Possessed by an Imagination


Back when I was a little tacker, at about the age of twelve, I discovered Dungeons and Dragons. For me, like many others of my generation, the game was to make a big impact on my life. It sucked up many, many hours, both with friends—sharing adventures in imaginary worlds—and alone—designing worlds and underworlds, painting figures and preparing for the next game. I was always the ‘Dungeon Master’, or game referee, which meant I did a lot of work to prepare the games we played and make the whole game experience as smooth and enjoyable for everyone as possible. In contrast, the players pretty much just had to show up with their characters on a piece of paper (a ‘character sheet’ that I’d lovingly designed) and play.

DM GuideAs D&D became more popular in the early-80s it started to cop some flack from hysterical fringe groups, due to a few isolated and unfortunate incidents involving obviously unhinged teens taking the game a bit too seriously. Right wing Christians, in particular, attacked the game for its inclusion of demons and devils, and accused it of being a ‘thin end of the wedge’ for Satanic groups. Sniffing a good story, the media latched onto these accusations and ran sensationalist stories about this strange new obsession that was gobbling up the minds of innocent teenagers. I remember in particular one story by the American Sixty Minutes show that was run here in Australia, that focused on a teen homicide supposedly inspired by D&D. In the story, the camera zoomed dramatically into artwork from the game books, focusing on monsters and demons and juxtaposing them with a lurid reconstruction of the crime. Enough to send any parent running terrified into their teen’s room to grab those D&D books and chuck them on the fire.

The story so incensed my early-teen self that I wrote the program a carefully composed letter berating them for their sensationism and extolling the virtues of playing D&D and similar games: what about the fact, I asked, that players were being creative, developing their imaginations, learning skills (I still credit those early days with my later interest in graphic design, at which I now I make a living), socialising etc. Why were the actions of a couple of crazy people overshadowing the millions of happy, well-adjusted gamers?

Well, more than twenty-five years have passed and, surprise surprise, millions of teens didn’t grow up to be Satan-worshipping nutjobs. In fact, they mostly grew up to be highly intelligent and often unusually creative adults, and some of them, along with whole new generations, still play role-playing games. Of course, the fringe loonies still rail against the dangers of D&D. Here’s a quote from one of their websites: “Literally millions of young people are unknowingly participating in genuine occult practices and opening the doors for demons to enter their bodies through this seemingly innocent game.” Uh huh … riiiiight.

PentacleSo what reminded me of this kind of intolerance? The upcoming game BattleLore by Days of Wonder has a terrain piece called a ‘Magic Pentacle’ that features a pentacle symbol. To my amazement, some people on public forums have expressed concern that the use of such a symbol will offend some Christian sensibilities and possibly lead to some sort of ‘backlash’ for the company; or that it was a bad marketing decision to include such a symbol.

Leaving aside for the moment that the pentacle is a symbol that goes back to ancient times and was only co-opted by occult groups in the last century; or that Days of Wonder publishes in several countries, not just America, where the vast majority of this kind of criticism comes. Instead I just have to shake my head in slack-jawed amazement at the kind of people who go through life with beliefs so intolerant, with world-views so narrow, with ignorance so complete, as to be offended or angered by the use of a pentacle symbol in a fantasy boardgame.

Save us from the small- and narrow-minded, those who strive to restrict the boundless possibilities of the imagination to the claustrophobic confines of the religious fanatic. Tonight my girl and I sat down and watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring again together. I still had to hold back tears. Imagine if Tolkien had been forced to take out the balrog because it was too much like a demon, or Sauron himself because he offended right-wing conservative Christians with his similarities to the Devil. Let’s get rid of those witches in Grimm’s Fairy Tales shall we? Look, while we’re at it, Edgar Allan Poe wrote some occult stories … imagine how grey the world would be if we were not allowed to play imaginative games, or read stories or see films, until they’d been approved by some self-appointed, self-righteous body who had decided they had the right to determine what was a threat to our morality? There are always those who want to stifle creativity, sanitise stories, censor art. What a terrible shame their imaginations have dried up from disuse.

Anyway, all that aside … repeat after me people: it’s just a game.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. steelbuddha
    Nov 04, 2006 @ 00:35:29

    Amen. 😉

  2. G. W. Anonymous, 1600 Pennsylvania Av, Washington DC
    Nov 06, 2006 @ 10:03:59

    Sure, it starts as “only a game”, just like heavy metal starts as “only music”. Then you start rolling drunks to get your experience points up. And drugs help with your Armour Class, so start taking those. And to level up you really need to start worshipping Satan. Next thing you know, you’re instigating small wars in the Middle East, using child labour in South East Asia and denuding rain forests in the Amazon Basin. Hmmm, can’t be all bad then…

  3. Universal Head
    Nov 06, 2006 @ 10:33:35

    At the risk of spoiling his excellent joke, I’d like to point out that the preceding comment was actually by the guy who got first me into all this stuff back when we were twelve, by the way. He’s ultimately responsible for my worldwide evil empire!

  4. Will
    Nov 06, 2006 @ 11:19:11

    “There are always those who want to stifle creativity, sanitise stories, censor art.” I think the term, popularised by one G. Orwell, is ‘The Ministry of Culture’.
    It’s possibly also worth remembering in this context that America was founded mostly by people escaping religious persecution in Europe…

  5. jedimacfan
    Nov 07, 2006 @ 14:47:30

    [sarcasm]You can defend this satanic game and your devil worshipping all you want. You’re still going to Hell. And take your Harry Potter books with you! [/sarcasm]

  6. Annie
    Nov 09, 2006 @ 12:00:32

    That’s a great article. It should be published in a newspaper. Although personally I have never really loved either horror or fantasy genres, I would defend (to the death? Oh, I suppose) your right to enjoy it. When you look at early Christian art and Renaissance art you see lots of stuff about mythology, the zodiac and plenty of gore and you realise how things can mean what you want them to mean. Critical thinking rules! The heart has its reasons however . . .

  7. anaglyph
    Nov 24, 2006 @ 07:56:11

    I heard that people play this game with letters where you make words that intersect on a board, and you get scores depending on how clever you are with your words.
    People who play this game probably turn into LIBRARIANS or something…