Games, Religion, and Walking Between Worlds

I’m the middle of a fascinating book called Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. Author Joseph Laycock explores, with great detail and insight, the parallel worlds of role-playing games and religion. For three decades, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were at the center of a moral panic involving everything from fears of cults, satanists, to a lost generation of super predators. His thesis is that role-playing games were threatening to the religious right because, if communities could create such intricate, imagined, and meaning-making worlds through games, does that mean that religion itself is a sort of game? But beneath this initial thesis lie some profound insights for people like me who still greatly value religion, even as I doubt the existence of a personal God.

Joseph Laycock writes of this similarity between games and religion:

“in drawing a connection between religion and fantasy, I do not mean to deride religious worldviews as irrational or to dismiss religious truth claims as “mere fantasy.” As a sociologist in the tradition of Émile Durkheim, I assume that we require a socially constructed framework in order to interpret the world. All such frameworks are in a sense “fantasies,” and there is no Archimedean point from which we may perceive the world without recourse to our culturally inherited biases. Furthermore, religious ideas have consequences for individuals that can be studied psychologically and consequences for society that can be measured empirically. Religion matters, whether or not it is the product of human imagination. What the panic over fantasy role-playing games suggests is that nominally imaginary worlds also have an effect on how we make sense of the world and ourselves. This interpretive function is similar to that of a religious worldview in nature if not degree. Thus, rather than dismissing religion as mere fantasy, I am proposing that fantasy is likewise a very serious thing.”

Laycock is, in a way, arguing for the importance of imagined worlds, be they religious or simply in a game. This resonates with me: I have found myself doubting the existing of a personal God, but also simply unable to live without the scaffold of religious ritual, symbol, and community. I still need guiding myth, even though I suspect the myth is just a myth. I’ve found the atheist world, which is generally devoid of ritual and symbol, an impossible habitat. In proposing that “fantasy is a very serious thing,” Laycock reframes our understanding of ritual and myth, beyond the false binary of atheism and religion.

Later in the book, he writes,

“I argue that “the sacred canopy” provided by a religious worldview can be regarded as a kind of fantasy role-playing game. It provides us with a meaningful world to inhabit and roles to fulfill. It is the product of play, and it is maintained by the continued effort and participation of the players. This does not mean that the sacred canopy is a “delusion” or that we can fully step out from under it. However, a better understanding of the processes through which human beings create and maintain meaningful worlds allows us to be more deliberate in how we use our frames of meaning. By being attentive to the frames of metacommunication we can avoid corrupted play and truly learn to walk between worlds, experiencing enchantment without delusion.”

This final point about being able to “walk between worlds, experiencing enchantment without delusion,” strikes me as a revelation. In this age of religious fundamentalism, the ability to experience enchantment and meaningful myth without corrupting the boundaries between material and imagined worlds strikes me as paramount. I find great meaning in the material world, but that meaning is enriched by other imagined worlds and myths.

As Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of the Deathly Hallows:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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