Overheard at a gaming support group

Hi, my name is Father Thomas Dowd. I’m a Roman Catholic priest, and…..I’m a gamer.

(multiple voices) Hi, Father Tom.

I started gaming when I was 12 years old. It was the summer before I started grade 7. A friend got me into Dungeons and Dragons. “Just try it,” he said, “you’ll like it!” So we did, and he was right. Pretty soon, I was saving up my allowance money to spend on gaming rulebooks, odd-shaped dice, and adventure modules. I also started to get my friends into it. I even recruited my younger brother to play!

The effects of playing the game were readily apparent. First, we all started reading a lot more. Oh, there were less erudite books like the Nine Princes of Amber novels or the Myth series by Robert Aspirin, but to be honest you weren’t really considered a literate gamer until you’d read J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. We would talk about that trilogy at recess, at lunch, and after school, telling each other what we’d read and encouraging each other get through the tougher passages. Imagine, 12 and 13 year old boys reading real literature!

Playing the game was also having an effect on my knowledge of the world, particularly world religions and how they helped shape society. Just looking through the Deities and Demigods book, for example, with its descriptions of gods and legends and pantheons of other nations and eras, provoked visits in the imagination to ancient Greece, India, China, even Finland. Finland! How many teenage boys even knew where Finland was…and yet here we were, getting to know the characters of the great epics!

As if becoming more familiar with literature and culture weren’t enough, though, I discovered quickly that, among my friends who gamed, we were all developing a common interest…writing! D&D, you see, is not like other games like Monopoly, which has the definite goal of bankrupting the other players, or Risk, with the definite goal of conquering the world. D&D does not teach values like that — rather, the game is open-ended, with the players developing “characters” that engage in adventures together, with the goals being as much subjective (the growth of the character) as objective (attainment of some goal, or series of goals). In a sense, we were all living an adventure story together, and lots of us enjoyed it so much we started to write those stories down. I know one gamer who actually taught himself English by means of writing the D&D story of one long set of adventures!

I’m not sure the originators of the game meant for it to happen, but another side-effect of the game was that my brother and I became really good friends. I recall one summer vacation where we spent virtually every day together. I mean, we could have been running around the neighbourhood getting into trouble, or sitting in front of the TV, but instead there we were, day after day, reading books, talking and using our imaginations, our parents knowing exactly where we were at all times. How shocking!

It must be admitted, however, that the game did pass on certain subtle messages to us. One of them was that evil is just no fun. You see, the game *does* allow a player to create and play with an evil character within the game — but we learned quickly that evil simply does not pay. After all, if you really did play a character with an evil temperament, you eventually had to start backstabbing the other characters in your adventuring party — and then the monsters would get *all* of you anyway. Also, good characters who served good nobles and lords were always rewarded, while evil characters serving evil lords might only reap betrayal. It just wasn’t fun. Oh, it was possible to play a “neutral” character, who did not choose between good and evil, and that was sometimes ok — but in general, they had no real motivation to take part in the great epic adventures. No, it took Good characters, who acted out of bravery and with a spirit of self-sacrifice, to make the campaign really move forward with a story everyone could remember. What a lesson for life!

Finally, I have to admit that I probably owe part of my vocation as a priest to my experience playing D&D. You see, in any role-playing game there is one player who is not a player. This player is responsible to establish and referee the scenario that the other players experience. This “Dungeon Master” has a great responsibility: helping other people have fun. In a sense, the DM is a player taken from among the group of players to be the shepherd of the gaming experience. He spends long hours studying the rules and trying to create adventure scenarios that will challenge the other players but not discourage them. He also is responsible to arbitrate rule conflicts, and has the power to even bend the rules if they are getting in the way of the true purpose of the game necessarily leads to the development of improved practical judgement. And he is indispensable: the game *needs* for there to be one player at the service of the other players in this manner. How insidiously pastoral! Imagine being a DM, where nothing is in it for you except the enjoyment and success of others! And yet…secretly I loved being a DM — it seemed to echo something deep inside me, a calling that I didn’t even know I was feeling until years later when I joined the seminary. I’m not sure I’d ever have become a priest without having the chance to experience “shepherding” in such a simple, fun environment.

There is so much more that can be said about the game. I know one player who got so into D&D that he unplugged from our worldly reality by becoming a monk! Apparently, playing religious characters in the game gave him the desire to rediscover prayer in his life, and it led him to not just playing a cleric, but becoming one! The game also introduced us to the concept of demons and devils, teaching us that they are enemies that should be defeated (and never bargained with).

Since I began playing Dungeons and Dragons I’ve moved on as well to trying other games, and at this point I’ve even become a reviewer for the game Ars Magica (produced by Atlas Games). They wanted to include the Roman Catholic Church as part of their story scenarios, but also wanted to make sure it was portrayed fairly and accurately, including elements of Catholic faith. How could a gamer priest like me resist? I’ve contributed passages and concepts to a couple of rulebooks, such that I’ve even received credit as a “system designer”. All I can see is the great potential that exists in such games to promote new methods of fun and learning, and I’ll admit I’m entranced by the notion.

I’m really glad to be part of this gaming support group, because I think role-playing games are worthy of our support. Thanks for listening.

I hope people can hear the tongue-in-cheek tone of this text. Every so often I get an email commenting on the possible “evils” of a particular game. I don’t know every game out there, but I am at least familiar with the genre of role-playing games (especially the most famous/infamous, i.e. Dungeons and Dragons) and I must say, I find the many of the texts out there that are critical of the game to be, quite simply, extraordinarily silly. Silly, with plenty of inaccuracies, and often full of hysteria. Can these sorts of things be used in an evil way? Sure, but that’s true of a lot of things. Do they necessarily lend themselves to that? Absolutely not — because then it isn’t fun anymore!

P.S. Anybody wanna try this Ars Magica game with me? A good friend will soon be giving me a table that will be *perfect* for gaming, and given that I’ve contributed to this game but never played it I thought it might be fun to try it out for size. Let me know.