It is important that you accept the fact that I am a Christian. To this end, and recognizing that I am saved by grace, not by works I have done, I would recount just a part of my Christian experience so that you may know me by my works. I was as a youth raised in Baptist Sunday Schools until the age of twelve, when a business relocation landed me in a Presbyterian congregation. By then I had learned the scriptures well enough that the Presbyterians chose me as one of two youths to represent them on WNBC (New York) radio's Bible quiz. My partner and I advanced to the finals. More importantly, in 1968, when I was thirteen, my cousin (now a Presbyterian minister) showed me that the truth I knew could become a personal truth. Using a Campus Crusade "Four Spiritual Laws"© leaflet, he led me into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
To trace in detail the fellowships and ministries through which I grew would take too much space. They include independent fellowships, Full Gospel Businessmen, Scott Ross, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Assembly of God churches, and many others. Before I finished high school I took the opportunity to carry Bibles into Romania with a high school choral group, and started an evangelistic music ministry in New Jersey. Over the next decade, my music, evangelism, and teaching were heard from Maine to Maryland.
Seeking to better serve God with my music, I went to college to study the Bible. In five years of study I earned an Associate of Arts from Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts in Teaneck, New Jersey, and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Biblical Studies from Gordon College. I took all this accrued study, and wound up on a small Christian radio station where for five years I struggled to fight management pressures to convert to a more financially profitable format while preaching and teaching the gospel on the air and in local churches. I also continued with my music; some of my songs are still sung as choruses in fellowships in the area. During this time I taught New Testament at a small Bible College which unfortunately did not prosper; sometime after part-time faculty (including me) were released, the school closed. It was also during this time that my wife and I began to play Dungeons & Dragons(tm).
I should also make it clear that we are not idiots. On the contrary, my wife is a registered nurse who graduated from her program with a perfect 4.0 average. I eventually went on to complete my Juris Doctore, receiving an American Jurisprudence Award in Jurisprudence, and being listed in "Who's Who Among American Law Students" 8th and 9th editions. I also became a member of American Mensa. We were not fools.
But we were game players. We played many kinds of games with many kinds of people. Apart from the fact that it was a relaxing and stimulating recreational activity, it enabled us to maintain relationships with people who were not Christians and, by sharing our lives with them, to move them slowly toward the gospel and into growth. We constantly kept our eyes open for new games, even subscribing to magazines which provided information about them. Then one day in about 1980, my wife brought home an article in Psychology Today(tm) praising the new game Dungeons & Dragons(tm), which the author had used as a group therapy technique for teenagers. We were intrigued. From the sound of it, this was a game that would enable us to create adventures like those in some of our favorite Christian fiction--C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, George MacDonald. We immediately sought it out, and purchased a basic set.
We were not disappointed. The game lends itself extremely well to creating mortal battles with spiritual ramifications. We quickly expanded into the advanced rules. I became the referee--the "dungeon master"--and created worlds for my friends to explore.
After a time, I mentioned the game on the air as part of an illustration in a teaching. I was abruptly made aware of something I could not then understand: that there were Christians who believed the game was itself evil, demonic, and dangerous. They showed their concern for me (I was, fortunately, established and well loved by the Christians in the audience) by showering me with tracts by various and sometimes highly respected writers explaining why this game was so horrible.
Perhaps the volume of material and the respectability of the authors should have caused me to abandon the game. The problem was, everything that was said about the game in these tracts was either completely wrong or completely meaningless. For example, it was pointed out that the Monster Manual--one of the rulebooks for the game--contained the words "devil" and "demon" many times--the authors had counted how many--between certain page numbers. However, the book in question is a sourcebook, essentially an encyclopedia of good and evil creatures, some very weak, others very powerful, which may be used at the referee's discretion to create encounters in his campaign. The words appear far more frequently in similar sections of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which to my knowledge nobody advocates burning. Furthermore, if these monsters were exactly the same but for the names--if they were called "orthnips" and "ognogs"--no one would complain. However, the swords and sorcery milieu (and the fictional and inspirational writings of many Christian authors) include many encounters with such creatures. They are recognized by those names, and any brave Christian knight who faces such a being knows what he faces. The game would be stripped of much of its Christian potential without them.
It should also be noted that on the grand scale good is greater than evil. Solars, planetars, and devas--the ranks of angels--are greater in power than the demons, daemons, and devils who might be arrayed against them, even without recognizing (as the game does) that the evil creatures cannot cooperate in mutual trust. Furthermore, many of the character types (called "classes") which are the most powerful--paladin, ranger, cavalier--must be good without blemish or face severe consequences including the loss of all their spiritually-derived powers. And a high-level paladin--a knight of holy orders trained for many years in defending his lawful good faith--although a mere mortal is more than the equal of a devil, as he can bring to bear not merely his physical prowess but also the powers of good.
Another attack is made upon the book Deities & Demigods(tm), replaced eventually by Legends & Lore(tm). These books contain a great deal of information about false gods from many lands. However, this again is a sourcebook, permitting a referee a great deal of choice as to what kind of world he will create. The question of the religious background of the campaign is specifically left in the hands of the referee who creates the world. I--and most of the referees I have met--always maintained that there was one God of gods, but that there were many so-called gods vying for worship who were some more and some less aligned with the truth, all of whom would eventually kneel to the God of gods. Following C.S. Lewis, I accepted the possibility that many of the pagan gods may have been spiritual beings, and some in ancient times may actually have not yet been forced to chose between God and Lucifer.
In fact, the game gave us the opportunity to talk about moral, ethical, and spiritual questions with nonbelievers in a way we had never done before. It is a strong point of Dungeons & Dragons(tm) that it contains "alignment": every player must decide whether his character is good or evil, lawful or chaotic. The character must then abide by that decision, and face the consequences of his actions whether he chooses something required by his beliefs, or turns against those beliefs to act otherwise. The player is also bound by that decision, but in a different way. The player controls his character in exactly the same way as the author of a book. Alignment is a major decision about a character, and the player must follow the alignment decision in other decisions he makes for the character in order to remain "in character". However, it is unfair to suggest that the player who runs an evil character is himself doing evil in the same way that it is unfair to suggest that an author who creates well-developed evil characters in his stories must himself be evil. C.S. Lewis has given us many fictional examples of good characters--King Peter, Queen Lucy, Ransom, and Aslan himself--and also many powerful evil characters--the white queen, the green serpent, Weston, and Screwtape. The ability to understand evil does not make the author or the player--or the game--evil. This aspect of the game creates the opportunity to discuss the nature of good and evil in a way that chess never did.
In this regard, someone somewhere quoted a game player who alledgedly said that it was easier to play an evil character than a good one. I do not know who said it--and any game is only as good as the referee and the players--but it was not so at my table nor at the table of any referee I ever met. Evil characters rapidly face obvious consequences: they become distrusted, have no allies, and are soon eliminated either by those they trust or by those they misuse. It is as in real life: evil has consequences. Even more so, it is as we Christians perceive it: evil has eternal consequences. There are many circumstances in which it is clear that the evil character who makes a fatal mistake is carried away by his own gods to eternal punishment.
So many of these arguments proved to be without merit. Others merely misunderstood the game. It is pointed out that there are a large number of "magic spells" and magical devices described in the various rule books. Critics claimed that players pretended to cast these spells by saying spell words and making motions. These critics do not understand that the player is not the character. As it is, the books contain descriptions of what a spell or device does, and indeed says whether the character must speak, move his hands, and/or have materials available, but no words are given and rarely are motions described (and then only as a joke). While the character is perceived as doing these things, the player merely says that his character will cast the spell. He does not himself act out spell casting.
The objection is still raised that the game suggests the involvement of magic. Those of us who are fond of those Christian authors who write so much fantasy (and I would add Charles Williams and John Milton to those already mentioned) do not have a problem with the fictitious use of magic. Swords and sorcery books and movies are not a problem per se, and the idea of incorporating these into a game is not significantly different. But some still feel uncomfortable about the idea of magic. Magic is merely a device of the story. For example, a character in a game picks up a device and fires it. It sends out a blast of heat. If you are playing Gamma World(tm), it is a flame thrower; if you are playing Dungeons & Dragons(tm), it is a wand of fireballs. A character is injured, and another character comes to his aid, attempting to heal his injuries. In Star Frontiers(tm), it is a medic administering biocort; in Dungeons & Dragons(tm), it is a cleric prayerfully ministering with a cure light wounds spell. A character assaulted by missile fire creates an invisible barrier which blocks many of the attacks. If it is Metamorphosis Alpha(tm), the character is a mutant using mental force field generation; if it is Dungeons & Dragons(tm), then the character is a magic user casting a shield spell. "Magic" is used because we are attempting to create the worlds of medieval fantasy. It is not different in play from a world which uses advanced technology or presumed mental and physical mutations or for that matter from those games which recreate the wild west (Boot Hill(tm)), counter-espionage (Top Secret(tm)), or cops and robbers (Gangbusters(tm)): characters are assumed to perform the actions the player specifies; players no more cast spells in Dungeons & Dragons(tm) than shoot each other with revolvers in Boot Hill(tm).
But it was still argued by some that the background of magic was inherently dangerous in that it might spark interest in the supernatural, through such outlets as witchcraft. There are at least four answers to this suggestion. First, Christian writers during the first half of this century (again Lewis, Tolkein, Williams) used magic, mysticism, and paganism in their own stories specifically because they wanted modern materialists to begin to consider whether the supernatural might exist. Here we have a game with enormous popular potential which might well get that idea to many more people, and we condemn it. Is it merely because it was not our idea? Second, even if we assume that those authors were wrong, that it is dangerous to attack materialism with generalized spiritualism, does it not make sense that we should put ourselves in a position which makes us available to answer the questions of those who do become so involved, rather than signaling them that we despise them and condemn them for such curiosity? Third, it is not the mission of the church to create respectable sinners; it is the mission of the church to hold out the hope of redemption. Rebuking and condemning Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players merely drives them away from that hope. If Dungeons & Dragons(tm) is wrong, if it leads to a downward path (there is no evidence to support such a contention), then the task of Christians is to love the players regardless of where their lives lead. It is said that for some alcoholics and drug addicts there is no hope for them until they finally reach what for them is the bottom. Some people may need to see the full face of evil before fleeing in terror to the only hope of safety--and, as Lewis often said, the devil's best defense in this age is convincing people that he does not exist. Fourth, this feared spiritism is not the most horrible thing which can affect a person. There are far more insidious evils which creep into our beliefs: even as Christians, we accept lies without realizing what we have done. The inherent greed of our society, the belief that success is measured by having the most toys, may be the most insidious lie in this century. This lie is promoted by many games, including Monopoly(tm) and Life(tm). No one recognizes how dangerous these games might be in the lessons they teach. Meanwhile, although Dungeons & Dragons(tm) includes the pursuit of wealth, it is not the measure of success in the game, and many characters are expected to contribute large portions of their wealth to churches and charitable organizations. Also, most games incorporate the competitive notion that only one player or team can win, encouraging the belief that winning requires defeating everyone else. Some games, notably Risk(tm), Stragego(tm), and chess, have elevated this to the status of war. While conflict, even war, is integral to the Dungeons & Dragons(tm) world, it is generally the case that players quickly learn to join forces, cooperating against a common non-player enemy, overcoming problems as a team. In a good campaign, all the players come away as winners. No, the real dangers of Dungeons & Dragons(tm) lay elsewhere. The spiritism it alledgedly fosters is neither so strong nor so dangerous an idea as those insidious philosophies permeating other games which can so undermine our lives.
Then there is the argument that Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players commit suicide. Those authors who have said so should be embarrassed. The original case of this appears in the book Mazes and Monsters© by Rona Jaffee, a work of fiction written in the early 1980's when Dungeons & Dragons(tm) was still a new game. I know of no real case of a Dungeons & Dragons(tm) related suicide or killing. It seems unlikely: the game teaches hope and resourcefulness. It encourages people to believe they can defeat the obstacles they face. Even so, with the vast number of teenage suicides, it is likely that some were Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players. Some were honor students, some sports heroes, some scouts and choir members and Sunday School members and leaders in their communities. I am certain that far more suicides can be clearly shown to be directly caused by the stock market than can be even remotely connected to Dungeons & Dragons(tm). That does not make the stock market the tool of Satan.
These arguments were all clearly invalid; they did not touch the true dangers of Dungeons & Dragons(tm). Thus, we continued to play. We found that we had large numbers of Christians and non-Christians playing together, and sometimes discussing the morality and spiritual realities behind the game. Through the relationships we built, we saw a number of them become Christians and grow in grace and understanding.
In fact, there is one story I must tell. It is the story of a friend who, long before I met him, had heard the gospel on television and given his life to Jesus. But before he had had the opportunity to learn and grow in this new life, some well-meaning misguided local minister singled him out as an example of someone who, because he played Dungeons & Dragons(tm), was clearly of the devil. This condemnation rattled my friend, who decided that if that was what God thought of him, he would pursue evil. This he did with a vengeance for many years. He was introduced to me because we were both Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players, and for that reason he did not immediately dismiss me as a Christian fool; because I did not condemn him for this (indeed, I was not interested in condemning but in reaching him), he was willing to discuss the spiritual and moral ramifications of the game and the spiritual realities of his own life. Ultimately--after years wasted--he returned to the truth he had abandoned, and began to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus.
So what are the problems of Dungeons & Dragons(tm) and other role playing games? There are several, and Christians should be aware of them and guard against them.
First, like most games--all those which use dice or cards--Dungeons & Dragons(tm) assumes that dice and cards fall in a random pattern along statistically predictable probabilities. It is extremely difficult for us to deal with this assumption. The question of whether dice and cards fall at random or are divinely controlled is far beyond the scope of this article, but the answer goes directly to the nature of the sovereignty of God. Christians who play such games should grapple with the issue and form an opinion about it. Note that it is possible to avoid all such games by only playing those games which pit skill against skill--athletic competition, chess, checkers, reversi, competitive puzzles such as tic-tac-toe and dots--but these are the games most susceptible to the problems of the competitive spirit, the idea that one wins and therefore all others lose. That may be a far more dangerous challenge to the principles of the gospel than the more intellectual question of whether the assumption of statistical randomness is an affront to the sovereignty of God.
The second problem with Dungeons & Dragons(tm) is that it, like nearly any hobby or recreational activity, takes time and money. The stewardship of our time and our money is a difficult personal issue, and each of us must determine the costs of our choices. The time and money I spent learning Dungeons & Dragons(tm) and developing my game world and playing it (as well as additional time spent playing in other less controversial game worlds such as Star Frontiers(tm) and Gamma World(tm)) might have been spent in other pursuits. I might have memorized several more books of the Bible, or spent time and money passing out literature on street corners. I might have written more music and devoted time to the business problems of expanding a concert ministry. I might have volunteered at any of several missions to help reach and teach people who had hit bottom. I cannot say what impact I would have had. But today I have about twenty young men from twelve to thirty years old who come to my house regularly to play a game which I referee, most of whom are either not Christian at all or very much unaware what their commitment to Christ means. As part of that game, they must each come to grips with how I understand good and evil, what moral standards I think are appropriate to characters professing faith in a good god, and what consequences will fall upon those who do right and those who do wrong. I have had the opportunity to give Bibles and instruction to teenagers whom I would not have met were it not for the game, and to sing songs of faith to some who would never have darkened the door of a Christian concert let alone an evangelical church. I have been able to demonstrate that Christians are permitted--no, required--to think, to understand life from the perspective of the truth revealed. I have changed lives which might not otherwise have changed. In assessing how well my time and money are spent--and I confess to a tendency at times to overspend even on unquestionably worthwhile pursuits--I must take into account what has happened in these lives.
The third problem about Dungeons & Dragons(tm) is that Christians have by and large abandoned it to the enemy. Those who complain and condemn a game which they have never even watched let alone played have in attempting to revile the game merely blackened the eye of the church. The game is replete with players who believe that all Christians are idiots because of what some Christians have said. The game itself is not a stumbling block to faith, but the attitudes of those who would rebuke a Dungeons & Dragons(tm) player in the name of Jesus and walk away rather than use the valuable lessons of the game as a building block for a true faith are. What the game needs is great players and intelligent referees who can incorporate their Christian faith into the game, debate the issues it raises on its own terms, and in so doing can say to the other players, "I am a Christian, and as a Christian I believe. . . ." Most people are reached by someone they know. Most Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players do not know any Christians who have not called them satanists. Most ongoing Dungeons & Dragons(tm) games do not have the insights to be gained from people of the Book sitting at the table bringing faith to bear on the worlds of human fantasy.
I still play Dungeons & Dragons(tm), Star Frontiers(tm), and Gamma World(tm), and see no reason to stop. I referee two games, and have characters in seven others. I think C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams would approve--I know that many Dungeons & Dragons(tm) players have the opportunity to read their books because of exposure through other players. I said at the beginning that I wanted you to understand how a Christian could become a Dungeons & Dragons(tm) player. By now I hope I have made it clear why many more should. The fears and misgivings of many concerning the game are misguided and unfounded. It is a fabulous opportunity to explore and understand our own faith, and to share that faith with others.
I've expressed a few thoughts on the integration of faith and gaming in response to a letter I received.