Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part 2

In Part I, I described an extended analogy using (good) roleplaying games as an example of the compatibilist school of thought on free will. But why does it matter?

Our understanding of free will informs almost every other aspect of our theology. For a human being to be culpable for wrongdoing, he must have free will. This is a basic aspect of our criminal justice system and the same principle holds true for the cosmic importance of sin. Our understanding of the purpose and direction of Creation rests in part on our belief about how and how often God directly intervenes in our lives. Differing views about the cause of events—randomness, directly controlled by God or something in between—influence our understanding of theodicy. More important, perhaps, than all of these, our understanding of free will tells us something about our own place in Creation and about our personal relationships with God.

So why do I feel so strongly about the analogy presented in the previous post on this subject? Like all good analogies, I think roleplaying games show us something about a doctrine of free will that we might otherwise miss. It is not simply that the roleplaying game correlates with a compatibilist doctrine of free will and that makes so much sense to me, it’s what the game shows us about that doctrine.

Here it is: a compatibilist view of free will has a strong component of relationship when there is a being, a personality, behind the deterministic force. The Player and the GM may at times be opposed, but they are always together, negotiating a narrative through mutual agency and response. A good GM, much of the time, need not determine the course of the story—all she has to do is respond to the actions of the Player Characters by determining the logical consequences of those actions—in the physical location (or even the physics of) the game world or in the relationships between Player Characters and Non-Player Characters controlled by the GM.

It’s important to keep and mind that, when responsive determination of cause and effect is the GM’s role, that’s not determinism, at least not directly. We might attribute some determinism to the nature of the rules themselves as they provide the boundaries of possibility, but that’s something we can discuss in a later post. That is an impersonal determinism.

What’s fascinating here are those times when the GM decides that the Players will experience a certain event or encounter a certain character—here, the GM is making a conscious choice (stemming largely from personality) that allows the GM to directly determine his interaction with the Players. It’s a set-up to be sure, but a fundamental one when there are both free agents (the Players and their characters) and an consciousness in control of the game world.

Within a scene, both the Players and the GM (and the mechanics) work to determine what happens. The best GMs sometimes “fudge” the results, occasionally ignoring the dice (or whatever other action-resolution system is in place) and determines himself what happens. The very best GMs are able to keep the players completely oblivious about when this does or does not occur. This is determinism to be sure, but when used sparingly it is a powerful determinism that nevertheless preserves the power of Player’s choices. There must be trust between Player and GM that the other is “playing fair” and preserving free will (and not cheating the rules). Here both free will and determinism play important roles.

With all of this, the roleplaying lays out for us the why of compatibilism being the best school of thought for the Christian. It preserves God’s ultimate sovereignty, maintains the dignity and freewill of man and, most important, builds relationship between the two as they co-create narrative. Ours is a God of relationship—even the trinity points to this. Why would God not, then, write the rules of the universe in such a way that relationship remains the focus?

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