Sunday, January 3, 2010

God doesn't play D&D

God does not play Dungeons and Dragons.

-Einstein (paraphrased)
As usual, I was reading the internets when I found this interesting article called "Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict". It's written by a born-again Christian, M. Joseph Young, who started playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Soon his friends got wind of it, and informed him how evil and dangerous the game was. They handed him lots of tracts to demonstrate the point (and I bet the infamous "Dark Dungeons" Jack Chick tract was among them). But Young quickly saw that the tracts just made a lot of arguments that were awful and wrong. So he starts countering the arguments.

What's amusing is that Young has to make such obvious points. Stuff like, "Yes, there are demons and devils, but they mostly function as opponents," "Even if a player's character is evilly aligned does not mean the player is evil," and "The magic is fictional." There are also plenty of references to C. S. Lewis, a favorite Christian fantasy author. This stuff is trivial! It reminds me of the time that a Christian magazine quoted me as opposing book burnings. There's something going wrong when it becomes necessary to say such obvious things.

Less amusing, but still odd, is how Young describes his D&D games. He likes to discuss the philosophical and theological implications of the game with his players. Ooookay. I won't condemn. But I would feel pretty awkward in that situation. I've played a bit of D&D, and I already feel awkward enough about role playing. It does not seem like the proper venue for evangelism. I'm curious if Young has thought about the common image of Christians as always trying to insert evangelism everywhere, no matter how inappropriate.

Young goes on to state the real problems that D&D poses for Christians. He says it costs time and money. No argument here, and that's why I don't play much. He also says that since Christians don't like D&D, many D&D players end up not liking Christianity. Again, no argument here.

But there was one point that really stuck out to me:
Like most games--all those which use dice or cards--Dungeons & Dragons(tm) assumes that dice and cards fall in a random pattern along statistically predictable probabilities. It is extremely difficult for us to deal with this assumption. The question of whether dice and cards fall at random or are divinely controlled is far beyond the scope of this article, but the answer goes directly to the nature of the sovereignty of God.
Extremely difficult? As far as anti-God arguments go, this is pretty weak. It's somewhere up there with the Babel Fish. I mean, seriously? "God controls everything... but what about dice?!" Does something so simple as probability really trip up theology? I don't know, maybe I'm just so used to the secular worldview that I can no longer imagine why such trivial things can cause such tremendous philosophical difficulties. Perhaps it might be clearer if I tried to form an explicit argument as to why this is silly.

Probability is a statement about our knowledge. If we say that a die has 1/20 chance of rolling a 20, that means that given our knowledge of the dice, there is a 1/20 chance of rolling a 20. The die may roll all sorts of numbers given different initial conditions, but to us, those initial conditions are indistinguishable. It has nothing to do with God.

Easy. I think so anyways. But perhaps not as trivial as the "D&D magic is fictional" bit. So never mind that. The following part was, I think, much more surreal.
Christians who play such games should grapple with the issue and form an opinion about it. Note that it is possible to avoid all such games by only playing those games which pit skill against skill--athletic competition, chess, checkers, reversi, competitive puzzles such as tic-tac-toe and dots--but these are the games most susceptible to the problems of the competitive spirit, the idea that one wins and therefore all others lose. That may be a far more dangerous challenge to the principles of the gospel than the more intellectual question of whether the assumption of statistical randomness is an affront to the sovereignty of God.
Note that right away, one possible solution to the philosophical problem of probability is to avoid games which involve chance. Young, to his credit, rejects this solution, but for the wrong reasons. Doesn't it strike you as odd that the solution to a philosophical problem is to avoid a situation where you'd have to think about it? Isn't that a bit like sticking your fingers in your ears whenever you encounter an argument that you fear might be persuasive?

I find it especially striking that the idea was introduced so casually, without a bit of self-awareness. What is going on in Christianity that such bizarre and wrong ideas can be thrown around without a second thought?


Scott said...

I understand your confusion about why probability would constitute a problem for theists; but I also understand why it does, and I think I can explain. In short, it's the "God of the gaps" mindset: things of which we are ignorant are potential hiding places for the divine. So if God exists and is omnipotent, then he can (and surely does!) manipulate the die without our being able to tell. If, on the other hand, the movement of the die is truly random, then that's one less "gap" in our ignorance to be filled with God.

DeralterChemiker said...

This post got me to thinking about whether the toss of a die is truly random. Suppose you were to drop a die with the standard 1 to 6 dots from a fixed height onto a perfectly smooth surface, and suppose that you had rigged up a way of releasing the die mechanically in a super-smooth fashion, and suppose that you always started with a given side (e.g., the one-dot side) down, would the results be truly random, or would they be skewed by the conditions under which the die is released? Has anyone ever tried to perform such an experiment? Now, if the results are skewed in any way, it would prove that the method of dropping the die is a factor in determining the result, and if that is true for the controlled experiment, then it is also true for every toss of the die. Nicht wahr?

miller said...

I'm fairly sure that has been done, at least with coins. The physics of dice is deterministic (with some qualifications).

Jachra said...

Technically, all things are deterministic.

You know, I play RPGs online a lot, and if a GM ever wanted to discuss the philosophical implications of a game, I would tell him I'll be back after I get some soda. Actually, philosophy and games are a common topic, but typically not interrupting play (typically between atheists, too, so it's more about interest), because that's just ridiculous.

Ummon said...

You guys don't get it. Whatever you choose to say about determinism, when we say that the number the die will show is completely random between 1 and 6, we are saying that we don't have any knowledge to say one number is more likely to come up than another. Now, if I dropped it using a mechanical device, say, a 100 times, and half of them were came up 1, then the probability is skewed, cause I expect it to be more likely to come up 1 on the next drop. However, until I actually did this, the probabilities weren't skewed. Nevertheless, I wouldn't create such a mechanical device for a D&D game, because even though the probabilities aren't biased, successive tosses are not independent of each other, which messes up the game.