Wednesday, April 24, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 11: Chapter 4 Black, White, or a Mixture of Grays?

Chapter 4: Black, White, or a Mixture of Grays? continues from Part 10.

Three items of Note:
1) direct quotes from the text will be italicized,
2) my analysis of this text is not an attack on individual Christians or to paint Christians as a whole in a broad brush, and
3) the authors' ideas will be critically examined, especially when they present a Christian idea without using the same rigor that they have used on RPGs.

I continue the review in Chapter 4 "Morality" (Pg 51). "Whether or not one likes to admit it, moral considerations play a central role in the universes created by fantasy role-playing games." (Pg 51). Assert, assert, assert, that's all you do, J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad. Without any basis. How do we know that this latest of their assertions are true? We don't. They just assert it and want us to trust them. Sorry, but no dice. I don't trust either of you, nor your assertions.

They then go into how good and evil exist in equal parts, blah, blah, blah, nothing is absolute, good doesn't win over evil and in the end, "good is no better than evil–it is just one tool in the conquest" (Pg 51). Additionally, "the game provides the player with the potential for laying aside his morality while playing" (Pg 51) and then goes on to quote one player who says "(i)n D&D, it is better to be evil. You get more advantages in being evil .... if ... you no longer trust someone, if you chop him down ... there's no penalty for it" (Pg 51).

Since they've already stipulated that thoughts can be criminal, then if the Old Testament was an RPG session, Moses' player is responsible for the murder of the overseer, the plagues that descended on Egypt (especially the murder of all the first born) and the slaughter of the Amalekites in battle. Wasn't murder evil before the 10 commandements were brought down the mountain? Seems to me that Moses was good "just as one tool in the conquest."

As for laying aside morality, if one believes that thoughts can be criminal, then that makes perfect sense. Except that the authors haven't presented a good case that certain thoughts ARE criminal, so their argument is crap. The single quote from one player only proves that the authors are cherry-picking. For that one player, he likes to play evil characters. One instance doesn't mean all.

The text then goes into morality and power, saying "games thrive on the quest for power, and man has always craved power" (Pg 52). They quote Gary Gygax "As the DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow" (Pg 52).

The footnote points to an article by another pair of evangelicals (Onken and Miller) but the quote is actually from Keep on the Borderlands (1979, Pg 2). The whole paragraph this quote is taken from says "Dungeon Masters, if many copies of this module are available to the players, you may wish to alter sections of the Keep and the Caves of Chaos. If you do this, you will be sure to have new surprises for players who might be familiar with some of the contents of the module. You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You, however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the  Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow. The others in your group will assume the roles of individuals and play their parts, but each can only perform within the bounds you will set. It is now up to you to create a magical realm filled with danger, mystery, and excitement, complete with countless challenges. Though your role is the greatest, it is also the most difficult. You must now prepare to become all things to all people."

It's obvious that J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad never actually read the whole paragraph, much less any of the source material they quote, because, though it is a bit of purple prose, the intent is not the quest for power that they believe it is, instead it is Gygax telling the nascent DM that he's going to have to work harder than the individual players at the imagination for the world. Yet another example of quote-mining and cherry-picking their quotes, too dishonest an act to allow to pass without comment.

Staying on the power theme, the quote an unnamed psychologist, who says "'If I had a child who tended towards schizophrenia, I'd never let him near D&D. There's a danger that it would reinforce feelings of grandiosity, of omnipotence. Reality and fantasy are hard enough for schizophrenics to differentiate.' ... 'But I doubt very much that the game causes problems.'" (Pg 52).

First, who is this unnamed psychologist? Why isn't he or she named?  Second, the psychologist is talking about schizophrenics, not normal, mentally-sound, players of the game. I agree that letting a mentally-ill person who has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality play D&D is probably a bad idea, and I have no training in psychology. But to conflate this to all players from those that are mentally-ill is wrong and insidious of the authors. They aren't talking about the mentally-ill in this text. If the book was all about not letting schizophrenics play D&D, I'd be heartily approving of it, because distinguishing fantasy from reality is a basic necessity to being mentally OK. Yet another red herring.

"Where there is power, there is often violence, and FRP games are no exception" (Pg 52), the text continues, "this can be seen ... in the critical hit tables from the game Arduin Grimoire" (Pg 53), then it goes on to quote from the Arduin Grimoire and it's author, Dave Hargrave "'It's deliberately gruesome .... They've got to understand that what they do has consequences. The world is sex. It is violence. It's going to destroy most of these kids when they leave TV-land.'" (Pg 53) They continue with "the purpose of his game is to prepare children for living in the real world by exposing them to the brutality of sex and violence .... but many would disagree with his methodology, which they would describe as overly harsh and brutal." (Pg 53).

First, it's imaginary violence and imaginary power. It seems that both the authors have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. Maybe they shouldn't play the game because they have that problem, but why should those of us who can distinguish these two things apart listen to what they have to say? Second, Arduin Grimoire is not a game, it's a supplement. Why, oh why, can't they get that right? Lack of rigor in research by the authors, that's why. I checked the critical hit tables in my copy of Arduin Grimoire and they match the quoted part in the book, except for a misspelling here and there, but there were worse options that they didn't include. Did they actually read Hargrave's book? Finally, yes, the world is a gruesome place with bad things that happen, but getting a single quote from a single game designer again proves that the authors love to cherry-pick.

They quote Dr. John E. Holmes (editor of the Blue Box), from his article in Psychology Today titled "Confessions of a Dungeon Master" (1980) "The level of violence in this make believe world runs high. There is hardly a game in which the players do not indulge in murder, arson, torture, rape, or highway robbery .... I don't think this imaginary is any more likely to warp the minds of the participants than is the endless stream of violence in TV, movies, or literature. Quite possibly it provides a healthy outlet for those people who are imaginative and inclined to enjoy the game." (Pg 54). The text adds "his conclusion ... would not be accepted by everyone. There are many today who are concerned about such violence, whether on television or in fantasy games specializing in emotional participation." (Pg 54).

The authors conveniently ignore the immediately following sentence from Holmes' article "In order for the game to provide vicarious release for unacceptable behavior, the entire group of players must go along with the convention that game roles are independent of the actual players." Why wouldn't they include a statement that totally contradicts their belief that players become their roles? Convenient. And which others don't accept his conclusion? Could they have named a few, possibly, rather than a broad "many?" Also, when did RPGs specialize in emotional participation? Imagination and emotion are not the same thing. One could argue that all forms of entertainment have emotional components, from watching the big game on T.V. (who hasn't seen someone yelling at their television over a missed play?) to games like Monopoly (who hasn't experienced someone gloating when they collect all the railroads?), but that doesn't mean they 'specialize' in them. Neither do RPGs but the authors have simply asserted that they do without any evidence.

Then we turn to sex with "(w)here there is power and violence, there is often sexual immorality .... The toss of the dice may well determine in some cases whether or not a character remains a virgin; and rape is not an uncommon occurrence" (Pg 54). Taking a quote from D&D, "'non-human soldiers' are expected to 'rape freely at every chance'" (Pg 54). Flagnote 13 says that quote comes from Pg 31 of the "Players Handbook (Lake Geneva,Wis.: TSR Games, 1975)."

Imaginary power, imaginary violence and imaginary sex. Which of us, J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad, has the problem with distinguishing fantasy from reality? Unfortunately for the authors, there is no virgin rape table in the works they cite, otherwise it would be quoted ad nauseam. They say they take a quote from the Players Handbook (1978), except there is no reference to that on Pg 31 (it's the monk ability table), and, since they're saying it was printed in 1975, after checking my copies of the White Box set (1974), Greyhawk (1975) and Blackmoor (1975), I've found no reference for it. What extremely crappy and sloppy research because it, in fact, comes from the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), from hiring troops. The full sentence is "The less intelligent non-humans will server for from 10% to 60% less cost, but these evil creatures will certainly expect to loot, pillage, and rape freely at every chance, and kill (and possibly eat) captives." See The Escapist for an analysis on this quote-mining.

They continue to harp on it with the "moral makeup of FRP games is dependent upon ... the moral world view of the inventor" (Pg 54) and "the participants creates his own moral or immoral universe" (Pg 54) and the "creation or acceptance of moral choices in fantasy and in the real world may both be part of what is essentially a unitary process in personal moral development" (Pg 54), trying to conflate imagination with reality when they say that the player "is not merely identifying with a character, or hero, as in a book–he is the hero" (Pg 55). With books and movies passive activities (i.e. you are watching or reading, rather than play acting), they say "actors are probably more involved in their roles .... (b)ut they are professional role players, not impressionable adolescents caught up in the excitement .... they ... have a good grip on reality to begin with" (Pg 55). But then they turn against professional actors with "(i)t should be admitted in all honesty, however, that since both acting and role playing have participation in common, some of the same potential problems ... could occur when acting out a part" (Pg 55).

So, if there actually was a link between moral choices in fantasy and ones in the real world, that combined together to create personal moral development, you'd actually have some evidence to back that up, right? Where is it? Hello? When I taught physics, I'd ask my students to show their work. Not surprisingly, the authors don't show theirs. Again, I'm thinking that one of us has a good grip on reality and it isn't the authors of the text. If actors playing a role could come to believe their roles are real, then how many cases of actors playing serial killers have actually turned to serial killing? In the years and years that Hollywood has had serial killer TV shows and movies, one would expect at least one would surface if the authors' point of view was correct. What is so hard with understanding that there is a difference between action in reality, and imagined action?

And, as the text goes on, they continue to conflate action with imagination, by saying "(s)ince the player and the character are one in thought and decision, to say that something was not really the player's ... but those of the character is superbly ridiculous. There is only one person involved, and he is both the player and the character" (Pg 56) and "(n)ow, this is ... simply to indicate that the door is opened for wrong thoughts and decisions, as well as a loosening of his moral will" (Pg 56).

How many times do we have to go over this? This argument itself is superbly ridiculous because they haven't provided any evidence to support their assertion that a player and the character he is imagining have the same thoughts and actions. Sure, I'll give them that one person is involved, the player, but the character is an exercise in his imagination. There is no substance, no basis in reality for this character. It's completely imagined. To argue otherwise requires more evidence than they've presented, which is none. And that last sentence returns us to the thoughtcrime and I'll repeat: I don't recognize either of the authors' authority to say that there are right and wrong thoughts. Nothing they have said would make me agree with their assertions concerning that.

The next two paragraphs is just another red herring, talking about how the game elevates imaginary characters as role-models. "Are thieves, rapists, assassins, and magic users (occultists) of the moral sort that others, especially children, should be encouraged to admire, to accept as 'models?'" (Pg 56). By this very flawed argument, the authors then have to condemn the Bible. Abraham was willing to murder his own son at the orders of his deity. 'Righteous' Lot gave his daughters to the citizens of Sodom to be raped. Yet these characters are considered moral and to be admired? What are the chances that they'd use the same criteria on their own holy book that they use on RPGs? Well, they don't.

The second to last page of this section claims two things, both completely circular. First, that "a standard of right and wrong for everyone .... can be found and understood only in a moral universe created by a good and holy God, because God Himself–His character and goodness, holiness and love–is the standard" (Pg 57) and second, by saying "(t)he Bible is the final authority on right and wrong, and if God declares in the Bible that prostitution, rape, stealing, mutilation, murder, human sacrifices, worshipping other gods, casting spells, using magic, and practicing necromancy are wrong, should one ... become involved in a fantasy game in which one participates by imaginative role playing?" (Pg 57)

I just love that circular logic: First, an absolute standard exists because God says so, and God is the source of that absolute standard, and second, God is the absolute standard of morality because the Bible says so, and the Bible says that God is the absolute standard of morality because God says so. Where do you go from there?

The last page of the Morality section deals with thoughtcrime again. "Can anyone believe then that the imagining of sinful behavior ... is simply an innocent pastime? With the Bible as our guide, we must first of all guard our minds against wrong thoughts. Images, concepts, and ideas that are introduced in the consciousness will have consequences in actions" (Pg 58) I leave it to the gentle reader to see one more instance where thoughtcrime is not allowed.

So, what do we have for the Morality section of Chapter 4? More assertions that are not followed up by any sort of evidence, thoughtcrime and red herringscherry-picking and quote-mining, sloppy reference footnotes and no actual evidence that the authors actually read the cited material, more assertions without evidence, more thoughtcrime, more red herrings and two instances of circular reasoning.

So far, these authors have done a shitty job. Next time in Part 12, I'll finish off Chapter 4. Thank Zeus for that!

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