by Mike Perschon
A pair of feet step into my peripheral vision. I look up to see a male counselor, beach towel and book in hand.
"You ever play fantasy role-playing games?" he asks me after some small talk and counselor-to-camp-speaker banter. The nearly inaudible and conspiratorial way he asks this question is normally reserved for confessions of deep dark secrets, inquiries into "how far is too far" in a dating relationship, or confusion over the erotic imagery of Song of Songs.
When I say yes, he becomes animated. Once a fellow tabletop role-player has been identified, the proper geek etiquette involves a series of "secret handshakes" and esoteric lingo involving the mechanics of gaming, the idiosyncrasies of gamers, and inevitably the question of whether or not I really think it's okay for Christians to play role-playing games.
This isn't an isolated event; I know Christians of every warp and hue who are also avid gamers—a math professor who worked as a missionary in the Cameroon plays an Elven healer who sings his spells of mending, a youth pastor of an evangelical church moonlights as a warhammer-wielding Dwarven fighter. I myself don a "+20 shirt of smiting" once a month to act as "Game Master" or moderator to an ongoing campaign (two years and running) based in Tolkien's Middle-Earth.
In addition to being avid, most Christians who are into role-playing games are "in the closet" because of a number of misconceptions and urban myths which vilified the hobby back in the 1980s. In a faith that's redeemed the alternative cultures of skateboarding and championed the once controversial tool of rock and roll, fantasy role-playing and its adherents remain outcast, forced to carry out their actions covertly.
After gaming for over 20 years and living as a Christian for nearly as long, it is my belief and experience that Roleplaying Games (RPGs) could serve youth ministry but continue to be largely overlooked for reasons which have not been properly evaluated or critiqued, despite the large number of students who are involved in this hobby.
In this article, I will attempt to address the main concerns with RPGs, then demonstrate that contrary to being harmful, fantasy role-playing has potential to assist youth ministry in the areas of socialization and education. This article will not concern itself with defining the history or mechanics of role-playing games as these topics have been extensively dealt with and are readily available through Internet searches.
Mythunderstandings about RPGs
There are two common objections within the Christian community to RPGs. The first is that fantasy role-playing allegedly leads players to become involved in the occult or opens them to demonic influence due to the magical element present in the majority of RPGs. The second is that they are said to contribute to suicide and/or violent crime.
The first reason, regarding magic, comes down to the reality that "if you believe that magic is both real and evil, then there can be no reasonable argument for accepting the game." (1) More relevant to our discussion, if one believes that the magic within role-playing games is real, then this statement is doubly true. This issue depends on whether the Christian gamer accepts fantasy worlds as secondary worlds not subject to the same laws of nature our own primary world is governed by. If one believes the magic of Narnia or Middle-Earth different from the magic prohibited in Scripture, then playing an RPG involving magic would not be an issue.
However, if the concept of imaginary magic is as abhorrent as real magic, then there are other options within the RPG community. A number of very popular role-playing games involve no magic, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, or games based in modern settings such as the modern d20 system. I.C.E.'s Rolemaster provides the possibility of gaming in any era, with or without the inclusion of magic.
The second concern, that RPGs lead to suicide and violent crime, is largely the result of media hype in the 1980s. One of the most notorious examples of this media-misinformation was in the case of Dallas Eggbert, a teen genius who went missing during his first year at college, and a year after the investigation into his disappearance, committed suicide. (2) Despite the fact that the investigation located no gaming paraphernalia other than a gaming magazine in Eggbert's dorm room, that no one could be found who had ever played Dungeons and Dragons with him, the disappearance and suicide were linked by the media to fantasy role-playing.(3) Mazes and Monsters, a best-selling novel inspired by Eggbert's story was made into a TV movie, further obscuring other relevant information from the investigation which stated that Eggbert was a user of hallucinogenic drugs, a homosexual in an era of homophobia, socially challenged and under severe pressure from his mother to achieve academically. (4)
Eggbert's story became the template for the media's treatment of such cases. When Bink Pulling, another teen genius, shot himself, the fact that he admired Adolf Hitler, had killed his own pets and neighborhood animals, and was socially isolated were ignored in favor of the more sensational element that he played Dungeons and Dragons with other gifted students at his school. (5) His mother formed an anti-FRP coalition, which would be responsible for much of the misinformation surrounding fantasy gaming.
Ironically, the evidence pooled by the critics of RPGs served to weaken the conclusions at which they arrived. If game designer Michael Stackpole's estimate of 10 million gamers in North America is correct, then the estimated "125 people killed from these games…should actually be higher."(6) Providing that each of these alleged cases were actually the result of involvement in RPGs, it means that less than 0.000001% of gamers commit suicide, a number far below the national average.
Statistical psychological studies have shown the opposite of what the critics claim; that involvement in a role-playing group "is not positively correlated with emotional instability." (7) Instead of studies into the therapeutic effects of role-playing games on socially challenged and neurotic individuals reveals that gaming groups provide a healthy community.
Shared Fantasy—A Gateway to Healthy Community
In his article "Therapy is Fantasy," John Hughes determined four positive psychological dimensions to fantasy role-playing (8), two of which are especially relevant to the potential use of RPGs as a tool of youth ministry.
Hughes identified that role-playing enabled players to gain greater social skills. In youth ministry, we're often faced with the challenge of the student who lacks the skills necessary for social interaction. My own experiences using an RPG in youth ministry demonstrated how gaming creates a safe environment for socially challenged students to try communicating in ways they would be afraid of in real life situations.
I purposely chose several players for our gaming group who were outgoing and gregarious to play alongside those who were awkward and withdrawn. The behavior manifested by the socially challenged students ranged from compulsive chewing (pencils, pop cans, whatever could be fit into the mouth) to extreme personal space issues. Initially, the group had little contact beyond the gaming table.
As the boys interacted with each other as their "characters," their relationship outside the game began to transform as well. The outgoing students began phoning the withdrawn ones and inviting them out, while the withdrawn students began socializing at youth group, not only with the gaming friends, but with students their gaming friends were connected with as well. Within a year, the student with personal space issues put his hand on my shoulder and asked me what it was like to be married, a question and action that stood in stark contrast to my first experience of him.
RPGs also provide an opportunity for a discerning game master or moderator to observe aspects of the players' personalities that manifest within the fantasy framework in bolder ways than they would in real life. I was often able to talk to the students after a gaming session about choices they'd made within the game, and draw connections with real life situations. RPGs have been used in psychotherapeutic treatments as an aid to "extended character analysis" and were reported to "bypass some of the risks of fantasy-based therapies such as Guided Affective Imagery while allowing emotions to emerge within the therapy in a non-threatening manner." (9)
I've witnessed this in the life of one of the characters involved in the campaign I'm currently running. By observing a recurring pattern that emerged over the two years in the player's gaming choices, we were able to identify an area of personal struggle that he was working out within the safety of the gaming environment.
The value of this beneficial attribute of RPGs cannot be understated, given the fringe group that are stereotypically most attracted to gaming. Young men who find frustration in the transition from childhood through adolescence into adulthood can work out a lot of their inner fears and apprehensions within the role-playing environment, simultaneously forging a small community of like-minded friends with whom they share a favorite activity .
The other benefit identified by Hughes is that role-playing is educational. All youth leaders interested in communicating the gospel to their students find frustration at one time or another in generating student interest in Scripture. Christian gaming RPGs such as DragonRaid incorporate Scripture memorization as an integral part of the rules.
Players of RPGs are voracious about learning everything they can about their gaming world. The possibilities are nearly endless, ranging from Biblical Eras (as Green Ronin's excellent d20 supplement Testament now enables gamers to do) to monastic communities in Europe. If a gamer has to play an Israelite priest, it is likely in short order they'll know more about Mosaic Law than you do. Or imagine a student playing a missionary during the age of Imperialism. In addition to having to know how to communicate the gospel, they'll have opportunity to wrestle through some tough and controversial aspects of church history.
This is where the youth leader comes into the picture. I remember reading an encouragement to teachers, pastors, and parents to take on the role of Dungeon Master or referee, to help guide the direction of role-playing games. Because of misinformation and media manipulation, I think many youth leaders have missed out on the possibility of using RPGs in a positive way. I know there are many youth workers who are closet gamers; its time to come out of the closet and into the light, and begin to use this area of personal play as a tool of the gospel.
Some will respond to this article by saying, "Well of course you think this is a good idea…you're a gamer…you're biased."
Of course I'm biased. No one is objective when it comes to such issues. But if I was writing an article about many other fringe elements of youth culture, my 20 year immersion in that culture would lend me credibility. Instead, I'm viewed with suspicion—my judgement must be clouded, I'm confused, deluded, or completely lost. Christianity has redeemed many other fringe youth cultures—we're prepared to become all things to all people to the students with piercings, tattoos, and loud music. But how many of us will be brave enough to enter the world of the geek, the world of 20-sided dice, miniature dragons, and all night gaming sessions involving 2 a.m. pizza runs?
And will we be brave enough to really, truly enter it, rather than simply wagging a finger and condemning it? To walk without fear into the supposed den of dragons with the words of Hebrews 2:8 ringing in our ears: "God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power." (CEV)
1 Carolyn Caywood. "Rescuing the Innocent: The Lure of Dungeons and Dragons." School Library Journal Mar. 1991: 138.
2 Kurt Lancaster, "Do Roleplaying Games Promote Crime, Satanism and Suicide among Players as Critics Claim?" Journal of Popular Culture, 28 (2), Fall, 71.
3 Paul Cardwell, Jr. "The Attacks on Roleplaying Games," Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 1994, 158.
4 Ibid., 158.