We first met Daniel Jun Kim (aka “Pop Mythologist”) when we shared a stage with him at the taping of the pilot episode of Uncanny TV. The hosts of the show talked to Daniel about the way he combines geek culture with charity and activism. That is where we learned that he is a REAL-LIFE D&D CLERIC (among other things) who goes to public events handing out free snacks and supplies, and it was so interesting to hear him talk about what he does and why he does it.
After the taping, we got to talking about highlighting creators in SF/F working in a variety of art forms and projects, focusing on people building and nurturing their communities, particularly highlighting marginalized creators. Around this time he was raising money to send 35 at-risk children who were awaiting adoption at Children’s Home & Aid to go see an early screening of Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In addition to all of his amazing work, he is a writer with a blog called PopMythology where, in his “Hero Wisdom” column, he discusses how to use geek culture for introspection and self-growth. Daniel also creates content for an app called SuperBetter, an app that turns health and self-care into a game. And, recently, he was the co-author of a chapter in the Black Panther Psychology book edited by Dr. Travis Langley.
With his impressive accomplishments in addition to being a huge geek, we were grateful to interview him for Sugar Gamers. And not only did we interview him, but we even ended up working together at Lollapalooza 2019 to represent Sugar Gamers at the Red Bull Outpost where he once again answered the call to serve as the Real-Life Cleric. So without further ado, here’s our interview!
SG: Your kindness and generosity are unreal! How long have you been a real-life superhero?
Not all that long, actually. I’ve always been a thoughtful and considerate person, but the kind of “unreal” kindness and generosity you’re talking about is something that happened, and was made possible, as a result of a deep personal transformation that in itself happened due to an acute crisis period—two periods of crisis, actually. One occurred about eight years ago and lasted several years. The other occurred about three years ago. So I would say that I’ve consciously identified myself as a real-life superhero, and have made sincere efforts to live out this identity, for about eight years now.
SG: Would you be comfortable sharing any details about those crisis periods?
Yeah, I would. I just don’t start going into details unless it people are actually interested. The first crisis was a debilitating medical condition that lasted for years. Like it or not, we are physical beings and everything we do is done through our bodies. If the body is unwell, everything in your life will be affected. Pulling myself out of this private hell took everything I had both mentally and physically.
The second crisis was when I found out my mom had cancer. This happened while I was still dealing with my own medical condition. It’s too long a story so I won’t go into details here. But the subsequent years of trying to help her, and the mounting stress and strain of being a caregiver while grappling with my own problems really tore at my well-being over time.
SG: What sorts of narratives and inspire you most and why?
At a general level, I tend to be most inspired by stories that involve some kind of deep, fundamental transformation in the hero or heroes. This theme, both in obvious and subtle ways, underlies many popular stories and franchises of our time whether it’s Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. Actually, this is a common motif in stories of all genres, but my favorite ones tend to be the ones in which this happens in dramatic and powerfully symbolic ways. This is why I really love the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But the theme of transformation goes back all the way to ancient myth. Whether it’s going from selfish to selfless, scared to brave, weak to strong, the theme of being reborn into better versions of ourselves and benefiting the world around us seems to be one that has persisted for as long as human beings have been telling themselves stories.
Staying on this theme of transformation, a very specific subgenre of fiction that I’m personally obsessed with is the superhero origin story. I know everyone’s sick of seeing origin stories but I will never get sick of them so long as they’re done well. Because each time I see a good superhero origin story in comics, film, or TV—whether it’s Batman Begins, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, or Luke Cage—I’m seeing my own story retold in a different way. And, really, who ever gets sick of seeing their own story being told?
Lastly, a lot of real-life narratives greatly inspire me, but here as well they are often tales of personal transformation. Many of the lives of the Catholic saints, for example, are about spoiled, rich brats who, through some tremendous bout of suffering, become completely transformed and thereafter give their lives to service. The vehicle through which they served was their religion, but at heart it’s really just about service to humanity. For me, my vehicle of service (and in some ways, my religion) is pop culture.
SG: What are some of your favorite games? And we are open to any kinds of games in these parts whether they are video games, tabletop games, or even VR games!
Well, it’s good that you are open to any kinds of games because I love both video games and tabletop games—really, any kind of games except maybe sports (though there are some exceptions). With tabletop games I love both role-playing games like D&D or Call of Cthulhu as well as board games, though if I had to choose I’d probably choose RPGs over board games because they’re more story-driven and limited only by your imagination. When it comes to video games, my favorites also tend to be titles in the role-playing genre like the Fallout series, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which are among my all-time faves. There’s nothing quite as gratifying as the feeling of growth when you level up, improve your skills, expand your inventory, and recruit members into your party, and RPGs do this kind of thing better than any other genre. Plus, the best role-playing video games have great stories, and for me it’s always about the story.
SG: Recently you’ve done work with the smartphone app SUPERBETTER, which is about gamifying self-care and self-improvement. On the website it says, “Playing SuperBetter unlocks heroic potential to overcome tough situations and achieve goals that matter most.” How is it even possible to gamify such complex processes?
The basic methodology behind SuperBetter, which game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal invented while recovering from a severe concussion, is actually quite simple when you think about it. We all have goals that are important to us. These are basically our Epic Wins. Epic Wins are kind of like beating a video game you’ve been playing. And to achieve these goals we have to perform a series of actions. These are Quests, just like in games. But completing Quests is hard work so you need lots of things that give you energy and make you feel good. These are Power-ups, like the mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. There will also be things, whether external or internal, that will get in the way of our Quests. These are the Bad Guys, which most games also have. Fortunately, you can enlist the help of Allies. In role-playing games that would be members of your party or friendly NPCs. In real life, it can be your friends, family, colleagues, and community. So it’s all about setting goals, taking the steps needed to reach those goals, and doing things that make us healthy and strong so that we can fight our personal villains, asking for help from our allies along the way. Throughout this process, if we stick to it, we will keep learning, growing, and getting stronger and better, just like our favorite characters in games do.
SG: What are some of the challenges to what you do? And what are some of the common misconceptions?
One challenge is simply trying to live up to the volume, scale and grandiosity of my own ideas with the reality of the limited resources that I have to work with—i.e. my own money, supplies, time, energy, and manpower. The exception to doing everything with my own limited resources is when I enlist the help of the public as I did with my Spider-Man fundraiser to send at-risk kids awaiting adoption to go see Spider-Man: Far From Home (because Spider-Man is one of the quintessential orphan superheroes!). Because of this I inevitably always fail to make a project in reality match the inner vision I have for it. For example, I thought my Spider Army project, had I been able to build the kind of momentum for it that I was trying to, could have been truly awesome. I mean, it’s the closest thing in reality that we could possibly have to the fictional multiverse that we’ve seen in the Spider-Verse comic books and the movie, Into the Spider-Verse, which was so popular. People are so passionate about these fictional universes, and I want to help them see the beauty and majesty of ways that we can translate these fictional stories into real-life, which can be even more fulfilling than just reading or watching the story itself. I mean, the only thing cooler than a fictional Spider multiverse would be a real-life Spider multiverse, right? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the Spider Army project off the ground as much as I had envisioned, but at least I had the triumph of sending those kids from Children’s Home & Aid to see Far From Home.
As for misconceptions, I think maybe one misconception might be that when people see me doing projects like the Real-Life Cleric project or the Spider Army project, they think surely I must be in a good place in life to be able to give so much of myself. This isn’t necessarily true. In fact, I did both of the aforementioned projects during difficult periods when I was facing numerous challenges simultaneously. But that was part of the point. I wanted to lead by example and make the point that even if you are facing significant obstacles in your life, you can find ways to give and make a difference in small ways. And small ways can lead to big ways if you understand the nature of the ripple effect in human interactions.
SG: How does one become a Real-Life Cleric and what inspired you to pursue this?
I was inspired by the cleric character class in D&D and Pathfinder, but there are clerics in both tabletop games and video games (like World of Warcraft) so you definitely don’t have to be a tabletop RPG player to be familiar with the cleric archetype. Now let’s think about what clerics do: you have a party of heroes and clerics play an important supporting role in the group. They provide spiritual guidance, if that’s relevant, and of course what they’re most known for is healing characters who are wounded. They’re pretty good fighters too but they’re better known for healing. What does it mean to “heal” people in real life? There are actually lots of ways. There’s the obvious, literal way of patching someone up if they’ve injured themselves, or treating them if they’re sick. But what if, like me, you’re not a doctor or nurse who’s qualified or legally authorized to do these things in public? Then you can stretch your imagination and think of other ways to “heal” and support people. Handing out snacks to hungry people could be one way. Or simply just being kind is another way and can certainly be emotionally healing in a world that’s sorely in need of more kindness.
SG: To others who struggle in the space, what advice do you have for them?
Generally speaking, I think there’s a profound problem in our society with selfishness, self-absorption, and a lack of empathy and compassion. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of people out there who are very giving and caring; it’s that overall, on a societal level, it isn’t enough given the problems we’re currently faced with. Just look at the problem of income inequality, for example. Even though many people do care, if enough of us cared at a high enough level it wouldn’t be as big a problem as it is. The same goes for climate change or any other societal problem you can name.
However, if you’re the type of person who’s on the Sugar Gamers website reading this interview right now, you’re probably not the type of person who doesn’t care. You care, but maybe you’re struggling with something. Two things I sometimes see among people who care are (a) burnout from giving too much without taking enough care of the self, or (b) being held back from putting themselves out there due to certain struggles like depression, anxiety, other health issues, or maybe practical issues like trying to put food on the table. In both cases, you have to take care of yourself so that you’re okay, or at least okay enough, so that you can feel capable of giving. I know that sometimes just trying to survive is all you can do, and that’s okay. At times like this, by all means do what you gotta do. But maybe do periodic check-ins with yourself and make sure you’re not perpetually stuck in survival mode even when things in your life have actually gotten better. Because if we wait until all our personal problems are solved before we take action for the greater good, we’ll never be ready because there’s no such thing as having all our personal problems solved.
For my part, one of the points I most wanted to make with my kindness advocacy projects was that you can be struggling in many ways in your life and still give, at least in certain ways. You don’t have to have a lot of money, you don’t have to be super healthy, and you don’t have to be free of mental health challenges. With courage and some creativity, you can always find ways to do something, even if they’re very small things. And the small things matter.
SG: What are you working on next and how can we help?
Well, I always have ideas. That’s one thing I have never had a shortage of. But right now I’m in the situation of needing to attend to some personal things before I can work on new ideas or further develop past ideas like the Real-Life Cleric project or the Spider Army project.
Last year I was offered a full-ride scholarship by the Claremont School of Theology for their Master of Divinity program. I applied as part of a plan I had to upgrade my Real-Life Cleric project. I was gonna become an actual, literal cleric! But in the end I had to defer my admission and at this point I probably won’t go for financial reasons. Because even though it was a full-ride, I need to work full-time to pay the bills and I don’t think I can both study and work full-time simultaneously and do a good job at both.
So basically, what I’m working on right now is looking for a new permanent job, and it’s taking up all my free time outside of the freelance work I’m already doing. So if anyone wants to hire an awesome, intelligent, creative, and very hard-working writer and editor with great communication and teamwork skills, you now know where to find me! And if anyone wants to help, then help me spread the word that I’m looking for a job.
SG: Where can we follow your adventures, cleric or otherwise?
I would say the “Hero Wisdom” section of the PopMythology blog, and PopMythology’s social media channels on Facebook and on Twitter. There’s also my Patreon page, where I sometimes post about my projects, and where people are free to support me if they like. But at the moment I am not actively engaged in a big personal project, or doing much Hero Wisdom writing, or even on social media much. First things first, and right now finding a new job has to come first.