One of my favorite lines about Dungeons & Dragons came from an episode of The X-Files. In the episode, an author is interviewing a young man about a case Mulder and Scully were investigating. After he relates his story, the author asks him if he's frightened to come forward. The man responds by saying "Well hey, I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons & Dragons without learning a little something about courage."
I thought of that scene when I read Russell Moore's article in Christianity Today, "Fantasy Role-Playing is Hurting America." In a clever bit of reversal, he suggests that maybe the evangelical pastors who cautioned him against playing D&D when he was a kid had a point: "maybe there’s another form of fantasy role-playing that might be occultic and pagan in the truest sense of those words."
Paganism, after all, demands the sort of significance that is heroic, in which one’s virtues of strength and power are celebrated in story and song. Joseph Campbell famously popularized Jung’s idea of the “hero’s journey” a half century ago, but the quest for an imagined heroism is even stronger now—and often much, much darker.
Moore's real target, however, isn't really Dungeons & Dragons or other actual fantasy role-playing games. Rather, it's the form of right-wing self-mythologization that has metastasized on the American right and within the Republican Party since the advent of Donald Trump as a credible political figure, aided and abetted by not-really-all-that-crypto-fascists like Steve Bannon. Moore jumps off from a recent Atlantic article by Jennifer Senior, in which she describes the January 6th insurrectionists as "angry, howling hordes" who "arrived as real-life avatars, cosplaying the role of rebels in face paint and fur. They stormed the Capitol while an enemy army tried to beat them away."
Senior ties this into Steve Bannon's background in video game design, and the idea that, for gamers, one's identity as "Dave from accounts payable" is less a reflection of that person's real identity than Dave's online gaming persona, Ajax. He contrasts the occasion of Dave's death with that of Ajax:
Some preacher from a church or some guy from a funeral home who’s never met him does a 10-minute eulogy, says a few prayers. And that’s Dave,” Bannon says. He contrasts this boring, real-life Dave from accounts payable with Dave’s online gaming persona: Ajax. Ajax is tough and warlike. When he dies in the fantasy, there’s a funeral pyre and thousands of people come to mourn Ajax the Warrior.
Bannon concludes that "some people—particularly disaffected men—actively prefer and better identify with the online versions of themselves.”
Whether this provides an adequate account of the motives of the January 6th rioters, I can't say. I suspect not. Disaffection? Sure. But it would be a mistake to assume, as Senior puts it, that they were "cosplaying" as revolutionaries any more than the Jacobins were cosplaying in 1789. They weren't pretending to foment a revolution. They were fomenting it. And their motives, at least as far as I can discern them, were not based on some kind of video game reflection of themselves as heroic avatars. They were whipped into a violent frenzy by a genuine, if delusional belief that their actual democracy was being stolen from them. They weren't role-playing as a violent right-wing mob. They were an actual, bone fide right wing mob!
Which brings me back to that quote from The X-Files and Moore's clever, though ultimately misplaced critique of role-playing. There is, in my experience, always a level of ironic self-parody among role-players. We know better than to take ourselves too seriously, or to believe that we are really learning lessons about courage from rolling dice and pretending to be elves and wizards. We are engaged in a sort of escapism that enables us to recharge our batteries for the challenges of our real lives -- kids, jobs, bills, traffic -- the unheroic and inglorious aspects of our merely human lives. What distinguishes role-players from adherents of Q-Anon or from the Proud Boys is that we're not delusional.
That said, there is something true about Moore's invocation of a certain kind of pagan ideology in his critique, though again, laying at the feet of role-playing games is misplaced. Rather, it is the paganism of nationalism, the paganism of place, and ethnicity and culture that is at the heart of every right wing movement. It is what H. Richard Niebuhr saw as the danger of the worship of merely tribal gods rather than the kind of radical monotheism to which Christians are called.
One can critique that form of paganism without trivializing it as a form of fantasy role-playing. It's not. And while someone like the Q-Anon shaman may seem, at first blush, to be a deeply ironic and unserious figure, make no mistake. He wasn't role-playing or cos-playing. The assault that he and his compatriots launched on American democracy was very real. It was not a game.