Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

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According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.

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Did Han Shoot First? The Question of Canon

Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.

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Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?

Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the  existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.

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When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:

Han shot first.

The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change.  Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.

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A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars

In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.

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Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars

Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.

But sometimes fans do gain control.

Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.

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A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years

And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.

A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.

Warning:

In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.

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Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon

Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.

The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.

The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.

But seriously, Han shot first.  

Friday Feature: Outerlands

I don’t think we’ve ever featured a Kickstarter before here on the Playground; but this one is pretty special.

 

 

Outerlands is a proposed six episode documentary series on the culture of video games by Area 5 Productions. To oversimplify; they want to make something akin to the “This American Life,” of video game culture. These guys are storytellers, and fantastic ones at that. They have a love and passion for the topic matter and have a unique visual style that sets them apart from other documentarians.

 

 

What makes their pitch different from many others is that they don’t just want to talk about games. They want to talk about everything around them as well; the people involved, the niches that have arisen, and the unexplored corners that many of us don’t even know exist. On the Kickstarter page, they’ve already discussed talking about things like speed runners, the “gamification” of things outside of games, sexuality in the game-space, e-sports, and many other topics. They want to highlight and critically look at every aspect of a passion that many of us enjoy.

 

This is probably my favorite 1Up show episode. It covers the PS3 launch, and boy were times different then…

 

For those of us who have been around a while; Area 5 isn’t an unknown name. These guys are the ones who helped create the 1Up Show back in the day, CO-OP after that, and have been making some of the best documentaries on gaming since then. Their two most recent were the well received I Am Street Fighter, for Street Fighter’s 50th anniversary, and Grounded, a “making of” for The Last of Us. Suffice it to say, Outerlands is their passion project.

 

 

This is a great chance for something we all enjoy to be seen in a different light. to see stories that might not otherwise be told. Outerlands is a great project and I hope that you all will give it a look. These guys deserve the chance to make this.

 

You can support them on Kickstarter HERE

Friday Feature: Dickensian Edition

It’s that time of year, everybody. It’s Christmas time. This is our last post before Christmas and when I was trying to think of what to write, I said to myself,

“All the Who’s down in Whoville seem to have Christmas under control,
but I should tell them how the geeks enjoy Christmas! How droll!”

Then I said,

“Why Stewart, that’s broad. You’ll never be able to choose!
You’ll just write in circles until all your readers snooze!
Why not narrow your field, and slim down your pickin’s?
Why not tell them only about your favorite DICKENS!”

Then I decided to lie down and wait for the Rhymitall* to wear off.

When I recovered I started to think about the different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I’ve seen over the years. There are almost too many to count and most of them are pretty bad. So I’ve picked three (3) that pass muster. Each for a different reason.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppets. ’nuff said.

But really, you can’t make me not like the Muppets. Or Fraggle Rock. The world lost someone when it lost Jim Henson. Fortunately his legacy continued through his children Disney.

The Muppet’s version of A Christmas Carol doesn’t pull the heart strings for me as much as some other interpretations, but it does have fun little songs, Kermit the frog, Ms. Piggy, Fozzywig (!) and the whole gang.

Michael Cain is also there, and his singing voice is just not as good as his Muppet companions. We’ve forgiven him, however, since he’s the best Alfred there’s ever been (outside of Batman: The Animated Series).

A Christmas Carol (2009)

This might be a contentious choice, but I think 2009’s animated Christmas Carol featuring Jim Carrey (who plays Scrooge and all of the spirits) is far and away the best version of  A Christmas Carol there is. Among a myriad other reasons, this interpretation happens to be one of the closest to Dickens’ original story.

For me, this is also unquestionably Carrey’s best work, and it could have only been so in the context of motion-capture animation. It really was this technology that allowed Carrey to play all of the roles he did in a way that doesn’t come across as strange or distracting. In fact, seeing Carrey’s expressive brand in Scrooge and all the ghosts lends itself to a better story. It cements the idea that the the spirits aren’t teaching Scrooge anything new, but exposing his own, already present raw nerves by peeling away his cynicism.

It’s also worth noting that this movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, avoids the dubious trademark of the director’s previous animated  Christmas film, The Polar Expressthe uncanny valley. By using the advanced motion capture technology with characters possessing exaggerated features (Scrooge’s enormous nose, Cratchit’s comically round face, etc.), A Christmas Carol has characters that are believably human and relatable, without being unsettlingly too like us.

Batman: Noel 

Bet you didn’t see this one coming, eh?

Batman: Noel is a graphic novel which came out in 2011 with art and writing by Lee Bermejo. I don’t know much about Bermejo’s other writing, but I think he does a great job  with this adaptation of the classic Christmas Carol formula for Batman. And Bermejo’s art is crazy good. His is an unbelievably detailed style, to the point where there are pages where I was almost annoyed that any text got in the way of the pictures. Movie costume designers should look to Bermejo’s art for guidance for how to translate super-hero outfits to live action film.

The story puts Batman in the role of Scrooge. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but the “spirits” are other characters with a relationship to Batman. Noel toys with a Batman motif that’s been popular in the past few years – the idea that Bruce Wayne has lost himself in the cowl. He takes his role a the Dark Knight seriously, and it keeps him from any semblance of happiness and love. I think Bermejo writes Noel well, and shows us how the popular “ideal” of Christmas cheer and generosity can easily be lost in masked crime-fighting.

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And with that I conclude my list of favorite Christmas Carols. If you have one that you feel I left, out, feel free to comment! Just remember your Christmas spirit and don’t be mean. Or Santa won’t bring you any toys.

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*Rhymitall is a prescription drug to for those with an difficulty writing limericks, folk songs, or children’s books. Rhymitall may not be right for all people. Stop taking Rhymitall and contact your doctor if you find yourself unable to write in prose, if you experience an abundance of whimsy, or if you have a sensation of being lighter than air. These are serious side effects and may be linked to a more serious condition.

Diversity, Queerness, and the Muppets

I don’t think the Muppets could have been created anywhere but America. As bizarre as their universe is — where tiny little bunnies and 7-foot tall monsters and ordinary looking humans all coexist without comment — it is at the same time very familiar. Our country at its best is all about the intersecting and blending of different cultures and diverse people. The Muppets represent the ideal America: everyone getting along and working together no matter how different they are; thriving not in spite of, but because of their diversity.  

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Created at around the same time, the Muppets give off the same utopian sense of optimism that the original Star Trek series does. But the Muppets are even more effective because they are not quite as consciously political. On Star Trek, we’re occasionally hit over the head with the idea: “If we can stop all  this war and prejudice nonsense, we can all get along — Soviets, Americans, aliens, everybody.” It’s heartfelt, but a little ham-fisted.

But with the Muppets, we’re asked to accept without question the idea that a bear and a frog are friends. And we do. And that’s awesome. At the heart of this quirky little puppet show is the idea that difference isn’t a barrier to love.

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Which points towards the fact that the sensibility of the Muppets is more than just multiracial and multicultural — it’s queer. I do not use the term to mean (necessarily) gay — to be queer is to subvert heteronormative behavioral expectations, whatever your gender or sexual orientation. And the Muppets do that all the time.

Take the off-beat relationship between Gonzo and his girlfriend Camilla the chicken. Or the familial structure of the Muppets — living together in a big community house, in a family that is structured by mutual affection and shared values rather than genetic ties. Most obviously, take Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy — they are one of pop culture’s most recognizable couples, and yet they subvert gendered expectations at practically every level.

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Against gender stereotypes, Piggy usually pursues Kermit. She is outspoken, physically imposing, and independent; he is soft-spoken, gentle, and community-minded. They manage to embody hetero norms while simultaneously contradicting them.

I may be accused of reading too deeply into children’s entertainment, but I think the fact that this subversive diversity is present in children’s entertainment is what makes it so significant.  While so much of children’s media is conventional in its gender and sexual politics, the Muppets provide an alternative glimpse into a positive, family-friendly portrayal of queerness.  

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The first television show that many of us ever saw was Sesame Street. From this incarnation of the Muppets we learned not just numbers and letters, but the multiplicity of forms that family can take — families on Sesame Street are multiracial, inclusive of people with disability, bilingual, headed by women, families of choice — all forms of family that subvert patriarchal norms.

Of course, in the utopian communities portrayed in the world of the Muppets, we see America through rose-colored glasses. This is satirized in the musical Avenue Q, where Muppet-like characters have to face the problems embedded in the real world — racism, unemployment, homophobia. It points out that our world isn’t quite as nice as what Sesame Street prepares us to expect.

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However, Henson’s creations are not meant to reflect society’s realities — they are meant to reflect our aspirations. As Henson himself said, “I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.”

And so even as we live in a country where people of color are still systematically oppressed, where religious minorities are persecuted, and where queer people are murdered, our hopes are raised by the dream of a better world. We attempt to form communities that go against the grain and create spaces where we can be our full selves. In these “queer” spaces, we are liberated from society’s expectations.

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As even the ever-optimistic Kermit points out, it’s not easy being green — to be “other” because of our skin color or gender or sexuality. But when we learn that our difference is what makes us beautiful — individually and in community — we realize that “it’s all we wanna be.”