"Yeah, but does anyone actually believe this stuff?", or how people engage with serious play

Now that I’ve officially existed within my second year of PhD study for a couple months, I can accurately tell you the most infuriating question to receive for those who study religion and popular culture is “But does anyone actually believe this stuff?”

When studying Slender Man specifically, the question comes up frequently. And while there are some people who claim “actual” belief in Slender Man’s existence, for example the two teenage girls who attacked their friend in Wisconsin, the rest of the community, and I dare to estimate this percentage at 99.9%, firmly know the Slender Man is, in fact, fictional. But does this take away the importance of these stories? Are the stories firmly believed as factually accurate the only ones academics should bother to study?

To understand both why this question is asked, as well as why it annoys me (and I dare to assume many others who study religion and popular culture), we need to shift our attention to play.

Somewhere in Western cultural history, our notion of play become trivialized. I specify Western here for two reasons: (1) Western ideas, beliefs, etc. are more of what I’ve studied and therefore know, and would not wish to pass a generalized judgement on areas of the world I am less knowledgeable of; and (2) Western culture often has a large impact on the academic world for whatever reason that may be. In this Western context, the notion of “play” became tied up with ideas of triviality and childishness, and was therefore disregarded of as lacking any importance. Following suit, many academic endeavours similarly ignored “play” due to its childish nature, and when it did consider games and ideas of play, regarded only those seen as “more serious” – areas such as theatre or sports.

This degradation of play is present in many arenas of the academic world. Johan Huizinga’s 1938 study of play is still often quoted, cited, and followed by those studying play. Huizinga’s concept of play exists in a “magic circle” outside of the context of the rest of the “non-play” world. Play, and the act of play, is thus disconnected from the rest of the world and the cultural contexts which surround. The magic circle works to maintain play as a childish and unimportant act – the play world has little bearing on significant emotions or actions in the non-play life of the player once removed from the magic circle.

Huizinga's "magic circle" more visually notated, taken from http://gamingconceptz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/huizingas-magic-circle.html

Huizinga's "magic circle" more visually notated, taken from http://gamingconceptz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/huizingas-magic-circle.html

The result is that the concept of fiction remains firmly as fiction – there is no ambiguous place for both belief and fiction to exist simultaneously. One either plays, separated in a magic circle from non-play life, or does not play and lives apart from fiction and fantasy.

But play does not actually work this way. Play cannot be removed completely from its non-play contexts, nor can the emotional and psychological shifts which occur in play not continue to affect the player after play is finished. The shift may not be a complete transformation, but play can be simultaneously fictional and real, fun and serious.

When engaging in elements of storytelling online, with our primary example being creepypasta (as this is where the origin of this rant lies), storytellers and storyreaders are almost unanimously aware of the fictional nature of the narratives they’re reading/writing. Few people on the Something Awful forum back in 2009 engaged wholly seriously with the Slender Man narratives. But neither were these narratives completely lacking meaning and relevance to these storytellers. The narratives become a world of serious play, which continued with other creepypasta stories. The subreddit r/nosleep for instance has rules in place which instruct both writers and commenters to remain “in character” – role-playing the “truth” of the narratives. Despite the written engagement with “as if” truth, the writers do not actually believe their own stories, nor do they write with the intention of fooling an audience into believe them to be factually accurate. The purpose is simply to tell stories.

Storytelling is fun. It’s an act of play. A game. But one which is also meaningful. The participants I’ve spoken to so far can engage with violence, loss, and death in a meaningful way, and yet in the act of play. While the stories they tell are not factually accurate, and tell stories of supernatural beings and crazy serial killers, the stories are engagements with belief and meaning.

While writing the story, or, when playing the role of audience member, while reading the story, the participant can engage with belief in strange and fearful supernatural creatures without fully engaging outside of a fictional context. But more importantly they engage with strong emotions, such as depression, loss, anger, and especially fear. Emotions which are often difficult to engage with outside of an act of play, but very real-ly felt despite in the context of play.

“Yeah, but does anyone actually believe this stuff?”

So. The answer is no. No one does believe this stuff. And yes, they do believe this stuff. Unfortunately for us scholars, life is not so easy as to be easily categorized. Their belief exists while in the act of play – participants play with belief in the same way they play with emotions and play with writing. They’ve devised a game which is sophisticated and meaningful.

Serious play – the way that video games are both games and art, D&D is both real and fictional, and creepypasta is both believed and disbelieved. The ability for a human mind to occupy two contrasting ideas simultaneously is something academics, especially academics of religion, should be pursuing. What is most interesting is not when someone “actually believes” in the Slender Man, but when they can change their life in a real sense while engaging in a playful act of mythological storytelling. And the question “but does anyone actually believe this stuff” missing all this nuance and interest entirely.