26 October, 2016

Roleplayers vs Jack Chick

We won.

So, you've probably heard that the serial hater, the precursor to the Westboro Baptist Church, Jack Chick is dead.

Here's the article that first alerted me to the fact. (Boing Boing)

And another, that I saw a day later. (AV Club)

Here's what the other side has to say (Christianity Today)

Like the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and more recently Collins and Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent", the Tracts of Jack Chick were hateful pieces of propaganda designed to boil down a message to stereotypes and caricature, building false images of a concept with lies, rumours and innuendo, then make a "righteous" attack against the false edifice. Conspiracies and prejudice fed into the tracts attacking the Catholic Church, the Freemasons, Homosexuality, Science, and anything else that offended Chick's "Southern Baptist" sensibilities. One of those things was roleplaying.

In recent study regarding fields of sociology and adolescent psychology (as a part of my university work to become a teacher), I've come to the conclusion that people have a distinct pattern of thoughts, a self-paradigm if you will, and they will do anything in their powe to maintain the integrity of that pattern. This conclusion comes from elements such as the notion of "confirmation bias", the group psychology of rallies and collective activities (where the environment is cultivated in such a way as to reinforce certain ideas and emotions), a focus on faith and belief over hard facts (which are percieeveed as tools of a "great deceiver"), and even the innate societal structure reinforcing a top down status quo (typically designed to ensure those born into positions of privilege remain among the elite, regardless of how deserving they are). The whole thing is being repeated throughout Western society, and can be seen echoed in the campaign of Donald Trump for presidency. It's not isolated, it's all interconnected. The same patterns, different surface manifestations. Some people see the manifesttions in some areas, and are blind to them in other areas, because they've fallen prey to some trick of rhetoric, and their own person paradigm locks them away from open thought...maybe this is something tto do with the reason our neoconservative government in Australia is making arts degrees harder to attain...they promote free thinking, and this is dangerous to the status quo they seek to preserve... but I digress (I'll come back to it though).

The meme of gamers and game designers holding up some RPG books, and saying that they won the war against Jack Chick has been doing the rounds. A lot of people have been holding up Dungeons and Dragons books, as these were the main target of Chick's work. Honestly, I think he only targeted D&D because that was the most prominent RPG when he was going strong. Chick didn't seem to do a lot of research, he just went with anecdotal evidence and filled in the gaps with his fevered imaginings and rampant prejudice. His attacks on D&D were supported by the second "Christian outrage" where one of the main books in the game used the word "hell" 25 times, "evil" 94 times, and numerous other references to demons and devils. The fact that the book refeerred to was the Monster Manual, and these were places to go adventuring and villains for heroes to confront were utterly beside the point. In fact, the same types  of accusations could easily be levelled against various parts of the Bible. D&D with a growing bandwagon of haters was an easy target.

Other game designers are holding up the most "IN YER FACE SATANICK MOTHERF?!KER" games they happen to have in their collections. Personally, I think that almost validates Chick's particular brand of insanity. Whether you believe in the occult or not, and whether you believe that games such as these can lead you toward a dark path, presemting tthem as a public face of the hobby and a way that roleplaying has defeated the haters doesn't feel right to me. It's like protesting against environmental cars and emissions regulations by tuning your off-roader to churn out plumes of black smoke (known as Rolling Coal). A few of your friends might think you're edgy and cool, but to everyone else your extreme actions are making your opponents seem a tad more reasonable in their complaints. I'm all for free speech, but if you're going to convey messages like this, you need to accept the ramifications of both message and context.

I always thought roleplaying was more about exploring new imagined realities, exposing yourself to new ideas, in a context that I've now come to understand as a 'liminal space'. Such a space is defined by boundaries, often of a ritual nature. In a church, the rutual is more clearly defined, and a specific space is often instituted as the place where such an experience may occur. In an RPG the rituals are bounded by the rules and the social contracts between players. That's probably the underlying reason why religious evangelicals and fundamentalists have a real reason to fear RPGs. The playing of an RPG establishes a liminal space separate from that which can be monitored by the religious orthodoxy. It encourages free thought and problem solving rather than restricting thought and relying on blind faith. Roleplaying games promote the idea that certain things are beyond a person's control, and no amount of belief can make the dice come up with one result or another. It sort of brings me back to that earlier point about the status quo, and those in power fearing change.

That's where the three books I hold are important to me for this meme.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (Gygax, TSR, 1978)
I think this first printing copy of the book is the oldest RPG I own. It's D&D, so it's symbolic of the whole meme. This was one of those books that always seemed strange and mysterious before I was actually able to read it, and only marginally less so once I managed to get my hands on it. A world of adventure was promised but it only seemed to half deliver. It took the social element to bring it to life.  That's probably where some of the Christian backlash against roleplaying derived from, the books were filled with numbers and math, but kids looked like they were having fun. ..there must clearly have been some kind of sorcery afoot.

2. Cyberpunk 2020 (Pondsmith, R. Talsorian Games Inc., 1990)
A friend of mine had almost all of his roleplaying books burned by his parents, it must have been about 1991 or so, because this was one of his most recent game purchases. I've mentioned this story on the blog before. He gave me this book, and a few others for safe keeping, knowing what was coming. I hid it with my stockpile of games, as my parents were also talking the talk about how roleplying was potentially dangerous...but they hadn't threatened bookburning. So while it's an influential game in my design practice, it's also symbolic of resilience, and a reminder of the narrow-mindedness of religious zealots. I can accept that this is just an element of my mental pattern reinforcing itself, but I'm comfortable with that. 

3. Mage: the Ascension (Wieck, White Wolf, 1993)
I feel this game is more dangerous than any "Kill Puppies for Satan" or similar such games. It asks players to seriously consider belief systems, to think about ideological warfare, and the tactics used by powerful figures in a society to keep renegades, revolutionaries and heretics in line. The fact that the game is heavily influenced by one of my favourite books "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" probably contributes here too. Like the AD&D book, it's a game that promises so much, but only rarely have I seen it deliver. Not so much due to the social element, but more due to a degree of abstract thought required. It's  very easy to sink into a game of reality bending superheroes, but can be far more. I've seen it touch on that a few times, which is a few times more than most other games I've played.

All in all, I'm counting this as a win. Not in the war against roleplaying, progress and open-mindedness, but a win in this particular battle against a specific theolgical and narrow minded general who had some particularly rabid followers. The war to prevent progress and  open-mindedness has opened up on many new fronts over the past decade. I'm really happy to see elements of the roleplaying community championing issues like diversity, cultural sensitivity, and tolerance. I'm not happy to see other elements of the gaming community preaching hate and intolerance of their own, but that's just human nature for some people I guess.
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