This is part three of our series called “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop RPGs.” Jaclyn Parrish examines the mechanics and ethos of D&D and other tabletop RPGs, providing a rationale for why and how Christians can enjoy RPGs as not only a morally neutral, but actively redemptive pastime. Part one focused on the basics of D&D and what makes it unique in the gaming world. In part two she examined how D&D stands out as a completely unique storytelling medium. Here in part three she examines how playing D&D and other tabletop RPGs can promote mental, social, and emotional wellness and biblically-laudable character.
We’ve established what Dungeons & Dragons is, and explored its power as a narrative medium, but is this particular aesthetic cocktail too potent? Are there inevitable side effects to tabletop RPGs that mean we should avoid them, whatever possible good they contain? Many people have certainly claimed so. Since the infamous “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, opponents of D&D have argued that the game not only “fostered demon worship and a belief in witchcraft,” but could easily “steer impressionable young players toward suicide and murder.” D&D has been blamed for everything from psychosis to drug use—but the fact is, these accusations are untrue. Indeed, D&D has quite the opposite effect.Instead of encouraging antisocial tendencies, tabletop RPGs can actually serve as a highly effective means of promoting mental, social, and emotional wellness, developing character that is not only healthy, but biblically laudable.
This fear that D&D triggers antisocial tendencies has been a major reason Christians give for avoiding tabletop RPGs, but in the last thirty-odd years, a growing mountain of evidence has continuously and increasingly shown that this fear is unfounded. As Sarah Lynne Bowman and Andreas Lieberoth report in their survey of “Psychology and Role-Playing Games,”
Concerns about potential ill effects of immersion in non-digital fantasy games . . . have largely been dismissed in the research literature. For instance, a casual analysis of suicide statistics does not support the notion that role-players as a group have a higher rate of suicide or symptoms related to self-harm . . . . When compared to groups of non-players . . . no differences have been found in relation to depression, suicidal ideation, psychoticism, extraversion, or neuroticism.
In fact, instead of encouraging antisocial tendencies, tabletop RPGs can actually serve as a highly effective means of promoting mental, social, and emotional wellness, developing character that is not only healthy, but biblically laudable.
Shaping the Mind
The cognitive benefits of engaging in tabletop RPGs are countless. Playing these games, according to Bowman, “increases the capacity for attention and concentration” and can “aid in the development of systemic thinking, encouraging participants to look beyond situational specifics and uncover overall patterns.” Furthermore, RPGs are, at their most basic mechanical level, exercises in problem-solving. With each encounter the DM describes, the players must decide how to respond in ways that not only resolve their issues, but do so in a manner consistent with their characters’ goals, personality, and moral alignment.
For this reason, Bowman says, these “scenarios . . . often require a high-level of critical analysis for resolution,” on par with the complexity presented by real-world problems. If a morally “good” character is attacked by a child, for instance, then the goal of their own survival is complicated by their aversion to harming an innocent, leaving the player with a highly nuanced problem to solve.
Tabletop RPGs therefore certainly provide an opportunity to “love the Lord . . . with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37) by exercising the intellect in a positive way. They also provide an opportunity to practice being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), forcing the players to navigate difficult and even painful situations in a morally complex world. And, as is often the case in real life (and certainly within the Church), these problems are not best solved alone, but in cooperation with others.
Learning to Relate
Tabletop RPGs are also invaluable for developing social skills—in particular, teamwork and conflict resolution. Players must learn to collaborate and resolve conflicts on not one, but two distinct levels: the narrative and the game. On the narrative level, the players must find ways to use their characters’ collective skills while also keeping in mind their weaknesses. In “Learning and Role-Playing Games,” the authors relate that some groups prefer to form their parties by “giving characters interdependent combat skills: one type of character deals out damage, one absorbs damage, while a third heals the others.” If a ranger, a barbarian, and a cleric were tasked with defeating a dragon, for instance, then the ranger might riddle the beast with arrows while the barbarian charged in close to keep it at bay, with the cleric hovering nearby, casting healing spells as needed.
Surviving the world of D&D means learning how each member can best contribute to the team’s success, whatever “success” looks like to the team in any given encounter. And, in addition to aligning their skills and weaknesses, players must also find ways to align their characters’ goals, personalities, and moral codes. Imagine you have a selfish elf who wants to get rich and an altruistic gnome who wants to save the world, and your task is to find ways for the two to work together! This is the challenge of collaboration and conflict resolution on the narrative level in D&D.
Gygax himself insisted that collaboration was central to the ethos of the game. He argued that “the inability of the lone individual to cope with every challenge is evident in RPGs and reflects life.” More than that, though, it reflects Scripture itself, from the Creator’s insistence that it is “not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18) to Paul’s description of the Church as the Body of Christ. The language of 1 Corinthians 12 could just as easily express the need for diversity and interdependency in a D&D party—just as “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you'” (1 Cor. 12:21), the knight cannot say to the wizard, “I don’t need you.” If the whole party were a bard, where would the melee attacks be? And if the whole party were a rogue, where would the healing be?
In addition to interacting with one another as characters in a narrative, D&D participants also interact with one another as players in a game, and must work together and resolve conflict on this level, as well. Different people have different ideas of of what makes a tabletop RPG fun and engaging, and every session constitutes an attempt on the part of the players and the DM to create an experience which at least partially meets all those ideals. This not only requires the DM to create a diverse series of encounter types, but also requires players to participate in aspects of the game they find less “fun,” in order for the group as a whole to have fun. A player who prefers “gaining treasure and conquering monsters” might, for example, need to chat up townsfolk for information, or investigate a mystery. If everyone’s going to have a good time, then individual players must be willing to compromise and set aside their own preferences from time to time. In short, the player needs to be willing to reject “selfish ambition” and “conceit,” humbly looking “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). If players aren’t willing to do this the game will likely come to a screeching halt.The knight cannot say to the wizard, “I don’t need you.” If the whole party were a bard, where would the melee attacks be? And if the whole party were a rogue, where would the healing be?
Fine notes that conflicts that have nothing to do with the narrative can also surface around the D&D table, and these need to be worked out as well if the game is going to continue. He observes that “rivalry . . . surfaces in decision-making,” as well as in “competition for scarce and valuable resources” within the game, as when players clash over how the group will be led or who will get the best loot. These “personal rivalries” are different from “role rivalries,”—they aren’t based in the characters’ motivations, but rather in the motivations of the players themselves, either to control the game or build a more powerful character.
Of course, this competition can be friendly, but when it becomes heated, Fine says the other players and the GM need to work “to restore order to the game, either by constructing a compromise . . . or by insisting on a new formulation that allows the game to proceed.” The phenomenon of “bleed”—when emotions from a character affect the player’s real-life emotions, and vice versa—can often blur the lines between role rivalries and personal ones, further complicating the process of conflict resolution. The Church itself is no stranger to such conflicts—Paul and Barnabas sharply clashed over the addition of a new party member (John Mark), and were forced to hammer out a compromise in order for their missionary task to proceed unhindered (Acts 15:36-41). Teamwork in tabletop RPGs, as in real life and in Christian community, takes real work, requiring complex thinking and interpersonal competence.
The multifaceted social experience that is D&D also promotes emotional development, particularly in regard to empathy. Bowman and Lieberoth explain that there’s a term psychologists use, “theory of mind,” which refers to “internalized models of how other individuals . . . are likely to respond to particular situations, and how they may experience emotional or cognitive states that are different from [our] own.” Theory of mind is essential to practicing empathy, and since role-playing is, at its core, an attempt to understand and embody the motivations and actions of another person, then “the creation and enactment of a consistent role-playing character would be a function of theory of mind.” This means that tabletop RPGs are basically training grounds for empathy. As Hammer and colleagues explain, their mechanics encourage “perspective-taking, or the appreciation for and understanding of others’ unique psychological points of view,” as well as “experience-taking, the process of simulating a character’s subjective experience (e.g. thoughts, emotions, goals, behaviors, and traits).”
Even role-playing a character whose worldview is the exact opposite of our own can be helpful, because it “aids players in better understanding . . . people with whom they would not normally relate.” A Christian, for example, might play a polytheist or an atheist, taking the opportunity to understand the world from these perspectives in order to more graciously and lovingly relate to people who hold these worldviews. Or they might play a thief, an assassin, or a terrorist, in order to better empathize with the motives and pressures that might drive a person to make such choices. In this way, D&D and other tabletop RPGs can be a means of practicing Paul’s call to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), taking the time to understand others in the way they understand themselves, that we might more effectively interact with them as Christ would have us do so.
Of course, tabletop RPGs could be (and admittedly sometimes are) played in a way that glorifies senseless violence, abuse, or other antisocial behaviors. But the fact that a thing can be misused is no argument for no one using it, ever. Anyone who’s attended a children’s baseball game can attest that Little League can be heaven or hell, depending on who’s involved. Like any pastime, tabletop RPGs are as healthy or as toxic as the players and the GM choose to make them. On the whole, the mechanics of these games and the research into their benefits strongly indicate that they contain far more potential for good than ill.
“When Dungeons & Dragons Set Off a ‘Moral Panic,'” by Clyde Haberman (via The New York Times)
Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, edited by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding
• “Psychology and Role-Playing Games,” by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Andreas Lieberoth
• “Learning and Role-Playing Games,” by Jessica Hammer, Alexandra To, Karen Chrier, Sarah Lynne Bowman, and Geoff Kaufman
The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, by Sarah Lynne Bowman
The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, by Daniel Mackay
Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, by Gary Fine
This article was adapted from “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop Roleplaying Games,” a symposium presentation at Dallas Baptist University, Fall 2018.