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Dungeons, Dragons, and a Theology of Fun

This is the fourth and final part of our series called “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop RPGs.”

In parts 1–3 of our series, we established (1) what Dungeons & Dragons is and how it’s played, (2) how it functions as a storytelling medium, and (3) how it can promote mental, social, emotional, and spiritual wellness. We’ve concluded that, far from being the antisocial cesspool they’ve been accused of, tabletop RPGs are far more likely to promote healthy and pro-social behavior. But despite the emotional, social, and cognitive perks that come with role-playing games—and despite even the spiritual enlightenment that the fantasy of role-playing games can bring—these are not why we play D&D. We play D&D for the same reason we play any game: we play it because it’s fun.

“Fun” is what happens when we take pleasure and enjoyment in a thing for its own sake. A child doesn’t need a reason to eat ice cream—the ice cream is an end in and of itself. Doing the “wave” at a football match accomplishes nothing—it is done for the fun of doing it. Games, in Mark Rosewater’s words, are likewise characterized by “a lack of real-world relevance.” Playing them does not generally make us money or earn us social clout (except in the cases of things like e-sports). As C.S. Lewis says of friendship, philosophy, and art, D&D “has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival.” These things are not profitable; they are fun. And if there is one thing the church of this age desperately needs, it is a robust theology of fun.

We don’t need a reason to eat ice cream—ice cream is a good enough reason on its own.

Show Me the Money

The contemporary Western world is obsessed with productivity. We consistently express value and worth in terms of results, profit, and loss. We measure the value of whole countries based on the goods and services they produce. We even refer to a human being’s finances as their “net worth,” as if the full breadth of their objective value could possibly be captured in something so limited as a spreadsheet. As Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us, “in the businessman’s value system, if an act does not bring an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all.” Games, with their “a lack of real-world relevance,” might be tolerated within this framework, but only if they do not impinge on our productivity, and only if we never make the mistake of believing that they actually matter. We often see games as childish things that, at best, provide the necessary dose of endorphins to power us through another thankless day at the office. It’s a grim outlook. Happily, it’s also a wrong one.

Make no mistake—D&D is work, for both dungeonmaster and players.Wil WheatonCC BY-NC-SA 2.0cropped and resized

The Hard Work of Having Fun…

Our obsession with productivity means we automatically assume an essential separation between “work” and “fun.” Work is expected to be strenuous and produce results (usually financial), whereas fun is expected to be relaxing and consume those results (also, usually financial). If our fun begins to require work, we suspect something has gone terribly wrong, and if our work is unexpectedly fun, we accept it only as a temporary hiccup in the universe. But games, and especially deeply complex games like D&D, challenge this view by providing us with what seems like a paradox: fun work.

Games, especially deeply complex games like D&D, provide us with what seems like a paradox: fun work.

Because make no mistake—D&D is work. Joining a D&D campaign is a serious commitment; a single session takes hours, and a full campaign can take years. Building your first character can consume an entire weekend, before you’ve even begun to play. Role-playing can be emotionally and mentally draining, combat scenarios are complex and challenging, and the note-taking required to track your team’s storyline would give doctoral-level studies a run for their money. And somehow, wonder of wonders, we do this work, not for any tangible profit, but for the sheer joy of doing it.

… is work that we were created for.

For the Christian, this should come as no surprise. According to Genesis 2:15, we are not made for leisure, but for work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” ( emphasis added). Work was always intended to be fun, to be enjoyable in itself and for its own sake. It is only the invasion of sin into the cosmos which has severed the connection of work and fun: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17). Games, however, restore work and fun to their proper union. In her examination of video games in our modern life (tellingly titled Reality is Broken), Jane McGonigal points out that games provide what “real life” does not, but arguably should: they “challenge us . . . and help us put our personal strengths to better use,” they “focus our energy on something we’re good at and enjoy,” they “give us clearer missions and more satisfying . . . work,” they “eliminate our fear of failure,” they “build stronger social bonds,” and they “make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.”

Games create a temporary, imaginative space where we can experience the best of what it means to be the imago Dei.

In other words, games create a temporary, imaginative space where we can experience the best of what it means to be the imago Dei—created in the image of God and gifted the responsibility of caring for His world (Gen. 1:26-28). Like all good games, playing tabletop RPGs is real work, requiring concentration, cooperation, and even preparation. But this is work we do simply to enjoy doing it, rather than to produce or gain something else. Like a dance floor, an empty canvas, a deserted stage, or like Eden before the fall, games are a place where we can make beautiful things simply for the sheer joy of making them. Tabletop role-playing games are an opportunity, in the words of Dr. David K. Naugle, to “eucharistically enjoy the works of God and the life He has given us.” They can broaden our imaginations toward positive ends. They can aid with cognitive development, strengthen our relational skills, help us learn teamwork and perseverance, and make us all-around better humans. But more than that, they allow us to take delight in being human. And while the human experience can be frightening, painful, and seemingly chaotic, it remains undeniably good.

References

“What is a Game?”, by Mark Rosewater

The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis

The Language of the Night, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

“A Dungeons and Dragons Game That’s Been Going for 35 Years,” by Blair Marnell

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal

“A Serious Theology of Play,” by David K. Naugle

Featured image “games-2025663_1280” by GooKingSword (Pixabay License).





Jaclyn S. Parrish is the associate director of digital marketing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter.

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