Make a Religion Check

This week I am mostly concentrating on writing one of my papers for the 2015 IAHR (International Association for the History of Religions) conference later this month.  The abstract for my paper is as follows:

When Galaxies Collide: Jediism’s Revisionism in the Face of Corporate Buyouts and Mythos ‘Retconning’

In 2001 thousands of people wrote in ‘Jedi’ for the religious question in censuses around the world. While for many this was a joke or parody, small groups of genuine believers have formed their own Jedi religion, both on and offline. This paper explores their revisionism in response to the rewriting, or ‘retconning’, of the Star Wars Universe by George Lucas, its creator, and by Disney, which bought that universe in 2012 for $4 billion. In 1999 Lucas introduced micro-organisms as the true indicators of Jedi ability. Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm has led to a large reduction in the size of the universe itself as the new owners make and release new films. This paper will discuss and contextualise the coping strategies of the real world Jedi in response to these changes

The tensions that arise when New Religious Movements draw on trademarked or ‘owned’ fantasy materials are a particular interest of mine.  A paper I gave at the 2013 BASR (British Association for the Study of Religion) conference on real world Jedi and their responses to intellectual property disputes has since become a chapter in a new book from Ashgate on Legal Pluralism.  However, the IAHR paper on Jediism considers what happens when the source material isn’t only trademarked, but also changed or deleted by the creators/owners.  I won’t go into my findings much in this post (spoilers!) but the TL:DR version is that NRMs like Jediism will necessarily move away from the source material in order to protect their unique re-imagination of on it.  Further, they’ll make a distinction between themselves and those who follow the ‘rules’ of canon and canon productions such as games.  In particular I’ve seen a strong demarcation made by real world Jedi between themselves and those fans of Star Wars who “live action role play” (LARP) as Jedi, who are wearing the same robes and swinging the same plastic light sabers as the real world Jedi knights.

I’ve recently found another example of this boundary making in the discourse of other kinds of role players who seek to distinguish themselves from those of a more religious persuasion.  I have had a very enjoyable time over the past few days reading Joseph Laycock’s Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role Playing Games Says about Play, Religion and Imagined Worlds.  It might seem strange to enjoy reading an account of Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations! But I first played Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1990s and this book is a wonderful nostalgia trip for anyone who spent their teen years being given funny looks for knowing what a d12 was (note 2.)

Dungeons and Dragons advert

With regards to this demarcation process, Laycock states that, “Role players have a vested interest in distancing themselves from occultists in response to the claims of moral entrepreneurs, while occultists desire to be taken seriously and not associated with a game of fantasy” (Laycock, 2015: 201).  Change the word ‘occultists’ to something a little broader like ‘believers’ and change ‘games’ to ‘fantasy fiction’, and you get the same boundary work that I claim real world Jedi are engaged in.  But why is this boundary making necessary?

In Dangerous Games Laycock delves into the history of a culture war that any fantasy role player of the 1970s-1990s would have heard of.  Not from the bards of the taverns they frequented in game, but from the pages of the salacious tabloids that enthusiastically reported on the “Satanic trap” that was Dungeons & Dragons.  A full on “moral panic” (Cohen, 1972) blew up during these decades as Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for the murderous activities of teenagers, for introducing children to the occult, for being a cover for a Satanic conspiracy, and worst of all, for distracting from God’s own reality.  The “moral entrepreneurs” making the accusations, as Laycock terms them, were initially from the medical community and at first pathologized this ‘delusion’, considering it to be a form of madness.  But they were soon predominantly Christians of an evangelical or fundamentalist persuasion.  Examples include the organisation Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), the tracts of conservative evangelical Jack Chick, and the best-selling book, Mazes and Monsters, which became a made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks in 1982. The final scene presents Hank’s character as hopelessly lost in the world of his imagination, his personality forever supplanted by his LARP character’s:

Laycock develops a very interesting argument about the regulation, and the confusion, of the realms of reality, fiction and fantasy in this book.  I won’t be able to do it full justice here (read the book!), but drawing on the work of Peter Berger, Erving Goffman, and Gary Alan Fine, he argues that three modes of comprehension, or frames, are at play simultaneously during any fantasy role-playing game. First, there is the world of daily life, or ‘reality’.  Second, the rules of the game provide a framework for another level of vocabulary and understanding.  Finally, there is the content of the fantasy world in which the players are placing themselves.  Thus, the following sentence, uttered by a player during a game, makes use of all three frames and we can discern which is which: “Are you friend or foe? I’m rolling for charisma.  Pass the chips.” (note 3)

“Most of the time” Laycock says, “players are able to move fluidly back and forth between the three frames without confusion” (2015: 10). However, moral entrepreneurs, the accusers of the Satanic Abuse craze, appear unable to make these fluids shifts of frame. They read source texts for D&D such as the Monster Manual and Deities and Demigods and deduced that through the game children were being taught how to summon real archfiends, succubi, or imps.  Laycock says, “outside observers sensed a religious function at play in D&D but lacked the background in religious studies to articulate how exactly the game related to their understanding of religion as a category.  Claims that role-playing games are ‘occult’ were, in part, attempts  to express this idea.” (Laycock, 2015: 52).  He blames this inability to articulate Dungeons & Dragons as fantasy or ‘play’ on the conservative move to biblical literalism: in response to the modernist claim that the bible itself is a ‘myth’.  He states that they also rejected all forms of fiction as distracting, time wasting or as a heretical avoidance of the real world that God had given us.  There were of course some Christians, Tolkien in particular, who saw fiction as a sub-creation, hand in hand with God.  However, the materialist turn of these particular types of moral entrepreneurs meant that they lost the ability to move easily between these three frames, and that the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons was only understandable to them as a real, demonic, conspiracy.

Further, Laycock argues that fantasy is dangerous to such literalists because, as in Huizinga’s work on Homo Ludens (‘Man the Player’) the rules of games “formed the basis of myth and ritual, which in turn led to the development of law, commerce, craft, art, and science.” (Laycock, 2015: 9).  The fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, the imaginative play, is the same kind of world making.  But this is a world making that has effects outside the game: changing the first of the three frames by encouraging personal, radical, agency, and by allowing “the players a mental space from which to reassess their worlds” (Laycock, 2015: 27). And at this one step removed it is all the clearer that the wider world, and its parts such as religion, is just as socially constructed as the world in which they are gaming.

Finally, the literalist’s inability to move between these frames of imagination and reality, and remain aware of which is which, doesn’t mean that they are entirely without narrative ability.  Laycock argues that the moral entrepreneur is engaged in the same process of re-enchantment as the gamer.  Both seek to be magically powered heroes, one in the game where they face demons that they know to be made up (by the DM, by the creator of the game system, and/or by other historical storytellers), and the other “battles the imagined forces of evil as occult crime investigators and exorcists […] with nowhere to go, their heroic fantasies are imposed on the real world as conspiracy theories.” (Laycock, 2015: 242-243).

However, this particular moral panic cannot be dismissed as a case of a minority of moral entrepreneurs simply failing to recognise fantasy when it is in front of them.  Their response to the ‘cult’ of Dungeons & Dragons is a part of larger, intentional, categorisation of behaviour as deviant by a hegemony, seen also in the Anti-Cult movements’ response to the New Religious Movements that they encountered at around the same time as these Satanic Abuse accusations.  “At stake in the claims made about fantasy Role Playing Games is the problem of how such categories as ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ and ‘madness’ and ‘sanity’ are defined. The ability to define these categories is the single most powerful form of control over the social order” says Laycock (2015: 9).  In the case of the real world Jedi in particular the accusation of delusion is regularly framed through parody, and I’ve argued elsewhere that the initial moral panic in the face of New Religious movements has largely become a moral parody.  Laycock ties the decline of the Satanic Abuse accusations against Dungeons & Dragons to the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the arrival of a new enemy that could be tied into demonic conspiracy theories. More readily, perhaps, than Dungeons & Dragons players who were only rarely linked to violent acts (and even if they were, the ‘D&D defence’ was increasingly being dismissed by courts who were better able to recognise fantasy).  Likewise, the pernicious ‘cults’ are now more likely to be derided. Even atrocities like the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo (1995) are fading from memory in the face of more recent attacks by more ‘mainstream’ religious fundamentalists.

So it was interesting then to see a group of Dungeon & Dragons fans describing themselves as a ‘cult’ recently, apparently adopting the language of the moral entrepreneurs.

Before I explain how I saw this, I will provide a little context.  I have been getting back into table-top roleplaying in the past few months (so it’s really not surprising that I picked up Laycock’s book!).  I played Dungeons & Dragons, among other games, in the 1990s.  But unlike most people who first discover D&D at university I pursued other hobbies when I went, and drifted away from it.  Recently I have started attending a games night at a bookshop in Cambridge, and I have been involved in a few one off games of Dungeon World, a fantasy role-playing game that I will be DM-ing for the first time on 15th August.  I was inspired to get back into playing by a web series called Critical Role where a group of professional voice actors from Los Angeles are recorded playing Dungeons & Dragons live each week.   The enthusiasm of the show’s fans on social media is immense, and many of them are involved in fantasy projects of their own inspired by the canon of the show, e.g. fanart, fanfiction, music production and their own role playing campaigns.  Parallels could of course be drawn with various other fan projects of the imagination inspired by canon, in particular the Star Wars fandom that the real world Jedi of my research are moving away from.

It was interesting therefore to see a few members of the Critical Role fandom describing it as a cult, unintentionally repeating the rhetoric of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons crusaders presented in Laycock’s account.  As quoted above, gamers have a “vested interest” in separating themselves from the occultist, in “response to the claims of moral entrepreneurs” (2015: 201).  Is it that the moral entrepreneurs, distracted by other conspiracies since 2001, are no longer on the radar of Dungeons & Dragons players who can use the term cult more freely? Afterall cult, in the sense of pop culture is adopted widely.  Is this how are they using the term? Looking at the context it seemed to be a rather playful, or even self-paroding, usage, referring to religion:

“So I’m part of a cult now! Cool! Also seeing all of the guys so excited is one of the best parts of the show 🙂 #CriticalRole”

“Shit we’re in a cult. #Critters #CriticalRole “[a Critter is a Critical Role fan]

This seems to me to be another example of the skilful play with interpretative frames.  These individuals are playing with the role of the ‘cult follower’ in their descriptions of themselves as fans, while remaining aware that they are not in fact in a ‘cult’.  Of course, a moral entrepreneur reading these comments without the ability to discern fantasy from reality might read this as a form of confession.  Or perhaps I am wrong, and I should be watching out for signs that they are building altars to the Critical Role players in their bedrooms?!  There is much academic debate as to where the line between fandom and religion can be drawn (a recent conference I was unable to attend dealt with this issue).  However, I am inclined to see this as another example of role-playing, and Laycock quotes Sartre, who famously said that “existence precedes essence”, to argue that “ultimately we are all roleplayers, whether we want to be or not” (Laycock, 2015: 237) (note 4).  Which might perhaps disappoint the Jedi in their attempts to distance themselves from the LARPers of the Star Wars fandom, as well as the changes in canon that the Star Wars buy out has wrought.

Notes:

1. The title of this post, “Make a Religion Check”, refers to how gamers can roll dice to find out if they “remember a useful bit of religious knowledge or to recognize a religion-related clue.” (D&D Wiki).  This blog post is my own religion check that I made in response to the ‘cult’ quotes… and the result informs my conference paper.  Lets hope I level soon.

Yes, that comment WAS me “moving fluidly between frames”.  You’re welcome.

2.  A small note needs to be made of the overlap between academics and role-players, particularly in the Religious Studies field.  I propose further research is necessary on this correlation… ideally at an academic conference, over a game of D&D.

3. As my esteemed colleague Ethan Quillen would point out, everything, including the first frame, is fiction.  Laycock uses Berger to admit that there are a multiplicity of constructed worlds, and his use of Sartre also supports this view that we are all creating fictions/role playing. “Pass the chips” is therefore no more ‘real’ than “Are you friend or foe”.

4. I told you Ethan, I told you!!!

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