Dungeons & Dragons Is a Lot Like Religion
These days Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, but in a former life he was a middle-school Dungeons & Dragons player. Back then, D&D was the subject of a massive smear campaign claiming that the game promoted suicide and satanism. A Christian student who learned that Laycock played D&D chided him for “worshiping gods from books,” a charge he found puzzling.
“Most Christians know about their god primarily through a book, through the Bible,” Laycock says in Episode 185 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “So there was a really strange reversal there, where I found a lot of the claims-makers were actually engaging in the very sort of behavior they were accusing D&D players of doing.”
The incident kicked off a lifelong interest in the parallels between religion and role-playing, an idea Laycock explores in his new book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. His research revealed that critics of D&D were not being frank about their motives. What really bothered them about this game of gods and demons, he discovered, was not that it was opposed to Christianity, but that it was so similar to it.
“The critics themselves began to worry that their religion, which they had invested so much in, could be something like this game,” he says. “So I think that by attacking this imaginary game, that was one way of shoving that thought down and not having to think about it anymore.”
He’s quick to point out that the parallels between religion and role-playing don’t make religion false. Instead he argues that any wonder narrative, whether true or not, can be deeply inspirational. Scholars of religion have coined the term “the Axial Age” to describe a period around 500 B.C. when the concept of a transcendent realm helped spur social developments around the world. Laycock argues that fantasy worlds have a similar potential.
“If the world that you have is the only world you’ll ever know, you can’t really question it,” he says. “But if every weekend you experience a different world—with a different social order, a different way of organizing the government, different religions, and so forth—then it becomes much easier to question people when they tell you that this is the way the world is, and this is what you ought to believe.”
He notes that fantasy and science fiction can play a similar role in the lives of secular people that miracle stories do for the religious.
“There’s a lot of literature suggesting that fantasy role-playing games or Star Wars or things like this can take on some of the work that religion used to do,” he says. “Not in the sense that people think Anakin Skywalker is a real person, but that these stories give them this sense of psychological fulfillment that in other cultures might have been fulfilled by hearing stories about the lives of the saints.”
Listen to our complete interview with Joseph Laycock in Episode 185 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Joseph Laycock on moral panics:
“A moral panic, in sociology, is when a society becomes convinced that something is threatening to undermine that society, or threatening to ruin it. … To get a really good moral panic you need a scapegoat, and the ideal scapegoat is someone who can’t fight back, someone who has no actual political power in the society. So when the only people playing Dungeons & Dragons were kids—you know, kids can’t fight back. You can make whatever sorts of claims you want. … But I think what’s changed is that we’re not kids anymore, and once people actually have the ability to fight back against these claims, they fall apart pretty easily. So someone else will have to be scapegoated now instead of the gamers.”
Joseph Laycock on violence:
“I think that often when people claimed that this game leads to suicide, what was really going on was there were specific cases where there were very obvious factors for why adolescents had committed suicide or committed murder, but we didn’t want to think about those causes, and so we attributed it to something much simpler. I found so many cases in the ’80s that involved children playing with an unattended firearm and accidentally killing themselves, and then afterward the police would say, ‘You did this because you were playing Dungeons & Dragons, right? Isn’t that the reason you shot Timmy? Because you thought he was an orc?’”
“I think [critics of D&D] decided that Tolkien and Lewis were OK because they were explicitly Christian. … But then they kind of tie themselves in knots saying why Tolkien and Lewis are OK but things like Harry Potter and D&D are bad. And some of them really geek out. One author said, ‘Well, in the Harry Potter books it’s teaching that humans can do magic, but in Tolkien only elves and wizards can do magic, and Gandalf isn’t actually human, he’s actually one of the Maiar, so this is not contradicting God’s natural order.’ I mean, really strange arguments. I’m not entirely sure why they felt that this was worth doing, but I think they started out with the premise of ‘Tolkien and Lewis are Christian, so they’re OK,’ and then they kind of worked backward from there.”
Joseph Laycock on The NeverEnding Story:
“In the movie The NeverEnding Story, the characters keep getting sucked into the Nothing, and it’s just sort of a black hole and you don’t see them again. But in the book, the Nothing actually sucks them out into the human world where they become lies. So when they’re in their own world, they’re part of your imagination and they’re healthy, but when they’re taken out of that world they become lies, and they’re used by evil people to sell products you don’t need, or start wars that don’t need to be fought. And I thought that was such an apt metaphor. We all need these heroic adventures, and some of us can do it in a fantasy game, but for those who can’t—because they’re convinced the imagination is satanic or something—they do that in the realm of conspiracy theories.”