I like Danny, but sometimes Danny doesn’t have the balls to do what Danny needs to. I am afraid to go up to girls, but in here, we’re all more or less equal. We’re all the same type, but we’re all individuals.
— Danny McArthur
“I’ve always felt that I was born out of time,” says Skip Lipman, “that the skills I have don’t go well as far as being successful in this civilization. I feel like I have some great destiny… and I look at all the tasks and all the things that I do as an important piece to the puzzle that puts me where I need to be.” One of the pieces to this puzzle appears on screen as Skip ends his self-introduction: he keeps a full suit of knight’s armor in his basement. Skip is a player in the game “Darkon.”
In Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s documentary, Darkon, Skip is one of many Baltimore-based role players. His story is more or less typical: a stay-at-home dad whose wife works “in the computer industry,” he does laundry and feeds the kids when he’s not planning the next battle in which his character, Bannor of Laconia, will lead the allied rebel forces against the empire of Mordom. His counterpart, Keldar of Mordom (Kenyon Wells), has weathered upstart resistance before. Both sides lay claim to “American” values. Skip finds a sense of “control” in the game, a means to rework his own experience: following an argument with his older brother Max (apparently, he hit Max in front of other employees), Skip had to leave his family’s “wholesale war games distribution business” and now holds a grudge. He’s redefined himself in glowing, nationalistic terms: he and his fellow wannabe heroes believe in “the same things that make America great: we’re explorers, we want to push the boundaries of the frontier and we want to do something new.” Kenyon defines heroism in language borrowed from his real-world office job: “I care a lot about this country,” he says. “I’ve devoted 16, 17 years of my… life to it, and it’s paid huge dividends to me.” His mother adds, “He wasn’t a people person at all,” but Darkon helped him “develop relationships” and “take charge.”
The film points out that, absent the flat swords and shields, role-playing is hardly unusual, and moreover, that our understandings of roles — heroes, victims, “treacherous dark elf mercenaries” — emerge from our cultural backgrounds. As Mike, Halcon of Albion, puts it, “You role-play your entire life. You role-play being, you know, the clerk at McDonalds. You don’t really want to be there, you’re just playing the role because you’re trying to make money.” The roles in Darkon are more rewarding, as borders between in-character and out-of-character experiences can be intriguingly blurred. The film’s battle images recreate the players’ excitement and transportation into another world with handheld camerawork and a soaring period-style soundtrack.
Along with the fantasy, Darkon exposes diverse emotional realities. For Bill, Creed of Mordom, explains the relationship between his two identities. “Bill just wants to be a nice guy, just have a good time,” he says. “Creed wants a little bit more. He wants to be an imperialistic bastard. He wants to hunt down his enemy… He’s revenge, is what he is. He’s revenge upon whatever pisses Bill off.” Andrew, Shapwin of Laconia, finds the game’s appeal less personal, more ideological. Taking a somewhat dimmer view of “American” values than Skip espouses, he says, “Some people just want more. Some people are tired of working their ass off to keep their internet access going, working for material goods.” He sighs. “Everything that was once noble and good is gone and replaced with Wal-Mart and McDonalds and Burger King. That’s how it is in America, you know.” To effect his escape, Andrew practices sword-fighting in his bedroom, the high-angled camera emphasizing the cramped space of his diurnal life, the difference between this rehearsal and the “real” conflict on the field.
Also seeking escape from a life where she feels confined, Beckie Thurmond, single mother and former stripper, finds solace in Darkon. As Nemesis of Caldonia, she says she feels “in control,” even as the film shows her on the field and in bountiful-bosom costume, coaxing her young child, wailing and clinging to her. “Mommy has a job to do,” she smiles, “and I really do need you to give my arm back.” Apparently, the women players play traditional women’s roles, supporting their warrior men rather than leading forces into battle themselves. By the end of the documentary, when Beckie moves into her own home with her kids, she’s looking as pleased with this new world — a bedroom for her son, sunlight streaming through the windows — as she has with any event in Darkon.
The men of Darkon appear more inclined to traverse the boundaries between their worlds. The effects are various: as much as Kenyon credits his imperial leadership for his success making “million-dollar deals” in his office job, Skip begins to redefine his role as a rebel along moral lines. Beyond the battlefields where men wield colorful banners and plastic weapons (transported in minivans), Darkon, he says, is “a very political place.” And in this, it’s actually quite like the “America” understood by its players as either good or bad.
Kenyon asserts, “Over time, playing Keldar helped me become the man I wanted to be, in real life.” Just so, his mien turns imperial and intimidating when he rejects Bannor’s questioning of Mordom’s increasingly vicious expansion tactics. Keldar mocks Bannor’s coming “late to morality,” declaring, “Yes, we are an imperialistic power; yes, we conquer other lands. And we’re fucking honest about it. We admit our motives and our goals.” He leaves Bannor with a warning: resistance will mean trouble. (Along this line, the film includes several references to Mordom as a stand-in for the U.S., including a background television that shows “The Battle for Fallujah”; though Skip ignores it, intent on his preparations for battle, viewers may be reminded of the trouble that comes with resisting a dominant force.)
As tenuous or resonant as such allusions may be, the focus for Skip is consistently personal. The film’s primary narrator, he brings the camera crew along when he meets with his longtime friend James, Eliphas of Laconia, a previously dependable ally to Bannor. When James announces he means to change his role, to break off from Laconia and “go my own way,” Bannor/Skip is distraught. Their sit-down at Denny’s ends badly, as James is unable to alleviate Skip’s earnest dismay: “It’s just a game,” he pleads. But Skip is adamant about what matters to him. As they part ways in the parking lot, he declares, “The little world is as real as the big world.”