RPG classism, why nobody chooses the priest, and what this tells us about an important socio-political reality.
My love for roleplaying fantasy games (RPGs) began in my early childhood with the legendary computer game King's Quest I: Quest For The Crown. At the time, RPGs like King's Quest were incredibly novel and imaginative fare for a generation of kids like myself who were encountering computers and virtual gaming for this first time. It was sort of like my generation's version of Pong or Asteroids, except this version of Pong and Asteroids had actual characters with interesting stories; challenging tasks and puzzles one encountered within the context of mythical universes that led to epic battles between good and evil. To me, it was like Narnia and Lord of The Rings come to life in virtual reality.
I've watched RPGs develop significantly since those days. Now, the characters, stories, worlds, and challenges have become increasingly complex and immersive to the point that we often hear horror stories about how some person spent days on end in their mom's basement playing games like World of Warcraft without forming connections with and participating in the actual world. Of course, my RPG time has dwindled to zero for a number of reasons, some of which include: my wife and I don't have the funds for a new television let alone the latest game system and games, and even if we did, it probably wouldn't be a good thing if I allowed the latest RPG to chew up the time and energy I could otherwise be spending with my wife and forthcoming child, and, of course, the time I could be spending researching and writing.
Regardless, I was thinking today about something in respect to my experiences with and love for RPGs. Namely, how when RPGs became sophisticated enough to allow game players to choose from an array of character types (i.e. classes in gamerspeak) which typically includes the categories of warriors, rangers, wizards, priests, and thieves with some variations and subclasses, almost nobody, including myself, would choose the priest class. Now, before I get to my explanation of why that is so, I have to take a nerdy offramp here for those who aren't familiar with RPGs in order to make what I'm going say here make more sense.
So let's make this as quick as possible. Character class is not to be confused with character race. Classes pertain to certain skill sets and abilities while races pertain to a character's racial makeup which often lends itself to certain classes. For instance, the dwarven race tends to lend itself to being an excellent warrior class that is, though typically crummy at magic, also curiously resistant to magic; the human race tends to lend itself to being all around solid but not particularly incredible at classes like warriors, wizards, priests, rangers and thieves; the elvish race tends be best in the class of ranger; and so on. This isn't to say that these rules are hard and fast. Some elves—usually "high" elves—can make great wizards while some dwarves—usually crafty and dextrous ones—can make great thieves. But you get the basic point here.
"THIS BECAUSE I REALIZED THAT THE ANSWER TO THESE TWO EMINENTLY NERDY QUESTIONS PRODUCE AN ILLUMINATING INSIGHT INTO STATUS OF THE CHURCH AND INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIAN WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF WESTERN SOCIETY."
Now, let's get back to the primary point. What I want to focus on is why I never once have chosen the priest character class in my extensive history of RPG-ing and why it is that the priest class is typically unpopular in comparison to a formidable and sagelike human wizard, nimble wood elf ranger, or battle hardened warrior dwarf. This because I realized that the answer to these two eminently nerdy questions produce an illuminating insight into status of the church and individual Christian within the context of Western society. Here's what I mean when I present this lofty sounding thesis.
You would think that I of all people—someone who has worked in church ministry as a pastor in and is currently studying theology in an academic context—would chose the priest class when playing such games, but I never have. When given the option I always choose the woodelf ranger type class because I always have liked to think that this type of character is the most constitutive of my personality and abilities if I ever find myself in these RPG worlds (one can dream, right?). But also, the reason why I, and pretty much nobody else, chooses the priest class is because it is always—at the very least typically—placed in a role of passivity in relationship to the other, more active, classes, to the extent that, we could call what I'm looking at a a form of genre classism.
Which is to say, ask anyone who's been a regular RPG-er. The priest tends to be the last pick of any player because the priest's primary function is to sit back, pray for, bless, and heal all the other classes as they are engaged in all the fun questing. In one sense, the other classes do rely on the priest for support during battle, but even then, a battle or questing party can still function without the priest class because the healing potions, magical weapons and armour, and basic character upgrades which are staples in any RPG actually fulfill the priest's functions. Moreover, in most cases, such items and upgrades are preferable because you get all the benefits of a priest without the obligatory piety and moralism. To my knowledge, the only time a priest really shines is a quest is when you find yourself fighting the undead in some sort of crypt or a catacomb, because apparently holiness means a mummy or a vampire melts like wax in the presence of heavenly piety. But such contexts and quests are only passing moments in the larger narrative and goal of the game.
Now, some games compensate for this genre classism by creating priest subclasses like warrior druids, holy paladins, and the ever unimaginative battle priest, but these subclasses are only add-ons to or hybrids of other, more formidable, classes like the warrior or ranger. That is, a warrior druid is just a ranger who has better influence over animals and can make trees and plants attack people; a paladin is just a warrior with a cross on his armour and who can invoke the Lord to kick wholesale ass in the name of God; a battle priest is a priest who doesn't wear armour, hits enemies with his shepherd's staff, and uses a sling. The salient point is that the priest class in and of itself tends to take a back seat to all the other classes. Even the thief class, the scoundrel and outcast of society, tends to be more active and relied upon in that they are relied upon to steal valuable items, gather information, and outwit people in key questing moments!
"ASK ANYONE WHO'S BEEN A REGULAR RPG-ER. THE PRIEST TENDS TO BE THE LAST PICK OF ANY PLAYER BECAUSE THE PRIEST'S PRIMARY FUNCTION IS TO SIT BACK, PRAY FOR, BLESS, AND HEAL ALL THE OTHER CLASSES AS THEY ARE ENGAGED IN ALL THE FUN QUESTING."
So, what does this say about the status of "the priest class" both in and outside the context of RPG universes? To me, this suggests that, much like the priest class in the RPG world, the priest class along with the church in the real world tends to be viewed as the passive characters within the broader socio-political realm. What one hears today is this constant refrain from the social and political sphere: don't worry little priest, don't fret little church, let us do all questing—the social change and the heavy lifting—and we'll call on you when we need a bit of blessing, healing, conscience, and moral support. And then? The priest class and the church accepts the role it has been given. The most they can do is baptize a political movement with phoney prayer and endorsements (cf. the RNC rally of this year).
This isn't to suggest that there needs to be some drastic paradigm shift in which our society need more games in which priests or biblical figures are the main characters who get all the questing responsibilities, but, this is to suggest that even within the realm of imaginative, virtual, gaming, Western society tends to force the priest and the church class into roles of passivity that exist only to enable or legitimize the work of other, more active classes, and that we, the priests and the churches tend to accept that without any question on concern.
This also isn't to suggest that priests and the church ought to fight like everyone else, because I believe that the church, of all social bodies, ought to show the world a way different than violence. But just because the church, its priests, and its members ought not to be violent does not mean that it can't get out of the back seat, use its imagination, and activate proactive change in the world.