Monday, June 09, 2014

Ethics in Fantasy: Part 2 Concerned About Role Playing

Ethics in Fantasy: Part 2

by Tracy Raye Hickman


In the first installment of this series, we explored some of the techniques of communication which can help bridge the understanding gap between people who play role-playing games and those who are concerned about morality and perceived evil influences in such games. As promised, this month leads with an example of how one might address those concerned about role playing games.


Are you concerned about Dungeons & Dragons1 or D&D as it is commonly known? If you are, then you are not alone. Many people over the last ten years have become alarmed at what they have heard from their televisions, friends and neighbors on this subject.
I, too, am concerned about role-playing games and how they are being used. I am a Christian. I accept Christ as my personal Savior.
So why am I taking a moment, now, to write to you about role playing games? Are role playing games so important?
No. Certainly they are not when compared to so many other things in this world. The question of whether to play these games or not pales in comparison to such issues as nuclear war, the homeless and taxes. Families are more important than any game; so, too, is friendship, love, and taking a firm stand on your moral and spiritual convictions.
I am taking a moment to write about role playing games because it is an activity in which so many people are involved. Due to much misunderstanding on the subject -- both by those who play such games and those who question their play -- much harm has been done to relationships and, sadly, to how Christianity and religion in general is perceived by the players of such games.
In short, I write because people and their relationships are important.
I write primarily to the Christians who are reading this article but what I have to say also has great implication for those of other faiths, be they Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or otherwise.


I offered to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for the youth group in our church last month. Believe me, if there was ever a group of young men who needed to play this game, these were it. They were disorganized, unkind to each other and generally uncooperative. They weren't bad boys -- they just hadn't learned how to value each other yet.
I was honestly surprised when my Bishop gave me a call to cancel the game.
"Someone's objecting?" I was stunned. I had been writing these games for over five years. It had certainly been no secret to my fellow church members. Now someone, it seemed to me, was calling into question my very faith and worthiness.
"I'm sure it's just that they don't understand," said the Bishop. "I honestly don't know anything about the game. I haven't played the game, so I can't very well tell them it's all right. I think it would be best to just cancel the activity."
And do we just cancel me? I thought. I've tried to forward good teachings in every game I ever put a hand to -- do we just cancel that?
I had to swallow a lot of initial anger. Good Christians work hard at being Christ-like and nothing rubs their fur the wrong way more than intimating that they aren't acting their faith. Why had someone who had known me for years suddenly found fault in how I had been making my living for years in all good conscience?
The answer, of course, was that they didn't understand.

Why so much misunderstanding

Ours is a complex age. There is such a diverse number of influences on us that it often becomes a mind-boggling task just to keep track of the things we have to avoid. We long for 'simpler times' though we are sometimes hard pressed to remember just when those were. We would like the world to be a simple place.
Unfortunately, when we are confronted with a complex problem we often also look for a simple answer. Drug abuse, promiscuity, Satan worship and a host of other sins have complex roots in a society as diverse as ours. We are bombarded, it seems, at every turn with the winds of influence that try to blow us here and there like chaff. It can be very tempting to collect up all those terrible things and nail them to a single cause.
There's been a lot of misunderstanding about role playing games. It is a very new activity, quite different from traditional board games. Things that are new are, naturally, suspect. Somehow, the game became the 'convenient cause' for a host of the problems that our youth must face.

Honest men have been misinformed

When we see the events of the world portrayed in a slick thirty-minute newcast each night, we are often comforted. The world really SEEMS that simple.
When Ed Bradley enters your home Sunday night and, right there on '60 Minutes' tells you that role playing games have been 'alleged' to cause Satan worship and teen suicide, how can we question it? If it's on '60 Minutes' it must be true or they wouldn't say it, would they? We would never suspect that Ed Bradley would withhold important information (though he did) just to get a good story. If there were new facts which surfaced after their investigation aired (which occurred) they would let us know (which they did not).
We often rely on others to do our work for us. We cannot take the time to investigate everything we come across in our life -- we trust others to take in all the facts and give us the 'digested' version of the truth. Sadly, this all too often means that we make our decisions based on a collection of other peoples opinions -- informed or otherwise.
The search for the 'easy' or 'simple' cause for complex problems has led honest men to be misinformed about role playing games. This is sad because such games, when used properly, are powerful tools for teaching good, solid principles of life and faith.


Suffice it to say that people are concerned because it is their children that are involved. We all want what's best for those who are nearest to our hearts. We've heard that these role playing games are evil and harmful. If they are we want to know about it.
While there is a host of subjects we could talk about, we'll limit ourselves for now to two of the most common evils attributed to role playing games. Here's the other side of the coin.


Many are concerned these days about Satanism. They see the influence of the Occult has permeated much of our society and is bringing spiritual ruin. All one seems to have to do is go to any record store and look through a few covers to see images of demons and witchcraft.
Most fantasy role playing games include monsters from many of the worlds mythologies, including demons, devils, witches and the like. Traditionally, these creatures are the enemy or 'bad guys' in such games. It is usually the player's goal to vanquish these evil characters (defeat evil) in order to win the game.
However, because such enemies are present and described in these games, people have mistakenly believed that the games are recruiting for satanic worship.
Is Satanism and magic as it appears in literature the same? No. I certainly wouldn't want to lump dark occult worshippers and pagans in with Cinderella's Fairy Godmother or Sleeping Beauty's Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Should we stop watching the 'Wizard of Oz' because Glinda, the Good Witch of the North waves her wand? Of course not.
The 'magic' in role playing games is purely literary in nature. There is no more power in role playing 'magic' than in saying 'Bibidi-bobidi-boo!' When a player of a role playing game 'casts a spell' he is doing something as dangerous as saying 'Shazam' out loud. It's as imaginary as a game of cops and robbers.
Still, people have looked at the role playing rules books and seen various things which certainly do look evil. At least part of this was due to the fact that players taking their characters into combat had to fight something.
The Bible itself contains words about demons, dragons and sorcery. The Lord talks about it there so that we might know how to combat it in our lives. In a much smaller sense, fantasy role playing games bring up such subjects so that players can combat these creatures in the game.
It is also interesting to note that TSR, Inc. just finished revising their Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. In part they were determined to removed any and all possible illusions to any real occultism. The result was astonishing. When all was done, no big changed in the game were needed. The occult was never part of the game to begin with.

Teenage Suicide

One of the most tragic statistics in the United States is the terrible rate of Teenage Suicide. The premature death of so many of our youth is cause for great alarm.
Unfortunately, Dungeons & Dragons® has wrongly become the scapegoat in many such suicides. Despite the 'media attention' given to such alleged connections, there was NOT ONE instance where playing a role playing game was the cause of such tragedy. Of course, while the 'allegations' got national attention in the press, the refutations were somehow always buried on page 5 if they were printed at all. Interestingly, there have been studies done which show that players of role playing games are far less likely to commit suicide than the national average.
Careful examination of suicides rumored to have been caused by role playing games always discloses some other dark reason behind the death. I sorrow for those who have suffered through such tragedy and do not wish to compound it by discussing the cases which I am familiar with. If it is important to you, the information is on public record though it will take you some effort to get past the front page head lines to find the real story. 'GAME KILLS BOY' is a snappy headline -- 'LONELY BOY KILLS SELF' is, sadly, too common to be news.
This is doubly tragic: not because of the bad name it has given to that game but because by blaming the game the real causes for these terrible disasters as swept under the rug. It is much easier to say "John killed himself because of D&D" than it is to say "John killed himself because none of us would pay attention to him." In doing so we not only wrongly place the blame for the tragedy -- we also fail to learn from it, thus, condemning ourselves to repeating our mistakes.


Have you ever looked closely at a newspaper photograph? When you glance at it over breakfast, all you see is the apparent gray shades of someone's face. If you look closely at it, however, you see that what looks gray from a distance is really black dots of various sizes on a white field.
Good and evil have much in common with that newpaper photo. In a world today morals and integrity have come to be seen as 'gray areas' subject to 'situational ethics'. We may find, looking more closely, that these 'gray areas' are really just made up of small parts of evil black dots mixed into a righteous field of white. It's just hard to pick out those dots with a simple glance.

Are Games Evil?

Like movies, music and television, role playing games can be used for both good and evil. We've all gone to movies that were good -- hopefully we have also walked out of movies that were bad. Just like movies, there are both good and bad games.
The test of any form of entertainment is the message which it conveys. Good programs on television give us thoughtful messages and insights. Bad television sends messages that are false and misleading.
The real test is the same for games: what messages are we getting from the games we play. Monopoly, for example, has probably been played by most people in America. Think about the message of the game for a moment: To win (succeed) you must ruthlessly bankrupt all of your neighbors. What about the other games you play with your family? What kind of lessons do they teach?
Even among your own family games there are good messages and, perhaps, bad messages.

Turning the Medium to good.

We have often heard it said, "It isn't whether you win or loose; its how you play the game." Never has this been more true than with role playing games. As with all other forms of entertainment, a well thought out and morally based role playing game can be a positive and an uplifting experience.
It is sad that Christians have not made more use of role playing games, for no single medium shows as much promise for teaching moral concepts and beliefs.



A role playing game, properly designed and run, can be a powerful tool in teaching the concepts of good to youth. Many institutions, including churches have used role playing techniques for years. "John, what would you do if someone asked you to use drugs?" In this simple question, we ask John to pretend for a moment that he is acting in an imaginary situation. This is role playing at is simplest form. It also helps John learn how to say no.
There are several ways that role playing games can teach good principles. These are just a few.
Lessons through Example
In role playing games, the participants pretend to be someone else. They don't do this by running around the house; they sit around kitchen tables or wherever it's comfortable. There they describe -- like telling a story -- what their pretend character is doing. A referee in the game then interprets what the players tell as part of the story they weave together.
Positive lessons can be taught by the referee of the game if he chooses. Pharaoh, an adventure written by my wife and I early in our careers, dealt with the curse of wealth. In the story the cursed spirit of an ancient desert ruler could not pass into Heaven because he had attempted to buy his way in with his ill gotten treasure. The apparent misery to which this figure was condemned by his own lust for wealth continues to teach the value of deeds over possessions to all who play that game today.

Lessons through Allegory and Parable

Allegory and parable are two important forms of moral instruction. Grollier's Encyclopedia defines allegory and parables as follows:

An allegory, in poetry or prose, is a narrative in which the characters, events, and setting represent deeper truths or generalizations than those suggested by the surface story. Allegory can thus be understood on more than one level. The more profound meaning, however--religious, moral, political, or personal--is usually of greater importance than the fiction itself. The meaning conveyed may be obvious, subtle, or virtually concealed by the writer.

A parable--from the Greek parabola, "a setting beside"--is a brief moral tale that uses the devices of allegory. The parable resembles the fable, but whereas a fable is a realistic narrative, a parable is an extended metaphor that alludes to spiritual truth through a simple story.

Christ taught through parables and allegory.

"And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand."
Matt 13:10-13

Christ here explains His use of parables as a teaching tool. Through His parables, He plants the wisdom and knowledge of the story in the mind of the listener. If the listener is ready to receive that knowledge, then the seed finds fertile ground and flourishes. Others, however, may not yet be ready to hear the wisdom and the seed falls on rocky ground. However, the great wonder is that these seeds often wait in the mind of all who hear them, dormant, it may seem, for a season only to spring to life when the listener is ready to hear.
The allegory and parable have another teaching advantage: the person who hears the tale is far less skeptical toward such a tale than they might be to direct preaching. This allows the seed to get planted in the first place.
An adventure game becomes an even more powerful teaching tool when allegory or parables are used because the participant is actually part of the parable. In a role playing game, such an adventure might sound like this:

REFEREE: "You and your party of adventurers finally reach the village just as twilight is fading. Making your way to the center of the village, you see a man lying on the ground."
PLAYER #1: "Probably a homeless drunk."
PLAYER #2: "Is there anything unusual about this man?"
REFEREE: "You look closer and see that he is lying naked in the square and has been beaten nearly to death. Several villagers can be seen milling around the shadows of the square but none are going out into the square to help the man."
PLAYER #2: "I talk to one of the villagers. 'Excuse me, sir, but ...'"
REFEREE: "The villagers quickly runs away, a look of fear in his eyes."
PLAYER #1: "Must be your aftershave. I wonder what all these people are afraid of?"
REFEREE: "The man in the square is sobbing in his pain."

Will the players of the game overcome their own fears and allow their character to help this man? Will the players not only learn about -- but actually pretend to be a 'Good Samaritan'? What a powerful tool for good!

Direct learning of scriptures

The scriptures themselves can be incorporated into role playing games, if such is the desire of the game's writer. An entire adventure, for example, could be written in allegorical form around the Beatitudes.
In rough outline, such an adventure might run like this: The players are confronted by two men. One is a warrior in shining armor and bristling with weapons, the other his servant. The warrior says he will show them the way to Haven (Heaven). The servant, however, says that he can show the players the true way. (Matthew 5:3)
Following the servant, the players walk across a great field of battle. A woman stands among the thousand dead and weeps. If the players help the woman with kindness, she shows them the invisible path to the castle in the clouds. (Matthew 5:4)
Reaching the castle, the players are confronted with a great talking gate flanked by two fists atop massive arms. Any attempt to force the door open results in the player's characters being attacked by the fists but if they will ask politely and lay down their weapons, the door will open on its own. (Matthew 5:5)
Would it be difficult to show 'hunger and thirst' (Matthew 5:6) or a situation where mercy would be better than fighting (Matthew 5:7)?
An adventure based on the Beatitudes? Of course! And not only have we learned what the Beatitudes say but have felt as though we have participated in them.

Positive, uplifting activity

There is much about role playing itself which is wholesome and good. The game encourages people to interact socially during the course of play -- something ignored with few exceptions in board and video games. It allows young people especially to try different ways of relating with each other without as much fear of rejection.
It also exercises the imagination. Again, imagination is not exclusively a bad thing. Our achievements in printing and satellite communications (both powerful tools in telling the gospel) would never have come about without inspired imagination.

Family Unity

In a family setting, role playing games can bridge the gap between parents and children. When father takes on the role of Hugh the Halfwit Barbarian and son takes on the role of Hurg, Hugh's Twin Brother, the two get more than just a wonderful time playing the game together. Dad and son can relax their differences. Many of their problems can be worked out together -- side by side -- and, with patience, the bridges built in the game may soon extend to mutual respect in their lives as well.


As concerned parents, ministers and educators, we should not try to 'stop role playing.' Instead, we should become involved -- really involved -- with the activities of our youth; including role playing games.

See for yourself

Is your son playing role playing games? I encourage you to take time out of your life and make an investment in your son and family. Go with him to one of his games. I know, this may sound crazy at first and perhaps your son will object. If you make it clear that you want to play or observe rather than criticize you may be surprised at how willing your son would be to have you come along. You also may be surprised at just how much fun it really is.

Be a Watchdog

We've talked a lot about how good role playing games can be. Can such games also be misused?
Sadly, yes. As with many things in the world, there are always those who, for reasons of their own, want to misuse or abuse good things -- twisting positive forces into destructive ones.
Parents should watch out for games in which evil is glorified. Good is not weak and should never be portrayed as such. There are, I am sorry to say, some game products which do this and mislead game players who perpetuate these ideas. You may not want your children involved in such games. Talk with your children about such problems and help them understand your concerns.
Just remember: don't 'throw the baby out with the bath water.' Most games are positive experiences and are activities in which your children can learn much.
The ultimate assurance, of course, is that you, the parent, actually run the game. Doing so give you control over the content of the game. It's rather like being able to make up your own TV show when you finally get fed up with what's on TV. Running a game is a lot of work but there are many rewards to a father or mother who takes the time.
Finally, teach your children the difference between 'good' games and 'bad' games by their message and content. When you go to a movie and find that it's vulgar or crude; you walk out. When music comes on the radio that's obscene; you turn it off. Our children need to be taught the same rule with games -- including role playing games. If the game is getting morally questionable; get up and get out. Just say 'No'.


Whatever you decide to do, remember that your family is the most important thing you can do with your life. A good relationship in your family isn't something you can buy and it isn't something that you can put off until later. What it does take is time, commitment and action: the time to be involved; the commitment to carry through with your involvement and the act of participating in your families life.
Role playing games are being used to better people's lives. Whether you decide to play role playing games or not is not important. What is important is that you see for yourself what's going on in your friends or childrens lives and why they play role playing games. No other activity provides such an opportunity for bringing people closer to understanding each other.
What could be more important than that?
In the final article, we will explore why your game should be morally based and a positive experience for your players. You'll be surprised at how much more fun your games will be as a result.

1D&D, AD&D, Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dragonlance are trademarks of TSR, Inc. and are used here without their permission.
Ethics in Fantasy, Part II: Concerned about Role Playing
Copyright 1988 by Tracy Raye Hickman

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