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.

What It Means To Be a Man: Reflections on the Ides of March

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fc/Jules_cesar.jpg/500px-Jules_cesar.jpg

We hear the expression frequently—“Be a man!” Usually when we are small and usually directed to males. In the context of an admonishment, it typically means to “be tough,” show little emotion, be stoic, have courage, avoid whining.

But, when you are a little older and more thoughtful you might come up with a different definition. The German word “Mensch” (“man” or “human being”) provides us with a starting point.

You will recall that Friedrich Nietsche gave us the idea of an “Übermensch” or “superman.” Not someone who “leaps tall buildings in a single bound,” but a superior creature to whom a new set of life rules applies. Indeed, the Übermensch creates a set of values, discarding those that belong to a world that he rejects and a god that he thinks to be dead.

Goethe, the great German poet, scientist, and philosopher of an earlier time, had something quite different to say about man in his poem The Divine:

Let man be noble,
merciful and good;
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the living
Beings we know…

In Yiddish, a language that has German roots, to be a “mensch” means to be decent, forthright, strong, honorable, and dependable. Someone to be leaned on and counted on. A person of principle, with both a good heart and a good head. A fellow to be reckoned with; a companionable individual of integrity, unafraid of self-assertion.

But there is a different version of “being a man” in the popular culture. In my mind, it is associated with the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, as portrayed in the numerous “Western” movie roles they took on; on the political front, George W. Bush probably is a rough equivalent.

This “man’s man” is a tough, intimidating, austere, cocky, unrepentant, decisive, and unflinching he-man who never complains or cries out in pain. A guy like this doesn’t look back. He is the opposite of the “Alan Alda,” version of what it means to be a man, which emphasizes a kind, empathic, more sensitive side of human possibility.

The popular vision of a man is someone who is more into solving problems than dealing with feelings, someone who is “logical,” someone more in touch with his head than his heart. When a woman opens herself to him with an injury, he is prone to offering a solution or trying to “fix” things rather than patiently listening and holding her hand.

This rock-solid, heroic figure is the strong-silent type, uncomfortable with public (and sometimes event private) emotion, and a person of few words; certainly not one given to eloquent speech. He is much more inclined toward action than talk. The “John Wayne” version of a man is well described in the closing lines of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

In any discussion of manhood, one must also inevitably give a nod to “manhood” as it is understood in every day speech; that is, male sexuality. It takes a few forms.

One is simply the ability to be commanding and sexually appealing, to be an experienced and confident lover. Another is the capacity to perform sexually. The problem that follows from this, of course, has to do with the pressure to perform, the anticipated evaluation of that performance, and sometimes the failure to perform.

In old age, both the capacity and interest in such activity have been known to fall away, leaving it to the man and any companion or spouse to determine whether manhood should still be subject to judgment about anything to do with sex. Medicine is perhaps making such considerations irrelevant with the easy availability of Viagra, Cialis, and the like.

On the other hand, a failure of potency, that is, the ability to perform sexually coupled with an inability to foster children, remains a problem in the minds of most such men and one that still lacks a scientific work-around other than adoption or artificial insemination of the man’s wife by someone else, a solution that most males find decidedly abhorrent.

Finally, if you’d like a more Shakespearean commentary on the subject of being a man,  you must read Julius Caesar. Those of you who know the play are aware that Caesar is not the main character, even if he is the title character.

Rather, the story is about Brutus, Caesar’s friend and admirer, who is persuaded to believe that Caesar has become a tyrant and will visit evils upon the Roman people. Others among the conspirators have their own axes to grind against Caesar and seek personal gain by his overthrow. But Brutus agrees to the plot despite the fact that it is against his nature, only because he concludes that the assassination of Caesar is in the best interests of his fellow countrymen, in order to free the Republic from Caesar’s control.

As so often occurs in classical tragedy, the conflict between one’s public obligations and private loyalties is the undoing of the hero, in this case Brutus. And so, the famous murder happens in the Roman Senate on March 15th, 44 BC, 2054 years ago this week, after Caesar ignores the warning “Beware the Ides of March!” There is a fantastic movie rendition of the play starring James Mason as Brutus and a young Marlon Brandon as Marc Anthony, Caesar’s ally.

After Caesar’s death, Anthony is targeted for death by Brutus’s fellow conspirators, but Brutus stops them, allowing Anthony to speak to the people and eulogize the fallen Caesar, only to rally the Romans against the conspirators and ultimately, to defeat them in the ensuing civil war. It is Brutus’s essential humanity, decency, and sense of fairness (all qualities that contribute to “being a man”) that call him to let Anthony speak.

You will recall the words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…,” so persuasively rendered by Brando in the aforementioned film, that stir the Roman crowd against the conspirators. Had Brutus been less honorable, he would have avoided the risk that Anthony’s words might incite the rabble against them and perhaps even agreed with his co-conspirators to kill Anthony. And, as portrayed by Shakespeare, it is the decision to allow Marc Anthony to live, not the murder of Caesar, that is the proximate cause of Brutus’s downfall.

The play ends with Brutus dead, and Anthony reflecting on who Brutus was and why he was worthy. And, it is Anthony’s words that provide us with a final comment on what Shakespeare has already told us in the play about what it means to be a man.

Please note that the word “gentle,” as used by Shakespeare, means something approximating “true, cultured, and affable:”

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

The bust of Julius Caesar above is to be found in the Musée Arles Antique. The image was created by Mcleclat and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor 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) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? 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 having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).