The other day I bumped into this article entitled 'How we won the war on Dungeons & Dragons'. It was about the excitement generated by Christian conservative groups in the USA about the role playing game:
My best friend got kicked out of Catholic school for playing D&D, which we counted as a win because it meant she could come to our shitty public school and play D&D with us. Outside our southern California town, however, D&D players weren't getting off so easily. They were ostracized by their peers, kicked out of public schools, and sent to glorified reeducation camps by parents who feared their children were about to start sacrificing babies to Lolth the spider demon.
An awful deal of fuss and bother (not to mention damage) created by a game. And the children so mistreated by schools and parents had no defence against the "Dungeons and Dragons is just devil worship" line - they were just kids playing a game.
We didn't have quite the same problem in the UK. Our Christianity is altogether more calm and moderate and, while there were some who complained (we saw them rise again like some form of undead when the Harry Potter books were published), they were few and far between. As far as I know there weren't any kids kicked out of school or sent to bizarre indoctrination camps to expunge the influence of devil worship or the glorification of witchcraft.
What I do know is that Dungeons & Dragons changed my life. I'd had a pretty orthodox catholic upbringing, I'd learnt the catechism, I attended mass faithfully and I thought I got the religion malarkey. But what I'd never done in all this certainty and absolutism is consider the meaning of good and evil, tried to understand what these terms we gaily bandy about actually mean. Much of the religious discussion about evil, for all its invoking of demons and condemnation of magic, is more precisely about actions - outputs, if you prefer. Evil is defined as doing things that 'we' (the religion in question) disapprove of.
So I arrive at university and get stuck into playing Dungeons & Dragons. And, because it is inherent to the game, we talk about this:
This is the D&D 'alignment chart' and it's really important if you play the game. Since it's a role playing game you have to try and play your character in character (we used to hate the sort of game playing where player interaction was shoved aside for the sake of vast armouries of magical goodies). And this means that, if your character is evil, you need to understand what evil means. Not in terms of actions but in the context of feelings, motivations and behaviours - at least enough to make the game fun.
We spent hours discussing, for example, what 'chaotic neutral' meant - was it a sort of carefreeness on steroids or something more profound, more religious. A rejection of order - the Dice Man of the fantasy world? The answer doesn't matter, what mattered was that we talked about good, evil, the meaning of law and how these could be personal. It was a far better moral education than the platitudes of RE at school or the banalities of the typical catholic homily.
If you want to live a good life, it has to be on the basis of understanding what that means. You can get out the book and read the (often contradictory) guidance from the ancients or else you can work it out from first principles. And the D&D alignment chart seems to me a good place to start - it tells me that executing the adulteress for her sin may be lawful but it is probably evil at the same time and that saving that adulteress - however sinful she may be - is a chaotic act but also an act of goodness.
Religion told me none of these things. I learnt that god is good and the devil is bad. And that if I follow the rules I will live forever. I learnt nothing about what all this meant, about whether there's a devil or whether that god is all he's cracked up to be.
This doesn't make me an atheist. Nor does my favourite D&D creation, a neutral evil mage called Tim with a withered hand, make me evil. And I don't want to make out that fantasy role playing is the route to salvation - unless your idea of salvation is spending 30 hours clearing out one of Chris Barlow's slightly manic dungeons.
But for me, playing Dungeons & Dragons, taught me more about good and evil than all the priests and brothers who'd taught me about god. And, although I didn't realise it at the time, those months in 1979 were when I lost god and found Dungeons and Dragons.