Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Dungeons, Dragons and Philosophy

There are few things more powerful than nostalgia. Despite the weight of admin, marking and child induced sleep deprivation, that has kept me away from blogging for some time, Graham Harman's recent posts on Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy have stirred me to emerge. Along with many others, I can confidently say that few things exerted such a profound influence on my adolescent, teenage and later intellectual development as roleplaying games. Discovering D&D in 1977, with the Basic Boxed Set, opened a whole world of imagination, creativity and socialisation to me. I had recently read Lord of the Rings and my favourite section therein was the Fellowship’s journey through the mines of Moria; the discovery of D&D a few weeks later, via a miniscule advert in the Model Soldier magazine, seemed fated. There followed many years of making friends with people I would certainly never have met otherwise (plus probably fifteen plus hours per week of social gaming for many years), discovering countless other role playing systems and games (including that RPG of SR’s favoured fantasy genre: Call of Cthulhu) and an exploration of the joys and frustrations of writing and world-making. It is the latter two of these that are probably the most philosophically significant.

The writing is the easiest. I probably wrote hundreds of thousands of words through my teenage years for role playing games such as D&D. The work I produced for school was minimalistic at best, but D&D and other RPGs motivated me to write, and write extensively; a source of some despair for my teachers when my parents revealed this fact to them. For this alone I owe the game a considerable debt of gratitude with regard to my subsequent academic life.

The world-making, though, seems to have been a vital developmental step in my movement into philosophy, religious studies and – specifically – metaphysics. World-making in RPGs seems to demand certain philosophical virtues and I can, for example, still very clearly remember obsessing over such diverse topics as cosmology, economics, history, geography, politics and theology in an effort to create comprehensive and coherent fantasy worlds. Indeed I can think of very few other activities that converge with the commitments of the philosopher qua metaphysician as closely as those of the gamesmaster of a role-playing game. While I have heard the argument that all RPG GMs are frustrated authors and novelists, I suspect that many of them are would-be philosophers too. A corrolary of this is probably also apparent in the gamer's critical stance towards the RPG systems themselves. Debates over “realism” versus “fun” and “playability” circulated in many of the RPG support magazines during the 1980s (and probably continue to do so today), and I can remember grappling with those issues for some time. The alignment system in D&D, for example, worried and irritated me. The idea that personalities and characters could be essentialised along the lines of lawful, chaotic, good and evil always seemed, to cite Mackie, “queer” to me - and this was one of the first things that I eventually felt confident enough to move beyond.

There was also something distinctly object-oriented about early Dungeons and Dragons, albeit in a rather worrying sense, that is the whole emphasis on acquiring objects/things (e.g. wealth, artefacts, experience points) by encountering and overcoming other objects/things (e.g. monsters, traps, dungeons), all of which was enabled with the help of other objects (e.g. miniatures, the wonderful dice (Platonc forms anyone?), maps, rule books, character sheets), and intentionally contained with the imaginations of the particpants.

Perhaps more later, time to go and teach now, although appropriately the seminar topic is: Are Pratchett, Rowling and Tolkien religiously significant?

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