Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
Every other Friday night is game night at my house. I put my littlest one to bed early, my bigger two are hustled off to their rooms with piles of books, and my husband and I head down to our basement with some of our best friends. We eat tons of junk food, we talk about life and parenting and careers, we laugh until we cry (I do, at least), and we work together to tell a really good story. You see, this is not just any game night, this is Dungeons & Dragons night.
D&D, and other games like it, are fantastic ways to engage with people: to sit, talk, care, and create meaningful stories.I was in college the first time I was invited to play and I have to admit, I was…hesitant. Wasn’t D&D evil? Or bad? True, I didn’t know why it was wrong; I had simply grown up believing that there was something about it that good Christians should avoid, a vague sense that it was somehow sinful. But the people who had invited me were good Christians and their invitation sparked a lot of research, a deeper walk with the Lord, and a new hobby. I learned that D&D was not inherently sinful, but more than that, I learned that it has the amazing potential to bring people together.
Our group has changed a bit over the years, but we still play together. Now, we’re pretty average middle-aged folks. We have mortgages, medical bills, football practices, and PTAs. We are stay-at-home moms, busy dads, and full-time employees. We’re active in our church, love the Lord, and, oh yeah, we play D&D. And the ever-growing truth is that we’re not the only ones. In the last few years the popularity of this game has skyrocketed and more and more it’s important for us, as the church, to understand what’s going on, what D&D is, and why it matters.
On January 11 of this year, over 120,000 people logged on to their computers to watch Critical Role, the live-streaming show where well-known voice actors sit around a table and play D&D. Since then, the episode (which was four hours long, by the way) has been viewed on YouTube over 1 million times. This is not some fast-paced game either; it is literally people sitting at a table playing Dungeons & Dragons! And this is just one show; millions of people all over the world are watching other people play Dungeons & Dragons online every month. And they aren’t just watching it. Wizards of the Coast, the maker of D&D, recently announced that in the two years since it’s been released, sales for the current version have already surpassed the lifetime sales for each of the previous versions, and Hasbro (parent company of WoC) reported D&D sales were up over 50%. Men, women, adults, teens—all different people from all over the world are contributing to D&D’s booming popularity. For a game that was once assumed to be played only by nerds in their parents’ basements, this is huge news.
The question, though, is why? What’s happening in our world to make this once ultra-nerdy game crash into the mainstream? Perhaps it has to do with the increasing number of references to it in popular shows, most notably, Stranger Things (which was almost entirely framed around D&D). Or perhaps it’s because more celebrities have started playing. Or maybe it’s the fact that the kids who played it in the ’80s are now middle-aged adults with the time and resources to get back into their childhood hobby. There are many theories as to why D&D is seeing a resurgence, but as far as I can see, the answer is much more simple. I think it’s all about stories—stories and relationships.
I love stories. All types really, but especially fantasy stories. I love Narnia and Middle Earth and Hyrule and a million other worlds where evil is held at bay by the most unlikely heroes. I love tales of daring adventure and plucky sidekicks, stories of redemption and restoration. Stories are powerful; they awaken the parts of our mind that sleep in the monotony of day-to-day life, introducing us to new ideas and helping us think differently about the world around us. Good stories don’t just hide us in a pretend world; they show us that we can make a difference in the one we have. More than that, though, good stories bring us closer to God.
Stories are an integral part of being human, not just because they are intrinsic to our history, but because they are intrinsic to God, and we were created in his image. We worship a God who paints with words—a God who delights in the power of spoken ideas. He created stories and has, from the beginning of time, used them to teach us about his character and our hearts. Our God is a God of stories, and as his image-bearers we are called to imitate him—even in the art we create. By creating stories we can join with him and bear his image to the world around us. And that’s important to remember, because D&D is all about storytelling.
When I first started researching D&D, I was more than a little confused. Not that I wasn’t nerdy enough to play—I absolutely was—but because I was expecting, well, a game. I thought there would be a board and pieces, possibly a spinner. Instead, all I was given was a book: “A manual!” as Dustin says in Season Two of Stranger Things. D&D isn’t a board game, it is simply a set of rules that allows you to create your own game, your own story.
To play D&D, a group of people come together, usually face–to–face around a table. Each player is in charge of a character and each character is given unique skills and abilities they use to interact with the story world. One player is the story leader, commonly called the Game Master, or GM. That player’s job is to develop the overall plot of the story, manage all of the non-player characters, and control the flow of the game. Together, all the players work to lead their characters through an adventure, and anything can happen because it’s their story. There are no scripts, no scores, and no limits except the imaginations of the players. Players can have their characters try literally anything, and a roll of dice determines if their action was successful or not and to what degree. Together they can defeat dragons, rescue townspeople, find ancient artifacts, or escape from a villain’s lair. Any story is possible and any story becomes your story when playing D&D. The rules are guidelines only and everything is customizable.
D&D is a game: there are dice, and rules, and the ever-present possibility of things going horribly wrong. But it is so much more. Unlike most games, the heart of D&D is not winning or scoring points but storytelling. It’s immersive and interactive in a way watching a movie, or even playing a video game, just cannot be. People today are flocking to it, not because it’s a fad but because our hearts were created to tell stories and to tell them together.
One of the most appealing aspects of D&D is the fact that it is designed to be played with other people. It involves sitting with them for hours, and time spent together, even time spent playing a game, has a way of forging relationships. D&D games can last for an afternoon or continue for years, and through the whole process, players are together. In a world where we are increasingly isolated, Dungeons & Dragons provides an opportunity for people to spend time together; time that is lighthearted and fun, yes, but also time that is deeply meaningful.
Crafting a story with other people is a shared experience that endures, one that resonates on a heart level. When my friends and I sit down on Friday nights, we’re not just playing a game and then running off; we care for each other. We share our successes and our struggles, we talk about our lives and our faith. Relationships aren’t just forged through the conversations during down time though, the game itself acts as a catalyst for dealing with real life issues. Grief, loss, anxiety, addiction, and any other human struggle can be a part of the story and can be faced in a meaningful way. The most honest look at depression I’ve ever seen was in a game, and that shouldn’t be surprising, because as I’ve already said, stories are powerful. Sharing events in the story world leads to the friendships we long for in the real world. Our hearts ache for adventure and meaning and while stories like this are still just stories, they are stories that convince us we were created for more.
It is this deep longing for story and for connection that is driving the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons. The problem though, is many people in the church today still live with the same vague, residual impression that there is something inherently sinful about D&D that I grew up with.
That impression comes from a time in the 1980s when the game was simplistically associated with witchcraft, suicide, even the occult. Those accusations caused many people, especially mainstream conservative Christians, to shun the game as evil. The result was that almost an entire generation of players felt unwelcome in the church. All of those accusations against D&D have been proven false; in fact, multiple studies have even gone on to show how beneficial D&D can actually be. But the problem with news like this is that rumors (especially ones involving things like Satan worship) rarely go away. Instead, they linger on as obscure fears and unwarranted condemnation.
The current rise in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is bringing many of those lingering fears to the surface once again. As the number of people interested in D&D grows, the chances that are there are people in your congregations and in your neighborhood who play does as well. If we continue thinking that D&D is somehow wrong and that our attitudes about it don’t really matter, we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes of the past, only worse this time because even more people will be pushed away from the gospel.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. D&D, and other games like it, are fantastic ways to engage with people: to sit, talk, care, and create meaningful stories. They should not be condemned, rather, there is a growing opportunity for us to support them, or at the very least, engage with those who do.
It should be mentioned, however, that as with all forms of creativity, what you bring to it is what you get. D&D is a medium that allows you to use your own imagination to tell the story you want to tell. What this means then, is that our imaginations, and the ways we choose to use them, are key. There is nothing inherently good about stories—it is what we include in them that matters and it really is your choice what to include. The stories you tell while playing D&D can be uplifting and God-honoring, or they can be vastly different. The difference, however, is not in the game, it is in the players. Imagination is key, but wisdom should rule.
As believers, we are storytellers. We know and love the God who created stories in the first place, and who has imprinted the greatest story of all time on our heart. D&D may just be a game, a hobby, but it is also an amazing way to live out that storyteller, relational, truth-seeking part of our hearts. It’s not surprising to me that it’s growing more and more popular every day – it’s fun and honest and interactive. It’s is not for everyone, though, and I get that too. Orcs, elves, and magic may not be your cup of tea. But for some, especially us more geeky folks, it’s an amazing way to connect. So go ahead, grab a Players Handbook (or find the basic rules for free online), gather some friends, and give it a try. Just don’t be surprised if you find that your world gets a little brighter, your love for people a little deeper, and your view of God a little bigger as a result.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.