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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Grand Theft Art – GTA and American Culture

$800 Million in a single day…

$1 Billion in three days…

Think about that for a bit.

Whether you care to admit or not, Grand Theft Auto V is a cultural event. A zeitgeist that transcends the medium it resides in and reaches out to the culture as a whole. By its nature, it is a lightning rod for controversy, and it willingly takes the target that gets painted on its back.

It is a game about crime, its consequences, and the morally reprehensible men that succeed and suffer from it. The player steals cars, robs banks, visits the strip club, tortures, assassinates, and so much more in the name of finally getting that “big score.” It is dark, twisted, and completely unabashed about all of it.

In other words, it’s a fantastic work of art.

Grand Theft Auto V is a technical achievement on many different levels, and for that it should be lauded, but the real accomplishment is what it does for gaming as a medium. It elevates the conversation beyond mechanics and gameplay; to ideas, to public reaction, and to proper criticism.

The game is a critique of the American present. A breakdown of a post 9/11, occupy Wall Street, economically collapsed world; where everyone is entitled and even the government is seen in shades of grey. It is where your teenage son plays “Righteous Kill” on his video game system all day, with “Entitled” tattooed around his neck. It is a place where the paparazzi beg for your help to make the next big celebrity sex tape. It shows the player a beautiful Los Angeles skyline, riddled with empty homes from a housing crisis that took the city. It is a rage fueled satire of America that hits the mark far more often than it misses.

Yet, for all of its achievements, for all of its technical prowess; all that the majority of America hears about Grand Theft Auto V is this…

If it doesn’t load properly, skip ahead to 2.03

News stories like this flourish in the echo chamber that is the public media. Anytime a video game console is found in the home of an assailant it is instantly correlated to the act of violence perpetrated. The video game is instantly seen as the cause, or at least an enabler of some sort.

Yet, is this fair? Should we be throwing this at the feet of Grand Theft Auto and other pieces of this fledgeling art form? More appropriately, should we be passing blame on these creative endeavors or should we be looking more closely at ourselves?

Steven Ogg plays the voice of Trevor, the most sociopathic character in GTAV. He said it like this…

“The hypocrisy drives me crazy, it just sets the wrong focus. Why not talk about gun control? Why not talk about parenting? Why not talk of lack of family values? There are so many other things to talk about. Look at what’s on TV. Breaking Bad had that episode where ******** got his face blown off. There’s a lot of intense stuff out there. Video games are just an easy scapegoat.”

In America, we have a hobby of not accepting blame for our own actions. For us, it is always someone else’s fault. It is not the fact that the parents had no interest in their teen’s life and didn’t know what he was spending his time doing. It was not the issue that someone who had a mental dysfunction had easy access to firearms. No, it was because they played video games.

The silver lining in all of this is that this is not unique to this modern art form. All recent forms of entertainment have gone through such superfluous scrutiny and come out on the other side successful. Yet, for each it took time and, in some cases, generations to pass before popular consensus changed.

Warren Spector is one of the most influential and prolific game makers of our generation. His work includes names like Wing CommanderThiefSystem ShockEpic Mickey, and most famously Deus Ex. His influence can be felt even in modern games. In an article he wrote for GamesIndustry.biz, he summed up this generational issue concisely.

“More recently, many of you reading this will remember a time when comic books, pinball, television and that evil known as “rock n roll” music spelled the end of western civilization as we knew it.

For some time now it’s been gaming’s turn in the cultural crosshairs. We’re the ones blamed for all the things earlier media supposedly caused. Sigh.

On the one hand, we could all just sit back and wait for the hysteria to pass – I mean, once everyone became a film fan, a TV viewer, a rock music listener, a reader, it became awfully hard to say with a straight face – “That thing we all do… um… er… well… it turns people into monsters!… Not me, of course, or you… or those 200 million consumers who are just fine… But THEM… THEY… THEY’RE monsters and it’s all Mario Kart’s fault!”

As it should, this brings me back to Grand Theft Auto. GTAV is not to blame for the societal ills that plague us, and nor should it be blamed. It, and many other games like it, do not turn perfectly normal people into murder machines bent on getting a “high score.” Humanity was fully capable of committing terrible acts long before video game existed, and we still are just as capable today regardless of the existence of video games.

Shakespeare wrote about suicide, murder, treachery, sex, and was celebrated for it during his lifetime. His work was never blamed for the suicide, murder, etc. that happened around him. Now, I would never compare Grand Theft Auto to Hamlet. Mainly because, GTA still has a tendency to lean towards misogyny, homophobia, and crude humor, but the argument still stands.

It is easy to cast stones at a game where you can senselessly run down hundreds of pedestrians. It’s easy to cast blame for society’s violence on a piece of art where simulacrums of that violence can be experienced. It is much much harder to examine one’s self in the mirror and ask the tough questions.

So before the “evils” of video games are decried again, keep in mind that at some point many of the hobbies that you enjoy today were considered to be rotting society years ago. So if you’ll excuse me, I have a game waiting for me to play.

Rotting away society’s core has never been so much fun…

NSFW: Language

Read All of Warren Spector’s Article HERE

Read More of GTA’s Actor’s Thoughts on the Game HERE