Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Fighting for Life

Role-playing heroism

Posted Dec 04, 2016

Suppose you wanted to improve your life, or at least feel better about it. A popular belief in Shakespeare’s day held that fairies swapped infants in the cradle. Maybe you’re really the king’s kid, not a beggar sleeping in filthy straw.

Strikingly, the fantasy doesn’t imagine some incremental improvements you could make in your life. It dreams of the grand prize, going from the bottom to the top. And the fairies do all the heavy lifting while you suck your thumb. Nowadays ads polarize thought this way. Buy, and life will be all smiles.

The baby-swapping fantasy was the checkout-line magazine of its day. Whether or not you “really” take it seriously, it distracts you from the annoying queue and your toothache. It “takes your mind off” problems. It’s the magic of TV, video games, social media, and conspiracy theories. It allows you to play. In fact it lures you into play.

This is what makes the documentary Darkon (2006) poignant. Some of the film’s likeable young suburbanites are parents, some recent high school grads shlumpfing at Starbucks. They belong to a “wargaming club” that role-plays fantasies set in the land of Darkon. On weekends they leave their families and workaday jobs to dress up in homemade armor and princess duds to improvise a chivalric epic.

The plots are a pop mishmash of Arthurian, Norse, Greek, and Hobbit scraps. Basically there are two teams: the “empire” and a rebel group that feels dissed and betrayed. Much of the action is scheming and cajoling to bring others onto your side. While there’s occasional mumbo-jumbo about pagan gods or black magic, the team-building climaxes in speeches of glorious hogwash and “combats” on a suburban soccer field. Weapons are padded swords, cudgels, and arrows parried by plywood-and-duct tape shields. As in touch football, warriors kill and play dead at a touch. One battle featured a painted cardboard castle attacked by the rebels and satisfyingly torched after the adrenalin wore off. Women join in, but war is mostly a boys’ thing.

“Keldar” and other warriors admit they’ve invented their characters to work out real world hangups. In workaday life they feel like serfs. The film opens with a shot of identical suburban roofs that fill the horizon. If you feel you’re just another stain on the sidewalk of life, cookie-cutter comfort won’t cut it. “Everybody wants to be a hero,” says the promo. After his failed rebellion against Lord Bannor of the empire, Keldar confesses that “I really do want to be a superhero sometime.” Keldar feels he deserves better, but he's not thinking about improvements. He wants to kill off Lord Bannor and take his throne. The lowly rebel wants to be lord. 

This is what’s so eerie: Darkon reflects today’s America in a funhouse mirror. For example, the contest of teams resembles the typical “hard fought” election story in which a rebel outsider challenges "the establishment." Yet it’s deeper than that. The Darkon warriors think they’re “pushing the boundaries of frontiers” and building an empire. The problem is, this “empire” is only a thin idea, as unreal as the American empire in news clips from Iraq. It expands like a pot belly from empty calories. It has no families, kids, sex, no discoveries. Without irony, trying for a touch of historical reality, the players refer to the empire’s “co-prosperity sphere,” Japan’s imperialist slogan during its WW2 rampage in Asia.

The puzzle is that Darkon is so much like the reality it rebels against. Even stranger, the game demands you keep believing in the wispy fantasy of the expanding empire or the whole organization falls apart.

It's not easy to believe if you're hoping for a fairy swap. Some role-players praised Darkon as an escape because “Everything is gone in America.” But in 2006 Keldar vowed that the ambitions “that made America great” were energizing Darkon, whereas today his phrase is a politician’s slogan that nobody really believes. In the real empire, dressed up as a warrior, President Bush had himself ferried onto an aircraft carrier with banners touting “Mission Accomplished” like a scene from Darkon. And amid the high-flown speeches his Iraq invasion was already mushrooming into the global terrorist nightmare of today. 

It’s easy to scoff. The all-or-nothing gloom of Darkon and video games makes life a black and white melodrama of nobles and rebels that fairy imagination can swap around. But that's the model the real empire teaches when it kills unreal enemies. The real empire is paranoid about refugees, and in Darkon refugees aren't even a fantasy. No wonder Americans are confused about heroism. The industrial military that wrecked and fled from Vietnam is back. Today's “volunteer” warriors are escaping poverty and equipped for techno warfare, trying to expand empire with minimal casualties—not unlike warriors in Darkon. Heroism is confused with name-recognition and branding. It’s a business.

So why do the Darkon warriors fight? Nobody in the film quite says it, but in their frighteningly ordinary lives they seem to feel a sense of futility and dead end. It may be that American culture has goosed up their expectations to unrealistic levels while everyday life becomes more factory-like in its managerial monotony. If so, it’s likely that the wannabe warriors are fighting to conquer a fear of social death. In fantasy they can exercise some muscle and choice that makes them feel more alive. More real.

This infantilized play-fighting may be embarrassing, but it’s not new. Luckily it’s only play so far. When the military stages war games, it’s usually practice for something. Think of the photos of excited faces swarming out of their deadly routine jobs in August 1914 as if the fairies were about to swap them into glory.

I’m wondering how the Darkon warriors have grown in the decade since the film captured them. These days the nation is undergoing a sort of nervous breakdown, with race hatred, kleptocracy, and fake news in the vanity mirror of social media. A TV celebrity billionaire fakes a populist rebellion that encourages militia groups who shoot up the woods on the weekend, hate “them,” and in sly media interviews hint at revolution.

Globally, militias and hobbity Darkon seem to be an expression of the Brexit theme: the old dream of returning to tribal purity and wholesome family, where threats are clearly outsiders and problems can be handled personally with an axe. The dream of perfect independence restores the belief that you can be somebody and have an impact on the world. I’m thinking of the real and tacit wars over independence from Chinese Turkestan to the Middle East, and the wild stories whirling in Ukraine that Chad Gracia records in The Russian Woodpecker (2015).

Battles and stories about battle are efforts to hammer meaning into the world. It’s like hurling GPS satellites into the heavens to orient creatures whose capacity for childlike play keeps them trying to conquer the woods they’re lost in.

References

Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (2004)

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)

Chad Gracia, dir. The Russian Woodpecker (2015):http://www.russianwoodpecker.com/

Andrew Neel, and Luke Meyer, dirs., Darkon (2006):

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/darkon/id1116545122

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/88390

Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Darkon-Skip-Lipman/dp/B01GIPYWJU/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1480004449&sr=1-1&keywords=darkon