I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading the brilliant book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds. I’ve already written about this book, and even interviewed the author for my podcast, but I wanted to touch on another aspect Laycock explores in the book: the great fear fundamentalism has of imagination. Laycock calls these critics “Moral Entrepreneurs”, but I find fundamentalism a personally more helpful term.
Why do imagined worlds – everything from Harry Potter and Pokemon to Dungeons and Dragons – frighten religious fundamentalists so deeply? Is it simply because these worlds contain forms of “witchcraft”, which are presumably opposed to God, or is it something deeper?
Laycock has three explanations for why fundamentalists stand opposed to imagined worlds.
Fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that there are different frames of meaning.
The fundamentalists who oppose imagined worlds often have a hard time understanding what Laycock calls, “metacommunicative frames of meaning.” In other words, it’s the failure to understand that in certain contexts different things are true in different ways. A demon in Dungeons and Dragons is not a literal demon, but still has meaning and is still experienced by the players. The breakdown of frames of meaning seems to be connected to a “literal” interpretation of the Bible, which collapses the vast array of literary genres and frames within scripture down to a single “literal” frame. To the fundamentalists, if something is not literally true, it is not true at all. As Laycock explains,
Anti-role-playing-game literature generally resists any notion of context and implies that everything must be “true” in the same way. The premises of fiction and games are not regarded as distinct from claims made about the world of everyday life, particularly if this fiction contains any trace of magic or the supernatural. From this perspective, nothing can ever be “just pretend.”
Imagined Worlds are meaningful despite being make-believe.
The second observation that Laycock offers is fundamentalists resist imagined worlds because, if people find meaning in fantasy, then their own religious structures might be fantasy as well. If meaning can be found in Dr. Who, the metaverse of Dungeons and Dragons, Middle Earth or Harry Potter, then the fundamentalists’ own meaning-making framework might be similarly fantastic. The demonization of fantasy is, in essence, an attempt to fortify themselves against doubt.
“Beneath the religious attack on role-playing games there lurks a fear that Christianity could also be a socially constructed fantasy world. This fear is directly connected to the intolerance for multiple forms of truth. From the literalist perspective, if biblical narratives are not true in a literal, modernist sense, then no other meaning they may have is of value.”
It is in the interest of hegemonic authority to discourage imagined worlds.
If you have the capacity to imagine alternate worlds like those in RPG’s, fantasy and sci movies, then you can imagine a world beyond the established order. The capacity to imagine something beyond the confines of present authority is the first step to overthrowing that authority. Therefore, it is in the interest of fundamentalists to preach that imagination is itself a rebellion against God’.
“Hegemony can be resisted only if we can imagine new possibilities. In this sense, fantasy role-playing games, along with novels, film, and other imaginary worlds, provide mental agency. Moral entrepreneurs interpreted this agency as subversion and a deliberate attempt to undermine traditional values. While fantasy is not an inherent threat to tradition, as long as humans possess imagination, tradition will never be secure.”
In this age of rising totalitarianism and fundamentalism, I invite you to resist the established order by daring to imagine. Pick up a book by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, or the late, great Ursula K. LeGuin. lose yourself in Middle Earth or Hogwarts. Explore Hyrule, or become batman. These are not mere flights of fancy. Imagination allows us a door into other worlds where we find ourselves, exercise agency, and discover endless possibilities that the established order does not want us to see.