Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Dungeons and Dragons and the Christian Life

Should a Christian play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) or related games? Perhaps that’s not the question we should be focusing on the most. Before I go into why, I believe it is appropriate to begin by stating my pre-existing biases. First and foremost, I am biased as a Christian. I see the world through the lens supplied by the Bible, and I try to do my best to make my decisions accordingly. My second bias is my weakness to being interested in things of a fictional nature. I enjoy content that falls in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. I knew from the start that I would find myself enjoying D&D should I ever start playing it. Over six months ago, I found out I was right. This month, I quit the game.

I also believe that it is appropriate before going into this topic to explain a bit about what Dungeons and Dragons is. I know there are people who are predisposed to hate Dungeons and Dragons, for some good reasons, and for some bad reasons. I hope that if you do not know what Dungeons and Dragons is, even if you are predisposed to not have anything to do with it in the future (I respect your decision), that you would read the next section to know what it’s about.

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, is just one of many games that fall under the category called tabletop role-playing games. I have only played a couple of those games, but I will still do my best to fairly represent the genre in my explanation of it. Tabletop role-playing games are interactive games where the players pretend to be (in most cases) someone who they are not and play inside a make-believe world. They interact with each other and the person who is designated the game master (GM) – or dungeon master (DM) in the case of D&D and other games. The GM tells the story, either by reading it out of something premade, or out of their own imagination, and the players interact with that world. I like to describe it as a video game with people’s minds instead of a television screen and papers and pencils and dice instead of game controllers.

One example of what that is like is the following conversation:
GM: Your search for the prince’s servant brings you into a crowded market place filled with street vendors. People seem lively here, and you spot many who don’t seem to be from the area, drawn to this hub of activity. Shouts fill the air as vendors try to desperately gain attention over the sound of the market place. There is a variety of smells that fill the air, including that of fresh bread and citrus. However the scent of fish is the most pungent and noticeable scent. What do you do?
Player #1 – I look to see if there is anyone with royal looking clothing.
GM – Make a roll for perception.
Player #1 – I rolled and eight.
GM – There is a variety of people with fancy looking clothing in the market and it’s hard to make out anyone who seems more royal than others.
Player #2 – I seek out a street urchin to see if they know anything.
Player #3 – My character gets quite distracted by the scent of food and tries to find where the smell of fresh bread is coming from.

A tabletop roleplaying game can have anywhere as a setting, as historical or as fantastical as any book that you could read. They utilize many different kinds of systems for interacting with that world, some offering more degrees of freedom than others, and with different amounts of dice rolling.

The setting that D&D typically takes place in is in a fantasy setting where technology hasn’t advanced too far beyond swords and spears, and is supplemented by magic. Monsters are common in the D&D universe and it’s often described as a dark setting with the way it depicts evil forces in such a blatant manner.

Why would I (Stephen Selke) start playing a game like that?

Sorry for any of you who think that I played D&D or other games simply for the enjoyment of it. I will be straight up honest with you and say that I have ulterior motives. With me, it’s rarely as simple as “I just felt like it.” I care about people too much for that.

As a way to reach out to friends and try to encourage them to come to Christ, I hosted a games night on a weekly basis to reach out to young adults. Every second week, before the games began, we would have a Bible study. Eventually, most of the young adults moved on – either through lack of interest or because their life brought them other places.

I knew at least one of the young men who came to my games night played a tabletop role playing game, and so, to try to revive my games night, I suggested that I GM D&D at my place. I wanted to continue to build relationships and D&D seemed to be an easy way to do that. At least a couple of the young men showed interest in that.

So, over the course of the summer, I went to never playing D&D at all to learning the game system from scratch and becoming a GM. I wanted to be a GM rather than a player, because I understood how dark and evil D&D could be, and I wanted to have more control over how much of those elements were present as I hosted. I took all the information in D&D and modified it before getting started.

The very first session, the two young men who had been coming to my games night said that they wouldn’t be able to make it. I had invited other people as well, some young men from work. One of them had said he would be coming with “a friend.” I told him that we wouldn’t have as much people coming for the first session, and he said that was okay. I was surprised as he entered my condo with not one, but three friends.

And so, the past few months of D&D began. It seemed the perfect exercise for me. I was able to channel my story telling, and interact with people exploring my fictional world. After writing an novel which had very little feedback from my family and friends, this kind of interaction was a breath of fresh air to me.

The keen among you are looking at that last paragraph and thinking “so you were going to D&D for some self-fulfilment, when really your fulfillment should’ve came from Christ.” You are partially right, and that was part of the reason I quit. I still read my Bible on a daily basis, had both a Bible study and a small group to go to in addition to church, but I didn’t feel like I was using my relationship with God as much of a starting point as I should have been.

I did try to teach about realities of life through the D&D world and stories that I brought to the table (those who know me best know that I can’t help but preach the more of a platform that I’m given). But eventually I was forced to engage with the fact that I wasn’t taking the best course of action.

What’s Wrong With D&D, and Where the Rationalizations Fall Flat

If you asked me “is it wrong to play D&D?” I would say that’s the wrong question to ask. We as Christians have grown quite adept at rationalizing why our actions aren’t wrong. We should instead ask ourselves, “what’s the thing that I could do that would glorify God the most?”

I say more on that point later. For now, I want to analyze just what exactly is wrong with Dungeons and Dragons specifically:
  1. The violence. It is possible to play Dungeons and Dragons without any violence. In fact, as a player and GM, I found the actual “fighting” part to be far more monotonous than the other elements of the game. But much of the game consists of becoming a more powerful combatant, and to remove the fighting from the game would be to remove much of what many players enjoy about the game.

    Why is violence wrong? It’s directly opposite to the values that Jesus taught: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).

    The rationalization: I did my best to aim violence against forces that were inherently evil and not against anything too human-like. If the players took an overtly violent path, there would be ongoing consequences to their actions in the game.

    Where the rationalization falls flat: violence, even against pretend things that can be seen as inherently evil, is still violence. Don’t just shake your head at D&D. Don’t just shake your head at violent video games. Look at the television shows and movies that we like to watch. It makes little sense to have a piece of media say “violence is bad,” and portray violence for our enjoyment in order to prove it. What does it say about a person’s heart if he enjoys violence?

    Psalm 11:5 says “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.”
  2. The magic. Like violence, it is possible to play Dungeons and Dragons without having any kind of magic present. However, the game would probably have to be changed to the extent that one couldn’t fairly call it Dungeons and Dragons for that to happen. Most of the characters and their abilities and the monsters that they face are steeped in magic.

    Why is magic wrong? The truth that many modern people don’t realize is that there is such thing as supernatural power in the real world. There are two sources of this power: God, and Satan and his demons. When one says “magic” in the context of the real world, they are talking about supernatural power borrowed from Satan and his evil forces. Whenever it’s mentioned that people are harnessing supernatural power from God, it’s done with God being the active agent, acting through people. It’s less that people are using the power and more that God us using us to display his own power. It’s Satan and his demons who offer power for people to do their own thing with, and it’s that power that is most associated with the word “magic.” The Bible is fervently against those who would try to harness this power themselves. Revelation 21:8 (NIV) says referring to the people not saved through Christ, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

    The rationalization: I made it clear that the magic in Dungeons and Dragon is fictional, and that real magic was incredibly dangerous. In addition, I took out much of the elements of spellcasting that made it look similar to what I knew of real witchcraft (not that I did any deep research on that particular subject). We only call something “magic” because it’s not an ability that we innately have on our own accord. But in a different universe, there can be beings who innately have abilities that we may see as “magic” but to them it may be part of their natural abilities. In addition, whenever something that bore a close resemblance to something evil we see in real life arose inside the game – such as nature worship or demonic possession, I made a note to tell the players how there were real demons that people interacted with and how dangerous they were.

    Where the rationalization falls flat: The best way to teach how evil magic is in real life and how dangerous it is isn’t to encourage players to use it in a pretend world. Ultimately, God wants us to rely on him for strength. It’s one thing to try to improve ourselves to be responsible with the gifts God has given us out of our respect to him, it’s another thing to try to gain more power for ourselves so that we can do more on our own and less reliant on God.
  3. The pantheon of gods. The game mechanics are built specifically with multiple gods in mind. Characters, even the ones considered “good” have multiple gods to choose to worship, and many of them are written as legitimate and good choices. There are people today who believe in many gods – a belief system that is false and should not be supported.

    The rationalization: I was planning on introducing that there was one ultimate highest deity (spoiler alert: it would be me, the DM, as the creator of the world and story it made the most logical sense). That would come after pointing out the faults of having multiple gods through both exposition and through a character’s experience.

    Where the rationalization falls flat: like with magic, the best way to show the opposition against having multiple gods isn’t to promote a game atmosphere where one enjoys the experience of role playing following various gods. Having multiple “good” gods supports the common belief in society that there are many legitimate belief systems despite the way they contradict each other. Plus, as a writer, I believe that it’s dangerous to try to write a version of a legitimate monotheistic deity. As soon as one tries to define God a certain way or make statements of how God would react to certain circumstances or why He does things, one runs the risk of speaking things about God that aren’t true or by limiting his majesty. We as Christians should have a view of God that puts him so full of glory and so far above us and worthy of our fear and respect, that any of our depictions or references to him should be done incredibly carefully. I could go on for a while regarding this point, but what it really boils down to is “how does this activity affect my own view of who God is? Is this the best way to glorify God?”
  4. The consuming and addictive nature of the game. This one applies more to some people than to others. It definitely applied to me. As a writer, I am always running through new stories and scenarios in my head. D&D took this quality of mine and ran with it. As a GM, I was constantly thinking about the game. As Christians, we should aim to have dominion over what we are thinking about, and why we are thinking about them. When one role-plays, one tries to adapt to a new character(s) mindset: a mindset that may not be the healthiest or encourage healthy thoughts when the game is over. In addition, I found myself looking forward to playing this game more than I would look forward to doing other things like going to church, reading my Bible, etc.

    The rationalization: Yes some people are more sensitive to the game than others. But if I ever see the attitude of the characters entering into the attitude of the players, I speak up. I have told my players that it’s one thing for their characters to be mean to each other, it’s something entirely different to be mean to each other in person. I have caught my players thinking through their words and actions, both in character and out of it. I did my best not to see the game as play, but as work, as my ministry. It would make sense that one of my main forms of ministry would take up much of my thinking time, would it not?

    Where the rationalization falls flat: Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When I took this verse and laid it side by side when my thoughts about dungeons and dragons, and was completely honest with myself, I realized that this game wasn’t the best thing for me to think about.
The best thing. The thing that glorifies God the most. That is how are to decide which activities we should do as Christians.

Where Religion Falls Flat

If you’re against D&D, there’s a good chance you read my last section and thought, “see, it’s wrong to play dungeons and dragons, and that proves it!” You may now believe I am on your side and I hope that makes you more open to what I am about to say.

I fought my whole life against becoming too legalistic. I knew that we had freedom in Christ, that we were no longer under the law, so why did I need to obey a whole bunch of rules? There’s a very wise saying that goes something along the lines of “before you take down a fence, you must first ask why it was there to begin with.” I didn’t ask that question as much as I should’ve.

There are things in the Bible that show that certain behaviours are obviously sinful (such as what is prohibited by the 10 Commandments). However, something that continues to annoy me is when people say something is a “sin” even when it’s not specifically said as much in the Bible. One of the most prominent examples that comes to mind is when people say “it’s a sin to live together with your partner before you are married.”

No it’s not. Something that’s a sin is to have a sexual relationship with your partner outside of marriage, or lust after them in your heart. God has made it very clear that He’s against that. However, I see nothing in the Bible that says that the specific act of living under the same roof of someone you are romantically interested in is a sin.

But why was the fence put there to begin with? It’s because the best way to refrain from sexual immorality and lust is to not put yourself in a place where there’s a higher risk of it. It’s not wise.

When it comes to Dungeons and Dragons, I heard many reasons why it “was wrong” that didn’t work for me. People tried to explain the fence, and I kept finding ways around it. Some of those reasons were:
1. “It’s creepy.” I wasn’t as uncomfortable with it as others. Perhaps that was the fault of my own desensitized conscience, but the fact remained.
2. “It’s a gateway drug that leads to full on communicating with demons and practicing witchcraft and the like.” I am familiar with the reality of the spirit world. I know the difference between talking to a pretend demon and talking to a real one. The same drug that is meant to help can also hurt, and visa versa. Sorry, but that argument doesn’t work for me.
3. “It leads to violent behaviour.” They say the same thing about violent video games. Although I never quite acquired a taste for the most violent video games out there, I’ve still played plenty of violent video games, with no noticeable change to my own behaviour. Neither did playing D&D affect my own proclivity towards violence.

Religion is a bunch of rules, and a bunch of rules isn’t enough. That is why it is so easy to form rationalizations. We tell ourselves we aren’t actually disobeying the rule, therefor we should be allowed.

The older I grow, the more I realize the wisdom behind many of the fences that were around me growing up.

When one lives under the new law, the law of a Spirit, as a Christian, we aren’t merely colouring in between the lines of a bunch of do’s and don’ts. I’ve said again and again, and I’ll continue to say it even more, we need to ask ourselves, “given what I know through the Bible and my relationship with Him, what is the best way that I can glorify God?” The more we ask this question and live faithfully to carry out the right answer, the more we will probably find we are staying within the old fences anyway, even though the new law of the Spirit overrides the old law. (If you wondering where I am getting all this stuff about us not being under the old law, but the law of the Spirit, I recommend reading the book of Romans in the Bible – multiple times. It can take a while for you to wrap your head around it. Even if/while you find your understanding lacking on this particular point, don’t worry, just do your best to live for Jesus in everything you do)

The Answer to the Question

Should a Christian play Dungeons and Dragons or related games? Put simply, my answer to that is this: put Christ first. Focus on reading the Bible, and learning more about God. When you are closest to God, ask yourself “what is the best way to glorify God in this manner,” and go with the most honest response. Do what you feel lead by the Holy Spirit to do.

I suspect for most, given all that I have stated is wrong with D&D, the answer for you personally will be “probably not.”

I know my first response to admitting to myself that I needed give up D&D was to do more rationalizing. Admittedly, not all rationalizing is wrong, and it’s good to be able to think strategically. I tried to identify the elements of the game that I had the most problem with (the violence, the magic, etc.) and try to conceive of a table top roleplaying game that didn’t have those elements. There is actually quite a bit of redeeming factors of the game of D&D:
  • It promoted a sense of communication between players and co-operation towards a single experience in a way that was superior, I found, than most if not all other games that I have played. It was an excellent way to build relationships with others.
  • It helps people develop social skills and self-confidence.
  • It promotes and creative and critical thinking. Comparing D&D to other games is like comparing a long answer question on a test to a multiple choice question. Different people learn best in different ways, and so there’s a place for both kinds of questions.
Despite what I said about D&D probably not being the right answer, I can easily conceive of circumstances where a role playing game not too unlike D&D would indeed be the best course of action.

However, I want to take my experience to point out one more mistake that I saw myself making. I was asking God, “what is the best way for me to serve you MY way?” I was still holding on to games – both board games and table top role-playing games – with a tight fist. I still wanted to have fun while serving God. I should ask God “what is the best way for me to serve you?” and leave it at that. Perhaps the best way to serve God isn’t doing something that I previously found fun (although I do believe that if we are doing things correctly we will find joy in whatever we do to serve God).

And that brings me to my next point…

The Answer to the Question Taken Further

We, as Christians are in a war. Yes, God wins in the end, and yes, he doesn’t want us to be anxious or stressed but to rest in Him. But the fact that we are in a war should show us the seriousness of the situation we are in here on this earthly plane, and imply that our actions have massive consequences.

Ephesians 6:10-18 - Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

We are in a war, and Satan and his demons are against us. One of the things that they try to employ is to distract us. They will do anything to keep us worried about “flesh and blood” things, to keep us focused on our physical need and ignore the spiritual – or, when one becomes enthralled by the spiritual, make people focused on them and their lies rather than God. One of the easiest ways that we are kept distracted is when our physical needs are being met. We are being placated by happy thoughts.

We are in a war, so we can’t be messing around just doing whatever we feel like doing.

That in mind, what is the reason that we turn to games? Is it to escape this world, to medicate and to focus on things that aren’t real? What is the reason why we spend so much time looking at our phones, watching TV, or even hanging out with friends? None of those things are sins, and in fact they can be good things. But when they distract us from our final goal, they can be a bad thing.

James 4:17 - If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
If you aren’t impacted by this maybe you aren’t paying close enough attention. The things that we do matter, and the reasons we do them matter.

Do you feel like you’ve been praying for everyone you ought to be praying for? When you have a few seconds of free time, do you say the prayer now that you have time, or do you turn to an app on your phone or the nearest other distraction?

I’m not trying to be religious; I’m not trying to impose on you some more list of things you should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s all about you seeking God, earnestly asking Him how He wants you to behave and what He wants you to do, and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.

If you are reading all of this, and thinking, “it sounds like you want me to be perfect, and that’s impossible,” I have 2 things to say to that:
  1. We may never become perfect in this life, but we can always become better. And yet,
  2. Matthew 19:26 – Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
When I write these blog posts, so often when I use the word “you” I am also talking to myself. All of this has profound implications of how I am to now live. I find myself potentially having to abandon much more than D&D, but other significant things that I have spent a lot of time and resources on that it will not be easy for me to let go of. As I try to navigate towards what I should now be doing and lean on the Holy Spirit for direction and strength, a couple of verses stick out in my mind right now in order to help me on the way and that I wish to end this post with.

Proverbs 3:5-6 - Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

1 Corinthians 10:31 - So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.