Darkon: What Role-Playing Games Tell Us About Real Life

It is easy to dismiss people who play role-playing games.

Geeks, losers, nerds, they’ve probably been called all these things and more. As William Shatner said on Saturday Night Live to the costumed attendees at a Star Trek Convention, “Get a Life.”

But if you watch the 2006 award-winning feature-length documentary Darkon, you just might get a different idea.

Darkon is “live-action role-playing game” or LARP. That is, real people create and dress-up as characters in a quasi-medieval world. They also fashion back-stories of the origins of these alter-egos that don’t sound much different from religious and biblical legends. Perhaps Moses was found in the bulrushes by an Egyptian princess, but you can be sure that Darkon players have backgrounds no less imaginative.

The Darkon gamers affiliate with other like-minded souls within the game, inventing national groups who strategize about how to enlarge their country’s domain. In order to achieve this, some combination of negotiation and combat between armies is required. The movie Darkon shows just such activities as they are played out by the “Darkon Gaming Club” in Baltimore.

Both men and women, usually in their 20s and 30s, enact a stylized form of combat involving “weapons.” Those instruments of war must be made according to guidelines designed to insure the safety of the soldiers, but the rules permit imaginary “injury” to be inflicted and one side or the other to triumph.

Enormous amounts of energy and time go into the realization of this fantasy world. Public parks, forest preserves, and school grounds are claimed as the battle-ground upon which occur many of the negotiations and all of the wars.

One player, a stay-at-home dad named Skip, doubtless speaks for a good many of the Darkon enthusiasts, when he talks about feeling “…born out of time… I feel like I have some great destiny and I have just to find it.” Clearly, Skip looks for that destiny, in part, within the game. You may think that such people are troubled as you read this on the computer screen, but Skip comes across as an earnest, intelligent, thoughtful, and principled man within the film itself.

The central figures of the documentary include a business executive in the real world who leads the most successful and largest group of Darkonians, a former stripper who is a single working mother, a college student who works part-time as a barista, a buyer in a fabric store, an assembly line worker, and many individuals who find their real lives boring and anonymous. They make no mark and live lives outside of the game that recall Thoreau’s comment on “quiet desperation.”

For some, including the most successful player within and outside the game, this role-playing world appears to serve a therapeutic function: “Playing (my character) helped me become the man I wanted to be in real life.” Opportunities for leadership, negotiation, and political as well as combat strategy transferred to the streets, offices, and board rooms of everyday existence, building his self-confidence and changing him even when the costume came off.

Meanwhile, others struggle with marginalization both within and without the game, but live in the hope of, quite literally, “reinventing” their characters and taking a more commanding and successful role. Some recognize the need to develop social skills in order to have real-life success. But, one suspects, that others not featured in the movie get caught up in the escapism that any such exercise might provide. They never grow out of the game.

As I watched this documentary I couldn’t help but think of the changes that industrialization and urbanization brought to workers during the period known as “The Industrial Revolution.” People went from being independent solo-practitioners working for themselves as tailors, blacksmiths, farmers, and weavers, to employees of others in larger and larger enterprises. The phrase used to describe what they became was “wages slaves,” clearly no longer free and independent.

Perhaps then, the Darkonians are only looking for what most of humanity has lost in a world of big machines, buildings, computers, and cities: some sense of individuality and uniqueness.

Or, like the ancient Greeks of Homer’s day, maybe they seek honor and glory. Honor in that pre-literate day tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world in which the idea of heaven had not yet been invented? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of a reputation for fearlessness, strength, and tenacity that would transcend your death.

In other words, a lot like what the Darkon players hope for inside and outside the universe of the game.

Earnest Becker, the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Denial of Death (a book esteemed by Bill Clinton, by the way) talked about each man’s hero-project: the attempt to distinguish himself from other men. It is an effort that Becker thought was motivated by our fear of death and a desire for a kind of symbolic immortality via achievement. Or, perhaps, a self-delusion made possible through accomplishing important feats, thus allowing oneself to deny the inevitable demise of all living things, including one’s own end.

One Darkonian states that the game is “…like watching TV, but you are the hero. If you could watch Brad Pitt or be Brad Pitt, which would you rather do?”

But, there is also darkness here, as another perceives it, “There is a certain desperation to life. It’s all terminal — we are going to die. Maybe fantasy and religion and all those things are (like Darkon), if not crutches, vehicles to get you from birth to death.”

Sometimes a game is more than a game.

The above image is a scene from Darkon.

He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost

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Fear and hesitation go hand in hand. They hold you back, creating a slow motion to your progress (see above) and sometimes no progress at all. The trick is to separate the two, to recognize that you needn’t wait until you are free of fear in order to act. Indeed, if that were the case, most of the people whom we consider brave would still be waiting for the moment of bold action that earned them the appellation “hero.”

Years ago I heard a panel discussion on the subject of Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung that actually touched on the issue of courage and decisive action. The experts focused on the character Siegfried, who is described as someone who has never known an instant of fear in his life. Should we therefore consider Siegfried’s fearless behavior to be indicative of heroism and bravery? The panel in question concluded it did not. After all, they reasoned, how can one be a hero without fear to overcome? Only a fool would rush to action without being aware of the attendant dangers. But a brave and courageous man would know the perils facing him and choose to act in any case.

Most of us won’t face dragons or fire, of course, but we still will all have numerous chances to act decisively or to hold back. Here is a trivial, but instructive example from my own life. In college, I was fulfilling a PE requirement by taking fencing. Now, I wasn’t a very good fencer, despite being a reasonably good athlete. And, my heavy academic course load didn’t permit me the luxury of spending time outside of class to practice fencing. Thus, in the first seven matches I had against my classmates, I won only three, a pretty mediocre showing.

Nonetheless, I was competitive enough to want to win more often, so I reasoned that there just might be a way that wouldn’t take time away from my other studies. I realized that I was a relatively tentative fencer, and so I decided to become more aggressive. I set myself the task of getting in the first “touch” as soon as each new match began. The strategy worked. Of the next 17 matches, I won 14. I was almost always able to get a 1 to 0 lead within a few seconds of the start of the competition by catching my adversaries off-guard. Yet, despite my new found success, I was really no better at fencing than I’d been when my record was three wins and four losses. I was simply less hesitant, more aggressive.

I once had a biology professor named Hudson who conducted the “Quiz” portion of his classes in a way to encourage behavior similar to my fencing experience. You were graded on the number of questions you answered correctly and lost points if you answered the interrogatories wrong. Hudson asked the questions aloud and it was a race to get your hand up first and have him call on you to answer. Naturally, you had to make a quick decision as to whether you had the right answer. Very fast indeed. Those who hesitated were, as the saying goes, “lost.”

But how does this all apply to daily life, the life outside of the university. You might say that “normal” life is less competitive than my examples suggest, but is it? To answer that question, ask yourself how often you hesitate to do things, take chances, give public voice to concerns that might engender disapproval, avoid tasks that are difficult or challenging? Do you ask out the beautiful woman, or do you wait until you feel “ready,” only to watch someone else beat your time in getting her attention? Do you, at least sometimes, see a crisis as an opportunity? Or do you hold back, put things off, wait and hope that another or better time for action will come? Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won’t.

If your “default” strategy, your habitual tendency, is to wait, you have a similar problem to those whose standard operating procedure is to act impulsively, without thinking. It may be the case that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but it is also true that you are an equal fool if you forever hold back, hesitate, and watch the moment pass or see someone else “seize the day (carpe diem).”

What I am talking about is fear and the uncertainty that fuels it. When we are fearful and decide not to take action, most of us feel an immediate sense of relief. That relief reinforces our hesitation, while simultaneously depriving us of the opportunity to succeed in the endeavor. Soon enough the relief will pass, but not the self-doubt and lack of personal esteem and confidence that might have been won by an effective action.

The danger in allowing too many chances to pass by is a life of “quiet desperation,” a life on the sidelines, watching others play the game, but not playing it ourselves. And, at the end of life, regret for the opportunities passed and the chances not taken is more likely to be troubling than the failed efforts made. Beware the heartache of the words “what if?” True, acting boldly often fails; but, it also sometimes succeeds.

No wonder, then, that musicians spend relatively little time passively listening to music. They are too busy making it.

Make music of your life, then. Let the trumpet announce (or remind) the world of your presence. Sing your song. And if you cannot, find a therapist who will give you the tools to beat back your fear and help encourage you.

The above image is an Animation of Newton’s Cradle created on August 8, 2006 by Demon Deluxe and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What “Fidelio” Tells Us About Life

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I’m not much of an opera lover. The stories are mostly preposterous, and I prefer instrumental music to vocal music most of the time. But, every so often opera puts words to music in a way that is immensely touching and wise. For me, the best example of this comes in the vocal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar,” from Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.

Beethoven sets the drama up quickly. Florestan, housed in a dungeon, is the political prisoner of an evil and corrupt Governor named Pizarro. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, doesn’t know whether Florestan is living or dead. But, ever faithful, she disguises herself as a man using the name “Fidelio” (so much for the preposterous part) and gets a job at the prison. Her boss, the jailer Rocco, has a beautiful adult daughter named Marzelline, who is being pursued by a prison guard called Jacquino. But as soon as Marzelline gets a look at her dad’s new assistant, she pushes Jaquino away and has eyes only for Fidelio. Fidelio can’t exactly reject his boss’s daughter, and he lets her and her father assume that a marriage will be near at hand.

At this point, Fidelio (“faithful one”), Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino sing a vocal quartet that is touching because of its gorgeous music, but even more, because it describes the poignancy of the human dilemma in which these four decent people find themselves.

As the musical lines of the four voices weave in and out, Fidelio expresses her worries over her husband, the possibility that she will not find him,  and the anguish she feels at Marzelline’s affection for her;  Jaquino articulates his heartbreak at having been jilted by Marzelline for Fidelio; Marzelline sings as a young woman in love; and her father, Rocco, looks forward to the happiness of these two good young people — his daughter and Fidelio — and their domestic life together.

The music touches us because of what we know that they do not. Marzelline will have her heart broken, as she must very soon, when she discovers that her future husband is a woman. Rocco, too, will have his future hopes for this daughter dashed. Fidelio faces danger if Florestan lives and she attempts to rescue him, and her own unhappiness if she has arrived too late to save him. And there is no certainty that Jaquino will ever win over Marzelline, even as a “rebound romance,” once Fidelio’s identity and true gender as Leonore are revealed.

But there is more, and it is what Beethoven’s opera tells us about life by way of this music. It is that even decent and good people such as these four will sometimes be at cross purposes that frustrate them and hurt them. The disappointment will not happen because any one of them wanted to harm any other one of them. It will occur simply because that is the nature of human existence. And Beethoven made art of this fact of life. We feel for the characters, however absurd the opera’s premise, because we’ve been there too, been in difficult relationships where pain was inevitable despite our best efforts to avoid it for ourselves and avoid inflicting it on others.

The disappointments that are bound up with living, the tragedy that touches virtually every life before its end (and, often, because of its end), is the stuff of opera, life, and of psychotherapy, too. Fidelio moves us because it is a story of self sacrificing love and courage. And the irony of great art that comments on human suffering, such is this vocal quartet, is that just as Beethoven moves us to tears, he touches our heart in a way that enlivens us, and makes life worth living in the moment that we share the beauty and wisdom of his vision.

The above image is a poster for an April 12, 1904 performance of Fidelio, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.