Wednesday, July 12, 2006

DW, Bill Cosby & Evercrack

You don't want to get me started on Dungeons & Dragons and Satan; or D&D as a corrosive element in modern youth; or D&D as an addictive force that generates slack-jawed losers who, as they age, become increasingly inept at social activities that don't focus on hit points, class, alignment or leveling up.

Back when I used to sell street bikes for a living, during the very early days of my game store, I was asked by a friend who hated motorcycles if I had any ethical considerations about selling 100 horsepower bikes to 19 year old kids suffering from adrenaline overload. All I could say was, Hey! I own a game store. I sell D&D. If I'm burning in hell someday it isn't going to be because of a biker kid who overcooks it into a corner and gets introduced to a logging truck. It'll be because despite what TSR and industry PR-Schmoes say, D&D really is a force of evil on the planet. from Game Store Confidential: Dumb Gamers by DWTripp on the blog Gone Gaming

Folks in the gaming world are not going to mistake me for DWTripp. (Let's just say that DW is, well, colorful - and that color is often a bright & lurid shade of blue.) Don't get me wrong - I enjoy (most of the time) reading Game Store Confidential... DW's a funny & insightful guy when it comes to games & the business of games. Still, there's not much chance of us being twins separated at birth.

And then, some months back, I read his comment about Dungeons & Dragons (abbreviated for the rest of this post as D&D). I laughed, not just because it's funny... but because I'm a former D&D player & Dungeon Master (hereby abbreviated as DM) - and he's partly right.

However, this wasn't a conclusion I came to until much later in life. Here's the primary reasons I think that D&D is a "corrosive element" (if not a "force of evil on the planet."):

The Bill Cosby Factor

To explain my reasoning, I need to quote noted philosopher Bill Cosby from his film Bill Cosby Himself:

I said to a guy, "Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?" and he said, "Because it intensifies your personality." I said, "Yes, but what if you're an a*****e?"

It's my humble opinion that D&D works in a similar way: it intensifies your personality. In most board & card games, whatever mess you've got going in your own life doesn't tend to surface at the table. (There are, of course, exceptions - usually negotiation games.) But in D&D, you are pouring your heart & soul into a character which you create not just for an evening of play but for extended periods of time. (In the words of Eeyore, "weeks, months, years... who knows?")

With that kind of identification over time, the game can easily become a place to act out unresolved issues from your "real life." For example, one of the guys I use to roleplay with was the youngest brother in a family of macho brothers... and was mercilessly picked on, both emotionally & physically. When we played D&D, he treated the rest of the party and the NPC's with the same kind of disdain that he received from his brothers. (It was a "safe" environment... if challenged on his buttheadness, he could - and did! - rationalize that he was "just playing his character.")

Now, if you're playing with mostly healthy individuals, this probably isn't a big deal. But my personal experience as a pastor and gamer lead me to believe that if we drew a Venn diagram of the subsets "emotionally healthy individuals" and "rabid D&D players", the overlap would not be, shall we say, large.

Of course, the Bill Cosby Factor implies that this is true of role-playing in general, not just D&D. I'm not sure that's the best way to read my theory. The anecdotal evidence from my own life is conflicting:
  • Many of the same guys in my D&D group also played Traveller, with much less frustration, stupidity & rudeness. Was it the system... or was it the way I ran the two games differently?
  • OTOH, when I ran a boardgaming club in Nashville, we shared our in-store night with two RPG groups... one who played D&D with the store owner DMing (which was as "normal" as those kind of things go) and one that played a variety of RPG systems - and managed to get in rules fights & personality clashes on a regular basis. It didn't matter what system these guys played... there was a better than even chance of these guys getting ticked off at each other, spewing venom & anger on themselves and everyone around them.
"So, what's the problem?," you ask. "OK, I'll buy that D&D allows more borderline personality types to act out than, say, El Grande, but that just means that the chances of you having a bad personal experience with the game is enhanced." True, which leads us to...

The EverCrack Factor

I thought I had seen addiction at its worst during the height of the Magic: the Gathering craze. It's a little scary to watch people plunk down hard earned cash for a tiny foil packet, rip it open, sort quickly through the cards... and then grab another pack from the display and fish for their wallet again. And again. (Granted, this was wonderful for your average brick & mortar game store - the CCG addicts paid a lot of light bills - but it still is disconcertingly like watching a junkie scrounging around a toilet for the fix he dropped.)

But CCG addiction was minor compared to the effect of EverCrack aka Everquest. This online role-playing game had some guys in our group refusing to come play boardgames... or do anything else for that matter. A typical day for these guys was:
  • wake up
  • play Everquest while eating breakfast
  • go to work
  • think about Everquest while working
  • come home
  • play Everquest while eating dinner... and then well into the night
  • fall asleep and dream about Everquest
  • lather... rinse... repeat... (of course, by using this metaphor for doing the same thing over & over, I am not implying that those who were addicted to EverCrack remembered to shower...)

Look, I know that any game system can be involving - even in the Euro gaming community:

  • those groups that refuse to play anything but Settlers of Catan
  • the Puerto Rico snobs who openly ridicule "substandard" opening moves
  • the Heroscape addicts who pester store managers on a near-daily basis to see if the latest expansion has arrived (admission: I've never actually pestered a store manager, but I've sure thought about it)

But there is a special quality to games that create an ongoing "virtual" world that is seductive & interesting... and can lead to some seriously obsessive behaviors. Like refusing to have a real life because your "virtual" life is so much better.

So, combine intense identification (sometimes to the point of transference) with obsessive/addictive behavior... and you've got DW's "corrosive influence." D&D has the potential for bringing out great creativity in those who play it - while at the same time talking some folks "over the edge" into a "virtual world" where they attempt to hid from their real world issues behind stacks of manuals, graph paper & polyhedral dice.

I am not saying that "D&D turns everything it touches to crap." Many folks involved in roleplaying live normal adult lives. They are able to have a conversation without bringing up their character and his latest adventures. They have relationships that center around feelings & responsibilities, instead of trying to get their girlfriend to wear a chainmail bikini and planning their employment around their gaming sessions.

I'm just saying that it has the potential for harm... handle with care.

You'll notice that I didn't list "Christianity vs the occult" as my reason for agreeing with DW. (Man, I can tell I have two young children... every time I type DW, I think about Arthur & Buster.) If I'd chosen to do that, we would have had to title this post DW, Black Oak Arkansas & World of Warcraft.

I'm not saying that this isn't a questionable area. I've had friends who found D&D to be a stepping stone into so-called "white magic" and a passle of other activities which are clearly forbidden in the Bible. It just wasn't the primary reason I found compelling in my own life.

For some of you, that's bothering you... a lot. In my role as a pastor, I should be thundering down the Mountain of Truth, riding my noble steed, Zeal, (armed with a double-edged "sword") as I tear into these godless pagans who would actually be involved in "fantasy." Sorry - that's not gonna happen. (I'll talk about the positive use of fantasy in another post.)

OTOH, some of you need to stop snickering behind your hands at Christians who take a strong & consistent stance on cultural issues. You may or may not agree that avoiding the works of J.K. Rowling & J.R.R. Tolkien is an intelligent decision, but you need to acknowledge their right in a free society to do such a thing - and their courage to forego "fitting in" to stand by their convictions.

Note to both sides: that's what tolerance REALLY is: letting people believe other things without verbally and/or physically attacking them for doing so. You don't have to agree with them... goodness knows I think Al Franken's a funny man who should stop trying to be political and that Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer who was the first to figure out that nobody was catering to the political views of 50% of Americans. Either way, they both have the right to speak - and toleration means I don't try to shut them up via legal or illegal means. (I just turn the dial back to Jack 105.9 and/or slip in some David Crowder Band.)

And, in a final parting shot, what tolerance is NOT: making sure everyone expresses thoughts that everyone can agree with, or at least pretend to agree with.)


Gerald McD said...

"Amen" to your final paragraphs.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Joey - the young man (whose not so young any more) who tried to hit me is fully responsible for his own actions. D&D merely provided a setting conducive to his "acting out" in a variety of ways, the most extreme being an attempt to pummel me.

To push your extreme analogy a bit farther, I'd suggest that clinic bombings are not necessarily separate from religion. However, it's "messed-up" theology that provides the springboard for a sick, sinful & destructive act.

Gaming is not the problem, but a game system like D&D that combines the elements I wrote about in my post has the potential to be a springboard for garbage as well.

Let me quote John Paul II (or at least his biographer) - "Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have lethal consequences." T