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Fallout 76, Gun Game, and "Bad Sportsmanship"

Posted by rjagilbert on January 8, 2019 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)

When I was a kid, Dungeons and Dragons was the game that I was told to avoid. My family, my friends, and my church all said it was “evil” because a few people who played the game took it too far. Kids were being pressured into committing suicide because their characters died in the game. Some kids were being pressured into murdering homeless people as a way of carrying the game into reality.


This was only one of many examples as to how depravity can work its way into a group and rot all whom it touches. An even better exhibit, however, is the game Monopoly. Initially designed to frustrate players as a means to illustrate an economic point, it was instead embraced by a certain psyche of gamers—those who liked to dominate their fellow players. These days, the rules for Monopoly are meant to allay as much frustration as possible—players who want to quit are allowed to walk away from the table without being forced to keep playing or shamed by the winners. The same cannot be said for the ever-evolving world of Online Gaming.


Within the online gaming community, there are two very different kinds of players. Mainly, there are those who play for the experience of playing—who most enjoy following the game’s story, interacting with team-mates amid the adventure, or just exploring the game’s immersive, online world. But there are also those who play because they need to feel a sense of domination over the other players. These are the players who prefer the competitive mode to gaming—who prefer Player-Verses-Player modes over co-op or adventure modes. This is the population of players from which overwhelmingly come the griefers, trolls, and cyber-bullies. And this is the population that software developers work feverishly (most of the time) to develop ways to keep them from ruining the gaming experience for everyone else.


In 2018, Bethesda Software announced a long-awaited sequel to its Fallout series. As Fallout 76 neared its release date the potential for clashes between the two types of gamers was a very real discussion on the internet. Bethesda software announced an in-game dueling system meant to deter cyber-bullying. Essentially, those who sought to kill other players would find themselves at such a disadvantage that they would be expected to think otherwise about their intentions. A major example cited for their intervention was the chaotic and (literally) criminal gaming experience that Grand Theft Auto Online had come to be known for—many servers had degenerated into murder sprees among the few players still depraved enough to enjoy that kind of gameplay. Bethesda wanted to avoid this, and hoped that their innovative new system would provide a solution. The reaction was exactly opposite what they had expected. But why?


In 2011, Blizzard Software introduced a mod to their Call of Duty franchise called “Gun Game”, the market they were aiming for was obvious: those who wish to assert domination over their fellow gamers—what some call “competitive gaming”. The premise of this mod is that all players start with the least effective weapon, then progress to the next most lethal weapon each time they kill another player. To most undiscerning players, the idea sounds fun. In reality, it plays out like the history of a third-world country. Eventually, the players most skilled at killing are equipped with the most effective weapons, and the remaining players are just target practice. This, to a historian, is what we call Tyranny.


Who do you think that environment appeals to? The bullies, of course. Those who cannot accomplish their own dictatorship in real-life can at least, while the server is running, feel a real sense of control over all those who are foolish enough to remain within that server during their reign. You would think that, under ordinary circumstances, sane people would simply stop playing this kind of game. (I certainly put those kinds of PVP shooters down for a good part of my life—not just because they frustrate me, but because I do not enjoy that kind of violence.)

 

What I’ve discovered, of course, is that the online despots have developed a social mechanism to keep their victims in the game. Obviously, the occasional bully will leave a server when he is no longer on the giving side of the pain, but the servers never empty of victims because of the social pressure implemented against players to “be a good sport”. Being a good sport, of course, means playing multiple rounds against more skilled players who consistently deny you a chance at ever being anything more than target practice. And being a victim this time means you are more likely to log in tomorrow with hopes of achieving domination over another population of victims using the same system of social pressures and weighted rules. Often all it takes is the mocking of one "rage-quitter" to keep the rest of the victims from leaving that server until they can come up with another excuse (bedtime, Mom wants me to take out trash, etc.).

 

My own experience with this kind of online gaming illustrates not only the gaming mechanisms that enable bullying, but the social pressures that sustain it. Invited to an online server for a comic-book-style variation of Gun Game in which my own family and friends were playing, I quickly found myself among the lesser-armed caste, while my more skilled children dominated the map. When I explained how this game was weighted poorly (not to mention the “stickball” rules that granted a period of immunity to the players most skilled at killing others), I was accused of being a “poor sport”. When I said that I did not want to play another round, I was accused of “rage quitting”…by my own children.


I should pause to point out that I’ve made a few of my own games in my day, and arguing about the rules is nothing new to my family. I’ve even made a few games with rules that were intentionally meant to be frustrating as a means to illustrate a point. Yet my family reacted to my criticism of their rules with a downright demonization of my character. I wondered where they learned these reactions, then realized that these are social behaviors passed on to them from their own experiences in other servers, where others who had picked them up had instilled them with that same, warped sense of duty. These reactions had become so ingrained in their gaming experience that it seemed only natural for them to employ them against their own father when he dared to notice the cracks in the game’s seemingly innocent facade. Sadly, the only reason my own children felt the need to “dominate” their father came from them having been dominated by somebody else in another server; ours was only the latest of a vicious abuse cycle that has been circulating on the internet for years.


This breed of tyranny is not contained to the online world. I experienced similar abuse from my own church, and only by walking away was I able to free my family from the fear of being labeled the over-worked volunteer’s equivalent of a “poor sport”. In both gaming and church ministry, the tactic is the same; the tyrant, fearful of losing the targets of his tyranny, uses psychological means to keep them under his thumb. This behavior is then learned—even by those who are dominated—so that it becomes the social norm within that community. Questioning this system or the rules that maintain it is out of the question. In a sense, “rage-quitters” today are the same as those who were once accused of “heresy” during the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, few questioned that the “heretics” might have actually had a reason to challenge the rules by which the Church was playing.


As I mentioned earlier, the reception for Fallout 76’s bully-deterrent mechanism was poorly received. …But by whom? Is it possible that those who complained the loudest were, in fact, those who most wanted to ruin other players’ experience in the game by bullying them? Has anybody noticed that the same “rage-quitters” who did not like being bullied by unfair domination-favoring games were not the ones demanding a “fix” for Fallout 76? Could it be that the loudest voices against a well-balanced system of rules—rules that prevent cyberbullying and unpleasant gaming experiences for others—are the very players who want to engage in those practices? What is more disturbing than these questions is the noticeable lack of comment on the problem from the gaming journalism community. It’s as if most of the gamers who write reviews and articles for these games were…among the disappointed.


This presents a much deeper, more disturbing series of questions. How can something like domination-gaming, that appeals to mankind’s most depraved nature, proliferate so well and for so long in a society without being noticed? And, more importantly…what else might we find, if we only look, within our society that we should not be so proud of proliferating?


From a Biblical perspective, I am reminded of the days when Israel demanded a king. They wanted somebody to lead them in battle, like the other nations around them. Of course, this was not something God wanted. Samuel, speaking for God, warned the people as Moses had, that a king would lead to a whole new kind of depravity within the nation. But they would not listen to his reasons. They continued to insist, and eventually got what they wanted. It was not long before that line of kings began to lead Israel into its own period of civil war and unrest from which it never fully recovered. But the people never stopped to ponder whether they had possibly made a mistake. They had what they wanted—or at least, the people on top did. Few noticed the subtle injustices, the murders, the adulteries. Nobody questioned whether God was pleased with the way things were going. Why not? Those who were on top didn’t care about the people they hurt because “they were winning.” The few who dared to speak for God on the matter were usually put to death; the rest just bucked up and kept playing the game.


Here’s my point: in the end, God only got Israel’s attention by destroying the entire nation.


He had to make them lose before he could make them listen.


And if He has to, God will do this again.


Because depravity is still winning, still warping God’s Will, and those who dare to speak up against it are still being condemned as “poor sports”.

How It Should Have Ended: The Book of Job

Posted by rjagilbert on December 17, 2018 at 8:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I should point out, before I am accused of “re-writing God’s Word”, that Job is one of the most controversial books of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars may argue that it is an ancient piece of literature originating somewhere in the Middle East, but the style of literature is spot-on with the Classical Greek style of written dialogues and tragic plays.


Job is also one sun-pulling chariot away from several other books that have since been removed from Judeo-Christian canon due to being obviously fictional in their description of God and the Heavens. The god of Job is clearly contrived to serve as a “god in the machine”—a common mechanism also found in Classical Greek literature. Despite this obvious mechanism, many readers have used this description to serve as their own vision of what God looks like (and, consequently, what God is limited to in terms of space, time, and presence).


That being said, I have spent a great many years arguing the point of Job to fellow Christians who claim to have read it, but very obviously show their lack of understanding. For that purpose, I have re-written the ending with a more concise description of the truth.


* * *

Up in Heaven, “Jehovah” listened intently to Job’s words of praise. At last, he turned to Satan, who had been sitting beside him, and handed him twenty bucks. “Okay,” he said, “the bet’s off. You win.”


Satan replied, “But Job has not cursed your name. Through all of this, he continues to praise you.”


Old Jove repeated some of the praises Job had said about him “Suspending the Earth over nothing? Marking out the horizon on the face of the waters?” He shook his head. “He is praising the Creator of the Universe, and…that is not me.” Seeing Satan raise an eyebrow, the Zeus wanna-be explained, “To be honest, I’m just another petty demon-god up here on Mt. Olympus putting on a show to try to get people to worship me.”


“A lot of good that did you,” Satan said, pointing to Eliphaz and his three friends. “These guys are now afraid of you. They think you’re just a god who punishes everybody who makes you mad.”


Jehovah hung his shoulders wearily. “I suppose I could go down there and tell them all that I numbered the stars and built the mighty Behemoth from the DNA up, but I’d just be making myself more of a liar.”


Satan shook his head and handed the twenty bucks back to Old Jove. “I’ll be honest, too. This was never about the bet.”


“It wasn’t?” Jehovah exclaimed, showing an unnaturally high level of surprise for his supposedly immortal nature.


“Nope,” Satan confessed. Pointing to Job, he explained, “Didn’t you notice how much influence that guy had over his friends because of his success and good health? They listened to him, considered him a role model, and all of them worshiped and revered You because of Job’s example. Now look at them. They have not only turned on him, but they will never again follow his example or take his word seriously. They are convinced that he is hiding a secret sin, and not even your intervention will change their opinion now that I’ve made sure it has been so deeply rooted in pride. He’s done as a role model.”


Cackling victoriously, Satan casually tossed the bet money at the astonished Jehovah and saw himself down off the mountain. As he passed through the imitation-pearl gates, he could be heard to say, “As long as there are fools down there who think like that, this trick will never get old.”

Winner!

Posted by rjagilbert on September 16, 2018 at 1:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Just a short blurb...


While it may not have been my first award ever, I am proud to announce that I recently won the Oregon Christian Writer's 2018 Cascade Award for best short story. This is the first "award" I have won for my writing (since college). As I recover from recent health issues and return to writing, I hope to win a few more in the years to come.


For more details, see here:

https://oregonchristianwriters.org/2018-cascade-award-winners/

A Tales of Vantoria Teaser

Posted by rjagilbert on May 4, 2017 at 12:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Here is an excerpt from a TOV project I hope to publish in the future:


“Evolution is true.”

The words glared down at her in bold red type from a banner above the entrance to the Pacific Rim University campus library. They made Janie’s blood boil. They always did. Maybe the older students had found ways to control their tempers when they saw stuff like that, but not Janie Palmer. She was the youngest student on campus, a freshman at only the age of seventeen—thanks for the most part to her father’s tutelage. However well he had taught her calculus and Riemannian Geometry, though, he had given her very little of that virtue the college crowd called “tolerance”.

When she saw things that made her angry, she did something about it. In this case, she said it. To the young man seated at the table beneath the banner beside a stack of his books. A line of students had formed to wait patiently while he signed each copy he sold. As Janie waited quietly for her turn, she noted how large his name had been printed on the front cover: Carl Lace. In a smaller font, the book’s title mimicked the banner overhead. “Evolution is True”.


He flashed his shark-white teeth at her as she approached. Combined with the fresh copy of his book that he made ready to sign for her, his demeanor came across as nothing but arrogant. Janie ignored it. She did not need any more fuel for his pyre. Not after what she had been through—what she was still going through—these last few days.


“What do you mean, evolution is true?” She asked with arms folded across her chest. She made no movement to suggest interest in his book.


Carl Lace was ready for this. She was not the first religious fanatic to challenge his claims. His smile faded only long enough for him to say, “If you are not interested in my book, young lady, please move aside.”


“I’m interested,” Janie countered, snatching an unguarded copy from the top of his stack. She flipped it over to read the back. “It says you have a PhD in Anthropology and Astronomy.” She flashed him a calculated smile before adding, “And all that before your twenty-fifth birthday. Impressive.”


The shark-like grin returned to Dr. Lace’s face. “Thank you,” he said, holding up a pen. “Now if you’d like to hand me your copy, whom should I sign it to?”


Janie ignored the prompt. Instead, she asked her question again. “What do you mean, evolution is true?”


“Science has proven it to be true,” Carl Lace retorted impatiently. Several of the students in line behind Janie crowded closer as if to encourage her to leave. To them, the author said, “Scientists are already using evolution to save lives—and to save the planet. It’s real, and it’s true, and it’s here right now!”


A woman’s voice from the crowd said, “Wow!” Then a young, male student asked, “Evolution saves lives?”

Carl Lace stood up to address the interested assembly. “Indeed, Evolution saves lives. Right now, scientists in South America are using Evolution to fight the spread of diseases by introducing new species into the environment to reduce the parasitic populations that kill thousands of people each year.”


Janie shook her head. “How is that Evolution?”


The smile on Dr. Lace’s face barely flinched as he turned towards her. “It’s survival of the fittest, young lady.”


“No,” Janie countered, “It’s interference by man.”


“Of course,” he agreed.


“But the theory of Evolution is based on the idea that life evolved without interference,” Janie let her voice sound puzzled. “And it took millions of years. How long did it take for these scientists to…”


Carl Lace did not let her finish her question. “What is your name, young lady?” He said with less of that shark-white smile now visible.


Janie did not oblige him with an answer. Instead, she continued her argument, “It’s no secret that scientists prefer the theory of Evolution because they don’t like to think there was some larger being—what some call God—who created this world and all life on it.”


“There is no God,” Dr. Lace said coldly. To her right, Janie heard another student shout, “God is dead!” Then another student echoed the cry, and another.


“That is not what I am talking about.” Janie had to raise her voice to be heard above the chanting in the crowd. “Don’t change the subject!” She pointed a finger at the scientist and said, “This is only about God if you want to make it.”


“Then what is this about?” Dr. Lace growled.


Janie took a deep breath, recalling the debate classes her father had encouraged her to take last year at the Community College to flesh out her G.E.D. Then she spoke loud and clear for the audience to hear. As she continued, the chanting died down as the students listened to her explanation. “You said that humans are interfering with the survival of a species in South America. You said that an unwanted species is going extinct, or at least being endangered, because of human interference. But that doesn’t prove that man evolved from monkeys over millions of years. That only proves that a higher form of intelligence—in this case, scientists—are responsible for the survival of one species and the extinction of another.”


The smile was gone from his face as Carl Lace nodded his head. “That is Evolution.”


“No,” Janie shot back, “That is something else. It’s Evolution with a new meaning.”


The audience was silent now, waiting for Carl Lace to counter the impertinent teenager with his superior wisdom.


For once, Dr. Lace did not have an answer. “What?” he asked coldly.


“My dad is a Christian,” Janie began, “But even he believes in what he calls Closet Evolution. He hangs all his nice, clean shirts in the front of the closet, and he always pushes the stuff he doesn’t wear much into the back. After a while, when he wants to make room in the closet for more clothes, he takes whatever is in the back of the closet and gives it away. Those are the clothes that worked their way to the back because he didn’t like them, and so he does not miss them when they are gone.”


A sneer crept onto Dr. Lace’s face. “How is that Evolution?”


“It isn’t,” Janie shrugged. “It’s like the theory of Evolution, and it works on similar principles, but it is different. That is why Daddy calls it by another name.”


“But he called it Evolution,” Dr. Lace snapped.


“He called it Closet Evolution,” she countered. Turning to the audience, she said, “If I just used the word “rose” to describe everything that is a rose, what kind of things would I be talking about?” She counted off on her fingers as she listed them, “There’s the wild rose with only five petals, the English Rose who died in a car accident in Paris before I was born, there’s the compass rose you’d see on a map, the climbing rose, the long-stemmed rose…” Having run out of fingers, she stopped her list and turned back to Dr. Lace. “The difference between a long-stemmed rose and the compass rose is the other words added to describe it. If you really want to avoid confusing people about Evolution, I suggest you add something like ‘Promethean Evolution’ when talking about Evolution by interference from an intelligent being.” She hesitated only a moment before driving her point home, “But I suppose that’s not what you want at all, is it, because it leaves the door wide open for religious nuts like my dad to suggest that maybe there is a God who interferes.”


Suddenly Carl Lace’s face changed. His sneer darkened to a menacing snarl. “Don’t question me, little girl.”


“But your argument is just a bunch of snake oil,” she continued insistently. “It’s the old ‘bait and switch’. There’s nothing true about that. You’re no better than—“


He did not let her finish. Lunging at her from across the table, he grabbed her by the arm. “Shut up! Shut up, you little snot!” With uncontrollable rage he shook her by the arm. Janie felt as though he might tear it from her shoulder at any moment. She struggled to break free, but his grip held fast. He gnashed his teeth in her face. “Shut up, I tell you!”


Then there was a dark shadow at Janie’s side. A tall, menacing presence that seemed to push back the crowd even as it reached for the scientist’s hand on Janie’s arm. She saw a black, leather sleeve and a large, man’s hand grip Dr. Lace’s wrist, and the scientist’s terrible grip released immediately.


“I think you’ve made your point,” Janie’s rescuer said to her calmly. To Carl Lace, he said, “And I think you made yours.” His tone bore an edge of cold animosity as he spoke that last word. Janie looked up to see him standing beside her, dressed in a black, leather jacket to match his dark jeans, stubble-covered chin, and unkempt, black hair. He looked to be the same age as the young scientist he stared down.


Dr. Lace drew back to his side of the table. Regaining his composure, he hissed, “I think you both need to leave.”


“But I didn’t get my book signed,” Janie retorted hotly.


“Don’t push it,” the stranger grunted, taking her gently by the arm and guiding her away from the table.


The crowd seemed to part in front of them as he moved her toward the library’s front doors. Several of the students recoiled visibly in recognition of the stranger that now gripped Janie by the arm. One young woman muttered, “It’s Killer.”


Janie stiffened. What kind of a name was that? Was it his nickname? Was it his reputation?


“I heard he killed his friend,” another voice whispered as they passed.


As they passed through the glass doors, somebody else announced, “They never found the body.”


The silence of the library settled in around them as they stepped away from the murmuring crowd. Then, stepping to one side of the automatic doors, the stranger turned to face her.


“Who are you?” she asked, followed by, “What do you want?”


“I need to talk to your father,” the young man said quietly.


A wave of fear and despair washed over Janie, and she felt the fire leave her. Her knees buckled, and she found herself being held upright by the stranger’s strong grip. For a moment, she felt tears in her eyes. Then that stubborn, Palmer grit returned, and with it the strength to stand. Dryly, she commented, “You and me both.”


“Listen,” the stranger said earnestly, releasing his hands from her arm so that he could dig through his jacket pocket. “It is very important that I talk to your father. It’s about his research.” Janie had a hard time believing that, but she said nothing. “Please give him this,” the man said, pressing a small square of paper into her hand. Then, seeing that she had taken it, he quickly stepped away and disappeared into the crowd.


Janie looked down at the small slip of paper he had placed into her palm. On one side, he had printed a poorly-framed photo of an old, clay tablet covered in strange symbols. Janie tilted it one way, then another, trying to recall if this was something her father had been researching before he…she felt her nerves finally give way as she thought about that last phone call she had taken from her father. She folded the note in half to hide the photo, but discovered instead that the back had been written on.


In large, black letters, the young man who had rescued her from the clutches of Carl Lace had written a single sentence: “Can you read this?”


Underneath the short message, he had written a phone number, followed by a name.

His name, Janie noted, was Lance Kale.

 

Four Men Face God

Posted by rjagilbert on March 24, 2017 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Four men from the same community found themselves standing before God at the end of their lives.


 

God turned to the first and said, “Watch,” as the man’s life was played out like a movie. The men could clearly see God call this man to walk a hard and difficult path, but the man did not ever heed that call. Finally, God stopped the vision and asked, “I called you to follow me. Why didn’t you listen?”


 

The second man stepped forward and asked for his life to be shown. It was clear, from early on, that he had also been called, but unlike the first man, he had followed. The path was difficult, full of obstacles, often discouraging, and very lonely. By the end of his life, this man died feeling like a frustrated failure. Before God could say anything, the man asked, “I called out to you for help. Why didn’t You listen?”


 

God did not answer, but instead turned to the third man. It was clear, as his life was displayed, that he knew the other men and interacted with them in their church and their community. Images of the men praying together, meeting together, and talking together played out. Finally, God stopped the third man’s vision and pointed out the second man, always in the corner of sight, always frustrated or discouraged, always struggling in his walk. God asked the third person, “I called you to help him. Why didn’t you listen?”


 

Before anybody could respond, the fourth man came forward. “Show my life, Lord. I was a success!” Indeed, as his life played out, it was obvious that this man was successful in a great many things: leader of the men’s group, pastor in his church, then church planter and elder. Yet in all the images of this man earning glory and praise for his endeavors, God showed no pleasure. Instead, He told the fourth man, “I didn’t call you to do any of this. You just did it because you wanted to feel important.” Then he pointed into the shadows where the second man could be seen struggling to catch this leader’s eye, struggling to gain approval from the church board, struggling to gain listeners from a men’s group so blindly loyal to their pastor, and then, finally, persecuted and driven from the church by that same leadership.


 

Turning back to the fourth man, God asked, “Why didn’t you just get out of our way?”

 

A Fight That Will Not End

Posted by rjagilbert on February 26, 2017 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

I originally posted this entry in late January, during what I had hoped would be a short-lived period of political unrest. Today, as I try (once again) to re-post this excerpt from my latest Tales of Vantoria book, my local left-wing politician has made front-page news telling his followers that they need to "keep fighting." It's not just scary. It's sad. In my own family, there are relatives who have not talked to each other since before the November 2016 election.

So, in the spirit of trying things again, I would like to re-post this incredibly relevant excerpt in which the main characters, preparing for another dangerous mission into a city torn by civil war, discuss the ways in which words can be used as weapons.

***

A thoughtful expression had come over Wenchel’s face. He set the wand down gently on an end-table and seated himself on the couch. “Haiyamm’s taught me a lot of things. Not just about magic.” He looked up to his friends. “I think the more important things were about how to be a king.”


Luciana reminded him, “You have several friends who wish to help you rule.” She gestured to Renaud and herself.

Wenchel smiled gratefully at her. “Thank you,” he said, “I can use all the help I can get.” Then he leaned forward, hands clasped together as if in prayer, and said, “There’s something else I’ve been thinking about, though. Since we came here. A story Haiyamm told me about my own world.”

“About Magic?” Mary inquired.

“About being a king,” Wenchel clarified.

Renaud coaxed, “Do tell.”

“Haiyamm once told me that there’s no difference between a castle and a dungeon. They’re two words for the same building—from different languages, but used to describe the same structure.”

Mary looked confused. “What do you mean?”

Wenchel began, “The story tells that a kingdom on Earth was once invaded by two armies. First, an army from the north came to burn villages and take the people hostage. From his castle, the king rode forth with only a handful of his best warriors. In five days they marched nearly two-hundred miles across the land, all along the way sending out riders to call for more men to join them. And men did join them; gathered from all corners of the kingdom to defend their fellow countrymen from the northern invaders. By the time they confronted the enemy, they were a great army, a sea of armor. They drove the invaders back, freed the captured cities, and restored peace.”

Renaud asked, “So what about the other invasion?”

Wenchel’s eyes grew sad. “News of the second invasion came while the king was still restoring order in the north of his kingdom. He gathered what forces he could from the weary countryside and marched the long distance—and then some—to confront the second invader on the southern border of his land. Unfortunately, this battle was lost, and he died.”

Luciana sat beside him on the couch. She put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “That doesn’t have to be you.”

Wenchel shook his head. “That’s not the point of the story.”

“What is the point?” Mary asked insistently.

The young king continued, “The new conqueror did not have the support of the people who had so freshly fought with their king to defend their land. To maintain control over the conquered kingdom, he built new castles—fortified structures—in every region he took possession of. In his language, he called them dungeons, and from them he asserted his authority over the people until they dreaded the very word used to describe those buildings.”

Renaud grunted. “I get it. The only difference between the old king’s castle and the new king’s dungeon was how they were used.”

Wenchel nodded. “One is used to build up and protect. The other to oppress and control.” He unclasped his hands and leaned back against the couch cushions. “I suppose the same could be said of anything, really. How we use it determines what it means to those who see it in use.”

“Especially for those who fight with words and ideas,” Renaud said, thoughtfully stroking his chin.

Luciana considered the idea for a moment. Finally she said, “That’s the best description of my mother anybody’s ever come up with.”

* * *

Dungeon of Illusion was published in 2015, a full year before the political unrest that began when Donald Trump announced his run for the white house. Neither of the opposition parties described in that book are based on the real-world political candidates. However, the lies, the deception, and the political antics described in this book all come from historical figures who used those tactics to gain and retain control. Unfortunately, as a wise person once said, those who do not learn from history...are doomed to repeat it.

Joe For President

Posted by rjagilbert on July 30, 2016 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I’m going to be honest. I don’t really care who gets to be the next president. Either way, it’s going to be a disaster—at least as much of a disaster as it was the last election, and maybe even worse. Judging from the summary I put on the back of my latest book, Dungeon of Illusion, it might seem like I have a vested interest in the election—and that I definitely prefer one side to the other. But that’s not why I wrote Dungeon of Illusion.


 

When I began writing the third book of the Tales of Vantoria series, my thoughts were only vaguely on the approaching political year that 2016 was destined to become. It was late 2014 when I started solidifying the plot. Obamacare was fumbling its way through its first couple of years, leaving my family and several others that I knew of to flounder in its wake. My church was falling apart, pastors resigning and the youth group collapsing. At the same time, I was watching several marriages collapse around me. These were the factors that influenced the writing of this story.


 

If you want to find some real motivation behind why I wrote Dungeon of Illusion, there is a point in the story where Wenchel retells a story from Earth’s history. It is an illustration I tried to share with my pastor shortly before our church fell apart. The message I meant for him was this: The only difference between a dungeon and a castle is how it is used. The same goes with a church, a political organization, or any position of leadership meant to serve the people but instead serving only the leadership. The very word “Dungeon” was brought into the English language by leaders who used their castles to oppress and to control.


 

The boy named Jeremy, around whom much of this story revolves, is based on several kids I knew whose parents were going through marital strife and divorce. At the same time, I saw the churches around them unable to help because they were locked in their own political battles—disputes over doctrines and infrastructure flowing over into the congregation and pushing the hurting community away. I saw church leadership who thought becoming “fishers of men” was the art of luring followers into the church and “keeping up appearances”.


 

I finished writing Dungeon of Illusion a full year before the political shenanigans of 2016 had begun. Trump wasn’t even on the radar then. Neither was Bernie. At the time, Hillary Clinton was a sure-shot for the position of Democratic contender; I did not, however, base the character of Lady Katharine on Her. The Lady, as Captain Grolit calls her, is based on more of a compilation of the various personalities I have encountered in politics and religion who are more concerned with “keeping up appearances” than actually serving the people they have pledged to serve.


 

When I first published Dungeon of Illusion in 2015, I had planned to promote it heavily during the political season because its message is one worth reading before going to the polls. I had no idea who was going to be running, and I didn’t think it mattered. However, now that we are entrenched in the current struggle for power, I fear getting “caught in the middle” just like Wenchel and his friends did in the story. My family is already struggling with serious medical issues, and we do not have the strength to fight this battle alone, which, being an indie author, is how we have been fighting all along. Were the church to come alongside me and strengthen my endeavors I might have been able to do more. Instead, all I can expect from the church is just another “dungeon of illusion”.


 

The bigger picture is this: we are wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against the princes and hidden authorities of this dark world. When I began publishing to the global market, I attracted the attention of some of those very powerful princes. My entire family has suffered as a result—caught in the middle just like Jeremy. Maybe I deserved the strange illnesses that I’ve struggled with these last few years. Maybe I deserved to have my car encounter mysterious break-downs over and over again (despite my vigilant attempts to maintain it). Maybe I deserved my roof to spring a leak or my finances to fall apart. My family didn’t deserve it, though. My wife, the health-conscious woman, didn’t deserve to get a random cancer from out of the blue. My daughter, on the verge of womanhood, does not deserve the scars on her body that she will have to live with the rest of her life. My son thinks he was spared, and yet, amid the fighting, he has grown so distrustful of churches that he has not set foot inside a youth group for more than three years.


 

Bearing these wounds, I wrote Dungeon of Illusion, not identifying with any of the established heroes from my previous adventures, but expressing my own feelings through the personhood of one wretched, battered, half-mechanical komodo named Joe. That is the individual I identify with the most. The warrior, beaten and bruised, still trying to fight for what he thinks is right. Still trying to save the innocent in a world where unworthy leadership has left behind a wake of devastation. No, there isn’t anybody in the political scene who matches Joe’s character. Joe is not a politician. He is not a pastor or a priest. Joe is everybody else out there who, despite the rotten state of leadership, is still trying to do what’s best for the people in his life.


 

Maybe, in a perfect world, people would have had the option to vote for Komodo Joe.

 

The Opinions of a Princess

Posted by rjagilbert on July 19, 2015 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

I spent Saturday at a book fair for indie writers. Most of the tables were romance novels; there were a lot of jokes about lingering too long at the tables featuring an array of shirtless men. There was one or two other fantasy authors there—writing to more of the grown-up, teenage crowd—but I was pretty much alone in my genre and my age group.

 

A few hours into the event, two children approached my table. A boy, about four, and a girl, aged five. Wearing a frilly dress and a dazzling, blue butterfly painted upon her face, the young lady began to talk to me about books. She was learning to read, she explained, so that she could one day read a special book she keeps in her room. When asked what it was about, she explained that she liked to think it might be about butterflies and princesses. Wow! What a wonderful opportunity to segue into my illustration of the old Bible found at the beginning of the Sarian’s Sword! But before I could begin, her younger brother opened up with his own line of questions.

 

The boy was more curious of the old-looking roll of parchment sticking out of the leather-backpack display I had set up for the Tales of Vantoria series. Was that a treasure map? No, I explained. It looked like a treasure map, but in reality it was…well…as I unrolled it to reveal an old wall-decoration depicting the ten commandments, I could not help but muse that, yes, some folks did consider that to be a map. Again, I began to explain how some people can mistake an old poster for a treasure map and miss out on the real treasure map right in front of them…but they had already moved on to the next thing on my table. It was the small square of chain-mail I wove a few years back just to see how hard it would be (it was hard). I like to tell people that it is genuine, Mythril chain mail (since some historians believe that Scandinavian legend originated from a Persian word referring to the glimmer of light on steel), but I knew better than to try to explain that line of information to my two young guests.

 

Attached to the chain-mail was a “lucky charm”, an old necklace with a four-leaf-clover encased in glass that I’d found at a craft bazaar several years ago. As I showed it to my visitors, I explained the function of chain-mail armor in battle—how it could stop swords from cutting and arrows from piercing through it. Then I asked: “If you were going into battle against goblins and trolls and all kinds of monsters…which of these two items would you want to protect you?”

 

The princess with the butterfly on her face did not hesitate to answer: “I think I would want the necklace.”

 

And that, dear readers, is a wonderful illustration all its own.

 

What Do You Expect From a Map?

Posted by rjagilbert on July 18, 2015 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

I grew up thinking that the world was full of buried treasure—that just about every town had its own secret shipwreck story or a hidden cache of gold somewhere up in the mountains just beyond the city limits. It was not so much because I’d read too many Hardy Boy mysteries or watched too much Treasure Island and the Goonies, but because, growing up in the mountains of Oregon, there were more local legends of buried treasure, lost mines, and sunken treasure-ships than a kid could ever hope to keep straight. I mean, even Oregon’s own Crater Lake National Park features a famous, real-life search for lost gold within its origins story. Having heard my fair share of local treasure-hunt stories featuring coded maps and cryptic clues, it was only natural to assume that I might encounter something of the sort in real life.

 

That was back in the 1980s, when REM was a popular band and “Stand” was just another one of their hits. Or was it? To a kid who grew up hearing about puzzling markers in the woods and maps that lead to treasure, the lyrics to that odd song sounded like exactly what I heard them to be: clues. I mean, really, couldn’t that line about “If bushes were trees, the trees would be falling” be meant to guide some special treasure hunter to a particular location somewhere in the world where bushes might be falling if they were trees?

 

I’m sure it sounds silly to others that I thought such things, and of course, there never was any treasure found by following that song. It was all my own false assumptions. But the idea—the embarrassing memory of my friends reacting to my absurd theory—still reminds me of how easy it is for people to be led astray by false assumptions about what they expect something to be.

 

…Take the Bible, for example.

 

I recently heard a statistic from a theology professor that 85% of the Bible is about the salvation story. That leaves 15% for all the other stuff people might think can be found between Genesis and Revelation. Really? Eighty-five percent? How is that so? Does everybody out there agree with that statistic? Certainly I don’t.

 

When I read the Bible, the passages that deal with “salvation” seem, at least to me, to be few and far between. Even reading through the Gospels, there is just so much more that Jesus taught than merely answering the age-old question of “What must I do to be saved?” Could it be that the 85% is more a reflection of what those theologians are looking for within the Bible than it is an accurate measurement of the Bible’s contents?

 

Of course, my own findings could be just as much a reflection of my own expectations. You see, I was born into a home with a fear of hell so strong I prayed the sinner’s prayer every morning on the way to school…just in case I didn’t live to say it again at my nightly prayer-time. I went to Sunday School on Sundays and a Christian elementary school five days every week. I knew those Bible stories inside and out…or so I thought. My childhood was not fore-ordained to be one of cloistered body or mind, and by the time I had matured into a young man, a lot of what I had learned from my Christian upbringing just plain didn’t make sense anymore.

 

At this point in my life, I could have done what a lot of people do and just walked away from Christianity. I didn’t have that option, though. I had experienced enough of the spiritual world to know that there was something real, something true, in the teachings of Jesus. But what the mainstream Christian industry was selling me was not it. Not by a long shot.

 

I know a lot of people who let other people tell them what is in the Bible. It makes sense, I suppose, to let the pastors, the best-selling authors, the musicians on the radio and the smart-looking men on television tell us what the Bible says and what it means. But one day, I opened the Bible to read it and something amazing happened: it spoke to me. It told me something that I had never heard before. Something no other theologian had ever told me was in there. This experience was followed up by others—other moments where the scriptures literally “spoke” to me. Suddenly I was in a whole new world. Not the world where I’d show up at church on Sunday and let the Pastor give me “God’s message” for the week. Suddenly God was speaking directly to me. And it was changing my life.

 

How, then, to convey this life-changing phenomenon to others? Here I was, filled with passion and energy and joy, wanting to pass it on to others, but not knowing how? At the same time, I was confronted with mainstream (or at least denominationally mainstream) theological beliefs that I did not agree with. How could I address these disagreements without sounding like just another fanatic who was convinced that his own way was “right” and everybody else was wrong?

 

One day, walking home from work, I stumbled across a solution. The illustration of the Bible and the map began to form in my mind, and thus I discovered the beginning and theme for my first Tales of Vantoria adventure, the Sarian’s Sword.

 

What would you do if you found an old map? More to the point: what would you expect? Where would you expect the map to lead you? What would you expect to find at the end of your search? And what would you do if you discovered, after all the time you spent searching, that the map had all along meant to lead you to something completely, wonderfully different than what you had expected?

 

The Way

Posted by rjagilbert on February 7, 2015 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

One of the most harrowing sections of Interstate 5 is the Siskiyou Summit, a long, winding stretch of highway that rises up into the rugged mountains south of Ashland, Oregon. It is not uncommon for the summit to be covered in cloud, with mist so thick it is hard to see the taillights in front of you or the curving lanes in the road ahead until you are almost on top of them. It was one such ascent, into the thickest cloud I had ever experience, that I drove with white knuckles amongst the usual swarm of motorized humanity. Nearing the top, hemmed in by truck trailers, I came very suddenly upon a small, red Oldsmobile travelling twenty miles an hour slower than the speed limit. I sought for a way around this hazard in front of me, but to no avail. As the looming semi to my right tried to make its way past in its own lane, this little sedan swerved recklessly out of its lane, causing the trucker to veer onto the shoulder and my own blood pressure to skyrocket.

 

Furious, I slammed on my brakes and cursed the driver ahead of me. As traffic swerved around me from behind, I found myself trapped behind what I envisioned to be some old man or a drunk who had no business up there on top of that mountain. Then my wife said, “He’s just lost.” Suddenly, my perspective changed.

 

It did not matter what was wrong with the driver in front of me. What mattered was that we both needed to get safely out of that cloud and down that mountain. And as the last of the pack of passers disappeared into the fog ahead, I realized that there was only one person left to show this lost driver the way: me.

 

Taking advantage of the momentarily clear freeway, I zipped my own little car around the slow-moving sedan. Instead of shaking my fist, honking, or racing ahead like the others, however, I pulled in front and matched my speed to the veering car behind me. Then I began tapping my brakes, hoping he was sober enough to spot my flashing, red brake lights in the thick fog that surrounded us. Having learned to drive in the mountains of Southern Oregon, I knew how to drive in this kind of fog, and it was less difficult for me to keep my headlights trained on the white lane indicator ahead of me than it was to keep track of the balking motorist behind. But somehow, we did it. At some point, the driver realized that I was easier to follow than his own diminished view of the road ahead, and he fell in behind me. Faster traffic sped past us on the left, but we remained in the slower lane, with me travelling only as fast as the car behind could keep up with me. Twenty minutes later, we descended safely out from the cloud. Imagine my surprise when the little red sedan, having regained its senses, suddenly swerved around me and sped away down the highway in the clear, blue daylight.

 

I am reminded of this adventure when I read on the internet so many comments that condemn and belittle those who are “lost”. Folks, there is no merit in speeding past them, shaking your fist at them for slowing your own progress, veering into your lane, or generally making your own journey more harrowing than you’d like. They’re just lost. They need to be guided out of that cloud. They need to have somebody show them where the lane is in front of them so they can keep to it themselves. They need to be shown “the way”.

 

In ancient China, a philosopher wrote a book about “the way”; it remains one of the most popular books in Eastern Philosophy because of its wisdom and guidance. Jesus even referred to “the way” in his teachings, and Christians first called their new belief system “the way” before it was more commonly named “Christianity”. History shows, however, that even Christianity has lost the “way” from time to time. When that happens, the best solution is not to damn to an eternity of hell those who stumble, nor to demand that they conform once again to a legalistic adherence that may be just as far off course as those who are stumbling. The best action is to show the way by living it.

 

There is no escaping the lost. You can’t just swerve around them and speed away to avoid them. I’ve lived amongst the lost all my life, and there have been times when even I have been amongst their numbers. What they need, most of them, is for somebody to keep pace with them while showing them the way to go. That is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples to do.

 

There is no use damning the lost either. Everybody swerves out of the lane from time to time. Everybody drives too fast or too slow sometimes. But there is an ideal. There is a center of each lane, and there is a posted speed for that lane. Most of us, knowing that ideal, are blessed when we strive to adhere to it as best we can. And those who share the road with us are blessed when we give grace to they who might be deviating a little bit into our lane or riding our bumper a little too close. After all, is that not what Jesus taught?

...

However, there are those who are beyond lost; they require a different kind of treatment. They are the ones who, on a clear and sunny day, swerve and veer all over the highway regardless of the painted lanes or the posted speeds. They don’t care what the way is, because they want to do it their own way. They think that, if the majority wants the speed limit to be raised, they can do so without consequences (those old people who can’t drive the new speed need to just get off the road). They might have learned how to turn left in Mexico (from the right lane), or how to drive while texting on their cell phone (which is illegal in most states these days), and even though their driving causes chaos on the road around them, they insist that they have the right to express themselves in that way. Despite what they say, they obviously care nothing for those around them; their idea of social interaction is a blend of pre-school and daycare politics where sharing is taking and relationships are merely positioning themselves to gain the most from their alliances. Those people aren’t looking for the way. These people are not lost. They are dangerous.

 

Why are they dangerous? Because they want to change the way. They want to make others follow their own way. They want to repaint the lanes, re-post the speed limits, and if it makes life difficult for others who are trying to share the highway, they want to force those people off the road. These are the people who, posing as teachers of the “way”, have infiltrated the local highway authority and created a far greater threat to travelers than a dark cloud upon the summit.

 

Jesus described these people as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are the ones who get their books published with the large publishing houses—not because their teachings are sound and strengthening, but because they sound good and will sell well. They are the ones who cling to the “Jesus is love” teaching while all the while draining the life from out of their enemies. They are the ones who insist that they are doing no harm, while all the while creating chaos and confusion all around them. And they are the ones who get listened to. They have the web sites, the television shows, the best-selling books, and the radio ministries.

 

What do I have? My own life.

 

As an independent author, one who follows only what the Spirit shows me through my own personal experience with what I trust is my Creator speaking to me, I do not have the power within me to confront those false prophets. All I can do is show the way to those who are seeking it. I cannot out-shout, out-advertise, or out-preach those whose resources seem limitless because all of the World is behind them. The only thing I can do is hope that somewhere, somebody is listening to the voice of the Spirit within themselves when it points them toward me and instructs them to follow me down the mountain.

 

A friend of mine once stated that, when Jesus said we will know his disciples by their fruit, the fruit he was talking about was more disciples. I must ask, though, if that validates the ways of Islam, since they have managed to gain so many followers in recent decades by means of persecution and fear. Was that not the same way in which the Catholic Church gained so many converts in the middle-ages? And did not those converts, not wholly embracing the teachings of Christ, succeed in corrupting the Church far more than it did in converting them to the “way”? No, I say, that is not a good measurement of one’s fruit. Instead, I look at Abraham. He was promised a nation, yet at the end of his life, he had only one son. What he did have, however, was a personal relationship with God all through his life. God would show up at the door to his tent, and Abraham would invite Him in to tea. And God prospered Abraham’s life, not with wealth or with followers, but with the presence of God. To this day, billions of people want to be a part of his nation. They want to follow his way. They want to be one of his people.

 

As I write this, my phone rings again and again with the calls of children who do not belong to me. It is a Saturday, late in August, and the kids in my neighborhood are bored. They do not want to be home, alone while the parents work or nap. They want to be at my house. Why? Because my house has life in it. Because my house has parents who like to play Minecraft and Pokemon and sometimes slip a little bit of “school” into the conversation. My house is not just the place where they can come to get cookies and pop-sickles, it is the place where a kid can feel safe to talk about the things that are bothering them without threat of a lecture (unless, of course, I’ve had too much caffeine, which is why I’m even writing right now). My wife is the one who the neighbor girl comes to talk about the serious issues that she is afraid to discuss with her own mother. When my son’s friends want to talk about drugs or alcohol, they ask me for my opinion absent the presence of a Sunday school classroom or my role as teacher. And when my family goes on adventures around town, we take those children with us. It’s not just babysitting. We know that we are showing the next generation the “way.”

 

A few years ago, my wife and I began arguing over whose fault it was to forget the camera on our way to a local waterfall. In the stillness between angry words, a young voice came from the back seat: “Are you guys going to get a divorce now?” It was the boy next door, who had seen his own parents split apart by similar fighting. In the years since then, he has come to understand that there is a “way” that can avoid divorce, and that our marriage is following it. The fruit that he sees is not that he has “converted” to our way. It is not the wealth or success that our faith has brought us; he still compares his family’s own wealth to our relatively modest little house and older-style lifestyle (although we do have four computers hooked up to the LAN that we use to play together). What he does see is our happiness. It is our marriage—still intact despite the storms—compared to the broken home from which he would rather not spend his Saturday. It is our children, wise despite their youth and smart enough to help their contemporaries with both homework and personal problems. It is a way of life, a people to which he wants to belong. And yes, it is also the fact that I am flawed, that I sometimes have to ask forgiveness from my wife and back down from my argument—to turn away from the shoulder of the road and seek the center of the lane that will carry all of us safely down the mountain.

 

I don’t have to ask these kids to come over. I don’t have to ask anybody to follow me. They want to follow me. Because they can see that I know the way.

 

Or at least, they can see that I’m trying to follow the way much better than those who keep veering all over the road.


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