out to and bond with others, and share our true feelings, we are suddenly branded as “gay.” You can’t have it both ways. Either it is quite normal for people—men and women—to have caring relationships with each other, or it is always abnormal for anyone—man or woman—to care about a member of the same sex.
Thus I think Rowling has fallen into the trap of assuming that her character Dumbledore must have been gay because he cared deeply for and about another man. I care deeply for and about my father, my uncles, my cousins, my brothers, and my sons; that does not make me gay—nor does it make me gay if I also care deeply about friends who happen to be guys. What’s a guy to do, anyway? After all, if I, as a married man, care deeply about other men, I am labeled “gay;” but if I care deeply about other women, I am labeled “lecherous.” The only kind of man we will accept as manly is the one who doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and that’s not the kind of man we need in this life.
From there I commented on the Christian connections of the book, including the above news link, but since I’ve already done that here I won’t repeat it.
There are a dozen things I am supposed to be doing right now, I suppose, but rather than attempt to list them here, I’m going to attempt to do them, and maybe tell you about them tomorrow. The gout persists, flaring up overnight, but calming a bit as I work; I wonder to what degree the constriction of my feet within my shoes is reducing the pain.
This is Faith in Play #39: Of Aliens and Elves, for February 2021.
Fantasy and science fiction are riddled with races. Star Trek offers Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Bajorans, and a host of others. Dungeons & Dragons gives us multiple varieties of Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, and Halflings, just for starters, and keeps going from there. Even Harry Potter gave us the giants and the centaurs and the house elves. It is inherent in fantasy and science fiction that there are intelligent beings who aren’t human.
This, though, gives us a theological problem: how do they fit into the plan of salvation?
One possible answer is that they don’t. In original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons humans and quite a few demihumans had souls and could be resurrected, returned to life in the same body. Elves, however, did not have souls and could not be resurrected. Instead, they had spirits and could be reincarnated as some other creature. There is an implication that humans have an afterlife on the Outer Planes, but elves do not, continuing their lives in the Prime Material Plane perpetually. Given that, it would follow that elves neither needed nor could receive whatever salvation brought humans into heaven.
A viable alternative is that all the races are in fact related, that by whatever peculiarity the elves are also descendants of the first human, or in the science fiction realm, humanity on earth is descended from a first Adam who was not on earth, and so all intelligent life in the universe is similarly connected through that one ancestor. In one of his short stories, Ray Bradbury suggested that after ascending into the clouds Jesus kept going to carry His message to other planets. Perhaps the connection is such that the gospel applies to all intelligent life forms.
It has been suggested (by C. S. Lewis) that perhaps humanity is the only intelligent life that is lost and in need of saving, or most lost and most in need of saving, and so the rest of the universe is safe because it never fell. St. Paul would seem to think otherwise, but he doesn’t talk about it much so it could be overlooked.
I confess I don’t have an answer to this with which I am fully comfortable. I do think that because it is fiction we can skirt the issue a bit—after all, fictional characters aren’t really lost or saved, even when we say they are. They are only illustrations of being lost or saved. If in our fictional world our soteriology stretches to cover some we would have difficulty covering in our real world, that’s part of what fiction is about: exploring what might be.
As always, I am interested in your solutions to this problem.
In September 2006, Christian Gamers Guild member Scott Bennie posted several drafts of this article to the guild group mailing list. It appears not to have made it to the web site, an oversight which is being addressed presently.
Christianity and Role-Playing Games: Toward Reconciliation
The price of living in grace is that we must examine ourselves in heart, soul, and mind to determine whether the things we do and the activities that we love are right with God, whether they support or hinder us in the spiritual journey of our lives.
I have an activity that many Christians associate with decidedly un-Christian behavior. I play role-playing games. I’ve been engaged in the role-playing hobby, off and on, for close to 30 years. Back in 1977, when nobody had ever heard of them except for a few college students, I played a cleric in an AD&D game at a Vancouver Science-fiction convention. I’d loved fantasy literature ever since I was 5, when I snuck a peek at my brother’s copy of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The lure of pretending to be an adventurer, seeking his fortune against monsters in perilous dungeons and caverns, rolling strange dice, proved irresistible. That my first adventurer’s career lasted a mere twenty minutes (during his first encounter with a monster, my character was bitten by a giant rat and bled to death on the spot) was irrelevant. I was hooked.
Over the next few years, I picked up more and more gaming material and joined a few gaming groups. My second character lasted much longer than my first: years longer. I went to university and met quite a few gamers there, and I eventually started writing in the field. My first article was published in 1981, and over the years I went on to write many more supplements and books. Twenty-five years later, I’m still gaming (mostly superheroes and 1930s pulp adventure games now). It’s fun, it’s an emotional release, and it’s (still) a great way to spend time with friends.
I was a Christian long before I was a gamer. I was born into a family which, while not the most religious, still respected religious traditions and felt we should be exposed to them. I attended a Mennonite Brethren Church throughout my childhood and early teens and accepted Christ as my savior when I was 5. When I first started gaming in 1977, no one in the Church knew about gaming. It was only until about three years after I started gaming that religious leaders started speaking out against it.
I viewed gaming as a positive thing. Yes, there were demons and dragons and monsters in it. Those were the bad guys, the creatures my characters were fighting in the game world. Yes, there were spells in the game. These spells were game rules meant solely to alter the game environment or affect imaginary characters; they resembled the real world occult as much as a Chance card in Monopoly resembles an actual business deal (which is to say, not at all). There was a huge disconnect between the games I was playing and the games that church leaders were warning against in extremely graphic terms. People claimed that the games would lead me down a path to demonic possession, homosexuality, and suicide. My reaction was “Huh?” For the most part, I was just someone who enjoyed pretending to be a hero, going to war with the bad guys, and doing classic hero. Never once did I feel that my soul was ever at risk in a game or that I was doing anything evil. I wasn’t the only Christian gamer who felt that way.
Even so, I understand the problems that many Church leaders have with elements of the games. The world of fantasy is steeped in myth, mysticism, and the occult, and gamers are exposed to those forces. In my experience, however, the instances where Christian gamers are attracted by those elements of gaming to the point that they abandon their faith to engage in occult worship range from non-existent to (at best) unlikely. Nonetheless, we are commanded to scrutinize what we do. “Let us examine our ways and test them,” Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:40, “and let us return to the LORD.” The Bible has many passages that advise us to avoid corrupt activities and stay true to the Lord. If gaming is important in a Christian’s life, they’re obliged not to play it mindlessly but to be mindful of its impact on their lives.
What I’m hoping to do in this essay is to challenge both sides in this controversy. I want Christian gamers to honestly challenge their gaming habits and make sure that when you defend your activity, you’re doing it from a position of righteousness and in a spirit of correction. For non-gaming Christians who are worried about gaming, I want you to consider the good that Christians can do in the gaming world, the harm that unfounded and reckless accusations can do to someone’s faith, and appreciate that some people are drawn to appreciate myth for righteous and Godly reasons, working toward His purposes. Too many people have been hurt by the conflict between the Church and gamers; it’s well past the time to end this.
In the 1980s, role-playing games were first brought to the attention of the popular media by the sensation surrounding the disappearance of a young student named Dallas Egbert III. The reaction from many churches to role-playing games was unmitigated horror. Games where people pretended to be people who ran around hacking other people to pieces with swords? People worshiping pagan deities? People who ran around with books of spells and were involved in occult rituals?
We were actually playing a game of make-believe that combined board game elements with improvisational theater. Unfortunately, “make-believe” is not nearly as sensational as “suicidal demon worship!” and even Christians aren’t immune from sensationalism and media hype. Repeat a claim often enough, and it will eventually be accepted, even by smart people with good moral character. Thus, a lot of Christians came to associate Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs with real-world occult practices.
The spirit of the times only exacerbated the situation. The 1970s and 80s were a time when a lot of occult-based crimes were being covered in the media spotlight, so there was a natural tendency in religious circles to connect the two, a dreadful convergence where the church was ready to pounce on anything even remotely occult, and fantasy gamers got caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, the link between D&D and suicides made by organizations like Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or the National Coalition on Television Violence only reinforced the assertions in the public imagination. That actual witches denied that D&D was their gateway into the occult was irrelevant. That each suicide case was thoroughly examined and the role of RPGs was seen (at best) to be a secondary factor in comparison to the victims’ other emotional problems—and that every judge who ever heard the “D&D Defense” in a court of law gave it less credibility than Twinkies—was conveniently ignored by every one of its detractors, who were determined to sell their viewpoint regardless of contrary facts. Within gaming, a siege mentality developed. Organized Christianity became the enemy.
Even among some believers, Christian churches were seen as a hostile force that needed to be fought against, not corrected. Gamers who played heroic paladins heard stories of how gaming was nothing but demon worship; one televangelist program even dramatized an anecdote where game books shrieked demonically as a dutiful Christian parent burned them. What were Christians whose games didn’t even remotely resemble an actual occult ceremony to think? Gaming is (as mentioned earlier) pretend. If you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons (or most fantasy games), you don’t actually wear a robe, mutter an incantation, draw a magic circle, or sacrifice an animal. You say “my character casts a [Fill in the blank] spell,” and then the dungeon master describes an effect that happens in the game world. Sometimes, games have an illustration of a pentagram or other symbols, but that’s usually as close as most D&D players get to the actual occult. Unlike your daily horoscope or Ouija, role-playing games make no claims that they affect the real world. Gamers would laugh at them if they did. Most Christians who are used to gaming look at the illustrations and ignore them. Anyone who bought a D&D book hoping to learn how to perform actual occult rituals would probably return it to the store the next day and angrily accost the salesperson for selling them a defective handbook. Role-playing games are fantasy.
As time has passed since the controversies of the 1980s, and more and more people have become exposed to games, the attitude in the church has evolved from hysteria to hostility or (at best) an uneasy tolerance. Christian gamers feel uncomfortable discussing their hobby with members of their congregation. Some have left congregations and even abandoned careers in ministry because of this hostility. The schism is still present. Since we Christians are commanded to unity, this begs the question: how do we bring them together?
The Bad Stuff
For Christian gamers who are used to getting defensive when our church talks about gaming, it’s still healthy to ask ourselves whether the detractors have a point.
Let’s be honest. Many long-time gamers like to trumpet the good things about the hobby: the requirement for literacy, math (in some games), historical knowledge, and imagination, and the good times we have had playing them, all of which are true. However, gamers, especially Christians, need to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. There is occult influence here. Some of the things that happen in RPG campaigns are disgusting, and non-gamers can’t be faulted for wondering why players are harboring such sick fantasies.
Examples of really disgusting character behavior are all too plentiful. We’ve all heard about games where the paladin was escorted out of the room so the rest of the party can torture the prisoner—a scene that’s often accompanied by evil chuckling. In our old D&D game, the dissection and mutilation of corpses in fantasy games to get spell components was another source of evil cackling.
In my second time playing Dungeons and Dragons at a science fiction convention back in 1977, I came upon a group of players who had taken casualties battling Ents. It seemed unbelievable for me to imagine Ents, the good wood-giants from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, attacking a group of heroes. “We were evil,” one of the party members explained. My jaw dropped. To me, the idea of not being heroic was inconceivable; heroism and the chance to emulate heroic fiction is what appealed to me about RPGs. Clearly, for some people heroism was not the game’s chief appeal.
While attending university, I knew players in one D&D party whose standard operating procedure when they entered a village was to poison the well water, rape the mayor’s daughter, set the village on fire, then proceed to the next village to repeat the same procedure. They worked for an evil, nihilistic demi-god whose goal was the destruction of the world.
So when a pastor comes up to a member of his congregation, discovers he’s a gamer, and asks “What do you think you’re doing?” it’s probably a good thing to put one’s natural defensiveness aside and try to engage in a real dialogue over the question: with the pastor, with yourself, and with Christ. Do the darker elements of gaming affect you? Does gaming with people who enjoy those darker elements affect you? Is gaming causing you to be exposed to more temptation than you can handle? Is it interfering with your relationship with Jesus? Are there any elements in your game that are a corrupting influence on your life? Does gaming occupy a space in your life that should be reserved for God?
Fantasy and The Great Reality
Non-gamers, however, do need to be open-minded. Exposure to sin is not sin; temptation is not sin; fantasy is not reality. Fantasy, even when its steeped in the mythology of false gods, is not always evil, and believers should be wary of thinking that Christians who enjoy mythology have one foot in Satan’s door. In fact, mythology often points to Christ.
Many Biblical stories have their mythological parallels elsewhere. For example, when Christ goes through the corn (or grain) field in Matthew 12 and permits his followers to take the corn, he might be foreshadowing his role as the risen savior. Although our culture has long forgotten it, in all likelihood Judeans at the time of Christ would be familiar with the mythical legend of the Corn King, a foreign fertility god who died and rose from the dead to symbolize the rebirth of spring from winter. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Christ adopted the role of the true Corn King, ending the long winter of man. Not only was Jesus the answer to Judaic prophecy, he was also the actualization of many pagan beliefs. In Him, the lies and legends of pagan deities like Baal-Hadad, Tammuz, and Osiris became truth, just as they did in the Old Testament with the tales of Leviathan and Behemoth, which were falsely attributed to mythological gods by other cultures, but were true in Yahweh.
The obvious question is: why would God use pagan myths? Some speculate that the enemy purposefully infected foreign mythologies with parallels in the hopes that these would discredit the truth by leading people to think of it as “just another phony legend.” or (if that failed) make it easier for syncretism to gain a foothold and pollute true Christian beliefs. Certainly both have happened. However, when you examine this parallelism in practice, another possibility presents itself. On numerous occasions, we’ve seen missionaries who’ve found elements in the myths of local cultures that mirror Christianity—and successfully used them as a bridge to the truth. Are we to view this as a coincidence? Could not God, who gave numerous prophecies in the Old Testament to herald Christ’s arrival into the Jewish world, knowing His Son would be a Lamp to all peoples, have permitted commonalties to exist within the world’s mythologies so his servants could more easily point the world toward the Truth?
It is folly to draw forced conclusions about the mind of God. However we can point out patterns of His grace in practice. C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is a perfect example of the usefulness of myth. Lewis came to Christianity through conversations with two Christian friends: J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. While coming to Christianity, Tolkien used the sacrifice of Baldur in Norse mythological stories to illustrate Christ’s sacrifice in a way that Lewis understood. As Tolkien said, while recalling one of the conversations that led to C.S. Lewis’s conversion:
You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word… You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God… and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.
Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, toward the true harbor.
Of course, Lewis soon gave his life to Christ, and what a life it was! The pagan deities of the Norse gods were enemies of God, and their religions persecuted early Christian missionaries. Yet their stories inspired one of the great 20th Century theologians to come to Christ, a person who was responsible for countless conversions. If Tolkien had shunned the stories of Norse mythology because they were pagan and filled with the occult, Lewis’s conversion might never have taken place, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of souls would be lost.
It was truth twisted into a pagan myth that brought Clive Staples Lewis to Jesus. At the risk of oversimplifying his conversion, much of the credit for it belongs to a Christian who was knowledgeable about the mythology, who could untwist it and point Lewis in the right direction.
If one studies Lewis’s work, one sees that one of his greatest gifts as an essayist is his ability to pluck examples, not just from the Bible, but from pagan sources such as Greek and Roman writers, and use them to bolster his arguments. Lewis is a classic example of someone who lived in the world but was not (at least after his conversion) “of the world.” He was familiar with mythology and various writings that we might deem “occult,” but he was certainly no practitioner (though his appreciation of mythology never waned after his conversion, as evidenced by the presence of creatures from Greek mythology in Narnia.) In a similar fashion, many Christian gamers who appreciate mythological-based games are not tempted by the occult or corrupted by exposure to it might provide fellowship and guidance to those who love mythology but have not yet found the Truth behind all truths.
Gaming and the Door
There is but one Door to God, but there are many roads that can lead a person to that Door. Some people find certain roads easier to travel than others. The road of fantastic imagination may not be appreciated by some Christians, yet there’s an irony in this. Many of the symbols of fantasy are intimately wrapped with the enemy’s arts—but they’re also steeped in the Biblical. Magic? The Bible contains magic and miracles, the divinely sanctioned flow of the supernatural into our world. Monsters? What of demons, Leviathan, or Behemoth? Outer planes? What of heaven and hell? Heroes and villains? Look at the Old Testament! Good and evil as moral absolutes? Have we got a Book for you…
Many of the elements of role-playing games might be seen as gateways to the occult, but they can also point to Christ! Has not the enemy attempted to subvert and mock God’s symbols and power since the beginning? However, those who understand the symbols, at least in the pastime of gaming, are primed as few others to find God. If fantasy and mythology are twistings of the truth (and I’d contend they’re far more), a little guidance can untwist them and point gamers in the right direction. This is why it’s important for Christians who understand and appreciate myth to be involved in gaming with non-Christians. The occult is the enemy’s method of usurping the worship that rightfully belongs to God and to wrap himself in the symbols that rightfully belong to God.
In some cases, the enemy has done a really good job. For instance, many of the symbols that are associated with the occult, such as the tarot, originated with medieval Christianity. And how many modern horror movies steal elements from Judeo-Christian beliefs, but somehow fail to include little things like Christian redemption? How many movies fear Satan without any sign of Christ? How the enemy loves to co-opt Christian symbols!
Recently, scholars determined that the long-held belief that the Number of the Beast was 666 was based on a mistranscription: the true number is 616. When asked whether they’d change the number, a prominent Satanist answered: “As long as 666 pisses off Christians, that’s the number we’re using.” Note that the Satanist wasn’t interested in factual accuracy for his “religion.” His sole interest was in appropriating a Christian symbol for his own use. He wanted power to turn a reference in the Word of God into something that supported his personal corruption and hatred for the organized Christian faith.
We need to treat myth and fantasy and the imagination as one of the battlefields of the Christian faith, and take it back. Christians at work in those fields need less judgment and more support from fellow believers.
In, But Not Of
We all have to live in the world, and because of this, we’re all exposed to worldly influences. Some Christians are good at going into worldly situations and not being adversely affected. Other Christians should avoid them all costs. In the book of Ephesians, Paul refers to the necessity for Christians to wear the Armor of God while in the world. Applied here, the Armor of God might refer to the gift that allows a Christian to go into the world and resist its corruption, thanks to the power of their faith, and draw out useful examples from the world that brings people to Christ and edifies them in their Christian journey. Clearly, Lewis and Tolkien were blessed with this gift. Some people have a very strong shield of faith. It may be difficult for a non-gaming Christian to identify and appreciate those who possess this special strength when it leads them into unfamiliar and even dangerous waters, however, this doesn’t mean they don’t possess it. This doesn’t mean that we should embrace exposure to sin, or that sin cannot corrupt even the strongest of us. Paul and James tell us to shun evil for very good reasons! It does mean that (among other things), by the grace of God, those who wear the Armor of God that go out into the world may find unlikely things to use as His instrument in the salvation of others.
Some people find elements in gaming that mirror Christian themes—Dungeons and Dragons is very concerned with the struggle of good vs. evil—many Christian gamers who play Dungeons and Dragons, myself included, place a heavy emphasis on this timeless struggle. This is how I played D&D in the 1970s and 80s. Subconsciously, I filtered out the parts of Dungeons and Dragons that might have corrupted me and embraced those that supported my faith. Where possible, I tried to live that faith in my characters.
Due to a combination of neglect, misfortune, and corrosion from worldly influences, my faith did falter during the 1990s. Even so, this was not because of my gaming; if anything, RPGs were a bastion that encouraged me to keep holding true to the ethical values that my belief in Christ had given me; there’s no doubt that I’d have fallen sooner if I hadn’t been gaming. Furthermore, when I came back to my faith, it was my fellow gamers (including one of the players involved in that “sick” game group at university that I described earlier) who encouraged me to seek the pastoral help that rescued me.
Paul talks in Romans and 1 Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols. In the first century world, this was a common source of income for pagan temples, to resell their sacrifices as cheap meat to feed the populace. For much the same reason that people flock to Walmart today, this meat was very popular, however early Christians worried it was sinful. Paul’s reply is highly instructive about how to treat elements of the fallen world. He said (1 Cor 8:1-8) that idols are nothing, and that we can eat food sacrificed to idols, provided they don’t produce a stumbling block for a weaker brother. However, a Christian wasn’t supposed to become so comfortable with the practice that they allowed themselves to become involved in the actual worship of pagan gods and demons (1 Cor 10:18-21). Eating the meat is part of living in the world. Feasting at the pagan temple, on the other hand, is part of joining the fallen world. In a similar way, fantasy is a fancy, without bearing on the real world. Pretending to be a D&D character who casts a spell is, to use Paul’s words, “nothing at all.” Actual occult practices, on the other hand, are an affront to God and must be avoided at all costs.
Most Christian gamers understand this division and game comfortably within it. Some Christian gamers are uncomfortable with these themes; they find ways to avoid them, usually by playing games without those elements. Both approaches are fine. As we’ll see later, the Holy Spirit, which is the best guide to whether we are “in” or “of,” does not lead all gamers down the same path. Unfortunately, many Christians become so terrified of the occult that they’re often quick to break fellowship with gaming believers who’d never go near a genuine occult ceremony under any circumstances, rejecting a useful avenue of ministry in the process. We cannot abandon areas of ministry simply because the enemy has polluted them with a few symbols and gained a foothold. That does not advance God’s purposes. God wants us to be in the world just as adamantly as he wants us not to be of it. Is there any man or woman alive on this earth whose needs God does not want us to meet?
It’s important for Christians who feel drawn to gaming, fantasy and mythology to feel comfortable and supported by their fellow Christians. As mentioned earlier, that does not mean that gaming is without its pitfalls or that the risks are negligible. However, every aspect of modern life holds similar risks.
The Two Minute Warning
As a counterexample, let’s look at the values inherent in professional football. Football is violent, which is clearly a sin. Football’s combative elements are prideful, which is a major sin. Many football teams employ scantily-clad cheerleaders. That’s certainly not a Christian value. Football fans get angry at other teams merely because they’re the opponents, or rail at the lawful authority of a game because they don’t agree with their decisions, and even bring down their wrath on their own teams, merely because they made a mistake. Is that Christian? Television networks use football games to tempt people with commercials that encourage people to indulge in strong drink and covet luxurious possessions. My goodness, what a horrible pastime! To make matters worse, football games are most frequently broadcast on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Could there possibly be a less transparent Satanic plot to corrupt Christian souls?
Yet the point I’m trying to make isn’t that football is evil, though a Christian football fan should question whether the game is more important in his life than Christ. The point is that most Christian football fans are perfectly capable of watching football and cheering for their favorite team without putting their souls even remotely in jeopardy or dishonoring their savior. The armor of God, even when we misstep, is incredibly strong. God is an armor-smith without peer. Even though football is steeped in worldly values, many Christian football players and coaches use the sport as an effective tool for ministry. If we were to be so puritanical that we opposed the pastime (and their ministry) on the grounds that football was ungodly, how many souls would be lost?
Furthermore, concentrating solely on the negative activities of football does it a serious disservice. What are football’s virtues? Football requires determination and self-discipline, which are both positive things. It requires teamwork, another positive thing. The sense of community that a team inspires is a positive. The fellowship that comes when someone learns to respect an opponent is extremely positive. Despite the negatives, football can reflect some very positive Christian values. Christians who are football fans are able to filter out the corrupting influences (sometimes by ignoring them, sometimes by knowing their limitations well enough to change the channel when the world tempts them) and embrace the positive aspects of the game. That’s what Christian gamers do. Either they’ll confine themselves to games that celebrate Christian values, alter other games to be more Christian-friendly, or accept the division between fantasy and reality and not allow it to affect their non-gaming lives.
Everything in the secular world holds some risk for Christians. Although I’ve never heard of a Christian being drawn into actual occult rituals in my thirty years of gaming, there are real risks in gaming too. If a Christian’s faith wavers because it’s being mocked or picked apart by a non-believer at the gaming table (which is, in my experience, the single biggest real challenge that Christian gamers face) or (like the ultra-fanatical football fan) he’s turned his pastime into an obsession which displaces God in importance in his life, correction will be needed. This is best done by other Christian gamers who know him; however, in their absence, friends in the congregation should draw round to support and correct the believer in a spirit of Christian fellowship.
Non-gaming Christians should never treat a gamer as a pariah or gaming as a sickness. Never suggest that a gamer should abandon the pastime. That will often be seen—sometimes correctly—as a knee-jerk reaction. If you see a Christian whose faith might be suffering because of his hobby, draw his attention to your concerns and discuss them calmly, at length. Listen carefully. If, after giving him a fair hearing, you can agree that there are problems, ask if making a few minor changes to his game would correct the problem. If the answer to that question is no, ask him if switching to a gaming group of believers would help.
Only if there’s no other choice should you suggest that the gamer give up the hobby, and even then, suggest that he only do so temporarily, to give him the time and perspective to reflect and spiritually renew himself, so he can come back later with a heart that’s more attuned to the purposes of God. Remember that no one goes to Hell for gaming. We only go to Hell when we don’t have a relationship with our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s that relationship that will bring in the Holy Spirit, and it’s the Holy Spirit that will bring true correction to the believer. Therefore focus on restoring the gamer’s broken relationship with Christ, whereby he’ll experience genuine repentance; don’t try to force a quick “purification” down his throat that runs the risk of driving him from the Church.
Gamers, being as imperfect as the rest of the human race, will inevitably stumble. Even the best of us will make mistakes. How fortunate that we have the benefit of a very forgiving God.
In the mid-1980s, one of my best friends, a man named Brian, played Dungeons and Dragons with our game group, playing a thief and a mage in the same group where I played a holy warrior and a priest. Brian was going through a serious spiritual crisis at the time, and was longing, even though he didn’t realize it, for Jesus. He decided to run a solo adventure for my priest, Eleador, who served the god Auru (whom I’d established as the analog of the real God in our D&D world, in the same spirit that Aslan is the analog of Christ in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia). Brian gave Eleador a special problem: Auru wanted a specific piece of land to serve as a temple, which was controlled by an evil warlord. This was unusual, because in the many years we’d played together, it was maybe the second time that I can recall Brian ever sitting in the GM’s (referee’s) chair.
In a typical Dungeons and Dragons game, the solution to this problem would be to embark on an epic quest: in this case, my character would attack the warlord and seize his land by brute force. This time, however, Eleador chose to employ other methods. He went to the edge of the estate and began preaching to the slaves. He preached of God’s love and mercy, of the hope that people got from worship, and how God wanted to help them. The slaves converted to Eleador’s message. The warlord, seeing a difference in the slaves’ lives, asked to meet the priest who was delivering this message of love and hope. Eleador told the warlord about God, and spoke persuasively. The warlord converted and gave over the estate to serve as a temple.
What was infinitely more important, this adventure demonstrated the power of evangelism to Brian in a way he had never considered before. It was one of the final things he needed to understand in order to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Shortly afterward, he gave his life to Christ.
Salvation through Dungeons and Dragons? If this comes as a surprise, remember Romans 8: 27-29. “And we know that in all things” (emphasis mine) “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” No one should be surprised to find the Lord at work at the gaming table.
Brian did give up gaming; his mage and thief characters had done enough things contrary to his newfound faith that he felt God directing him away from gaming, so he consigned D&D to his pre-conversion days. His gaming friends missed him, but we understood that his faith had to come first. We continued to game, and Brian didn’t express any problems with that decision on our parts. We made a decision based on our conscience about the things that interfered or reinforced our Christian walk. That we came to opposite yet correct decisions is an example of the wonderful power of grace in our lives and a good warning to both sides to avoid simplistic judgments.
Game Content and Self-Examination
If we accept that the subject of mythology is not off-limits to Christians, provided they are strong in their faith and prepared to face the problems of wading in what many hold to be dangerous waters, there’s a second issue that gamers have to deal with, and that’s the non-occult content of games. Gaming may not be an occult activity, but it certainly shares elements with other forms of popular entertainment in the secular world. A role-playing game is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with most of the details determined by a consensus between the referee and the players. If the group wants the game to feature protagonists in a heroic role in a world with strong moral values, it usually will. On the other hand, if the group wants the game to feature a pack of psychopaths who run amok committing acts that make Natural Born Killers look like a church picnic, it can do that too.
This is one of the things that makes it impossible to make a generalization that accurately encompasses the spectrum of moral content in role-playing games. It’s like trying to make a useful statement that passes a sweeping moral judgment that applies equally to Lassie and Kill Bill.
Christians are commanded not to compartmentalize their lives; we do not keep parts of our lives separate from God or from our Christian duty. Therefore, we are on some level accountable for how we conduct ourselves when we game. The key question is, therefore, how much influence do our in-character actions have on our Christianity?
Most people would find that when we’re playing a character, be it in a role-playing game or in a dramatic production, we’re not committing sin by proxy; we’re not responsible for the sins of our characters. When I was in high school, I played the role of Caiaphas in a production of Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to be King. When my character helped condemn Christ to death, I wasn’t committing the most heinous sin in human history, rather, I was pretending to be a character in a reenactment. Similarly, I believe that when I play Ascarin the mage in a Forgotten Realms game, and he lies, cheats, and becomes involved in magic, I’m not actually committing sins, I’m pretending to be a character who sins.
If this seems unreasonable, let’s reverse the analogy from sin to virtue. I have a character named Billy Deighton, Canadian Rocket Man, in our weekly Pulp Hero game (role-playing classic 1930s heroes like Doc Savage, Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and the Shadow). Billy is a Hero with a capital “H.” He regularly puts his life on the line to protect the innocent, he tells the truth, and is generally a virtuous guy. He goes to church regularly. When I’m playing Billy and he’s doing good deeds, I’m not actually doing good works, I’m just playing a game of pretend. If Billy were to bring a character to Christ in the game, he’s not performing an actual rescue, I’m pretending to be a character who performs a rescue in the context of a game. Fantasy, for good or ill, is still fantasy, unless it has ramifications that go beyond the game table.
This may seem like a pretty clear-cut distinction, but as usual with life, contact with the real world muddies the waters. We know that our outside thoughts and imaginations can affect our spirituality. Just as a method actor can be affected by going too deeply into a character, role-players can submerge themselves so deeply into their role that it does interfere with their Christian relationships. Sometimes it’s too deep, too affecting.
A game’s subject matter does count, especially in areas that are governed by thought and emotions, particularly anger and sexuality. Are we playing a lustful character in recognition of his flaws, or is the character an excuse to act out sinful fantasies? The former could be okay, however the latter definitely is not. Christians should be wary of giving themselves excuses to let their minds wander to unsavory behavior. At the very least, we need to be mindful of a character’s quirks and ask why we’re playing them. Why should a Christian pretend to be a torturer when he can pretend to be merciful? Why should a Christian pretend to be lustful when he can pretend to be righteous? Why should a Christian pretend to be a rebel against lawful authority when he can pretend to be respectful? Why should he fantasize about humiliating people and not edifying them?
However, there are valid situations where Christians can play flawed characters. Sometimes it’s done for the benefit of other characters; the villain allows other players to enjoy foiling his plots and allows their virtue to shine in comparison to him. Sometimes it’s because the role involves a redemptive journey, and going from sinner to saved is certainly a theme that a Christian can put his teeth into. Sometimes it’s done because a role that’s unlike a person’s actual character tests one’s acting abilities, which (like all talents) is a divine gift and needs to be practiced. Sometimes it’s done because a player has a hard time believing in a character unless he’s underlined by serious or believable flaws, or to fit in with the style of the playing group (more on why this isn’t always a bad thing later in this essay). Sometimes a player simply uses gaming as a safety vent for stress or negative emotions.
Fantasies don’t translate into direct behavior: most people are adults who are capable of handling the distinction between the real and the fantastic with ease. Earlier, I mentioned a group of university students whose D&D campaign was pretty disgusting. Twenty years later, every member of that game group is a family man who’s employed at a respectable job, who’s never committed a serious criminal act. Those in-game deeds simply didn’t apply to their actual lives.
Ideally, a Christian should seek game groups and experiences that allow him to do two things: (a) help other players triumph in their real-world struggles, and (b) edify his faith. Even when he doesn’t, however, it’s not a sign that he’s stumbling. Sometimes an entertainment is just an entertainment.
But What About THOSE Games?
Some would argue that Christian gamers should only play Christian games, games designed to edify their faith. I have no problems with people who want to patronize Christian gaming. However, RPGs are largely a tabula rasa, and edification can occur in the most unexpected places, as it did with Brian.
Christians should be quick to admit that gaming, like a lot of the world’s popular entertainment, is not very Christian-friendly. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, while they don’t provide a guide to participating in actual occult rituals, do include symbols of classic demonology in some of their literature; additionally, supplements such as The Book of Vile Darkness explore occult and depraved themes in greater detail. Graphic sexuality is prevalent in many gaming books. Beyond D&D, there are modern occult games like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, where one can play vampires, werewolves, and Hermetic magicians. There are horror games like Call of Cthulhu, whose premise is that the universe is inherently hostile, and that people will either die a gruesome death or linger in gibbering madness. Some games might represent contrary views to Christianity, such as Witchcraft, or be openly hostile to Christian beliefs, such as the original French version of In Nomine.
Some may not see the value in these games. I have problems with some of them myself (though I confess I enjoy Call of Cthulhu for its over-the-top characterizations). Many Christians find redemptive themes in World of Darkness, and even though I don’t play them, I can’t fault anyone who does. I do, however, sympathize with Christians who want their game experiences to be tainted as little as possible by the world’s negative influences. There are a growing number of games that are designed specifically with Christians in mind. These include board games like Settlers of Caanan (a variation on the classic board game Settlers of Catan), Ark of the Covenant, or The Journeys of Paul, and even role-playing games like Spiritual Warfare or Dragonraid.
Also, it is not hard to adjust some existing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, to reflect a more Christian-friendly philosophy. Some even include hooks that make it easy: for example, the great overdeity of D&D‘s most popular fantasy world, the Forgotten Realms, is Ao, an abbreviated form of “Alpha-Omega”. This subtle inclusion of the Christian deity places Him in a position of prominence over pagan deities, who act (according to the laws of the campaign setting) under His authority. A gamemaster who emphasizes Ao’s importance in the Realms and de-emphasizes less Christian-unfriendly aspects might produce a game that’s more appealing to Christians in his game circle. Other games and settings will have other tools that a clever gamemaster might alter to fit his desired message. Darker aspects of the game world (such as those found in the previously mentioned Book of Vile Darkness) may be reserved for the bad guys, accentuating the fight of good against evil. Some magic (“white magic”) might be defined as a divine gift to the world, so players can use it within the confines of the game world while still being mindful of the danger of the occult in the real world. Some gamers play in Middle-earth or Narnia, both of which are substantially friendlier to the Christian ethos than most game worlds.
Before my recent return to Christ, I wrote a book called Testament, a guide to playing characters in the historical Middle East (with a heavy emphasis on the lands of the Bible). That book was not written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but I wrote it knowing that it might find a Christian audience and that they could adapt it very easily to represent a Christian perspective. Likewise, a gamer could adapt other game systems, such as GURPS, the Hero System, Hero’s Journey, or Burning Wheel, and use them to role-play heroes of the Bible.
Of course, there are also a lot of games where players can take on more positive characters than in much of the fantasy milieu. In addition to overtly Christian games, there are superhero games like Champions or Mutants and Masterminds or Star Wars where the emphasis is often on heroic self-sacrifice, there are games like Pendragon where it’s easy for players to play Christian characters (in this case, the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table). Many games focus on heroism and positive values, and playing character roles can reinforce positive roles. Some of these games may have elements like the previously mentioned “white magic” that some Christians view with a jaundiced eye; even if one gives less weight to the division between fantasy and reality than one ought, a game group has a lot of control over a game’s content.
The Game Group
One thing that gaming’s detractors don’t understand is that a gaming group has as much (or more) of an impact on a game’s style and moral content than the actual game system: in other words, who you play with is more important than what you play. To use a football metaphor again, the difference is like watching a football game with sober Christians or with drunken, profanity-loving non-Christians. The game is the same, but the experience is (or we should hope!) totally different.
Some game groups are supportive and contain believers and/or tolerant non-believers. Others are composed of hostile non-believers who enjoy mocking the Christian faith. Games that might otherwise seem antagonistic to Christians can be edifying with the right group, particularly when the social dynamic of the game does more to shape the group’s adventures than the rules. Likewise, some gaming groups may be toxic to a gamer’s faith, even if the game itself is non-offensive.
A game group is a call to ministry, through example and (when opportunities present) discussion. It is also a circle of friends who support each other in times of need, who enjoy common interests and fellowship. A good gaming group, like any circle of friends, can minimize the impact of the worst events and amplify the good events. They’re the primary reason why gamers play, and why gamers find it annoying when other non-gaming Christians dismiss their activities without a lot of thought and discussion.
Behaving Like a Believer at the Game Table
So much effort is spent on judging a game’s content that we often neglect the real danger area of gaming, the social interaction between players.
In any social activity, particularly competitive ones such as gaming (even role-playing games, though usually cooperative, have their competitive elements), it’s important to watch our manners. We may play Risk or Diplomacy or Settlers of Catan with an implicit “social contract” that a person’s word may be broken. Likewise, RPG games such as The Mountain Witch require betrayal of player vs. player for drama, and in Paranoia it’s necessary for humor. The common social contract still does not justify boastfulness or insults or arguments designed to hurt people’s feelings. Too often I’ve seen an “omega male” at the gaming table, a gamer with incredibly clumsy social skills, a physical handicap, or poor hygiene become the butt of jokes, neglect or abuse. Our first duty as a Christian is avoid joining in bullying circles and other harmful pack behaviors.
Our character’s actions don’t equate to sin. There is one huge exception to this rule: when those actions are a passive-aggressive cover that’s meant to hurt other players on a personal level, either by knowingly humiliating them or destroying their fun, then we are indeed sinning. Christians at the gaming table cannot treat other gamers in the same way as the world. We need to be aware of how we’re treating other players as people. Gaming is such a useful tool to develop friendships, and through friendships, the presentation of positive Christian models, and through those models, lead people to Christ. We are always the ambassadors of Jesus Christ to the world. The front line of all ministry is love, including love for the outcast and the dysfunctional. Fellowship is the best evangelism.
Those who have been in gaming for a long time know that the hobby’s greatest quality is its capacity to bring people together and cement friendships. Most role-playing games follow the common theme of the classic quest story: a group of people getting together to solve a common objective, traveling together through dangerous lands and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against common enemies. That’s been a surefire formula for bonding with others since the dawn of time. Many gamers are non-Christians who have little or no exposure to Christians outside of the stereotypes presented by the world. Those errors desperately require correction. The gaming table can be a dangerous place for one’s faith, but we need to be there. And when we’re there, we need to exemplify the Christian virtues that lead people to turn toward our faith.
A Warning and a Hope
Back in 1980, when the Dallas Egbert incident first hit the news and the media began warning people about the “dangers” of Dungeons and Dragons, I had a confrontation with my mom over my gaming. She forbade me from gaming, and when I objected, she burst into tears and declared: “I don’t want anything to happen to you!”
Over twenty-five years later, I’m still here. Life has surprised me with crueler twists and turns than I ever expected to endure, however by the grace of God, I’ve survived thus far.
This year at Gen Con, the annual convention for role-playing and board games that takes place every August in Indianapolis, I was walking back to the convention center from a restaurant when I was intercepted by a gamer who recognized the name on my badge. “I met my wife playing Champions years ago,” he said, and then he hastened to introduce his wife. “We always played your stuff,” he added. “You’re indirectly responsible for our marriage!”
The remark was almost certainly an exaggeration; even if I’d never written those books, someone else would have, and the couple would have gotten together anyway. Even so, never in my wildest dreams did I ever suspect that my work would be credited for someone’s marriage. Since returning to my faith several years ago, I’ve wondered if I’m in the right place. From a business standpoint, RPG writing is the skid row of the publishing profession. Pay rates are no better than those paid to pulp fiction writers in the 1930s—when you get paid—and there’s plenty of young talent on the market capable of taking over from aging warhorses like me when you stumble over a deadline. Many publishers have no respect for their writers, and even the ones who do respect you will always put your name last on the list of people to get paid. This isn’t malice on their part; the grim reality is that if a company doesn’t pay their printers, they shut down. They’ve already got the writing on hand when the printer bill comes due, and there’s always another writer to replace you, so we fall to the bottom of the list.
I’ve prayed a lot to God many times during the last two years, asking Him if he really wants me in gaming. I’ve begged Him to place me somewhere where I can secure a more comfortable financial future. Part of this prayer is motivated by my struggles with physical disabilities, which disqualify me from most of the jobs in my area that can support me. Frankly, my long-term future frightens me. Without my faith, I don’t think I could take it. Partially, these prayers are motivated because there are aspects of the gaming culture that really bother me: I don’t like the general hostility to Christianity that’s present in a lot of gamers. I’m very uncomfortable with the role that occult gaming and conspiracy theory games have played in the development of RPGs during the last decade, even though I have friends who play them and who’ve worked on them. The people I like; the subject of their games, not so much.
However, experiences like a chance meeting with a married couple outside a convention in Indianapolis go a long way to convince me that I’m in the place where God wants me to be, that He has plans for me in gaming. 25 years ago, when mom broke down over my gaming, she was wrong. Something did happen to me, but it wasn’t what she feared. I have no idea what God’s plans for me in gaming are, but I feel the best place for me to start is with gamers, with people. Relationships are more important than content. In Corinthians 7:20, Paul says “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” I was in gaming when He called me back, therefore it’s God’s will whether I stay in gaming or move elsewhere, and who am I to argue with my Lord? I’ve gamed, off and on, for nearly thirty years now. If that long experience has taught me anything, it’s that common interests lead to comradeship, and comradeship to friendship, and friendship to love, and love is the gateway to Jesus Christ.
So where does this leave the reconciliation between gaming and non-gaming Christians? I think most Christian gamers understand the objections of non-gaming Christians. Some of the contents of RPGs also bother us. However, please know that we’re not interested in wallowing in occult corruption, but we want to experience fellowship, using the divine gift of imagination given to us by God as a starting point. We have no interest in participating in the real occult, or in providing worship to imaginary gods, or in performing acts of gruesome violence or committing suicide. We are compelled not by darkness, but by the symbols of God that can be found in the mythology of the imagination. Though they may be hidden within the thorny briar of myth, we see them clearly, and we are drawn to them. Though the enemy tries to drown them out with the tumult of worldly noise, they speak to us with the voice of our Shepherd, the Storyteller, the Speaker of parables. How can we resist that voice?
Have faith that we are not being deceived, that with God’s grace we will be mindful of whatever dangerous path that has been set before us, and not stumble. If you cannot find that faith in your hearts, then pray for us, pray for our protection and God’s guidance, and let the matter rest in His will, against whose immeasurable power the forces of the occult are nothing but a crude, pale mockery. In that faith, you will find the unity to which we are all commanded, and come beside us to remind us of our work. For the most part, we’re only gaming for fun, and that’s how we perceive the pastime, much like your favorite activities. However, anyone who comes alongside unbelievers has (whether they realize it or not) a mission, thus we are dice bag missionaries, working on largely foreign soil. In this task, we need all the help we can get.
This is Faith in Play #26: Fields to Harvest, for January 2020.
Last month I wrote about the impact the Christian Gamers Guild has had on Christians and on gamers. I noted that there were now many other “geek ministries” trying to make a difference. In fact, between when I wrote that article and when it appeared I began to wonder whether we had become superfluous. Role playing games had moved almost entirely from feared activities suspected of cult and occult connections to mainstream entertainment embraced by ordinary people worldwide. Video games now pull more income than movies, as an industry. Board games are on the rise. Even such “fringe” geek activities as anime and cosplay are moving into the mainstream. Certainly there are still some believers who embrace errors taught decades ago about the evils of such entertainments, but they are a vanishing breed. I thus wonder if my job, defending hobby games to Christians, has become moot.
Then an odd thing happened.
You may know that I write two article series published here at the Christian Gamers Guild. This one, Faith in Play, was envisioned as a resurrection of the notions of the Faith and Gaming series originally published in the early aughts and still on our site, looking at the intersection between our faith and our leisure activities. However, when it was proposed, our webmaster said he hoped it would include material similar to and possibly drawn from the Game Ideas Unlimited series I did weekly for four years at Gaming Outpost, most of it lost when that site died. (Some of it has been preserved in French translation at the Places to Go, People to Be French site, and indeed I also wrote material for the Australian Places to Go, People to Be, and for RPGnet, RoleplayingTips.com, MysticAgesOnline, and several other role playing game sites, not all of which still exist.) Not seeing that as part of the faith and play connection, I suggested instead that I do a second series, which eventually was named RPG-ology, strictly about role playing game play, design, and theory. Thus I contribute two articles each month to the site, aimed at slightly different audience interests.
I was responding to a post on a Facebook role playing gamer group, and the question was something I had addressed in one of the RPG-ology pieces, so I linked the article. As I recall it was one that had been only slightly edited from a Game Ideas Unlimited original, and so had once appeared nearly the same at Gaming Outpost. Bryan has somehow cleverly set up the site such that such links are branded: the image shows the name of the article and the Christian Gamers Guild logo when it appears in preview on social media sites. Seeing the logo, one of the participants in the Facebook thread commented that he never read articles on Christian web sites. He said they had a certain “smell” to them.
I don’t know quite how to react to that. Read more
This is Faith in Play #25: Impact, for December 2019.
Back in maybe 1981 when I first started explaining on contemporary Christian radio station WNNN-FM that Dungeons & Dragons™ was not some evil cult activity but a very Christian game, I was as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. In 1997 when I first posted Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) Addict, Webcrawler (the original search engine) and Yahoo! (at the time a directory maintained by people reading and indexing web pages) between them had a dozen pages on Christianity and role playing games—half of them against. So sparse was the defense of gaming against the assaults of well-meaning misguided Christians that within days of my posting that page Reverend Jim Aubuchon knew it was there and invited me to join his newly-formed Christian Role Playing Game Association, which within two years would become the Christian Gamers Guild.
I’d like to say that I immediately saw the benefit of joining my ministry with that of others. That is not how it happened—but I have told that story elsewhere. Suffice it that God saw the benefit of putting me on their team.
Today the voices that rage against the evils of role playing games have been isolated to pockets of cranks, and most of the world knows that Dungeons & Dragons™ is not a cult but just a game, and a good game at that. Meanwhile, there are so many people who in an organized way are involved in some kind of ministry involving gaming that there is a Facebook group specifically for such groups, and even though I am one of the moderators of that group and I have more than once read the article on this site naming many of them, Our Friends and Allies—August 2019 by Bryan Ray, I have no idea who they all are or what they all do.
Did we start something?
I can’t make any grand claims for the Christian Gamers Guild. When Reverend Paul Cardwell joined us for a while, he was already working with The Committee for the Advancement of Role Playing Games. I don’t know when Bill Walton launched The Escapist, but he has never been a member of our group to the best of my knowledge. Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman were working on rebutting anti-D&D arguments independently of me for as long as I had been doing it.
On the other hand, I know that at least a few of those currently part of that group of game and hobby ministers were at one point members of the Guild now using their talents in other ways. Further, I know that we had an impact beyond them. Just recently (now a few months ago, but only days as I draft this) someone found me on Facebook and reported that two of the articles I wrote in the late 90s (the aforementioned Confessions and the recently unburied and republished Morality and Consequences: Overlooked Roleplay Essentials) had had a positive impact on his life and marriage, as they helped persuade his wife that his gaming interest was not something evil. That was someone I helped twenty years ago of whom I only just became aware. They use to say in media that you will hear from one out of a hundred listeners or readers. That suggests there were a lot more that I helped whom I will never know were helped.
So what, am I patting myself on the back and giving praise to the organization of which I am so visible a member?
That is not my intention.
I wrote that first article because I saw a wrong that needed to be addressed. In fact, I drafted the original sometime in the mid eighties, based on notes from the arguments I’d made on the radio prior to that. I did it because I saw a need. It made it to the web in large part because I had it already largely drafted and needed material for a web site that would draw attention to the game I had just published. I had no intentions nor expectations of becoming a recognized defender of hobby games—that was God’s decision. What I want to convey to you is that if you do what God has put in front of you, if you right the wrongs you see at hand in the ways you see to do so, you will ultimately have far more impact than you imagine. You will change lives simply by becoming involved in them.
There is a local pastor whose church is not more than five miles from my house; I know him because his mother and I attend the same church. One particularly cold night he found a homeless man trying to shelter himself on the front steps of his church. He took care of that man that night—but he thought he, and his church, ought to be doing more for the many homeless on the streets of their small city. One had recently died trying to take shelter in or obtain clothes from a clothing donation box. He started opening the church sanctuary on cold or stormy winter nights for homeless people to sleep on the pews. He worked with other churches in the city and with city officials and police, establishing a program called Code Blue to identify potentially harsh weather, and soon managed to set up places where such people could sleep on such nights, not only in his city but in the two other major urban centers in our county. This was not enough; creating something called the M25 Initiative (for Matthew chapter 25), he got people working on finding and fixing abandoned houses and moving homeless families into them. They are approaching a hundred families so helped—and with their initiative, the State has passed legislation supporting such efforts in every county, and local businesses including the major hospital chain have helped fund and manage the program. (The hospital says that putting people in homes reduces the numbers coming to the Emergency Room for shelter on such nights.) Reverend Robin Weinstein has, I think, had far more impact on people’s lives than I have had, but it began because he insisted on giving a homeless man shelter on a cold night.
People always say, “Let yourself be used by God.” Yet the hearers often respond, at least within themselves, “How?” The answer is right here: do what you see in front of you to help people and correct wrongs, and God will use you in that, and open more in front of you.
This is Faith in Play #22: Individualism, for September 2019.
Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™. I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”
I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”
And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled. My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted. Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty. It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more
This is RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past, for August 2019.
All four of my grandparents have died. I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone. I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.
The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood. There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb. At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.
No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past. That’s expected. Young people will wonder why I even mention it. You’re living in the past, old man. Get over it. Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up. I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.
But I’ve got news for you.
You’re living in the past, too.
That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past. Get over it; the moment has come and gone. Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.
You got beat up last month. It’s in the past. It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion. Ten years and you might not remember his name. Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened. Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it. But it’s the past now. You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.
That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past. Time is leaving it behind. You will eventually forget it. And everyone else will forget it long before you do.
Was breakfast good today? It’s gone already.
You are living in the past. Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past. You can’t have it back.
Don’t feel bad about it. It’s the same for everyone else. In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people. I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis. There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us. So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series. This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once: most people are already dead.
That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.
This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories. Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest. In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now. Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately. Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it. The present is always a source of ideas. But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.
Assuming you can find them.
My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer. He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings. He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union. When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.” Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing. My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.” He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended. All this, and more, was before my birth.
He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him. This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s. He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.
He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while. She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen. She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math. For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric. If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren. She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point. She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.
When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time. He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother. But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”
Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”
Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.
So, what did your parents do? Have you ever asked? Did they tell you? Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories. Life itself is an adventure. I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story. But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.
This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited: Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.
My name is Osye E. Pritchett III (pronounced Oh-Sea). I am a Christian and a gamer. This is my story (abridged).
To start I would like to affirm that I believe in God. I believe in the Incarnation; that is, I believe that God became man in the person of Jesus. Wholly God. Wholly man. I believe in His death and resurrection.
Contrary to many of our co-religionists, I also believe that it is acceptable to play role-playing games, even the dreaded game Dungeons and Dragons.
I was born in 1970, and was raised in various Pentecostal churches and denominations. Most of my schooling was in private schools, predominantly Baptist schools. As an aside I want to point out that going to Pentecostal churches and attending Baptist private schools is a great way to confuse a young child.
I have attended a plethora of churches across the U.S., east coast to west coast, from non-denominational to Anglican to Methodist (I am currently visiting an Anglican church). Throughout these experiences I have made a casual study of the teachings of quite a few denominations, finding many areas of agreement between them. These areas of agreement have encouraged me to support communication, communion, and love between the believers of different confessions. As it says in John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”Read more
This is Faith in Play #8: Redemption Story, for July 2018.
Years ago I wrote Faith and Gaming: Redemption, which was republished last spring. In it I made the distinction between the “Prodigal Stories” that we sometimes call stories of redemption and the real “Redemption Story”, the story of how the price was paid, how we were saved. I then addressed whether prodigal stories were inherently and specifically Christian, although I admit that the answer was a bit inconclusive—after all, even its creator says that Star Wars is about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader—you knew that, forget I mentioned it), but he would never claim it to be a Christian story.
Yet it never occurred to me to consider the other side of that, the actual redemption story, and whether that might be included in our games and stories. Further, I’m embarrassed to say, I find that it has been included in a number of stories with which I am familiar, so apparently it can be done.
The glaringly obvious example is the one I mentioned in that other article: the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of The Chronicles of Narnia. The redemption in that particular telling is very individual: Aslan dies to save Edmund, although there is a hint of more in the statement that when the innocent dies for the guilty, the ancient magic would cause death to work backwards. It is one of the best pictures of the Redemption Story in fiction.
It is not alone, though. J. K. Rowling ultimately explained that she never wanted to tell anyone that the Harry Potter series was a Christian story because she believed that one fact would be the spoiler that gave away the ending. In the end, Harry voluntarily sacrifices his own life to save everyone at Hogwarts—and because of magic Voldemort never realized he had cast, Harry’s death becomes Voldemort’s defeat, and Harry returns to life to finish the dark wizard. We thus have the chosen one defeating evil by dying and returning to life.
I was further reminded, by the piece we wrote decades ago on The Problem with Pokémon, that in the Pokémon movie Ash also gives his life to save his friends, and is brought back to life. It has been a long time since I saw that movie, but it again appears that the self-sacrifice of a lead character was a redemptive act.
I don’t want to stretch this too far. Many stories include the hero sacrificing his own life; not all of them are redemption stories, and I’m not even completely certain all of these necessarily are. Yet they suggest that a redemption story is possible in a fictional setting. It is something that can be done in a book—I won’t say easily, but with care and skill successfully.
The much more difficult question is whether it can be done in a game, and if so how it would be done.
The critical problem is, who plays the redeemer? When Mel Gibson directed The Passion of Christ he cast himself in one on-screen role: his hands drove the nails. If I am the referee in such a game, is the most important character in the story, the central character who pays the redemptive price, one of my non-player characters? Or if it is one of the player characters, how do I make that work? I am all in favor of player characters making dramatic sacrificial deaths—Multiverser encourages them, because the death of a player character becomes the tool that moves him to another world, another story, so the player can both let the character die and and have him survive. However, how do I arrange the sacrificial death that leads to the redemptive resurrection? Does the player have to be in cahoots with me on that, or do I have to keep it a secret, hope he will make the sacrifice, and surprise him with the outcome? What if he balks at the sacrifice?
And after all that, would it be a necessarily Christian story?
That is a difficult question to answer. I don’t know whether the Pokémon movie was intended as a Christian story, or how many people recognized it as such, despite the fact that Pikachu won the big fight by repeatedly turning the other cheek until his attacker collapsed from exhaustion just before Ash made his sacrificial move. I do know that there are people who have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and probably more who have seen the movie, who do not know it is a Christian story by a Christian author. It may again be one of those stories that you can tell, but without someone to call attention to it some will never recognize.
If any of you know of a game in which it was done, I would love to hear the story.
Sometimes I look at the search queries that lead people to this website, and I see something interesting. One day last year, I saw that someone had asked Bing “is hacking a sin in christanity” (sic). I have no idea what that person actually had on their mind—if they were wondering about software piracy, or cheating in a video game, rooting their phone, or penetrating the computer systems at NORAD. All I know is that they were interested in God’s view of hacking. Now, bear in mind that I’m no theologian nor a professional minister. I am just someone with a platform who thinks he has something to say. Maybe it will help somebody. Read more