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.

Denial, BP, and You

Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It apparently is, however, related to a river of oil in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico

But there is more to denial than British Petroleum’s failure to consider the possibility that a disaster might happen.

No. Denial is something we all do, at least some of the time.

Still, let us start with BP. Major environmental accidents involving oil have not caused this company and others like it to spend significant money on safety considerations and the prevention of ecological calamity. Clean-up technology remains much the same as it was 40 years ago.

What were the oil executives thinking? Perhaps, that such things wouldn’t happen to them or on their watch. And if it wasn’t going to happen, why reduce profits to take “unnecessary” safety measures. This, despite repeated oil spills over the years.

An example, might illustrate how “denial” such as this is possible, starting at a tender age.

Back when I was a very little boy, I did something similar. I remember walking to Jamieson School on a very foggy day. Indeed, the fog was so thick that one couldn’t see more than perhaps a half-block ahead. Somehow I got it into my head that if I couldn’t see my school, perhaps it no longer existed!

Jamieson School, an enormous building, occupied most of a square city block on Chicago’s North Side.

But maybe, just maybe, it had disappeared!

I didn’t think about the details of how such a thing might have happened overnight. I didn’t imagine what effort it would have taken to disassemble the structure brick-by-brick or consider that I would have heard any explosion that razed it. No, for me, the disappearance of the building would have been a result of magic. Here one minute, gone the next.

Unfortunately, or so I thought, it finally came into view. And with it, another day of school; not the day of fun I had fantasized about on my journey from home. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time.

The point being, that if grown men act like seven-year-olds, we have a problem. And problem is called denial — a failure to reckon with reality — at least at the extreme.

I’m sure you can think of lots of examples. The cigarette-smoker who never thinks about heart disease, emphysema, or lung cancer happening to him; the person texting and driving, who can’t imagine the possibility of an auto accident; the 350 pound man who has two-quarter pounders with cheese, fries, and a diet-cola, and somehow persuades himself that he is being careful about what he is eating because his meal includes a low-calorie soft drink.

More examples: the man who fancies a partner with a history of infidelity, but doesn’t grasp that he could be victim to the same fate as his predecessors in dating her; the morally upright and self-righteous citizen who cheats on his taxes; the parent who persuades himself that his lack of time for his children will be no problem for them; or the family that normalizes and minimizes the drinking of the household’s head, rather than facing his alcoholism.

Not to mention the biggest denial of all — that we are all mortal, all going to die, and that it could happen at any time — not just to the other guy, but to me! Instead, we treat it as unusual and remarkable when someone expires before, say, 70, when it is actually a fairly commonplace event (however, sad it might be). Indeed, I’ve known more than one therapist who avoided thinking about the topic. See Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death for more on this subject.

In fact, it is our mortality, the very jeopardy of living and the tenuousness of life, that makes denial necessary and healthy for us to do some of the time, even if a number of folks use it altogether too often. Without some amount of denial (coupled with a little courage) it would be hard to get up in the morning and walk out of the house, fearful as we would be of accident or injury on the streets or highways. How could my parents have permitted me to walk to Jamieson School as a little boy unless they put aside the possibility that I might be abducted or harmed? Would you be able to fly to New York City unless you “strapped-on” intellectual blinders to the danger of your plane crashing or another terrorist attack?

At another level, denial simplifies our lives, removing potentially uncomfortable inconsistencies between who we are and who we think we are. It allows us to engage in life and take action without the burden of too much troublesome data that might interfere with pursuing often necessary self-interest.

As I hope you can see, we need some amount of denial just to get through the day. So, while you rage against BP (and they certainly have earned your enmity), do realize that they were simply doing something we all do frequently, but they were using that psychological defense on a much more grand and dangerous scale than most anyone else.

The truth is, no one can look life squarely in the face all the time, lest he be perpetually distressed by his vulnerability to misfortune on the one hand, and an overbearing conscience on the other. Denial is almost as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Of course, if we deny the dangers of pollution as did BP, we just might foul up that needed air and water, quite literally.

Life is complicated, isn’t it?

The image above is of the author, at a time before he had any thoughts about disappearing schools.

Fifty Positive Steps to Change Your Life

Australian State Route Shield

You might think it an odd place to begin changing your life, but consider this: write your own obituary. What is it that you’d like someone to say about you after you are gone?

One of the tricks to changing your life is to widen your imagination, break your routine, and see and think about things differently. Here are 49 more small steps that you might consider in the process of reconfiguring yourself:

If you are a city dweller, drive far enough away from the city to see the stars on a clear night. There are lots more than you think.

Think of someone you dislike and make a list of all of their positive qualities.

Volunteer to do something that might be described as “community service.”

Start to write your autobiography.

Write a short story.

Eat a raisin slowly, as if you’d never tasted one before.

Go to a fancy restaurant and eat a meal alone; or go to a concert, play, or movie alone.

Make a list of all the things you are grateful for.

Apologize to someone who deserves your apology, including a “no excuses” statement of regret and some method of attempting to make-it-up to them.

Re-contact an old elementary school friend.

If your physician allows it, begin a weight-lifting program.

Wake up early to see the sun rise.

Make two lists, one of your strengths and another of your faults.

Create a “bucket list:” all the things you’d like to do before you “kick the bucket.” Make plans to do one of them within the next year.

Tell someone how much you appreciate him and why.

Write a letter. Hand write it.

Do some routine task (eating for example) with your non-dominant hand.

Build something, even if it is only a model airplane.

Grow something.

With adequate supervision so that you don’t get hurt, spend some time blindfolded.

Take an academic course.

Meditate.

Take a yoga class.

If you aren’t a dancer, learn to dance.

Remember all of the difficult life challenges that you’ve overcome and identify the qualities in you (strengths) that allowed you to overcome them.

Imagine a different and more rewarding life than the one you currently lead. What do you need to do to create it?

Create a five-minute comedy monologue and deliver it to a group of friends.

Learn to sing or play a musical instrument.

Play chess.

Give up something for a month (for example, TV, a favorite food, alcohol, caffeine, or listening to music).

If you have no children, consider becoming a “Big Brother” or a “Big Sister.”

Learn a foreign language.

Participate in a team sport.

Start a philanthropic project with some friends, no matter how small it might have to be.

Visit a public high school in the inner-city and think about the future of this country and what you can do to make it better.

Clean out your closet.

Imagine that you are to be stranded on a desert island and can only take five non-essential items with you. What would they be?

If your memory was going to be erased, what would be the single memory that you would ask to be spared? Why that one?

Go on a retreat.

Teach someone something. Show them “how it is done.”

Give some money (even if its only a dollar) to some needy person you know; and do it anonymously!

Buy a hard copy of one of the few remaining great newspapers in the USA (for example, the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal) and read every word. Then think about the fact that a Bell Labs study reportedly estimated that the average sixteenth century man had less information to process in a lifetime than can be found in a single daily edition of the New York Times.

If you wear a tie, tie the knot in a new way (most men tie a Four-in-Hand knot, but there are some others that actually look better).

Paint, draw, sketch, or sculpt something.

If you haven’t done so already, read Becker’s The Denial of Death.

Walk to some destination that you usually reach by car or pubic transportation.

Make a list of all that you have learned about life since finishing your formal education.

If you don’t have a tatoo, get a temporary tatoo (if there are no health risks to you) and observe how people look at you differently; if you have a prominent tatoo and can cover it up, walk around and notice the way that people look at you now.

Send me a suggestion on one more step to change your life.

The image of the Australian State Route Shield is sourced from Wikimedia Common.