Stranger Things and the difference between virtual and physical RPGs

I have been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and thus far I love the show (for a few reasons I won’t get into here – I will only add that I’ve been successfully able to watch it occasionally rather than clothing myself in athletic gear, and watching the whole thing in one night). One thing about the show got me thinking. There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode in which the young boys are playing a Role Playing Game (Dungeons and Dragons, I believe). I played the same game (RPG) for a little while in grade 7. I stopped playing in part because I noticed even then that the game had become an obsession for me (for whatever reason I think I may tend towards obsessing about things that interest me, rather than being able to moderate my participation and enjoyment). Even so, the obsession I had with playing an RPG in grade 7 was moderated by a few things.

As a kid I had to work hard at feeding my obsession with RPGs because of the basic creaturely constraints of space and time. In Stranger Things we see how the mother of one of the characters operates as a moderating influence. She has an eye on the clock. She intervenes. When they physically disperse, the game stops. They go to their homes (or not). They eat. They go to school. They need to plan to play again. The planning itself takes time for preparation. Physical RPGs involve real-world interaction between individuals who are immersed in a narrative by way of a story teller. The games are themselves tactile, with dice and paper at least, along with your own ‘I don’t want to shower today mom’ grime and smell.


There is a vast array of RPGs in New Media and some of them are massive (they are actually called MMORPGs – or for the uninitiated Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games). The online form of these games means the basic creaturely constraints of space and time are negated or absent entirely. Physical community is unnecessary in order for the game to work. Our primal biological and typical way of gathering as a community of human beings for entertainment has been short-circuited by instant access to the internet wherever we are, and at any time. As a teacher at an inner-city high school in London, I could notice how World of Warcraft (for example) was having a detrimental effect on some of my students. The obsession of the game could be indulged almost seamlessly around mealtime, bedtime and home-work (if that happened). My guess is that some of the young people exerted influence on the family dynamics in order to play more, taking supper into their rooms, and spending more and more time closed away from the other members of their family. Admittedly for some of them the game was a relief from certain harsh realities.

I think it is worth thinking about space and time in general as we consider New Media. How can we  engage with New Media in, at least, a benign way if not a positive way? It has been my observation that immersion into such games comes at the expense of looking after your body and letting your mind rest. It has a detrimental impact on all other areas of your life. I think for those people who can play MMORPGs for a little while (say 3 hours once per week) there is much enjoyment to be had. It would be not so different than watching a movie. However, I think that many of these games are intentional about making it difficult to detach and do other things. Without the basic creaturely constraints, our minds are at risk of being altered and artificially stimulated to obsess in a way that does not necessarily involve the other aspects of our lives (physical interaction with other humans, the feeling of warm sunlight on our skin, showering, eating, sleeping…). Something of primal importance for us is being lost, or at least marginalized, namely story-telling and community, not to mention actual physical adventures in the forest on our bikes.

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Christ the Shepherd and Philosopher


“The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me …” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 6.

This sarcophagus is found in the Vatican Museum.

Soloviev: The meaning of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”

“The major character is a representative of the view that any powerful man is a master to himself, and everything is permitted to him. In the name of his personal superiority, in the name of the fact that he is a force, he deems that he has the right to commit murder, and he actually does so. but suddenly a matter that he considered only a violation of a meaningless law and a daring challenge to social prejudice turns out to be for his personal conscience somehow much greater–a sin, a violation of intrinsic moral truth. A violation of the external law receives legitimate retribution outwardly in exile and hard labor; but the inner sin of pride, of self-deification, separating a powerful man from humanity and leading him to murder, can be atoned only be an inward moral act of self-abnegation. Boundless self-assurance must vanish before a faith in that which is greater than self; and self-made justification must become humble before God’s supreme truth, living in those very simple and weak people upon whom the powerful man gaze as upon worthless insects” (Soloviev, The Heart of Reality, Trans V. Wozniuk, p. 10).

Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world”

From the very beginning, Soloviev wanted to complete his theosophy with a universal aesthetics. He prefaced his essay on natural aesthetics with Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “beauty will save the world.” The Critique of Abstract Principles had proclaimed that ‘the realization of pan-unity in its external actuality is absolute beauty’, so it is as little something ‘given’ as is ‘pan-unity’ itself; it is a task assigned to humanity, and human art is a vehicle of its realisation. Soloviev promises to develop, at the end of his work, ‘the common axioms and rules of this great and mysterious art that brings all beings in the form of beauty’. According to another declaration, the sphere of aesthetic realisation should be divided into three areas: the material (technology), the formal (the ‘fine arts’) and the absolute (mysticism). For Soloviev, however, mysticism is not only passive devotion to the divine or direct contact with it; it also is the active art of bringing the divine from Heaven to earth, and, in this sense, ‘theurgy’—it is concerned, that is, with the realisations of the ideal: this is why Soloviev becomes a bitter opponent of classical idealist aesthetics, according to which beauty is allowed to be ‘only’ appearance, not reality, only an illusory reflection, not even a true promise or foretaste. ‘An infinity that existed solely for an instant would be an unbearable contradiction for the spirit; a bliss existing only in the past would be a torture for the will.’ Continue reading

Dante and the Eagle


“At the hour near morning when the swallow begins her plaintive songs, in remembrance, perhaps, of her ancient woes, and when our mind, more a pilgrim from the flesh and less held by thoughts, is in its visions almost prophetic, I seemed to see in a dream an eagle poised in the sky, with feathers of gold, with open wings, and prepared to swoop. And I seemed to be in the place where his own people were left behind by Ganymede when he was caught up to the supreme conclave; and I thought within myself,–perhaps it is used to strike here and disdains, perhaps, to carry off any in its claws from elsewhere. Then it seemed to me that, after wheeling a while, it descended, terrible as lightning, and caught me up as far as the fire; there it seemed that it and I burned together, and the imagined fire so scorched that perforce my sleep was broken.

Even as Achilles started up, turning his awakened eyes about him and not knowing where he was, when his mother carried him off sleeping in her arms from Chiron to Scyros, whence later the Greeks took him away, so I started, as soon as sleep left my eyes and turned pale, like one that is chilled with fear. Beside me was my comfort alone, and the sun was already more than two hours high, and my face was turned to the sea.

‘Have no fear,’ said my Lord ‘take confidence, for it is well with us, do not relax but put out all they strength. Now thou art come to Purgatory'” (Dante, Purgatory, Canto IX, trans. J D Sinclair).

“When the Eagle snatches him up to the fire, he is so scorched that the agony awakes him, and instead of the highest heaven, he finds himself outside the Gate of Purgatory, with the whole long journey and purifying discipline before him. Continue reading

Lessing on Laocoön: the expression of pain at the battle of Troy


“A cry is the natural expression of physical pain. Homer’s wounded warriors not infrequently fall to the ground with a cry. Venus shrieks aloud at a mere scratch [Iliad V. 343], not because she must be made to represent the tender goddess of sensuality, but because suffering nature must have her due. Even iron Mars screams so horribly on feeling the lance of Diomedes that it sounds like the shouting of ten thousand raging warriors and fills both armies with terror [Iliad V. 859].

High as Homer raises his heroes above human nature in other respects, he still has them remain faithful to it in their sensitiveness to pain and injury and in the expression of this feeling by cries, tears, or invectives. In their deeds they are beings of a higher order, in their feelings true men.

I know that we more refined Europeans of a wiser, later age know better how to govern our mouths and our eyes. Courtesy and propriety force us to restrain our cries and tears. The aggressive bravery of the rough, early ages has become in our time a passive courage of endurance. Yet even our ancestors were greater in the latter than the former. But our ancestors were barbarians. To master all pain, to face death’s stroke with unflinching eye, to die laughing under the adder’s bite, to weep neither at the loss of one’s dearest friend nor at one’s own sins: these are the traits of old Nordic heroism. Palnatoko decreed that his Jomsburghers were not to fear anything nor even so much as mention the word “fear.”

Not so the Greek! He felt and feared, and he expressed his pain and grief. He was not ashamed of any human weakness, but it must not prevent him from attaining honor nor from fulfilling his duty. The Greek acted from principles whereas the barbarian acted out of his natural ferocity and callousness. In the Greek, heroism was like the spark hidden in the flint, which sleeps quietly as long as no external force awakens it, and robs it of its clarity or its coldness. In the barbarian, heroism was a bright, consuming, and ever-raging flame which devoured, or at least blackened, every other fine quality in him. When Homer makes the Trojans march to battle with wild cries, while the Greeks go in resolute silence, the commentators rightly observe that the poet thereby intends to depict the former as barbarians and the latter as civilized peoples. I am surprised that they did not notice a similar contrast of character in another passage [Iliad VII. 421]. Here the opposing armies have agreed to a truce and are busy burning their dead, which does not take place without the shedding of hot tears on both sides. But Priam forbids his Trojans to weep. He does this, Madame Dacier says, because he is afraid they may grow too softhearted and take up the battle on the following day with less courage. True! But why, may I ask, should only Priam fear this? Why does Agamemnon not issue the same command to the Greeks? The poet’s meaning goes deeper: he wants to tell us that only the civilized Greek can weep and yet be brave at the same time, while the uncivilized Trojan, to be brave, must first stifle all human feeling. “Weeping does not make me indignant” is the remark that Homer has the sensible son of wise Nestor make on another occasion” [Odyssey IV. 195] (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön, p 8-10).

The “civilized” Greeks were not afraid of showing their pain because their identity was rooted firmly within. The “barbarian” Trojans’ identity was dependant upon the esteem and impressions of others (i.e., their identity was not internal to the same degree, but externally dependant) hence the ferociousness going into battle and the stoicism in burying their dead. Of course the Greeks conquered Troy. Lessing is studying the Laocoön group with a view to exploring the limits of art in expressing pain.

Fra Angelico, “Crucifixion”


“In the chapter-house of S. Marco at Florence, the artist-saint, Fra Angelico, has painted the patrons of the city and the founds of the great religious orders—dedicated servants of the Eternal Charity—adoring the Crucified who is their Pattern, and from whom their mandate comes. There they are: real human beings of every type, transfigured by a single costly loyalty. There is Mark, the self-effacing writer of the earliest Gospel. There is the Magdalen, completely sanctified by penitence and love. There are the holy women, whose service was of the homeliest kind. There are Cosmo and Damian, the good and honest physicians. There too are the devoted scholars, Jerome, and Augustine; and Benedict, the creator of an ordered life of work and prayer. There are Francis, lost in an ecstasy of loving worship, and Thomas Aquinas gazing at the key to that great Mystery of Being to which he had given his vast intellectual powers. All these—mystics, lovers, teachers, scholars, workers—are linked with the Crucified, the Holy and Self-given, whose agents they are and from whom they draw power and love. The whole range of human accomplishment, in these its chosen representatives, is shown to us in direct and glad dependence on the very-flowing Charity of God. That is the very substance of religion. Like an immense impetus of generosity, it powers out from the Heart of Reality; self-given through generous and adoring spirits of every sort and kind, to rescue and transform the world” (Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity p 58).