God and Gaming

Posted in NEWS on December 11, 1999

By Wizards of the Coast

James Lee

When I was in junior high, I played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with after Sunday School with a group of teens which included the sons' of our church's elders. Later, as a youth minister, I played White Wolfs Vampire: the Masquerade role-playing game with high school students in our teen fellowship. When I became a DCI judge for Magic: the Gathering, my fellow counselours often asked me about the nature and origins of the game. Now, with Pokemon taking the nation's youth my storm and my ever-increasing affiliation with the company which makes the collectible card game, I find myself fielding the same types of questions which have confronted me for nearly two decades. Basically, concerned parents and religious leaders are fundamentally concerned with two issues. One is whether the game or activity in question has roots in Satanic or occult concepts or practices. Two is whether young people engaged in the game or activity are at risk in any way. In this article, I hope to offer some insight for those others out there who have faced such inquiries.

Before diving in, I wish to offer some disclaimers here. One, much of the focus of this article targets inquiries from the Judeo-Christian traditions. This is primarily due to my personal experiences and the perception that the vast majority of the addressed critiques come from this sector. In no way should this article be construed as a criticism of any belief system nor should it be taken that the issues presented here have not come from other groups. Two, for the sake of brevity, I will be making some rather sweeping categorizations. I realize that this method will leave some to believe that I have misrepresented their position and I welcome any feedback. However, my intent is to offer a general overview and feel that it is outside the scope of this work to address specifically the many details of this very complex and ongoing debate. Three, I will be using the male pronoun whenever it is convenient to do so. This is not intended to slight female participation in this forum or belittle their contribution in any way. As DCI judges, we are all aware of the incredible competence and contribution of both Tara and Elaine. Four, all of the commentary and analysis offered in this article are my own. The contents of this article are neither endorsed nor official positions of Wizards of the Coast, the DCI, Hasbro, or Nintendo.

To begin, I would like to divide up those individuals a judge might encounter into one of three categories. These classifications are: a) Antagonistic Opponent, b) Conscientious Objector, and c) Concerned Seeker. Individuals who are in the first group have their minds made up. They have already decided once and for all that whatever it is that is represented by your game is evil or at least suspect. Any questions they have for you are intended to clarify and support their preconceived position and they are not truly open to dialogue leading to fuller understanding. If you feel that you are engaged with such an individual, calm disengagement is the wisest choice. Under no circumstances should you become angry or agitated and get dragged into a lengthy debate. Most of the time, these circumstances arise when you are at an event where observers might be present and a judge engaged in an emotional argument is not a strong representative of the professionalism of the DCI. Courteously indicate that you respect the individual's convictions, but that your conclusions are clearly different. Explain that your duties do not allow you the time to continue your discussion but point the individual to resources where they might seek further information or make inquiries. Generally, this will be the recommendation that they write directly to WotC or Nintendo with their concerns.

The second and third groups will be the vast majority of questioners. The Conscientious Objector is the individual who feels that there is enough unknown about the game to be against it. Generally, he will not allow his children to play the game and believes that the negative effects outweigh any positives that might come out of participation. If you are chatting with such an individual, it is likely that he is either seeking more information or his child has convinced him to make a showing to see what the game is all about. In either case, this individual is not entirely closed to learning more. As always, be gentle and respectful of the person's concerns. I will address these specific concerns in the following paragraphs. The third group will be the most open to any information you might offer. These individuals have heard things which have given them pause. They tend to be open-minded and are likely to be at an event talking to you because they are truly interested in being aware of and engaged in the activities of their children. These conversations tend to be the longest and most fulfilling. At Pro Tour Chicago in 1998, I had the opportunity to spend an hour with a mother whose three children were all big fans of Magic: the Gathering. We had the opportunity to walk around the playing area and discuss the game at length. In the end, she was very pleased that a representative of the company was willing to take the time for her and believed that it was worth encouraging her children to play.

Now, let me get to the meat of the questions. Really, I feel that nearly all inquiries can be divided into one of two questions. The first, most bluntly, is whether the game is evil and rooted in the occult. The second is whether the perceived obsession of the questioner's child should be a cause for concern. First, let me address the former question. From the time I was a player of Dungeons and Dragons, the concern that I was engaged in something satanic was often raised by my elders. Much of this perception lies in the presence of mythical monsters and spell casting as normal parts of the gaming system. In this case, I find that the use of analogy and metaphor is useful in assuaging the fears of the questioner. First, establish the distinction between theme and type. For example, many parents ask me if Magic is like AD&D. Of course, anyone who plays both games will say no with a sense of disdain. But, it is important to keep in mind that most parents are completely unfamiliar with either game. All they know is that both involved dragons and casting spells. The distinction between a role-playing game and a collectible card game may not be any part of their experience. When confronted with this, I will give a brief description of role-playing and then describe how Magic works. I will then conclude with the observation that their perceptions are likely due to both games using a high fantasy environment and in that respect both games are similar just as they are similar to J.R.R. Tolkien' s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the same way, these similarities should not be a cause for concern just as no parent seriously worries that playing Monopoly will lead their children into becoming slum lords or playing Old Maid would cause them to despise older single females.

To expand on the issues regarding evil themes and images within our game, it may also be useful to cite historical and anthropological arguments. It is important to note that our religious questioners are very serious about their beliefs. If something is an unknown, there is wisdom in being cautious. When we step out of the arena of religion, this is something generally accepted. No one faults the laws requiring extensive drug testing before the release of a new medication. Therefore, we must treat the inquiries of the concerned with due respect. With this in mind, and where appropriate, note that historically, religious groups have always been at the forefront of indicating concerns regarding new ideas and practices. Only in the past ten years have we seen the Vatican reversing the excommunication of Copernicus for suggesting that the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the solar system. Similarly, there was a time when church music was only allowed to be played on the pipe organ as the piano was perceived to be an evil instrument due to its affiliation with saloons and places of ill repute. Looking back, we see these concerns as quite ridiculous, but they formed the cornerstone of many a heated debate in their day. Also, with the expansion of communications, we must be more and more conscientious of cultural differences as we make our judgments. For example, it has been cited by critics of our gaming industry that the symbol of the dragon is a sign of evil. However, this is a bias of western civilization. In southeast Asian cultures, the dragon is a symbol of royalty, wisdom, and benevolence. Similarly, creatures with horns do not necessarily indicate a diabolic nature. After all, cows have horns and they are considered sacred in some cultures and, at the very least, very yummy in others. Time also plays an important role in cultural bias. Just recently, when I told a young cousin in grammar school that purple was one of my favorite colours, he responded that he thought it odd that I liked this "gay" colour. Yet, less than a millenium ago in Europe, this colour was considered the purview of royalty and the aristocracy. Again, in the appropriate dialogue, such examples can be very valuable.

Finally, you will encounter concerned parents that feel that their child is spending too much time or money on the game. To them, you must first assure them that neither you nor the company that manufactures the game desire for their child to become addicted. Tell them that we support them as parents to set reasonable boundaries for their children and that anything done to excess is not a good thing. Encourage the parents to take an active role in sharing participation in the game with the child and to gain an understanding of the child's involvement. Oftentimes, it will seem to the parent that the child is spending much larger amounts of time and money than is actually being invested. Suggest that this sharing with the child will not only enhance a real understanding of the child's activities, but help to build a foundation from which good boundaries might be set if needed. Also note that children are both very perceptive and very resilient. As such, participation in the perceived activities and styles of their peers is very important. However, once the trend passes, it is most often the case that their children will also move on. As parents, it is easy to see the fanatical pursuit of this or that by a child and be concerned. But, it is generally useful to look at the larger picture and reserve judgment until more data is collected. For example, a parent might think that his child's Pokemon collection is unreasonably large. But, it may be useful to learn what the sizes of that child's classmate's colletions are. That child may not be addicted in any way but simply trying to fit into his peer group.

In closing, I would like to share one story from my past year of judging. At a recent game convention sponsored by our beloved Renton-based game corporation, I had the pleasure of meeting a father and son team in a Magic event. During the event, the college-aged son was loudly disdainful of his father's playing ability and occasionally made unkind statements about individual plays by dad. Later, when the son had gone out for food, I approached the father to offer some encouragement to him. I told him how please I was to see a dad taking such an interest in his son's gaming activity. Then, the father told me their story. For years, the father and son had nothing in common. They never spoke at length regarding anything substantial and the father felt an increasing distance between him and his son. One year, not long ago, as he was looking for some last minute stocking stuffers around Christmas time, he spied this Magic: the Gathering start-up kit for two players. It wasn't too expensive and it seemed like something he thought his son would enjoy. That Christmas, they learned to play together. Soon, the father began to take his son to organized events. They shared these events and they shared them as father and son. To me, it seemed that this son was being too hard on his father. To the father, his son's words were words of love.

Believe in the power of your work, my fellow judges. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."


James Do Hung LEE
Oak Park, IL