Dungeons & Dragons and Our Storytelling Nature

Christians have always been concerned about the effects that certain forms of entertainment have on younger generations. Parents may fear that violent video games and movies produce aggressive tendencies in their children, or that books, such as Harry Potter, provide a gateway to the occult.¹ Similar fears contributed to a “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s, in which a board game was believed by many conservative Christians to lead to violence, satanism, and even suicide. And now, forty-five years after its invention, in an age of widespread Internet access and cutting-edge video game technology, this analog game has exploded in popularity, thanks in part to TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things. This game is Dungeons & Dragons.

In years past, D&D had a limited—but passionate—fanbase. Now the game is enjoyed by people of all types, including celebrities. What has caused its surge in popularity? This question was answered in a mini documentary:

Warning: This video contains some language and violence.

According to the video, there are two main reasons why D&D is so popular: community and story. Smartphones, the Internet, and social media should make it easier than ever to connect with others. These are wonderful tools which offer new ways to maintain relationships with people all around the world; however, an over-reliance on technology can become a barrier to meaningful relationships, which causes people to feel lonelier than ever. Humans desire true face-to-face connections, which board games like D&D can provide.

While the necessity of community and relationships may be obvious, the importance of story can be easily overlooked. As many people in the documentary state, the desire to imagine, to create, and to craft stories is fundamental to humans. Beginning at the 17:22 marker, the documentary mentions how there have been scientific discoveries that show why “storytelling is an evolutionary pillar of our species.” There is one key word that should immediately stand out here: evolutionary. According to some, humans are storytellers because we evolved that way. Let’s discuss this idea more.

Evolution and Storytelling
The basis of the concept of evolution is survival—survival of the fittest. In the narrative of evolution, the strong, the fast, and the smart are best suited to survival and are also better able to attract a mate. Thus, they are able to reproduce, having their genes continue into the next generation. It is understandable how traits such as strength or speed would help a creature survive. But what survival benefit would storytelling have?

In an article from The Conversation, the author argues that “storytelling may function as a mechanism to disseminate knowledge by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behaviour and promote cooperation.” In other words, humans tell stories to help build a community and to teach the expectations or rules of how to live in these communities. The author notes that even in Western societies, good storytellers—actors, authors, etc.—have a higher social status, which attracts more friends, as well as potential mates. This reasoning certainly sounds convincing, from an evolutionary perspective. But perhaps there is another explanation for our storytelling nature.

The Grand Storyteller

“I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”² —G.K. Chesterton 

Once a D&D game session is completed, so is the story. When the players leave the table, they resume their everyday lives, putting their adventures on hold until the next meeting. The same is true of watching a movie or telling a tale around a campfire: eventually, the story ends.

But what if—as Chesterton believed—life itself is a story? At some point, we all ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?” This question assumes that life is like a story—it has a meaning and an end. But as Chesterton also says, “if there is a purpose, there is a person.”

Every D&D session must have a dungeon master (DM) who drives the narrative and adjudicates the game session. The players are all part of the storytelling experience, but the ultimate setting and experience is crafted by the DM. Likewise, we all believe that our lives have a purpose and that history is heading somewhere, to some type of end. If there truly is a purpose for our lives, our individual stories, wouldn’t that mean there must be a storyteller behind all of history?

If not, then our storytelling nature is only an evolutionary means to an end, as the video and article above suggest. Our lives hold no ultimate meaning or purpose. We are all the authors of our individual stories, and when our lives end, so do our stories. There is no “Happily ever after,” just “The end.” Human history is not really a story at all—it just is.

The Christian Story
Thankfully, Christianity teaches a different story—a story of hope and life. The world belongs to God and was created by him, and history is his story. We are all a part of God’s story as his image-bearers, stewards over his good creation. We find the meaning and purpose of our stories within the greater story that God is telling in our world. This also drives our desire to create stories of our own. And every good story provides a window into the ultimate good story—God’s story of redemption through his Son, Jesus.

“God gave us the wonderful story of Jesus, and that story dignifies my story, your story, and our stories.”³ —Madeleine L’Engle

The Christian worldview teaches us that this Storyteller made us in his image, which enables us to imagine and create, to craft stories of our own. Even more, though, God invites us to become a part of his story.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at freethinkingministries.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox.