Roleplaying in society

11 May, 2009 at 7:13 am (rpg theory)

In this post I’ll argue for three ways in which roleplaying can change society or elements of it. I don’t include crazy fundamentalist Christians or other similar attacks as one of these forces.

To start I need to define roleplaying in the context of this post. Actually, I won’t be doing that; rather, I’m going to say what qualities I require an activity or hobby to have so thay my argument works. Roleplaying fills these criteria, as do other activities. (This is the axiomatic approach used in modern mathematics: Take some phenomenon, gather relevant bits of it as axioms and work with the axioms, hence creating results that are more broadly applicable and often easier to work with.)

So, with that in mind, I say that the essential qualities of roleplaying are

  1. That it is social; there are at least two people involved.
  2. That it is creative (or artistic, to be more political); roleplaying involves creating and interpreting fictional content.
  3. That it is ephemeral; roleplaying happens in the moment and recording and retellings are insufficient at communicating that moment.
  4. That it is motivated by the activity itself; it is not presented to an audience distinct from the players; even if audience exists, the purpose of the play is not to entertain them, but rather to play and have good time doing it.

This is not a value statement: I am not trying to say that other things are not really roleplaying. Rather, I am saying that for the purpose of this post those other things are not interesting.

In the book Rules of play Salen and Zimmerman explain how games can be viewed from three different perspectives: As formal systems, as systems of interaction between players or as cultural systems. I am taking the third perspective, here.

On personal level

Society is composed of people. Roleplaying affects people. Personally, roleplaying has motivated me to research various subjects on some level and had other positive effects that are harder to quantify. I’ve also read stories of people focusing on roleplaying and ignoring their school-going. The lesson to learn is that roleplaying as a hobby can have a profound effect on people. I’m inclined to think the effect is mostly positive, but that there is an effect is hard to disagree with.

(Claims that roleplayers are particularly intelligent or creative or whatever I am deeply suspicious towards.)

Small groups

For some roleplaying is a family activity. I recall some old school blogger describing the game he (I think a he.) is running for his family. There are plenty of others playing with their kids. In this way roleplaying is as good an activity as any, I think.

Roleplaying games are typically played with friends, in a fairly constant group over long periods of time. If we accept the characterisation of roleplaying as an activity that creates memories of experiences we have not actually had, then by condition 1. (social) in the definition roleplaying creates shared fake experiences. Shared experiences are a significant factor in forming and strengthening friendships. Further, by condition 2. (creative) people express themselves when roleplaying. Hence, fellow players learn something of each other when playing.

It can be seen that roleplaying shares at least two qualities with friendship. A pertinent question is: Are these qualities equivalent to friendship, do they arise from friendship or does friendship arise from them? There are other possible models, like both friendship and these qualities being a consequence of something else, but let us not go there. (I feel this is a distinctly philosophical question. Maybe I’m finally learning how to think like a philosopher; to find questions without trivial answers.) The question regarding the nature of friendship is interesting, but a bit too much for this blog post. Also, I have no answer, expect to say that equivalence is not the case, if only because liking the other person is another quality of friendship and I don’t think shared experiences and knowing the other person necessarily imply liking the other person. So, roleplaying. I’d argue that roleplaying creates reciprocal knowledge about the participants (as opposed to, say, stalking or merely reading someone’s blog) and, well, shared experiences, fake or not, are reciprocal by definition. Reciprocality makes, I think, roleplaying a good supporting activity for friendship. This powerful context can also be misused.

In summary: Roleplaying fairly frequently brings together a group of people and gives them shared experiences, in-jokes (which may or may not involve grand pianos or squirrels) and generally ties them together. Strong small groups are, I think, relevant to the welfare of society as a whole.

Potential for large-scale change

This is the political part of this post. I have an ideology, though I haven’t found a name for it yet. Hence, take everything I say with a, say, spoonful of salt. That should be enough.

I am talking about roleplaying games as a way of creating and experiencing entertainment, maybe even art, on a group’s own terms. This is distinctly separate from merely consuming what someone else has produced, which characterises such forms of culture and art as movies and music, even books. Particularly, one can’t buy the roleplaying experience, only play and create it oneself.

Of course, much of rpg culture is focused around playing a particular game and buying everything that comes out for that game. Collecting, one might call it. Further, there is the drooling over fancy toys like miniatures, character generation software, 3-d maps constructed from whatever. PDFs with embedded flash videos. (For perspective on these, Michael Brewer’s post is a good one.) To take even more radical stance, even character sheets are unnecessary for roleplaying. Dice, too, as much as it hurts to say so. My point is not that all of these extra toys are somehow bad or evil; they are not and I enjoy rolling dice as much as the next roleplayer. What they do is to hide the fundamentally creative and self-sufficient nature of roleplaying.

Another way in which roleplaying games are potentially powerful is that they give permission to play. In modern world the sheer joy of playing is restricted and seen as childish. Being drunk seems to be the necessary condition for having the permission to play. I am talking about playing with or near other people, here. Computer games are another subject entirely; there you are in a way always isolated from other people, even if playing multiplayer games. Sports is serious business, though spectators can play a bit. Roleplaying games create a fairly secure environment (a group of friends, say) where one can and is expected to play. Larping even more so. Pervasive games are strange, as they typically involve playing in the open but hiding it.

I’m not saying that there will be a roleplaying revolution after which everyone plays these games and sun shines and all is well. Rather, roleplaying might be one element of a more fundamental change. Whatever changes, barring an apocalypse of some sort, internet will play a so much larger role that comparing the two is not even relevant.

As a final word and something of a conclusion, I don’t know where this line of thinking will lead to, but it feels important. Following it seems important.

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6 Comments

  1. kaeosdad said,

    So what you’re saying is that we need to talk story more often? I think I see what you’re getting at. One thing I’ve always felt is that role playing games are like the newest form of art. It’s a combination of many different disciplines and you choose which medium you would like to use and how to express your creativity through the tools you have available. Attempting any cultural change requires great works to be produced to have a large scale impact. Ah, it’s too late at night to think too deep about this stuff but, yea interesting stuff you got there.

  2. Tommi said,

    Hello kaeosdad.

    Actually, I think that we need to play more with the people we care about, in any and all senses of the word play. Unfortunately I figured it out only after writing this post. Or, perhaps, at the same time.

    Roleplay is a structured way of playing, often fairly reliably (time table-wise) and with friends.

  3. leikkiä lyödään « Melkein matemaatikko said,

    […] Roolipelaaminen on leikkimistä kun siihen oikeasti syventyy. Jos sen sijaan pitää etäisyyden ja vähän niin kuin on osallistuvinaan, niin teeskentelee ja usein pilaa pelin muiltakin. (Lisää roolipeleistä ja leikkimisestä, tosin englanniksi, löytyy toisen blogin puolelta.) […]

  4. Mad Brew said,

    I don’t see roleplaying becoming an important agent of change anytime soon, but I do see play in general gaining acceptance as being important to personal and social development, and not just for children, but for adults.

    There are a growing number of studies that reinforce the idea of the importance of play, and I wrote an article (thanks for the link love by the way) awhile back that looked at how roleplaying covers all the important aspects of play. That article drew heavily upon Dr. Brown’s work at the Institute of Play.

    I wholeheartedly agree that you should play more with the people you care about, be it through roleplay, board games, card games, or sports. Building social ties is important to your mental (and therefore physical) health, and besides, it’s FUN!

  5. Tommi said,

    Hello Michael.

    The trackback above your comment is from my other blog, wherein I wrote an article (in Finnish, as my mother reads that blog) about changing the way I live my life so as to emphasise play and de-emphasise what I call pretending. I’m writing an English version of the same; should be done within half a week or so. It will be highly personal, but might be interesting regardless.

  6. Play in society « Melkein matemaatikko said,

    […] but is not a translation, so the content may vary. I was working these things when writing the post roleplaying in society over at Cogito, ergo […]

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