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RPGs and God: Are They Compatible?

I would like to know what you feel about role playing games and God. My dad has always had a problem with D&D. My family and myself are very religious, and I would like to know if you know of any way for me to talk to my dad about gaming.

—email received 3/22/01

Several people have told me that this question of RPGs and religion is long dead. "Nobody cares anymore," they say. The big controversy was a sign of the times in the '70s. It's over now.
Except clearly it isn't. Some players are still having problems reconciling RPGs and religion.
So, what can a gamer who wants to address these concerns do?
First, I'm going to assume that most people who perceive a conflict between RPGs and religion are Christian. Thus far no other religious group has ever told me that it feels RPGs and religion may be incompatible. So I'm going to address this question from a Christian point of view, acknowledging that nonChristian religions might have different concerns and different solutions.
Second, I'm a Roman Catholic of the Western post-Vatican II variety. I teach at a private Lutheran university. I'm by no means a theologian. So the ideas I present here are fairly commonsense, simple solutions to the problem, not backed up by a lot of religious training or verse-by-verse argumentation. Some of my suggestions might work well for you; some might not. None have the backing of a religious leader behind it.
Third, I'm going to assume that you're dealing with a concerned parent, friend, family member, or clergyperson who has not already made up his or her mind that RPGs are innately evil. That is, I'm going to assume that you're dealing with a concerned but open-minded person willing to consider arguments in favor of RPGs. If the person's mind is already made up, forget it—there's little to nothing you can do.

Most Christian concerns about RPGs seem to revolve around three issues: (1) the existence of pagan deities that characters worship within the game; (2) the existence of magic use within the game; and (3) the prevalance of violence within the game.

I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me

(1) The existence of pagan deities in some FRPGs concern some Christians who feel that playing such an RPG might lead to actual worship of these deities. They fear violation of the First Commandment, "I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."
The first solution to this concern is simply to play an RPG that does not have pagan deities in it. Many modern thriller/conspiracy/spy RPGs avoid bringing in any pantheon that isn't based in a real current-day religion, so it would be easy to play a character who is Christian.
I recently did this in a Deadlands game. Deadlands is a fantasy-type game set in the Old West, postulating a release of evil and supernatural creatures in the Old West. My character was Father Patrick Flanagan, an Irish Roman Catholic priest. In preparing his character, I picked out appropriate quotes from the Bible to use when driving back undead or scolding drunken cowboys, and I kept several pages of prayers in my character folder in case he needed an appropriate psalm or prayer during the game. I think one of the most interesting things was being able to scold the other player characters whenever they'd let rip with a "Goddammit!" during the game. It was the first time I noticed how much swearing went on in the game ... and Father Flanagan was suitably offended ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain."). The other players became more sensitive to it, too.
A second solution is for the GM running an FRPG containing pagan deities to include the Christian God that characters could choose to worship, instead. This begs the question to some extent, though, I realize—it, in effect, implies that there's no difference between God and the pagan gods. This is not an answer most devout Christians are going to be pleased with. There are two sub-solutions. The first is for the characters to assume, as most Christians do, that they have the right God, and all others are false gods. That, at least, is historically accurate enough. The second is for the GM to simply state that all good deities in the game are really manifestations of God under some other name, and that powers from those deities flow from an all-powerful and all-loving God. Similarly, all evil deities in the game are all really manifestations of Satan under some other name.
A third solution is to emphasize the difference between playing a character who believes in a nonChristian god and actually believing in a nonChristian god. This is just a game. When I play a character who worships a nonChristian god, that has nothing to do with what I believe in, no more than I'd believe I were male if I played a male character, or an elf if I played an elven character. It's just make-believe. Nobody who is mentally balanced and strong in self-identity and faith is going to slip into unChristian acts simply because of a game.

Do not turn to mediums or wizards. (Leviticus 19:31)

(2) The existence of magic in many RPGs also concerns some Christians. "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer." (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Note that this is a complex theological subject, and generally means that no magic can come from any but God (miracles, though supernatural, are acceptable).
The first solution is, again, to simply avoid any RPGs that contain magic. Many modern or historical RPGs can be played without any magic content. Alternatively, in an RPG that does contain magic, the concerned player may be able to simply avoid playing a character who performs any spells.
The second solution is to play characters whose powers clearly come from God. A few RPGs permit this (such as Deadlands, mentioned above). In this case, anything supernatural the character can accomplish is done only through God's will, which means the player and the GM must be very clear on what God would or would not permit. This in itself could be an interesting theological exercise.
The third solution is, again, to emphasize that RPGs are make-believe. There is a world of difference between sitting around a table with friends and lots of dice saying, "My wizard casts an ESP spell" and actually practicing magick. Magick often involves the worship of pagan deities or of Satan (the two religions are not the same; Wiccans are traditionally peaceful and nonviolent in their worship, whereas Satanists are traditionally self-centered and ruthless). This would clearly be a concern for many Christians. But RPGs aren't about that—"magic" is carried out by applying some rules in a book and maybe some dice rolls, and that's that. No more mysterious than turning a pawn into a king in chess. When I play a wizard in an RPG, I don't assume I can really do magic, no more than when I was a kid and pointed my index finger like a gun I thought it would really shoot bullets.

Thou shalt not kill

(3) The prevalance of violence in RPGs is an issue I've already addressed in a previous article. Christians are especially concerned with it because it violates the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." In fact, characters could conceivably violate more commandments than that by stealing (not too uncommon in RPGs, especially treasure-hunting RPGs), committing adultery (fairly uncommon in RPGs), bearing false witness (more common), etc.
The first thing to remember here is that each player decides for him- or herself what his or her character is going to do within the game. A devoutly religious player can easily avoid having his or her character commit any of these sins. Killing is not required in most RPGs, and a GM sensitive to players' needs can easily tailor a game to be less violent if one of the players has strong moral qualms about violent RPGs. There are a number of ways to subdue an enemy that don't require taking life (e.g., stun guns, knock-out gas, nets, bolas), and some enemies can simply be negotiated with without any need for violence. It's all up to the GM.
A second issue is that question of whether violence can be learned from an RPG and then used in real life. The article on violence addresses that to some extent. What's important to remember is that a person who has strong ties to a family and/or a religion that provides clear moral and ethical guidelines for behavior is not likely to confuse violence in RPGs (or TV or any other form of media) with real life. The effect of RPGs is miniscule compared to the effects of family, friends, and faith when it comes to affecting a person's behavior.

Why RPGs are good

When arguing for RPGs, it's important not only to discuss concerns but also benefits. RPGs demand creativity, imagination, and an ability to solve puzzles and problems. They require good reading and writing skills and the ability to understand and apply rules. They require teamwork and social interaction. Many RPG players are inspired to carry out their own historical, anthropological, linguistic, or literary research to supplement a campaign or flesh out a character. Most RPG players also read avidly in the genre within which they play (fantasy, horror, science-fiction, superhero, etc.). As a college professor in communication, I can vouch that the students who read the most write the best—and this at a time when far too many of my students don't have the faintest idea how to write a decent essay, much less a convincing research paper.
My essay Why Roleplay? summarizes these points. It was reprinted in a book called Highs!: Over 150 Ways to Feel Really, Really Good ... Without Alcohol or Other Drugs. I hope that shows that I'm not the only one who thinks RPGs are a positive and prosocial way to spend time.

What should you do?

I've tried to outline a few ways to ameliorate some of the concerns some Christians have about RPGs. In addition, a Christian player who feels personally concerned about these issues should be sure to weigh his or her conscience carefully, pray for guidance, and talk to trusted religious mentors before making a decision.


originally written March 23, 2001


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