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8 min read

Table-top philosophy: role playing games and the identities they help construct

A once derided fantasy genre now influences creative media - from The Big Bang Theory to Stranger Things. Harry Gibbins unpacks Dungeons & Dragons' philosophical toolkit.

Harry Gibbins  is a doctoral researcher at the University of Aberdeen. His PhD concerns the intersection between autism and Christian ministry.

Three teenage boys rise up from a table-top game and celebrate a victory.
Playing D&D in Stranger Things.

Picture this: no longer are you sitting at a computer desk or staring at your phone during your commute. Instead, you are an intrepid explorer, a noble warrior, or a cunning thief. You have left behind the mundanity and anxieties of the 'real world'. Now, you are a protagonist in a new story.  

Your choices will shape the world around you; your actions will be written into legend and recounted for centuries. But this is not done in isolation. You are together with friends. You work as a team; you bond, laugh, and celebrate each other’s achievements as a unit. You are not alone; you are an adventuring party.  

Behind the grey skyline through the condensation-heavy glass of the train window is a world of infinite possibilities. Here, in your mind’s eye, you shape reality. Here, you become the person that, right now, you want to be. There are no limitations beyond what you believe is possible. You are the captain steering the ship into uncharted waters where the aim is to share a good yarn with your friends. 

There's a fine line between fantasy as a genre and escapism as a psychology. As we parade myth and legend within our respective cultures and contexts, we find something of ourselves. We read of Frodo Baggins, the underdog who takes on a responsibility of epic proportions, and see qualities we want to inhabit. We hear of Iron Man's sacrifice to save friends and see something of our own relationships. This is not to say we literally aim to overthrow a dark lord or defeat a purple space utilitarian, but we see the humanity reflected within relatable moments through the fiction. The story we read or watch somewhat touches the cadence of the 'real world' no matter how fantastical. 

In an age where this cadence and its story-focused elements are twisted to become more marketable, where is the authenticity? How do we begin to tell our own stories? Is there a way in which our stories can speak of this cadence of the ‘real world’ without the necessity to satisfy business? 

As the game creates a safe environment in which players can enact hypothetical scenarios. In other words, to fantasise about who they are and the world around them. Consequently, there is an opportunity to ask again: "What story do I want to tell". 

Enter stage left: Table-top Role-playing Games (TTRPGs). The picture painted in the opening paragraph is steeped in my experience of commuting. Although not a universal experience, I found commuting sucked all life from my world. If there is a hell, perhaps it is a continuous never-ending loop of the Northern Line. I found myself recounting the previous evening, time spent with friends playing the fantasy TTRPG Dungeons and Dragons, reflecting on what I had learnt from such an experience. As a theologian, I would ask if there was something of myself that I was seeing in the stories told. When I returned next time, where did I want this story to take me next? What story do I want to tell? 

Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, has been propelled into the cultural zeitgeist in the last decade. Featured in popular television shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things, D&D has emerged out of nerd basements and into the mainstream. No longer is D&D seen as something exclusively for 'mega-nerds'. It now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other culture-shaping fictions, such as The Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  

In 2014, the fifth edition of D&D and aimed to streamline and tighten up the accessibility of the game whilst promoting creative and complex storytelling as a valued method of playing. In its earliest editions, D&D didn't care for character backstory or where the dungeon came from. A player’s aim was simply to kill some baddies and find treasure. However, today’s D&D aims for more nuance. Psychologists Sören Henrich and Rachel Worthington highlight that this has allowed D&D to have a genuine therapeutic application.  As the game creates a safe environment in which players can enact hypothetical scenarios. In other words, to fantasise about who they are and the world around them. Consequently, there is an opportunity to ask again: "What story do I want to tell". 

Perhaps the most obvious example of this philosophy in action is the role D&D takes in Netflix's Stranger Things. The show is not explicitly about D&D. Rather, the game is used as an illustrative tool, showing the actions of the characters, as well as providing a metaphor for the mystery they uncover and the journey they go on.  

The show opens with four young boys playing a game of D&D in their parents' basement. The players discover a Demogorgon, a classic D&D monster, and they must work together to defeat it. However, their immaturity gets the better of them and they fail. In D&D, player characters take on different roles; it is only by working together that their various weakness can be supported, and the villain defeated. This is the lesson that the boys learn: teamwork. It is only when they learn to support one another that are they able to defeat the 'real-life' Demogorgon they discover in their small American suburb. 

Nine belonged with his friends, he was not simply 'put up with'. His style of encountering problems and solving puzzles strengthens the whole team. Nine was not a burden. 

In Stranger Things we find D&D acting not just as a thematic motif, but also as illustrative of a journey the young people go on. So, what are the philosophical mechanics behind this? How is D&D as a phenomenon transformative and illustrative in our present reality? Philosophers describe this sort of thinking as 'Phenomenology'. In simplistic terms, it concerns the lived experience of a phenomenon, seeking to uncover its essence. What actually makes that 'thing' you experience a 'thing' at all? Are there attributes that are common across all experiences of that phenomenon? Or, more likely, is there a rich and informative complexity to its innermost workings?  

Whilst I am far from describing what the essence of D&D as a phenomenon is, I can speak of my own lived experience in the hope that it demonstrates how D&D is the transformative tool Stranger Things positions it to be. I hope that this not only illustrates my argument, even if it is as simple as “D&D is good”, but also provides a window in which my own story can be understood. 

I have written elsewhere about the role D&D has played in my theological evaluation of complex theoretical ideas. It has ultimately shaped the way I research and encounter complex questions. However, I want to highlight something different. In my other work, I spoke of a character I played for three years, a Tabaxi Paladin named 'Nine'. Nine was somewhat of an experiment. After I was diagnosed as autistic, I found great difficulty in knowing who I was. Are there parts of me that are not autistic? Am I being autistic subconsciously? Or am I actively choosing to act in a way that a clinical professional has decided is autistic? Who am I? Nine was to be a method of exploring such questions. I wrote Nine as autistic in a way that was a somewhat exaggerated version of myself. Yet, there was a distinct difference. Nine was the 'me' who had come to terms with being autistic; Nine knew who he was and was proud of it; Nine just simply was Nine.  

This was obviously not a perfect solution; the world of D&D does not have the clinical vocabulary to describe autism. In fact, whether autism exists in a fantasy world is kind of a fuzzy question. Was I inventing autism within the world by playing a character in such a way? Or is there ever a way I could not play a character as autistic due to being autistic myself? What emerged through Nine's interactions was something that, on a very personal level, I found deeply satisfying, illuminative, and transformative.  

Nine developed, some might say unsurprisingly, relationships among the other player characters. He lived as I do, as a social creature in a social world. Whilst his interactions were sometimes unusual, perhaps in much the same way as my own, his friend still came to love him. Following the framework of theologian John Swinton, Nine was more than just included; Nine belonged to this group simply because in his absence he would be missed. Once I had realised this I was taken somewhat by surprise. The differences between Nine and the other characters still mattered, but they were not barriers. Nine was valued, not someone who just was difficult to approach, off in his own little world, or obsessed and hyper-fixated. Rather, he was one part of the whole. Nine belonged with his friends, he was not simply 'put up with'. His style of encountering problems and solving puzzles strengthens the whole team. Nine was not a burden.

D&D highlights the strength storytelling, narrative building, and art in all its forms, have for those who are coming to terms with their identity.

This was where the transformation occurred. I realised that I was the Nine who did not have this understanding. Harry erroneously believed that he did not belong when really he always did. Harry was embarrassed about his challenges with social engagement, his obliviousness to the world around him, and his inability to get through a conversation without talking about Doctor Who. Yet, here I was, among friends who cherished and valued me. Here, I truly did belong, and it was Nine who taught me that.  

 I hope that this illustrates just a snippet of the potential this game, and games like it, have to offer. I believe there is much more to be said about the philosophical truth spoken through D&D in much the same way we talk about other forms of art or narrative. This is just a portion of what is possible, and I hope I learn much more about myself as I continue along these adventures with my friends. I would encourage anyone reading to give D&D a go. Although, I am aware I have had a very specific and positive experience that is not universal among players of the game. Perhaps the focus should not be that D&D is the best tool for therapeutic action. Rather, D&D highlights the strength storytelling, narrative building, and art in all its forms, have for those who are coming to terms with their identity. Whilst we may be tempted to describe ourselves simply, as I was when I was diagnosed as autistic, D&D reminds us that the stories our lives tell will always demonstrate more depth. Our lives our simply stories that we are constantly engaged with and that we are always telling.  

Article
Belief
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?