God, Aquinas, and the dungeon master

d d 04If I had to teach a child the concept of natural law, I would tell him or her to play Dungeons & Dragons. Like millions of American boys, I used to play this fantasy role-playing game in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the eve of the mass-video game era. The game taught you, among other lessons, that for every action, there is a reaction and that for every strength, there is a weakness. Such was the game's power that though I played the game only once or twice, and never as the dungeon master, I still refer to the concepts it taught me about the natural world.

Natural law is not a religiously inspired philosophy, but I have found that those who embrace it are more likely to be religious adherents than those who don't. So I was interested to read David Kushner's long profile in Wired magazine of of Gary Gygax, the co-founder of D & D, as it was known. Was Gygax religious, and if so, how so?

The answer comes only at the very end of the story. It is worth quoting in full:

While it may surprise -- or embolden -- the religious groups who long rallied against him, Gygax says he has found God. The discovery began one day about 25 years ago, fittingly, during a game. A friend of his was doing some role-playing with Gygax as a kind of personality test. He had Gygax describe his journey down an imaginary road. At one point, Gygax described coming to a clear lake, and his buddy said, "There's a drinking vessel there. What does it look like?"

"It's a beautiful silver chalice," Gygax replied, "all engraved."

"I didn't know you were religious," his friend said.

Neither did Gygax, but he warmed to the idea that the universe has been mapped out in advance by some celestial designer. "There's got to be a creating hand behind everything," he says. "As Thomas Aquinas said, 'Out of nothing, nothing comes.'"

Over the past few years, Gygax has suffered two minor strokes, a heart attack, and a series of falls. And, he says, it was his newfound beliefs that sustained him. He began to pray frequently that he would regain the movement that he lost in his arm and leg after his most recent stroke. And it was an experience inside a game that prepared him for his ultimate journey, too. At the completion of the round, he tells me, the game master said, "You've come to a wall. The wall is the end. It's death. What do you do?"

Gygax looked him in the eye and said, "I jump over it. When you come to the end and you can't go any farther, you've got to go over the wall. Gotta see what's there."

Kushner set up this ending well. Early in the story, he showed that Gygax believed in the power of the human imagination and that all men seek to be warriors. The implication is straightforward: Playing Dungeons & Dragons is a religious exercise, a preparation for transcending death. Kushner seemed to get religion in a basic but powerful way.

gygax2 01

I just wish, however, that Kushner had gotten religion in a slightly more sophisticated way.

In the passage above, Gygax quotes Thomas Aquinas and his contingency argument for the existence of God. Aquinas and his proofs are no longer part of Americans popular culture, if they ever were. So how did Gygax come across Aquinas? Was he raised in a religious tradition. If so, how did this shape his world view and his co-design of D & D? Unfortuntately, Kushner does not mention Gygax's religious background.

I also thought that Kushner's story had a religious ghost in it. He describes D & D this way:

Most aspects of the game can be expressed numerically, from attributes like strength and health and intelligence to the power of a weapon and the probability that it will successfully connect with an enemy and the amount of damage it would inflict. But one player has to paint a picture with words: That person assumes the role of the dungeon master and describes for other players what they see and hear in this imaginary world, and what effects their actions have.

In other words, the dungeon master is God while the other players are mortals subject to, yes, natural law. Did Gygax possess a religious imagination while he co-designed the game? What were his religious or spiritual views at the time?

Answers to these religious questions would have made an otherwise first-rate magazine article even better.

Please respect our Commenting Policy