Guest Post by Frederick Kuster-Tabares: Religion and RPGS

Hello all! My friend Frederick sent me an awesome guest post! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

First of all, if you are unfamiliar with the IJRP I recommend it to you, though the analysis of RPGs as a body of literature has not yet really been undertaken in that corpus (as far as I’ve seen).

Most of the current research in the field of role-playing studies focuses upon the participants. Analysis of more socially extended impacts within role-playing communities and the super-cultures in which they reside largely has not be formally published to date. This piece describes my personal thoughts regarding the literary content and associated largely unnoticed impact of RPGs, but it should be understood that my sample size for RPGs is quite small and it is possible that the traits noted here are not normative.

When we play RPGs, we construct a world that reflects the worlds we each individually live in.  Our worlds are often fairly dissimilar and one of the exciting things in RPGs is the opportunity to communicate regarding fundamental beliefs about what is real in a manner that is inherently highly resistant to communication issues– we express things in RPGs via the way our characters live their lives and who the characters are, which largely eliminates the need for shared definitions and compensation for dissimilarity in rhetorical skill that accompany more straight-forward explorations of our beliefs. Various systems and playgroup configurations provide differing frameworks, but all frameworks ultimately produce the same thing: a shared literary experience. And it is chiefly this experience that philosophically impacts the players.

When we create literature the things we believe come out in the literature (sometimes even if we didn’t mean them to), along with emergent statements crafted by the group consciousness, the system, and various other system-dependent factors.  Over the years I’ve noticed a few worrying universal or all-but-universal norms.

One of these is religion.  People in RPGs are all but never religious in any real sense, and we generally avoid coming down on a decision as to what the true nature of the divine in the setting is, even in a general sense.  That’s not to say there’s an absence of ‘religion’, or at least things called that– analogs to real-life religious organizations bearing their trappings but none of their beliefs are quite common, as are powerful non-human (and human) beings claiming to be ‘God’, yet somehow while we are comfortable portraying fundamentally anti-theist, a-spiritual settings we have great difficulty and experience great discomfort portraying and playing settings that take any other explicit position on human spirituality.  I find this worrying, and it makes me think that we generally don’t know very much about what religion is so when we try to put it in we do it horribly wrong and/or the shallow, misleading image of religion we receive in Western media has become more natural to express, more a part of what we think when we conceptualize a person, than our own individual internal experiences.  It’s the latter possibility that concerns me most.

Nearly all of the people I know and play RPGs with do not express such a dismal and dismissive view of the human condition when describing their personal, real-life spiritual experiences– some of them are even active participants in organized religion, and yet when we create a world of shared fiction it continues to perpetuate this socially promulgated idea that spirituality is not an important nor fundamental part of the human experience.  I mean, if you actually believe that spirituality is just a backwards weird problem that people used to have and hopefully it will go away soon then okay, maybe that’s not a problem for you.  But it is disconcerting that a group of people coming together, none of whom believe these things, would create literature perpetuating that idea if it’s not true.  One of the cool things about RPGs is that we can learn about things and arrive at conclusions none of us previously held by exploring the interactions between our beliefs, so usually when this happens I tend to think the beliefs we are coming to are better than the beliefs we started off with. However, in this case I worry that something about the macroculture we exist in is somehow dictating how this goes.  I mean, it’s not like we start off in a theistic universe and use the opportunity for discussion to expose problems with that, we start off in the same unrealistically a-spiritual place we end up and usually treat investigation into spiritual matters, if it occurs, with derision.

There is another option which is less worrying, and seems more likely to me (cause I can explain it in my head with my Elena-brain, which is generally a pretty good test).  Religion is pretty scary and you can’t really talk about religion in an RPG properly without being really vulnerable.  So maybe we are sort of subconsciously going “Ok, religion is scary, so let’s just not talk about it.  It’s prolly not important anyways’”.  But, like, that’s still a problem because making religion a taboo still leads to those negative messages being present in the RPG and that taints the other things we talk about so that there’s a cap on how good we can get at other things while we neglect the interactions with this thing (Also I think it’s disrespectful to God, but I realize that’s probably controversial).  I guess the big thing is, you can’t actually not talk about religion.  When we decide we’re just not going to talk about it, that is a kind of talking about it and it says some pretty terrible things.

So that’s religion.

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