Wednesday, April 10, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 9: Chapter 3 The Theology of Fantasy Role-Playing Games

Chapter 3: The Theology of Fantasy Role-Playing Games ranges from pages 35 to 42, and consists of a single title page, one blank page, and six content pages.

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.

In this chapter, I have no plans to examine Christian theology. Quite frankly, I'm not interested in that, not because I lack the training or experience (see the Courtier's Reply for an answer to that), but because I'm reviewing this book based solely from a gaming POV since this is a gaming blog. I trust that the reader can find a religious blog to discuss the theological aspects of RPGs. So, instead of focusing on theology, I'm going to critique the authors attempt to tie RPGs to theology.

Chapter 3 starts with "one quickly discovers that each game has its own distinctiveness ... that are different from those in other games. More important, however, one also discovers that each game has its own universe (world view or theology)" (Pg 37).

In Part 8, I covered the whole 'world view' thing, so I won't go over it again here, but the theology bit is new. According to, theology is defined as "the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God's attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity."

By no definition of theology does world view equate to theology nor does a game's "own universe." Conflating these three words together is the height of hubris and dishonesty. The accusation that D&D and other RPGs contains theology is ludicrous because there is no study of god(s) and no religious truths in RPGs. They only contain stats of mythical gods and how they interact with imaginary characters in a encyclopedic, definitional, way, much like reading about how ancient Greeks worshipped Zeus and Apollo. No one can honestly accuse the encyclopedia entry on the Greek myths to contain anything remotely like theology.

The text continues with "It is within this framework that all meaning and understanding regarding the game is derived ... players must comprehend the game's universe in order to understand fully their role playing ..." (Pg 37). The authors do not provide any evidence to support this contention because it is completely false—it is actually the mechanical rules of the game, i.e. the crunch, not the setting, that is the framework of the game.  Without these mechanics, RPGs devolve to a pass-the-stick storytelling circle. The only comprehension that the players must have is the rules system. And, sorry folks, the system ain't theology. Anyone who actually played an RPG would realize this.

After claiming that RPGs have similarities (who'da thunk?), they proceed with dividing the remaining chapter into sections on God, Creation, Man, Resurrection/Reincarnation and Morality.

Staring with God, they repeat the previous statement that "each player is expected to have a patron god" (Pg 38) as part of a polytheistic religion, which they got so wrong last chapter. No, no, no. Each player-character, that is to say, each character, not each player. To make the mistake once could be forgiven yet they continue to beat this falsehood drum. This is, quite definitely, bad research and bad journalism.

Their position then built upon this straw man is that there is only one God and blah, blah, blah, more quoting scripture. They started with a flawed premise ("players ... have a patron god") then expect that to makes the rest of their argument correct. Bad logic.

In the Creation section, they say "FRP games generally put forth a nontheistic universe or universes—that is, without an infinite creator God" (Pg 39), which invalidates their first position. A nontheistic universe has no gods, yet the God section clearly posits (and rails against) a polytheistic universe. Which is it, J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad? You can't have a nontheistic universe when you have polytheism. Again, this section is built on a flawed premise, that of players, not characters, involved with a host of gods and throw in some scripture.

They continue with Man, claiming "FRP games say that man can better himself and progress through various levels by means of cooperation, skill and some luck" (Pg 39). This is a strange argument on two points. First, "progress through various levels" is tied straight to specific game systems, D&D included, not to any sort of theology. Second, it has been demonstrated by history that man has bettered himself thorough cooperation, skill and luck. The development of science since the Dark Ages is a prime example of cooperation, skill and luck. To claim otherwise, or that it is unique to RPGs, is idiotic.

They again confuse player with character when they say "a player can begin as a hero or wizard .... in some games it is even possible to attain to the level of divinity ..." (Pg 39). How many times do they use this flawed premise? And game rules, i.e. D&D Set 5: Immortal Rules box set,  to fall toward apotheosis are mechanical rules, not theological, in scope.

In their Resurrection/Reincarnation section, they create a new flawed premise, that of "two options for man regarding immortality. One option is resurrection .... (a)nother option is reincarnation" (Pg 40). Immortality is not achieved using the rules in D&D from either of those options. In fact, both options only bring the character (not the player) back to life after he has been killed.

In Part 7 of this analysis, I already quoted the AD&D Players Handbooks for the Resurrection spell. Reviewing the Reincarnation spell, "Druids have the capability of bringing back the dead in another body if death occurred no more than a week before the casting of the spell. The person reincarnated will recall the majority of his or her former life and form, but the class they have, if any, in their new incarnation might be different indeed. Abilities and speech are likewise often changed." (pg 64).

Reading the Players Handbook, from which Playing with Fire's actual footnoted quotes were "spell of resurrection" (Pg 40) and "reincarnation spells" (Pg 40), compared to the full text of the spell description, leads one to believe that they actually never read the book they were quoting. What horrible and shoddy research.

Finally, they hit upon Morality, claiming that RPGs "see an amoral universe at best .... (s)uch activities as rape, stealing, murder, mutilation, human sacrifices ... are incorporated into the adventure ..." (Pg 41). If these activities automatically create a 'bad thing,' then the majority of history, literature and fiction have to be thrown out, including works such as the Bible. The central point of the New Testament itself is one specific human sacrifice, ordered (or at least allowed by) the central deity of the Bible. The Old Testament also contains heaps of rape, murder, genocide, human sacrifice, slavery. The argument that such activities existing in RPGs is wrong, while ignoring the Bible's own contents, is simply an inconsistant comparison.

The text posits that since "these games are open-ended, there is no final victory for good or evil" (Pg 41) then mentions in the related flagnote that "TSR ... has an in-house document ... in which explicit instructions are ... (that) 'good should always triumph over evil.' However, neither this document nor this conclusion has been made public" (Pg 41). What are they trying to do here? Sounds like another argument from ignorance. They invoke "no final victory," then "this document" has not been released to the public, implying that it doesn't exist.

The chapter's conclusion section has more of the same, conflating RPGs with a bankrupt theology and that Biblical theology is correct, claiming that "they are definitely two distinct and contrary theologies" (Pg 42). They get it so wrong, because theology actually has a definition, one that that they have conveniently ignored all along, at least until they use it to describe Biblical theology.

After asking "(i)f one should start to become his game character in reality ... would the effects be positive or negative?" (Pg 42), they then state that if "there is a false understanding of the supernatural, then the gods and demons one calls upon and imagines may not at times be purely imaginative and nonexistent after all" (Pg 42). The chapter ends with a final, ludicrous question "if, as the Bible indicates, that there are real spirit beings called demons, would that make any difference?" (Pg 42).

What a load of complete crap. First they start with a loaded question, then they assert the gods and demons in RPGs may actually exist. Why are they bringing up demons anyways? They had the perfect opportunity to present evidence for demon possession with relation to RPGs in Chapter 1, but failed to follow through.

Chapter 3 concludes with a wimper. The authors employ quite a bit of Kettle logic and assert, without even a shred supporting evidence, a Slippery Slope to ruin for players and 'monsters and demons.'
 Unfortunately, they're all talk and no facts, starting with a flawed premise (RPGs have theology) and tortured logic. One could argue the existence of the tooth fairy with these arguments and a 'tooth fairy theology,' too.

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