Every spring, celebrities across the globe join together to participate in a campaign to raise money to end child poverty. It’s called Red Nose Day, and since it was first launched in 2015, it’s raised over 160 million dollars to fund grants and charities working to help children in need around the world. There are concerts, shows, social media blitzs, online drives… you name it, celebrities are doing it. And that’s a good thing. But this year, there was one other thing that happened sort of off in a corner, not as loud or flashy, but just as important. In a studio in New York, two super-geek icons played a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
One of the men sitting at the table was the ever-amazing Stephen Colbert: comedian, political commentator, host of The Colbert Report, and all around super nerd. Colbert’s show may be about politics and poking the wasp’s nest that is Washington DC, but to the geek community he is also one of the foremost experts on The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, and an amazing example of unabashed nerdiness. The other man at the table was Matthew Mercer, the incredibly talented voice actor behind a ton of well-loved characters and the GM (Game Master) behind the wildly popular Dungeons and Dragons live-streamed show Critical Role. Both are known for being men of conviction and for their contributions to the geek community. Both love Dungeons and Dragons. And both were practically giddy at the opportunity to play D&D to support children in need.
It’s not surprising to see celebrities using their platform to raise money. While not necessarily something they all do or do with good motives, it is relatively common and, in most cases, a really good thing. What was noteworthy here was the means by which these two men were doing it: Dungeons and Dragons. And it’s not just noteworthy because a game that was once considered the pinnacle of nerdom is now being played by celebrities far and wide—no, what stands out the most to me is that a community that largely claims to be inclusive and kind was living that out. Dungeons and Dragons is a game deeply rooted in empathy; seeing it used to urge compassion should inspire us all.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game deeply rooted in empathy; seeing it used to urge compassion should inspire us all.
Perhaps to elaborate on that, however, I should take a moment to give a little background. Dungeons and Dragons, as you may already know, is a pen and paper role playing game set in a fantasy world (think Lord of the Rings—elves, orcs, wizards, and warriors). It was created in the mid-1970s by friends Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as a variant of the wargames the two enjoyed so much. The game was super nerdy, not at all mainstream, and came under direct attack in the 1980s when people in the evangelical world accused it of promoting Satan worship (those claims were later proven false). For a lot of people today, that is where their understanding of the game ends; and that’s understandable. But if that’s all you know, you’re missing all the exciting bits!
You see, despite the Satan panic of the 80s and despite its overall geekiness, D&D continued to grow, going through multiple iterations and editions (we’re on the 5th right now). The rules evolved and the availability expanded and slowly but surely the game began picking up speed. Shows like Stranger Things and Community have brought it into the mainstream spotlight, the nostalgia of a generation who played as kids and now has the time to start it up again, even the current social trend towards board games over movie nights have all fueled the rapid growth of the game. The emergence of online streaming games, like Critical Role, have pushed that growth over the edge turning it from a game only a few at a time can enjoy, to a spectator event loved by millions. In fact, at the time this article was published, the Players Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons is in the top 100 selling books on Amazon and has been there for a long time (at one point it even made the coveted #1 spot). This is important because we need to see D&D not as a nerdy hobby played by a few random people, but as a massively popular tabletop game that is, quite literally, transforming the way games are made and marketed.
But the other important thing we need to understand about Dungeons and Dragons, especially when it comes to the topic of empathy and compassion, is that D&D is not, strictly speaking, a game at all. Instead, it is a set of rules that allow players to create their own game. The Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide or any of the other guidebooks available are simply collections of information and suggested guidelines to help you craft your own adventure and tell your own story. The idea of corporate storytelling is foundational to what D&D is; it’s a method by which a group of people can come together (online or face to face) and use an agreed upon structure to work together to tell a story. You don’t need a game board or a spinner, you don’t have to have game pieces or tokens, you simply need your imagination and a set of dice.
Every time players gather, the Game Master (GM, or DM for Dungeon Master) acts as the narrator, guiding the story along and controlling all the extraneous characters the players meet along the way. Every other person at the table controls one character; a character that has unique talents, abilities, and skills that allow them to interact with the imaginary world in which they exist. The GM presents a situation and the players must work together to solve the problem, rescue the townspeople, find the treasure… whatever it is, they use their characters to carry out the adventure. This is extremely important to understand because it means that the players’ job is to continually ask themselves, “What would my character do in this situation?” Based on their skills, based on what they’ve been through so far in the adventure, based on the personality traits chosen at the beginning of the game, how would this character respond? And that right there, I am entirely convinced, is the beginning of empathy.
Empathy as I’m using it here and as defined by Webster’s is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.” To put it another way, empathy is choosing to understand on an emotional level what another person is going through. It’s asking yourself “what are they feeling?” and, possibly more importantly, “have I ever felt like that too?” It is not a mingling of emotions or a losing of oneself in the feelings of others. It’s not a rejection of your own feelings and reactions. It’s not even condoning or approving of the other person’s actions. It’s simply trying to understand and be aware of what another person is going through by asking yourself if you have ever been through anything like it. We can “vicariously experience the emotions of other” not because we have given up our own emotions, but because we are emotional beings ourselves. Empathy says, “I may not have gone through this exact situation, but I have felt angry/sad/hurt/lonely/etc. in the past, so I can understand a little bit of what you are going through now.”
And it’s these questions of experience and emotion that move the story along in D&D and form the basis for character action. They are foundational because without asking yourself what your character is feeling right now, you can’t really decide how they will respond. D&D not only relies on empathy, but it has also been shown to significantly improve and increase levels of empathy in those who play. Now, to be clear, you don’t have to play D&D this way. If you want to have an adventure where you simply play characters looking for loot with no backstory and no characterization, go for it! That’s absolutely a fine way to play the game because again, D&D is whatever you want to make it. But for those of us who love the storytelling aspects, empathy is paramount.
Empathy, I believe, is extremely important and necessary for our world today. It is rehumanizing in a society that increasingly views people as commodities, avatars, and screennames. Empathy allows us to see people as living, breathing human beings who have stories and experiences in the past that are influencing reactions and decisions in the present. We need empathy. For the Christian, however, empathy is not only a good thing, it’s a necessary thing because it allows you to see all people as image-bearers of God.
Empathy is something that the geek community does rather well. Perhaps it’s because for so long being a geek was synonymous to being an outcast, or maybe it is because games like D&D promote it so much. Whatever the reason, it seems like the geek community tends to be highly empathetic.1 So seeing Matt Mercer and Stephen Colbert play D&D was not entirely surprising; seeing them do it to raise money for charity, however, was really inspiring. You see, empathy stops with feelings. It comes to an understanding and sees people well, but that it where it ends. It’s compassion, on the other hand, that turns empathy into action. Compassion refers to having an understanding of someone else’s pain (rooted in empathy) and then choosing to act in such a way as to lessen that pain or help the situation in some way. If empathy is the feeling, compassion is the action. It was compassion that prompted them to raise money, to help, and it is that move from heart to hands that should encourage us all.
For many of us, if we even make it to empathy, that’s where it stops. And yet it is compassion that fuels change, and I think we can all agree that change is needed. I love empathy; I talk about it a lot, I teach it to my children (sometimes even through D&D), and I believe we absolutely need more of it in our world today. Way more. But I also wholeheartedly believe that it cannot end there. Our empathy must move us to compassion.
Yet, it’s so easy to get consumed with our own lives and problems and fail to see how we can make a difference in the lives of others. What was inspiring about the charity D&D game was not just that two geek icons were nerding out together, but that two leaders of a community that emphasizes empathy were demonstrating how to live that out. Their actions should encourage all of us, but for those of us in the church, those of us who claim to be Christians, it should even more so. And it should humble us too.
As followers of Christ, we have been called not just to be hearers of the Word, not just people who know things about it, but to be doers of it too. We were told to be bringers of hope and justice, to care for the hurting and the wounded and the lonely. We were instructed to provide for those who can’t and love our neighbors as ourselves (and everyone is our neighbor). And while every single one of those, and all the other commands to love people well in the Bible, can be done with root obedience, it’s empathy that allows us to really love like Christ. It’s empathy that allows us to see past the circumstances and all the ways in which other people are simply other than us and see them as God sees them. Empathy urges us to feel with them, to sit with them, and then, if we’re doing it well, that empathy moves us to compassion. And it is this sort of action spurred on by love that we are called to. Action is good. Action fueled by love is better.
That charity game of D&D was inspiring not just because they were trying to raise money for a good cause, but because they were doing something that so many of us struggle to do: to move from empathy to compassion. I love that D&D promotes empathy to the degree that it does. I love that the geek community is so good at seeing people for who they are and loving them anyways. I love that Mercer and Colbert demonstrated for us what it looks like to do what you love as a means of loving people too. And I love that their actions in that one little game in that one little studio encourage us to do the same.
1. It is most certainly true that there are cruel, hurtful, mean people in the geek community; that’s true of all communities including the church as well. But overall, my experience has been that geeks are some of the kindest, most caring, and most loving people around.