During my recent journey to the enchanted land of east Arkansas, via a green-carpeted, maroon van affectionately named “Primetime”, I was fortunate enough to soak up a two hour documentary called Darkon. A few friends of mine, Josh and Caleb, had emphatically suggested I check it out, and this seemed the perfect time since reading on the road finnicks with my equilibrium in very interesting ways.
The film focuses on a group of people based in D.C. called the Darkon Wargaming Club (DWC). The club’s membership is largely comprised of twenty-to-thirty year-old males who are vocationally stay-at-home dads, Hot Topic managers, starbuck’s employees, etc. Every other weekend, these 2,000+ members leave home and spend a few days playing a live action fantasy role-playing game. They wear armor, speak in elven tongues or old english (depending on what sort of creature within the game they’re playing), fight with foam swords, hold secret alliance meetings in the dead of night, and generally don an alternate, fantasy personality for twenty-four weekends out of the year. The disturbing part is that many of these people focus on their lives in Darkon to the neglect of their own lives and families. Some are in their thirties and still live in their parent’s basements or can’t hold down jobs. They instead devote tons of time to refining their costumes or learning the language of their race in the fantasy world.
During interviews where the members of Darkon came out of character to discuss their wargaming fanaticism, they generally all had the same attraction to fantasy role-playing – Darkon allows them to be what they cannot be here in the real world. Nearly all alluded to this, but many came right out and told us that Darkon is a place where they can be important. They can be a king or a knight. They can save people or rule over them. They’re needed in times of battle and people call on them for their skills. Outside of Darkon the only time many of them are called on is when someone wants a latte, or when they need to take the trash out. In essesce, Darkon satisfies them in ways that their home lives can never compete with. Who would honestly rather be the chubby guy behind the counter, or the husband who stays at home to clean while his wife beings home the bacon, than King Elrond, or Gandalf?
Now, everyone may be on the same page right now, sharing the pejorative and condescending tone that pervaded the movie. But I think it may be worth pausing to ask ourselves a question:
Apart from the particulars of swords and elves and magic spells, is the world of Darkon created by the DWC much different, in essence, from the world we have created?
I want to suggest that the difference lies only in the particulars. In many ways, our world is, at its core, just a slightly less obvious fantsy. How different, really, is the morning alarm from the battle horn? Or the hair gel and business suit from warpaint and a suit of armor? Where is the real difference between paper money and copper shillings, fireside treaties and flourescent business meetings, or the round table of Darkon and the one in the board room? To boil down the question, what makes the roles we play (or aspire to play) as business men, or cashiers any “more real” than the roles of lord or squire one finds in Darkon?
The obvious answer is that our world, and our roles are “in touch with reality”, while Darkon is hopelessly “out of touch with reality”. After all, businessmen are real, while elves and knights have been appropriately relegated to the world of fiction, and the DWC has confused fiction and reality. Case closed, right?
I think not. At least, not yet. This answer has something behind it that needs to be fleshed out if we are going to be able to legitimately lambast the inhabitants of Darkon as freaks or weirdos who have “lost touch with the real world”. Lying behind this accusation, we see, is an understanding of reality and it’s fundamental parts. Those who criticize the wargamers in this way base it on the fact that there are some basic, important beliefs about what reality is that are lost and trampled when one steps into Darkon.
But what has been lost? What lies at the core of the man-made world of Darkon that is so off base, and disperate from the man-made world of our own culture? What truths ground our manufactured culture in reality, but leaves Darkon in the dark?