I realize that I have written about some fairly obscure films in Pop Theology’s short history. However, I doubt any have been as quirky as the recently-released (on DVD) documentary, Darkon. Directed by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel, Darkon focuses on a group of young to middle-aged adults in Baltimore who participate in a live-action, role-playing game called Darkon. The participants take Dungeons and Dragons gameplay to another level, and in so doing, offer many implications for religious consciousness and experience.
Participants in Darkon join together to form fictional countries, complete with their own myths, politics, and ethics. They have their own crests and colors, and some, like the Dark Elves, even have what appears to be their own language. These “countries” frequently meet at designated locations (parks, football fields, etc.) to battle for land that they have drawn out on a large, fictional map. These “wars” look like glorified pillow fights as men and women, clothed in homemade or purchased piecemeal armor hack at each other with styrofoam weapons. Though they outline detailed guidelines for battle and death, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to their struggles. Moreover, the dead can come back to life in as little as 12 minutes, though the assassinated must wait significantly longer. These warriors even embark on occasional weekend-long campouts at which battles and foreign policy are equally, fiercely waged.
Oh yeah, along with armor, languages, money, and countries, the participants also have jobs and families. Skip Lipman (Bannor) and Kenyon Wells (Keldar) are two of the main participants, and conveniently, fiercest enemies. Skip is married with two children and is a stay-at-home dad. His wife indulges his hobby to a fault. Kenyon, a businessman, is involved in a relationship with another Darkon player. He points to his involvement in Darkon as the source for all of his real-world success. Other participants interviewed, most of them actually, are college students or lower level employees who live with one another or their parents. None are terribly in love with their day jobs or the lives that accompany them and view Darkon less as an inspirational tool and more of an escape.
The significance of Darkon for religious or theological discussion lies in the ways in which the participants speak about this “game.” Here are just a few of their comments:
- “Everyone wants to be a hero.”
- “I care about the country.”
- “Playing the game helped me become who I wanted to be in real life.”
- “When I go to Darkon, I am in control.”
- “Some people want more.”
- “All that is good and noble is gone.”
- “I like masks.”
Darkon players find kindred souls on weekend getaways or mid-week planning sessions. They gather with one another to share a similar interest. They confess, in the film and to one another, feelings of exclusion and inadequacy. In so doing and participating in the game’s rituals, they find community and empowerment. If someone were to enter into this discussion of the film without knowing that Darkon was a game, they might think that I was writing about a community of faith. These are all statements that, when placed in a religious context, would sound perfectly acceptable. Throughout the film, the participants speak about Darkon the way one would hope congregants speak about their church. In this case, the film, and the community that Darkon fosters, should challenge our faith communities to be as open accepting.
On the other hand, like the real world, Darkon is not a perfect place, and real-world frustrations and arguments work their way into this fantasy realm. Participants with dreams of grandeur find them thwarted by teammates who fail to see the value in their leadership. Cliques form at the exclusion of their fellow, self-confessing “nerds.” Corruption emerges as participants make under-handed deals with one another in an attempt to topple the ruling contry. Such nefarious deeds inevitably strain relationships both inside and outside the game.
There is much to laugh at and with in this film. The battles and foreign policy of Darkon mirror the political turmoil of the United States. Not coincidentally, filmmakers Meyer and Neel juxtapose the participants’ discussion of an upcoming Darkon takeover with real newsfootage of the “Fight for Fallujah.” However, there are seriously poignant moments that give one pause in between the laughter. Skip’s failed attempt to take over his father’s business and one single-mother’s unfulfilled dreams of romance and “domestic security” signal the very real needs that participating in Darkon fulfill for them.
Darkon (93 mins.) is available on DVD and is unrated though suitable for all audiences. If you would like to learn more about participating in Darkon, visit them online at http://www.darkon.org. Their list of upcoming events is quite extensive.