Monday, August 10, 2009

Is "Dungeons & Dragons" Evil?

This essay about Dungeons & Dragons first appeared on my wiki in May of 2006, and in the wake of roleplayer-turned killer, Robert Hull Marko, I revised it in 2008. Today, I'm revising this again to bring it up to date with current Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) editions and events.

Is D&D evil? It's a provocative question, and in some people's minds it doesn't matter what your answer is. Any product that you can even ask the question about is suspect. This article is a rebuttal to what I feel is a terrible campaign of misinformation against one of the best tools in a parent's toolbox in their attempt to raise a healthy, well adjusted teen: Dungeons & Dragons (among many other role-playing games).

What is role-playing

Let's begin with general concepts. Dungeons & Dragons or D&D is a role-playing game. It was introduced in the early 1970s and has consistently been the most popular role-playing game since. It is not a game like Monopoly where there is a winner and a loser, or a so-called zero-sum game. Instead, D&D is a game where the players act out parts in a story. The story may be very well defined with limited choices for the players to make or it may be open to whatever the players want to do. These choices about how the story will unfold are made by a referee called the "Dungeon Master" or DM. The DM tells the players what is happening and then allows them to respond, telling him what they wish to do.

When the players want to do something that they might succeed or fail at, the DM tells them to roll dice to determine the outcome. The rules tell the players how to use the dice to determine the results of their actions in this way.

Here's a sample session:

DM: "You've all just gotten into town, and found the nearest inn to relax in. A well-dressed man enters the Inn and says loudly that he's looking for adventurers that want to help defend the town."

Alice: "I walk over to him and ask him who he works for."

Bob: "I throw a dart at the dart-board and..."

DM: "Roll to see if you hit the board." ... Bob rolls well ... "You hit the bullseye!"

Bob: "... and I say that I'm for hire, but my services aren't cheap."

As you can see, the DM is setting the ground-work for an adventure where the players protect the town from some unknown threat, but the players themselves get to decide how their characters want to respond to the situation. Bob even managed to punctuate his statement with an act of skill that probably impressed the stranger. This is role-playing.

Psychology

You will often hear confusion between the psychological tool called "role-playing" and games like D&D. This is also incorrect. Role-playing games actually pre-date all modern psychology. There are three elements to role-playing games:

  • Fantasy
  • Improvisation
  • Rules

All three of these elements, and even their combination can be seen in the play of any child during any age. Watch a game of cops-and-robbers. You pretend to be a cop or a robber (fantasy); you say things like, "you'll never get away with this," or "hah! I shot you!" (improvisation); and you impose certain rules, "you can't get up, you've been shot."

This is a role-playing game, as is any non-zero-sum game which involves all three of the above items. The only differences between such games and modern role-playing games like D&D are:

  • They tend to have more complex rules (derived from war gaming originally, which comes from military games throughout history)
  • They almost always involve dice
  • They are often, but not always, played without physical acting (e.g. at a table)

The kind of role-playing that is popular with psychologists is a different animal, and almost always involves only two people, almost no fantasy, and generally very few if any rules. It is essentially pure improvisation, and is nothing like Dungeons & Dragons or any other role-playing game.

Alignment

In D&D, players pick an "alignment" for their characters. This is a description of their character's approach to moral and ethical decisions. There are two scales: good/evil and lawful/chaotic (update: the most recent version of the game has simplified this system). Much has been made over the fact that one end of the alignment spectrum is evil. Keep in mind, however that role-playing games typically depict epic themes of good vs. evil. This requires that there be evildoers in the world of D&D. Typically this is not the role of the players. After all, it's hard to work together when you're all out for your own benefit and willing to step on the next guy to get it. Players are in the game together and must be able to work together, so for pragmatic reasons alone, almost all D&D player characters are non-evil.

Aside from that, keep in mind that alignment is probably the single most disliked element of D&D. Some players enjoy the alignment system, but far more find it to be too restrictive and arbitrary, so you're standing on thin ice when you hold up the alignment system as part of the evils of D&D.

As far as the confusion between law and good, chaos and evil, let me sum it up in a very Christian way:

Jesus was lawful good. He was good in that he helped others, regardless of the cost to himself. He was lawful in that he strictly adhered to a code of conduct. He wasn't always "lawful" in the sense that he didn't obey every law (in fact, he often opposed the law), but that's not what a lawful character is about in D&D, it's about having a well defined code of conduct by which you live your life, and a general belief in the idea that the world would be a better place if others obeyed that code.

Pilate would be an example of lawful evil (just "evil" in the new edition of the rules). He did not care about the lives of others, only that order be maintained. He also had a code of conduct that he followed... but that code didn't value human life, and that's the difference between lawful good and lawful evil.

Judas would probably be chaotic neutral. He was interested mostly in his own well-being, and where that meant doing good, so be it, but he was strictly dedicated to neither good nor evil. In the latest edition, chaotic neutral doesn't exist as an alignment, or really as a concept, so Judas wouldn't really fit in.

That's how alignment works. It's not mutually exclusive with any particular morality, it is just an in-game mechanical way of describing one aspect (well, two) of morality in order to attach game rules to a character's outlook.

Much is often made about D&D's focus on evil. There's an evil alignment, evil beings of great power, and so on. Doesn't this make D&D evil? Well, look at the Bible. There are evil people and evil beings of great power, but I don't think most Christians would say that the Bible is evil. The Bible sets out to teach the reader about good and evil. D&D sets out to allow people to tell stories about good and evil for the purpose of having fun. Neither goal can be satisfied without portraying evil. If you don't want your child to play an evil character, say so. Keep in mind that evil characters are very rarely the sort that the rest of the players want to have around in the first place, and all of the commercial gaming materials involve struggles against evil. Hence the scary sounding title of books like The Temple of Elemental Evil, which is a D&D game where the players try to stop an evil force from destroying the world.

Violence

There is no underlying ethos of D&D. D&D is a vehicle for "cops and robbers" as a more mature game. It's possible to do anything at all with it. The violence involved in D&D, however, has remained constant over the years. Dungeons & Dragons is an extension of miniature wargaming, and as such it would be nearly impossible to remove the element of violence (just as it would be nearly impossible to remove war from Risk or finance from Monopoly). If violence is your concern, then there are other fantasy role-playing games that might be more appropriate, but keep in mind that the violence in D&D is not the detailed, graphic sort of violence that one finds in most fiction. Instead, it is a fairly abstract affair which is, in many ways, more like the violence of chess or many board games. Numbers replace concrete descriptions of damage in a fight, making it more of a mathematical exercise than one might expect.

In the end D&D is true to its roots. You don't discuss the epic diplomacy between good and evil. You discuss the epic fight between good and evil. This is the nature of the genre of storytelling.

Paganism and magic

One of the other things you will hear about Dungeons & Dragons is that it's some sort of manual or recruiting tool for Wicca and other forms of neo-paganism that cropped up throughout the 20th century. This idea is deeply flawed, but we'll take it one step at a time.

European mythology and the Inquisition

The Inquisition my not have obliterated the native religions of Europe, but it removed them from the popular culture very effectively. Since it came to an end around the mid-1800s the popular culture has re-absorbed the mythology of early Europe. In the early-to-mid 1900s, the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (both of whom were Christians) brought Christian morality and the lore of the old cultures of Europe together in fantasy stories that presented distinctly Christian ideas of good and evil in a fictional context with magic, fey, and other elements of European mythology. It is important to understand that the fantasy religions portrayed in D&D are strongly influenced by this fantasy fiction genre, and not any real religion (Christian, pagan or otherwise). In part, D&D is directly based on the work of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and others who brought this synthesis to the public.

Today, there are neo-pagan religions which blend this modernized and Christianized view of European and eastern mythologies with actual religious practices. The line between these religions and modern fantasy is much thinner, in part because they are still developing. As such, it is not uncommon for these religions to borrow from fantasy sources such as those listed above. D&D also draws on these works of fiction and elements of the tales of many ancient cultures, and developed around the same time as neo-paganism. There is, therefore undeniable similarity between some elements of D&D and some elements of neo-paganism, but this similarity is merely a coincidence of their cultural roots. In many ways D&D is far more Christian-influenced than neo-paganism, presenting holy knights and analogs of heaven and hell in its backdrop world.

Can D&D teach magic?

One of the other common assertions is that D&D teaches the fundamentals required to use magic or that it recruits people into the practice of magic. This is either an ignorable point (if you don't believe in magic) or a deeply flawed one. First of all, magic in D&D is based on a highly abstracted and simplified set of mechanics. There are no "incantations" or "rituals" described in the books except in very general terms that one would find in any fantasy novel from the 1950s onward. Only mechanical effects are presented such as "your character can heal another character." The descriptions focus on the effect, and there is no description given as to how to go about "casting" a spell.

D&D does present the alchemical "classical elements" of western tradition, but again there is no real explanation of the alchemical concepts, only the four elements' names (fire, earth, water and air) which exist as places or "planes". It should be noted that this is pure fantasy and bears no resemblance to how the four elements were viewed in western alchemy. Only the names remain.

This idea that only the names are used in D&D is pervasive. Names of creatures of both pagan and Christian stories are used, but rarely have any resemblance to their counterparts. The game is actually less useful as an introduction to magic in many ways, than knowing nothing at all. What's more, as others who have tackled this problem have pointed out, any encyclopedia has a much deeper, more accurate and clearer description of occult practices than D&D's fictionalized concepts.

A great tool for parents

One of the tools that any parent needs to provide their children with is the ability to interact socially with others. For some this comes easily. For others... well, it's not always so trivial. For children who don't make friends easily, and are often awkward with others, the best solution is to engage in structured social situations where clear rules of interaction "break the ice." The problem is that children rarely want to be part of any kind of structured event. Role-playing games can provide a rare combination of structure and appeal. D&D in this context acts only as venue for learning to interact with others.

If your child would benefit from a social environment, I strongly recommend that you consider introducing them to or encouraging their playing of role-playing games. This can be especially helpful in difficult neighborhoods, since gaming can literally remove a child from dangerous situations. However, you should not be complacent. Being aware of your children's friends and hobbies is important. Host a few games. Don't pry, but certainly do ask questions, stop in from time to time to offer drinks / snacks / whatever.

For those parents who might run into problems, here's my list of things you should be concerned about:

  • Bullying. Social interaction that isn't based on equal participation isn't going to do anyone any good. Disruptive or abusive players at a gaming table can be just as damaging to your child's social development as they can be in the school yard.
  • Coercion. If someone doesn't want to do something in the game, they should not have to. The rules provide a framework for players to lay out what they would and would not do. If someone (especially the game master) tries to force a situation that the player is not comfortable with, the player should probably just leave the game. Being told that you have to do something in-character that you don't feel comfortable with isn't fun, and the point to the game is fun. As a parent, you should be very sensitive to this. The game is not a forum for players to air their politics or religion, and if that's what it becomes, suggest to your child that they find another group.
  • Money. If a gaming group starts asking for money, you as a parent should pay close attention. It's common for games to involve food and drinks during play, and asking for players to chip in is normal. Requiring some kind of "dues" is not, and you should feel free to step in and personally ask what the money is for before providing it to your child.

If you see any of these problems, you should talk to the parents of the other gamers and try to help resolve the issues. Gaming is about having fun, and if that's not what's going on, you have a right to be a parent.

These rules apply equally to any social hobby that your child might have, and D&D isn't the only outlet for social interaction. However, for many children, it can be the easiest. Consider this when people try to tell you that D&D is somehow "evil" or a tool of those who wish to corrupt your child. Feel free tell your child what you do and don't think are valid topics of play. If you don't want them pretending to be an evil character, then say that. It doesn't prevent them from playing D&D (in 20 years of playing D&D, I've never played an evil character -- update: I should be clear that I'm speaking as a player. When I've been a DM, it has often been my job to voice the opponents that my players face off against). D&D is just a framework for interactive fantasy story-telling. In it, your child gets to tell part of the story. That's all it is.

To those non-parents who might read this, let me just say that everything you've heard about D&D being evil is both false in the sense that the game has no agenda of evil; and true in the sense that evil exists as a concept in the game. If this bothers you, then don't play, but understand that those that do play aren't going off into the woods and summoning evil beings. They're just playing a game in which the players (typically the "good guys") are the subjects of epic storytelling (typically opposing the "bad guys"). That's it. No magic initiation; no wiccan plot; no anti-Christian agenda; nothing but the ages-old tradition of storytelling.

Other articles

Schnoebelen's Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons

Side note: much of what Schnoebelen says is rooted in the work of Patricia Pulling's B.A.D.D. organization, much of which has been analyzed and shown to be in error, elsewhere.

William Schnoebelen's article, Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons? is a long laundry list of what he feels are the sins of D&D. Here is his primary thesis as I see it. I've pulled this from the section on the character type called "rogue":

Isn't that a wonderful character for your adolescent to emulate? What parent would not love to have their child come home from school and tell them that they are playing D&D and have taken on the character of a thief or rogue?

First off, keep in mind that the character classes in the "Player's Handbook" are designed as much for the game master who has to come up with the villains for the players to do battle with as it is for the players themselves. When we talk about a character "sneaking up on their victim," we're generally speaking about the villains, not the players, though a spy or scout for the "good guys" might well have such stealth and sneak attack capabilities. Think "James Bond".

Second, if your child cannot play a make-believe game and then go on with their own lives without blurring the distinction between that game and real life, then you need (and I mean to disrespect, here) to seek out some professional help for your child. This is not something which you can address simply by depriving them of role-playing books! Keep in mind that play is a part of what being a child is, and the inability to distinguish play from reality is not typical. For the rest of the majority of parents out there who have healthy children who can tell pretend from reality, D&D is no more going to result in them going out to steal, kill or cast magic spells than eating Coco-Puffs will make them want to be a vampire.

He re-enforces this broken view of make-believe with this statement:

... these two worldviews cannot exist in the same moral universe. They cannot both be true. Thus, one cannot be a Christian and believe in the Magical World View without being some sort of hypocrite or deceived person.

He seems to have forgotten that he's talking about a game. There aren't two worldviews, there's a fantasy game and whatever your worldview is. One is not a hypocrite for telling campfire stories that one knows to be false... that's the point to fiction. He really needs to work through that.

He makes this particular point clear when he says:

Defenders of D&D often complain that it is only a game. Playing chicken with cars is "only a game" until someone gets killed.

Ok, now think carefully here. He's comparing driving a large, heavy object at another large, heavy object, presumably at great speed with sitting at a table and saying "I slay the dragon with my magic sword." Just let that sink in.... No. Chicken is not "only a game," it is attempted suicide/murder at worst and reckless driving at best. If you were to play in a role-playing game and your character were to play chicken, that would be "only a game." Driving your car directly at someone else is an inexcusable act of violence. Fantasy vs. reality.

He then goes on:

It needs to be emphasized that a spiritual deception which draws people away from Jesus Christ is much more dangerous than automotive chicken...

I've known my share of Christians who play role-playing games. They tend be fairly up-front about it. To paraphrase one such person, "I know this stuff isn't real, so why would it have any bearing on my faith?" Indeed, I say.

Conclusion

Anyone can dredge up a letter from someone who has enough mental problems that they would profess to satanism (as he does later in his article), but in truth, D&D isn't what made that person ill. We can speculate about what they would have done if they never found D&D (it might have been even worse), but the point is moot. Sick people behave in sick ways. We can be compassionate and caring, but what we must not do is over-react and assume that the thing that a mentally unbalanced person fixates on is the cause of their sickness.

My personal opinion of the whole idea of Mr. Schnoebelen's essay is a bit different. I think he tells fantastic stories of his own. When you read, "your mind begins to become "re-wired" by its immersion into a world where demons, magic and spells are almost real," that's some scary stuff, and that makes people pay attention because we like scary stories. For someone who wants to tell scary stories... well, this is one outlet. That doesn't make the mythical power of D&D to re-wire your brain any less fantasy than the spells in D&D, though. Reading his essay was sort of fun for me, but in the end it's just a story, and since I am able to handle the difference between story and reality, this doesn't bother me.

Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict

M. Joseph Young wrote an article about his "addiction" to D&D. I highly recommend this balanced view. While I disagree with some of his stands (for example, the need to "Christianize" the cosmology in order to make it acceptable storytelling material for Christians), even those points demonstrate that there is a strong case to be made for D&D's use in ways which are novel, fun and not at all objectionable.

Dungeons & Dragons: only a game?

In 1981, an author known only as "Ben" wrote Dungeons & Dragons: only a game? He claims that a Dr. Gary North has determined that D&D is "the most effective [...] most thoroughly researched introduction to the occult in man's recorded history." OK, stop there. He's wrong. As noted in M. Joseph Young's essay, Brittanica has much more (accurate) detail than D&D by far on the occult, so that idea's right out. In fact, I can't think of any aspect of the occult that I've ever come across that D&D gets right. It changes the names or nature of just about every being it borrows for the story. It invents torrents of fiction (fine for a game, but horrible for a "thoroughly researched introduction to the occult"). If your goal were to learn about the occult, I would warn you away from D&D. Other role-playing games such as GURPS actually do a far better job of interpreting occultism for gaming purposes. If that were your concern, then D&D would not be the prime target by far.

He then takes another wrong turn. Let me quote a bit:

After extensive research, the Christian Life Ministries concludes: "DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ instead of a game is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning. necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living color direct from the pit of hell!!!"

Interestingly, this text comes almost exactly from Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, so I'm not exactly sure why "Ben" feels that this was the result of "extensive research" on the part of the Christian Life Ministries. He's also mis-representing the facts grossly. While some of those elements are present in D&D they are also present in any fantasy story-telling genre. Forces of evil that exist to oppose the forces of good are the meat of fantasy story-telling, even when it's Christian themed. If the players were all champions of the Christian God, battling the Beast at the end times, then there would need to be a reference manual that explained what the mechanical statistics of the Beast were in order to allow the game to function. Such a game could hardly be construed as "evil", however.

The rest of the article is much the same. It is not terribly different from Mr. Schnoebelen's essay in most respects.

One useful side-point, however is that the word "suicide" comes up an awful lot in these critiques of roleplaying. There are long and rather silly reasons that this is the case, but it's still useful to point out that in study after study, the effects of roleplaying on potentially depressed people have been shown not only to be harmless, but actually beneficial in some cases.

soc.religion.christian FAQ

The USENET newsgroup soc.religion.christian's frequently asked questions list (FAQ) had some things to say about D&D (be aware that this was in the early-to-mid 1990s). Much of it carries on in the same way, but it starts in an interesting way:

"We are commanded to meditate on scripture (Joshua 1:8), think on good, healthy things (Philippians 4) and to be transformed in our thinking (Romans 12:2). It is therefore quite important what we let in or don't let into our minds." -David Fisher

I take strong exception this interpretation of the Bible. To cut oneself off from any non-Christian subject matter is not in keeping with the Bible, and no string of three out-of-context quotes will convince me otherwise. Gaming is just that: gaming. It's not a research tool; a sermon; a way of life; or any of the other things that anti-D&D advocates seem to think it is. However, even standing on its own, this idea that the good Christian will avoid any activity which might expose them to non-Christian ideas is deeply suspect, and certainly not in keeping with the way Jesus is said to have lived his life.

Marko and the Denver murder

This update (now the previous update...) to "Is D&D evil" was prompted by reports that an Army Major who killed a woman in Denver had an interest in roleplaying games that were similar to D&D (I suspect they were White Wolf's World of Darkness games, but I'm not sure). This is an easy case to refute roleplaying's involvement in, of course, since the man had just returned from a war-zone (Iraq). Clearly, if something was likely to make him violent, war is the better candidate than a game. However, I think it's important to recognize that Robert Hull Marko clearly did not know how to separate fantasy and reality, and that is the root of his problems. That one fantasy world of his choosing was a roleplaying game is beside the point, and I still assert that any parent who thinks that their child is having problems with the fantasy vs. reality separation (e.g. believing that their fantasies are real) should consider seeking out a trained professional to help them. People like Marko need to be diagnosed early so that they can learn to cope with their fantasies and not be ruled by them. Simply removing D&D won't accomplish that goal.

The Straws: D&D leads to child abuse


In a truly odd twist, a news story popped up about how parents had left their children to die due to their addiction to D&D. This story is a bit out of context, though. First off, the "Dungeons & Dragons" involved was a video game, not the tabletop game I was talking about. "MMOs" (video games where you play online with thousands of others in a single electronic "world") are not tabletop roleplaying, but even still this story is almost certainly missing some details. Child neglect, as awful as it is, is also a very common story. Parents who are able to "forget" about their children have some very serious problems. It doesn't matter if what they were paying attention to when the police discovered them was D&D Online, some other video game, or Jeopardy. The real issue is that they neglected their kids.

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