Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Narrative and culture

Al Hsu writes about the death of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax and gives some helpful insights on what the church can learn from the cultural impact of D&D. Noteworthy is this observation about Bill Gothard and other Christians who condemn the game for its emphasis on magical and so-called occultic themes:
In short, Gygax created culture, whereas Gothard merely condemned culture. Gothard did not create a compelling alternative to D&D - he merely argued that it was evil. Whatever one might think about his perspective, the larger issue for Christians is whether we will create compelling, dramatic narratives and stories for people to participate in, or if we only react against what other people create.
That's a very good point, and one with implications far beyond role playing games. Preachers, we'd do well to pay attention.


Blogger dle said...

Many thoughts here:

In the late Eighties, I worked as the manager of a Christian camp on Lake Geneva in WI. The eponymous town nearby was the home of TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons.

One evening, I was eating in town at a Subway by myself. A man came in, ordered, then sat down behind me. Being gregarious, I turned around and introduced myself. The man and I got to talking, noting how we were both eating by ourselves. We chatted about this and that. After about fifteen minutes, he handed me his business card--which I did not immediately look at--and walked out.

When I finally read the name on the card after he left, I realized that the "Gary" I'd been talking with was Gary Gygax.

I was most definitely a D&D fan when I was in my middle and late teens. In fact, I was a respected dungeonmaster. I used to draw up adventures for other D&D players and lead them through the stories. (At its core, D&D is immersive storytelling.) I got a reputation for leading good adventures that shunned the more "demonic" elements of the game.

It wasn't until I was in college that I met people who were into the extremes of the game. Many used drugs during play and experimented with witchcraft. That forced me to do the common Christian thing to do and dump D&D entirely.

Today, I have mixed feelings. I realized that a lot of the excess I saw was due to the people more than the game itself. (While many blanched that the game included demonic pantheons, demonic pantheons do exist in reality. How we deal with them is the crux of the matter.) Many positives in the game existed. Few games have the rich mental imagery of D&D, the kind of thing that fosters imagination and problem solving. At its core, D&D was a massive mental puzzle game, outstanding for thinking through tough situations while making for great fun. Some other types of games have come along that use some of the same gameplay and imagination as D&D, but I never got into them as much.

But it's true that the social aspect of D&D is quite strong and very different than other games. The author of the article notes this well. There were Christian clones of D&D ("Archangel" comes to mind), but they were always derivative.

And that feeling of being derivative dogs a lot of our Christian culture. Like Hsu said in his article, too much of Western Christianity has devolved into being against things and not for anything. It doesn't create, it only critiques. And when it does create, it only apes the worldly and coats it with a Christian veneer.

That's a big problem for us to overcome if we are to say to people that Jesus offers more. The Christianity that gave us the beautiful artworks of the 14th - 18th centuries has been reduced to Precious Moments figurines and black velvet paintings of Jesus. That's a crime.

Part of the reason for this is that we Christians, particularly Evangelicals, have not come to grips with the artistic and imaginative. That scourging of the imagination is one of the reasons that so many people trashed D&D. Rather than looking at D&D as a symptom of something missing, we either trashed it outright without thinking or we tried to create derivatives.

After a while, it's hard to miss how this all fits together.

We can do better.

12:55 PM, March 26, 2008  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Amen, Dan. Very well said.

2:47 PM, March 26, 2008  
Blogger dle said...


I have to ask: did you ever play D&D?

And what did you think of the funny chart Hsu had up on his site?

3:53 PM, March 26, 2008  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Yes I did. I played several times in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even after becoming a Christian I enjoyed the game. I never bought the argument that it somehow encouraged the occult. What led me to quit was a couple of bad experiences with unscrupulous DMs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chart on Al Hsu's site, even though following it three or four steps didn't result in anything even remotely resembling the course of my own journey. Somehow I made it to the big red circle, albeit in the singular form.


5:37 PM, March 26, 2008  

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