What I Learned from the Lady in White.

What I Learned from the Lady in White. January 9, 2015

First a bit of housekeeping: I’m moving the publishing schedule to Tuesdays/Thursdays/Saturdays, so I can focus a little more on the book I’m working on and keep my week looking sane. Also, my internet super-hates me today so this needs to be a short post. <3 you all — Cas

I think sometimes we just get primed to expect certain explanations for certain things, and those are the things we want even if we know it’s not really appropriate. Let me explain:

A long time ago when I was administering a roleplaying MUD* online, I began to notice that the staffers responsible for creating and running plots and storylines for players kept defaulting to very supernatural themes. The universe the game was set in was not actually one that supported ghosts or spirits or hauntings, but after a while it seemed like every single plot involved those elements.

A MUD login screen from Genesis, an early game. "Genesis LPMud Login" by Source. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Genesis LPMud">Fair use via Wikipedia.
A MUD login screen from Genesis, an early game. “Genesis LPMud Login” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

One plot in particular seemed egregiously misplaced for the game’s theme: a Lady in White was haunting a particular part of town and players were supposed to figure out what the problem was, fix it, and send her on to her eternal reward.

The players liked the plot and I wasn’t a world expert at the time in that game’s canon** anyway so I didn’t object, but I began noticing that similar plots had popped up not only on that game but on others–and often using that exact phrase about a “Lady in White,” describing a ghostly woman in a white dress who wasn’t malevolent at all and seemed more sad than scary. Over the years I would hear many legends and ghost stories that people thought had happened in reality, all centering around spirits of dead young women wearing white clothes who mourned, or who wandered, or who wailed, or who whispered, and who’d lost their lives in some tragic manner and needed help or at least understanding and sympathy in order to move on. There’s probably some deep metaphysical or psychological reason why there are so many of these stories around the world and why they tend to seem so similar to each other.

Over time similar plots came up, leading to my pointing out a year later that of the ten or so current top-level plots in that game, something like nine of them involved something supernatural going on. And remember, this was happening in a game with a sizable playerbase that was generally obsessively knowledgeable about the gameworld’s canon and presumably aware that the source material for the game did not actually feature hauntings and ghosts and stuff.

These staffers were way more knowledgeable about this gameworld than I was, and they were all fairly experienced people. So why did they default to ghosts like that?

In the same way, on that same game, it didn’t take long for them to default to having a “Thieves’ Guild,” even though the game centered around a city that was well-established in canon as incredibly lawful and goody-two-shoes and filled with brave, goody-two-shoes people. Thieves’ Guilds are like the Godwin’s Law of roleplaying games; as time progresses, the chance that a roleplaying game of any kind will feature one approaches 100%. The law holds true no matter what the canon of the game is. They might call it something a bit different, but the idea always rides that in any city whatsoever there is going to be a charmingly chaotic but surprisingly well-organized and principled group of petty thieves who answer to a single leader or small body of leaders.

People just expect certain things, is all. Roleplayers in that community expected to see Thieves’ Guilds, and they didn’t mind at all supernatural plotlines. Most games feature both of them, after all. People continue to do what they’re used to doing. They don’t actually like changing or doing anything differently. I strongly suspect this is a universal trait to a big extent, but in gaming it seemed not only endemic but also extreme–as in one MUD I helped with briefly some years ago that wanted to be a very historical game based in 10th-century Ireland. At the heartfelt request of the game’s owner, who came to me because I had a reputation at the time for being good at this kind of thing, I wrote them up a lot of documentation for dress, food, customs, and other topics, then checked in on them a few months later and discovered they’d decided that “real-world 10th-century Ireland” looked a lot like the Texas Renaissance Festival except with real live fairies and ghosts. Apparently it’d taken their builders about three days to decide that 10th-century real-world Ireland was nowhere near as awesome as roasted turkey legs, ghosts, and wenches in tightly-laced bodices and leine blouses.

I was disappointed, yes, but after making a mild suggestion that nothing in that game looked a thing like 10th-century anywhere much less Ireland (and I didn’t remember anything about fairies and ghosts really existing anywhere either) and receiving back only the indignant denials and rationalizations of their builders, I just shrugged it off. Not my game; not my job; not my circus; not my monkeys. I think it would have been a simply astounding game and I’m sorry it never took off. I’d have loved playing in a realistic version of 10th-century Ireland. At least I’ll always have that documentation–somewhere anyway.

The people on that game just preferred Renfest-style environments, is all, and the people playing there probably did too to some extent. That it wasn’t actually the environment they said they wanted was totally beside the point. Left to their own devices, they gradually defaulted back to what they really wanted to do in the first place.

And that’s just how people are.

It doesn’t take long to notice the same thing going on in religion. How many sermons do Christians need to hear about charity and loving their neighbor? I mean, how many books do they need about the importance of prayer and humility? How many thunderous denunciations of unapproved sex do preachers need to make before people stop having it? And yet the religion as a whole is marked more by the utter failure of its adherents to live up to a single one of the religion’s tenets than by their success at doing so. They’ve had 2000 years to demonstrate a single thing that their religion uniquely and solely teaches that mankind has found useful in the long run, but even more than that, every Christian alive knows the basic concepts of what should be done to be a decent Christian–and every Christian, knowing what the penalties allegedly are, fails to fulfill those demands on a consistent basis.

Faced with a commandment to love their neighbors, Christians do what those gamers did and either warp the command or ignore it so they can do what they wanted to do anyway in the first place. Told to honor the Ten Commandments, the Christians who can even recite more than a couple of them in the first place retreat behind “oh well that’s just my sin nature” when confronted with the reality that they can’t manage even that simple show of obedience to their religion’s most basic demands.

In the same way, Christians’ sex lives–pre-, during, and post-marriage–look pretty much like the sex lives of non-Christians, once you get past those awkward “purity pledge” years at least. They do the same stuff the rest of us do in private. But they feel guiltier about it, and they condemn what they do–but they still keep doing it anyway. It ain’t hard to think of a reason why that has nothing to do with gods.

Christians commit acts of violence just like anybody else. They divorce like anybody else. They default to the same dysfunctional behaviors as anybody else. And they might even be worse at all of these. Even though their gameworld has hideous, eternal punishments for doing it, they can’t help themselves. It’s what they really want to do anyway, and like everybody else, they’ll find a way to justify and rationalize doing it.

Just like those gamers did, I truly suspect that many hypocritical Christians know that ultimately the religion is just a game anyway with no more real-world repercussions for disobedience than having a ghost story in a gameworld that doesn’t actually support ghosts. The worst thing we dealt with was a slight weakening of our canonical gameworld; Christians, though, face a dilution of their entire religion as more and more people turn out to be hypocrites, and in their own worldview of course they face eternal, obscene punishment for not complying with their canon.

I learned from the whole White Lady incident that if someone doesn’t take their canon seriously, then they’ll just go on and do what they really want to do anyway even if the canon says it’s not okay–and that this deviance from canon indicates a certain lack of commitment to it. When this deviance comes with demands that we overlook its holders’ lack of adherence and demands for our own compliance with it, then folks, that really should draw our attention. I was able to work through my understanding of basic hypocrisy in a safe environment and in a safe space, at a remove from my indoctrination, by focusing on gaming instead of on religion or on my own morality. I was able to see what this lack of adherence did for the coherence of the game’s worldview–destroyed it and made it impossible for us to really enforce lack of canon among players, who rightly objected that we sure weren’t worried about it ourselves. I was able to learn to judge whether a departure from canon was all right or even a good idea, and when it was a terrible idea that we shouldn’t tolerate. I’m not sure that I’d have learned those lessons as well if I hadn’t been able to work them out in that environment.

Christians should fear roleplaying games, but not for the reason they think they should.

Next time we’re returning to the Handbook with our friend Thought2Much’s fay-vor-right logical fallacy–see you Saturday!

——————

* MUD: Multi-user dungeon. Like World of Warcraft, except all in text. Think in terms of Zork except as a multiplayer game happening in real time. I spent many, many years playing and staffing these games. Some were kind of silly, and others were very serious. Really depends on the game.

** Canon: a fanfic and gaming term that means very roughly “the body of established, official written or performed works about something created by its original owner(s) and creator(s) that determine what its worldview is and how reality works in that worldview.” For example, all the Lord of the Rings books form a canon for Tolkien-based roleplaying games. The Doctor Who television shows are a big chunk of the canon for those who want to write Doctor Who fanfic. Star Wars has both a huge body of written novels and a decent number of movies to guide those who want to play in that universe. There’s another term you’ll see, fanon, which means fan-created written or performed works that have become so popular that they’re largely accepted as canonical even though they’re not made by the canon’s original creators.

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