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Random thoughts on Christians, culture, and Dungeons & Dragons

This is a response to an excellent post over at the ThinkChristian blog (where I post as well) about D&D and the Christian response to it in the 1980s. As a Christian who struggled, back in the day, with whether or not my favorite hobby was satanic, this topic is one that really interests me. Here are a few semi-random thoughts in response to the post.

Great post, Chris. Hsu’s post has a lot of good insights.

This is a subject that’s near and dear to me, since I played D&D and similar games a lot when I was younger (I still play them, actually, as Peter and KDC note) and heard/read a lot from well-intentioned Christians who thought it was satanic.

Looking back at the Christian response to D&D, it strikes me as a good example of how not to respond to a questionable piece of culture. A few random observations about how Christians mishandled the D&D thing:

  • If you were a D&D player reading a typical Christian critique of the game in the 80s, it was clear to you that most of the Christians condemning the game had only a marginal understanding of it, and had apparently done no research beyond skimming a rulebook looking for occult-sounding terms. Many of the more extreme concerns (that D&D caused suicide, that it was an occult recruitment tool) would have been put to rest by spending 3 hours sitting in on an actual D&D game, but you rarely got the sense that the Christian critics had even done that minimal level of research. Obviously you don’t have to know every nuance of something to critique it, but it didn’t seem like Christians were trying very hard to understand the game before condemning it. Also, despite the fact that there were (and are) Christians working in the game hobby, nobody thought to seek them out and ask for their perspective.
  • As Hsu points out very eloquently in his post, this was a classic case of Christians condemning something without offering any better alternative. Nor did Christians spend much time asking why the game appealed so much to kids. Here was a whole new social/relational activity that was meeting a genuine need in the lives of kids like myself, and the only thing Christians had to say about it was to tell people they shouldn’t do it. Instead of helping people to pursue the roleplaying hobby (which was certainly not evil, even if you thought D&D was) in a way consistent with their faith, Christians just indulged in a knee-jerk rejection of it all, baby and bathwater alike.
  • As PCG points out, those few Christians who tried to offer up alternatives mostly just ended up aping D&D in the same way that some types of CCM just ape mainstream music. I don’t mean to trash all Christian attempts at making Christian RPGs, because some of them were interesting; but a lot of them could be summed up as “Like D&D, but less fun.” And even these attempts were condemned by some Christians.

The result of all this was essentially to drive away people who might otherwise have listened to a Christian perspective. Christians sabotaged any chance of participating meaningfully in this particular discussion by failing to approach D&D, D&D players, and the whole issue of roleplaying in a respectful and intelligent manner. Ridiculous stories about D&D being an occult recruitment tool may have scared a few nervous Christian teenagers into giving up the game, but most gamers I know (Christian and otherwise) just decided that Christians had absolutely nothing useful to say about gaming, and ignored them. The “it’s satanic!” reaction just made D&D more popular by turning it into a Forbidden Fruit, and it’s now quite entrenched in popular culture, even if you don’t hear about it as much these days. So even if you believe Christians were right to condemn the game, the way they went about doing so must be seen as a complete failure, because it had the opposite of its intended effect.

This failure was particularly unfortunate because there really were spiritual issues surrounding some popular RPGs (some of the games that followed D&D went much farther in depicting violence, occultism, and other unpleasant stuff than D&D ever did), but by that time, nobody was paying any attention to what Christians were saying about it.

Wow, this whole topic—D&D and the Satanic Panic—seems so silly in retrospect. But at the time, I (and other Christians) took it very seriously. That’s what 20 years of hindsight perspective will get you, I suppose.

Just my $.02, as a Christian who played D&D back in the day.

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