Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday is the day I play Dungeons and Dragons!

Sunday is no longer the day I go to church. Sunday is the day I play Dungeons and Dragons!

My first exposure to RPGs was in an Adventures in Odyssey radio show designed to scare good Christian kids into avoiding them, presenting the games as gateways to Satanic Worship. It sounds fringe, but the radio show, produced by James Dobson, was syndicated to a bunch of Christian radio stations. All my friends growing up listened to it.  (Did you?)

You can actually listen to a recording of the two-episode segment here. It even has a special introduction from James Dobson warning parents that the content may be too scary for children, but explaining that the dangers of seductive RPGs are so pressing that it's worth frightening little kids. The show doesn't depict a realistic game of D&D, because how boring would it be to listen to a group of young adults having slow-paced, harmless, nerdy fun?  So of course they make up a sinister plot with eerie supernatural tones, imply that the gaming leads to a nefarious end for a family pet, a candlelit ceremony that is straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all in all it is a very silly exercise in attacking a straw man.

Here are the REAL reasons that my corner of Christianity* was not open to D&D:

1.  Fear of the relatively new/modern, and love of "simpler times"

D&D presents a multi-racial world, a world with multiple gods, and a world that implies that females can be adventurers. It is inherently in conflict with fundamentalist values before you can even think about picking a character class with magical powers.

The way I grew up, board games were good, video games bad. I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith were good, Sesame Street and Bill Nye the Science Guy were bad. To be fair to my mom, our family's daily media censor, I think harmless nostalgia accounts for some of her knee-jerk bias. Dungeons and Dragons was simply unfamiliar to her and she preferred to imagine us liking the shows she liked.

But, this warm fuzzy view of certain moments in the past connects to a clear trend among fundamentalists and the politically conservative of idolizing "simpler times" in history. The simpler times they highlight turn out to all be imaginary moments when set gender roles were embraced by all, and diversity of culture and race were not threatening "our way of life." These "simple times" of cultural and racial uniformity never existed. Andy Griffiths' fictional world is mysteriously lacking in representation of African Americans, for example. These depictions of "simpler times" are comfortable  and uncontroversial precisely because they reinforce patriarchy and white supremacy.

Fantasy where women guard the home front and the bad guys all happen to be dark-skinned - like Lord of the Rings? Safe. Open-ended fantasy worlds reflecting real-life complexity and moral ambiguity and where women attempt difficult missions - like D&D?  Dangerous.

2.  Fear of anything outside the approved cultural content

Like any subculture, there is a shared library of reading and viewing for Christian subculture. There's a lot of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien being read, for example. My experience was that women in this group have annual re-viewings of the Anne of Green Gables series or the same favorite Jane Austen movies. People in Christian subculture also seem oddly obsessed with content created for children, and things that are PG. Science fiction or speculative fiction are less common interests. We have adult friends who still spend their time rewatching Disney and don't feel comfortable watching HBO shows because of adult content. Obviously I'm just observing trends among the people I know, but basically venturing outside the set library or safe genres will raise a flag.

Exploring mainstream adult media and culture is not modeled or encouraged, and is sometimes actively criticized. Things that are "for adults" are automatically suspicious. Conformity is the rule, not to just for moral standards but for cultural experiences.

We've mentioned to some of our fundamentalist relatives that we play D&D, and they were wary about it even as adults. They aren't familiar enough with mainstream cultural references to identify it as a harmless nerdy pastime.

3. Fear of what creativity and imagination might lead to

Growing up female in a conservative Christianity community, I was actively discouraged from imagining a future for myself as anything other than a wife, mother and full-time domestic. I got this message from my family and from my community - through a lack of any female role models with jobs or in any kind of leadership positions, and through regular discouragement or undermining from my parents in attempting to excel or lead. They literally took away books that I loved about young people living independently, or living in new cultures, because me imagining that possibility of independence or non-conformity was threatening.

My dad gave a graduation speech to me and the other homeschooled kids encouraging all of us not to dream big but instead to aspire to live a normal life. To dad, our normal youthful ambition to have success in the world or experience it at all was unsettling, not inspiring.

When there is only one acceptable life path for women or young people, creativity or imagination about life choices is disruptive, even if it takes place in an alternate universe.

4. Fear of Magic

The same subculture that rejected the Harry Potter series as dangerous would also have a problem with the idea of role-playing a mage or druid. Yes, I think the non-denominational corner of Christianity that I grew up in believed that the occult was real and powerful and that the devil could influence day-to-day reality. Yes, the church we went to tried to exorcise a teenage boy who dressed kind of goth to cast out the spirit of witchcraft. (And then my parents finally showed some sense and ditched that cult.) Yes, ouija boards and getting your palm read and celebrating Halloween were also off limits. So maybe there was some fixation on the magical content.

But actually I think the first three reasons that Dr. James Dobson needed so desperately to reach out and warn me about D&D as a child are more crucial to understanding fundamentalism and also more devastating to a young person's growth and development. Rejecting D&D on the basis of magical content is really a shorthand for complicated cultural boundary enforcing, especially for women, that begins in childhood but becomes ingrained for many adults.

What I get out of D&D

I don't take my D&D too seriously, but I think it's been a healthy addition to my life. Maybe I'm playing a Druid who has a deep natural connection with my hawk animal companion, which for the record I use for prosaic scouting and NOT for summoning encounters with dark forces. Or maybe I'm a high-elf martial arts performer and bard, who adventures in a no-mans land between warring nation states, to pay off some debts I incurred while being trained and then living the high life as a lauded performer of battle epics in the capital city.

No matter who my D&D character is, I get to be someone that wasn't welcome in the community where I grew up: a woman who can fight and adventure and lead, a woman who can imagine a different self, a woman who can make infinite choices to change my situation in life.

*Several of the people I play D&D now with are practicing Christians of various stripes, so obviously not all Christians have the same issues with RPGs.  But the fundamentalist homeschoolers influenced by James Dobson definitely did. It's possible that you grew up something like me but still had a different experience. I'd love to hear what your experience was like, so leave a comment!

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