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The Fairgame Archive

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2006-02-03: Playing with People
by Emily

There have been a heaping handful of threads now that are hitting on this point: when we play role playing games we are playing with other people with buttons to push, with assumptions about the world and our shared fiction, people that (may be) having profound emotional experiences in the process.

I just want to recap a few posts:

In Cutting up the RPG Pie, Mo wrote:

So maybe we build characters because they serve as transition objects in activities that require intensified social competition or intensified social negotiational collaborative energy. Maybe having a second me just comforts us and makes our social, relaxation time feel more comfortable and social and relaxed.

and Brand replied:

That would explain why some people have such a huge and overwhelming response to their character being attacked or critizied or losing. (The "my guy is always right and moral and justified!" response.) When that happens we aren't just attacking the virtual them, we are attacking the image of themselves as the best they can ever see themselves being. We aren't just saying they suck, but that everything they hope to be sucks.

We had Meg's amazing More Alphabet Soup thread, in which we confront how far we can go together in gaming, and how we can seriously fuck eachother up.

Charles wrote:

Actually, "I will not abandon you" is a starting point for serious psychological play, the question is what limits are imposed. The limits probably need to start out bright-lined, or there need to be effective mechanics (the equivalent of safe words) for gradually pushing at and flagging boundaries.

and Mo wrote:

I mean, how many people in your life have ever looked you right in the eye and told you they would not abandon you? For me, there has only been one, and that relationship is the most powerful one I'll ever need. And how much more terribly hard must it become to abandon someone to whom you've looked at in the eye and declared it?

Then in Maps the fighty-ness of them Brand wrote:

Do we live naked, exposed to the force of our friends without a net? Do we build shells and allow others to see behind them only when we want them to? Do we compete? Do we cooperate?

This isn't game theory, it is life theory that we're applying to game.

Okay, talking about delving together into meaningful and moving psychological territory is pushing boundaries and staking new ground. But what if the act of playing around in eachothers' emotional landscapes is what we've always done, just in channelized, demarcated ways that focused all the energy in safe ways that kept us from realizing we were standing here naked all together.

Take a most common way and reason to play: fun, wish-fulfillment. I have a killer week at work, so I come to my gaming group on Saturday ready to kick some orc ass, or political intrigue the shit out of the Nosferatu or what have you.  Or tell those people from New Gidea what all God wants them to do, or kick the living shit out of that vile wretch that calls himself the Master.

Okay, what's the difference here? If I'm killing orcs, I likely never question what I'm doing.  Or if it's about the character advancement and juicy strategic exploitation of resources (that's how I see 3E), then what I will miss seeing is that I'm

here

, having an experience of desire and loss and accomplishment. My second self is my avatar and projection of myself into a world I can have power over. I want to feel powerful, I want to make an impact on the world, I want to wreak havoc on the world for a change or be on top. I'm not pathologizing here! Why do you think we play Grand Theft Auto? It's all good.

But if I'm judging New Gidea, I may just get a different clue. I might not miss seeing what my own experience is.  Or if I'm trying to vainly woo the butcher's daughter into holding my grisly, twisted hand there's empathy that may spring up—instead of simple identification, instead of projecting all my hopes and desires onto an avatar that will vicariously give me satisfaction and absolution, I may instead see my own heart.

Or, if I'm really lucky, catch a glimpse of the heart of my friend.

Suddenly, there we are.  All of us, real, whole, broken folks sitting together.  Choosing to go deeper and farther to both learn and share what we are, or to say, "that's far enough".  But being there with one another, even if it hurts.

Games we often play remove us from ourselves and each other, but it's just psychological sleight of hand. The only real difference between designing games to bring us closer, or not, is taking away the blinders that keep us from seeing what is there all the time.


2006-02-03 02:13:02 Brand Robins

Emily,

You said: "Games we often play remove us from ourselves and each other, but it's just psychological sleight of hand. The only real difference between designing games to bring us closer, or not, is taking away the blinders that keep us from seeing what is there all the time"

God I love that statement. I agree with it completly. I also think it is a good thing, as I find looking at the stark face of reality and friendship and the whole ball of wax as a good thing.

However, I would, as I share your paradigm on the issue.

Others don't, and that is why (among other reasons) I think we're starting to see so many fault lines in the "hobby" that are really ripping it into different hobbies. I used to say that about things like GM vs GMless and Story based vs Experiential based—but those are pretty small divides compared to this.


2006-02-03 02:44:56 Mark W

The "blinders", though, are exactly the answer to "why roleplaying games" for many people. Me too, sometimes. The game can be a way to talk about, explore, live through all the stuff you don't have and never will in your everyday life. A small consolation.

I play games at least in part to imagine a better world. I'm not really sure there's much reward for that motivation in staring so frankly at the reality of this one. It may be necessary - the blinders only a tissue of self-deception and false consciousness, ultimately unsustainable - but it seems unlikely to be pleasant, or simple.

Can you tell I'm torn about this stuff yet?


2006-02-03 02:50:58 anon.

To quote the clintonator: "all role-playing is therapy"

Like Brand, I'm right in line with this paradigm, but I don't think it excludes the "blinders on, please" gamers - ask any good psychologist, and they'll tell you that escapism is a strong and useful tool in their kit, and also one of the most traditional and common general coping mechanisms: the garden, the garage, the old-boys club, bridge night; the list goes on.

I'm reminded of why Spider Robinson writes hopeful SF.

How can you get to a better world without looking at the gap, and working to bridge it?

James


2006-02-03 03:47:34 Sydney Freedberg

1 - agreeing with people, I think:

Fantasy, wish-fulfillment, and indirection can be tremendously useful tools to approach the truth, not merely ways to avoid the truth. You put blinders on a horse so it doesn't spook at something it sees. You don't need blinders if you're travelling through country where the horse is comfortable and safe, you need blinders if you're entering potentially dangerous territory and you don't want the horse to spook and run away before it gets you where you want to go. The "horse" we're riding here is our own minds.

2 - disagreeing with Mark, I think (though not, as I read her, Emily):

In my own experience, ignorance has never been bliss, and the illusions I've built between myself and reality have caused far more pain than they've protected me from. Think of self-deceptions like "If I compete harder, I'll get more money and more stuff and more power, and then I'll be happy" (are you playing D&D or practicing law? Who can tell?) or, "if he yells at me all the time, it must be my fault, so I have to watch him more attentively to try to anticipate his wishes and rush to appease him" (is it an abusive GM or an abusive husband?) or even "this is what my friends and I do together, and if I'm bored most of the time I just have to suck it up, because if I tried anything different I might have to do it alone." So I'm not too worried about my illusions getting shredded: I don't think they're helping me that much.

"The reward for staring frankly at the reality of this world" is, in my experience, that reality may be a lot harder than my cozy little shell, but it's also much richer and more liberating than I had allowed myself to hope: "The truth will set you free."


2006-02-03 04:26:18 Brand Robins

Fantasy wish-fullfilment, celebration of genre gaming, and even power-fantasy can all lead to understanding of self and others, they just have to be tied to reflection and comparison.

John Kim and I had a go around about this not so long ago, in which he talked about the way that he played Conan games that were deliberatly set to "embrace the genre"—but which still ended up saying a lot about what the players wanted and thought. It just only became obvious when you looked back on the game afterwards and found the fault lines where the players did things specifically differently (or specifically the same) as where Howard might have done something in his fiction.

So I don't think that "face it" and "have fun with it" are contradictory. Even Plato, hard ass kill-joy of all hard ass kill-joys, said that you could learn more about a man in an hour of game than in a year of conversation—and I don't think he was talking about Nar RPGs exclusivly.


2006-02-03 05:01:44 Charles S

Okay, this may be arguing with ghosts. If it is, I apologize. People who argue with ghosts drive me nuts. If I am , tell me, and I'll try to remember those ghosts aren't actually here. Still, I see implicit in this post what I am talking about in what follows, so I think I am not arguing completely with ghosts.

The only real difference between designing games to bring us closer, or not, is taking away the blinders that keep us from seeing what is there all the time.

I think it is important to distinguish at least 2 sets of possible blinders.

One set I think everyone agrees we should discard, the set of blinders which prevent us from seeing (ever) how or why we play. I think everyone agrees that we should be mindful of our games, that we should look to whether our play is healthy or not, and to what our play means. I think playing in deep emotional waters is a valid and reasonable expression of this sort of mindfulness (and I think playing in deep waters requires this sort of mindfulness).

The second set of blinders relates to how we treat the game while we are playing it. Over this set of blinders there is wide spread disagreement, and it seems to largely boil down to personal taste. Does the game have more meaning if we pay active attention to what it means while we are playing it? Does it mean more if we pay active attention to the fact that we are playing a game while we are playing it? Do the stories that the characters are a part of have more meaning if we pay active attention to the fact that we are manipulating characters in a story? Or does the game have more meaning if we blind ourselves to all that, and imagine ourselves in the moment being this other person in this other situation?

Certainly, removing the blinders is likely to produce better art from an external perspective (although many writers claim to operate from something closer to the blinded perspective, "My characters tell me what happens to them"), but one of the most important aspects of role playing is that the pure external perspective is largely irrelevant. The audience are the creators, so the experience of creating strongly informs the audience experience, so how you choose to create, and to experience creating, is a controlling influence in how you experience the game. Whether or not you choose to use blinders in play is an extremely important part of this choice of creation style, and so controls the experience of play.

So designing to remove the first set of blinders: "This is a game about how we feel about death. This game will take you into hard and potentially dangerous territory if you let it." I think everyone sees this as a universal good (I may be wrong). Designing to bring to the surface during play the fact that we are people playing a game, controlling characters in order to tell a story, a story that we hope means something, this I think people disagree on whether it is a good, and in fact on whether it brings us closer to naked play.

Does that make sense?


2006-02-03 09:06:20 Tris

"The only real difference between designing games to bring us closer, or not, is taking away the blinders that keep us from seeing what is there all the time."

I agree with everything you say about how awesome the kind of game you are talking about could be.  I disagree powerfully with anyone who says that these are the only kind of awesome games, that all games should aim to be like this.

As such, I think there is another difference between designing games to bring us closer (in the seeing each other's hearts way) and not.  That of intent.

I believe I am capable of, and enjoy, playing characters which are not reflections of myself, and offer no insight into who I am.  Games designed to let me do this can also be awesome.

I believe you can tell a story that isn't about you.

We appear to be bustin' the art out of the fairly tight conventions it's been bound by traditionally.  Pushing the borders only to set ourselves new ones, artificial ones, would be something less than we are capable of.  That would be sad.


2006-02-03 13:34:17 Troy_Costisick

"The only real difference between designing games to bring us closer, or not, is taking away the blinders that keep us from seeing what is there all the time."

Absolutely.  And different games will use different strategies.  Some may target powerful emotions.  Some may pit one player versus another.  Others may incorperate teamwork strategies to overcome an obstacle.

In the end, we may be engaging in the kinds of play we always have been, BUT we will be doing it in a much more powerful and enhanced way.  Story Now and Step on Up will still be there, but in much more dynamic and striking ways.

Peace,

-Troy


2006-02-03 13:44:12 Clinton R. Nixon

In regards to blinders:

I've said for a long time, something like this:

"Why is roleplaying a useful activity? It allows us to approach questions and problems that we can't approach in reality, maybe because they're too painful, or maybe because we don't have the chance. ("Is there a good reason to kill?" is an example of the second. I've never had the chance.) It's a practice arena for real life, and we can exercise our critical, emotional, and moral muscles so that we're ready for the real thing."


2006-02-03 15:48:55 Thomas Robertson

This is an interesting discussion.  The most interesting part about all this is that we are, in fact, discussing something bigger than roleplaying games here.

Specifically, these are the very same things that get discussed in any fictional medium.  Do we just watch movies for the fun, or do we think about what they mean?  Do we just read books for the fun, or do we think about what they mean?

Interestingly, no one can walk away from a movie or book or roleplaying session (or whatever else) without some of that meaning rubbing off on them.  The question is, do you consider what meanings you have picked up or not?

Further, you can not walk away from any encounter with another human being without some new meaning have rubbed off on you.  Which meanings do you take time to analyze?  Do you analyze them as they happen, or do you wait until you have reached some critical mass of meaning and then analyze it all in one go?

These are interesting questions, and they are clearly bigger than just roleplaying.  So I have to ask: should we really be asking them?  That is not meant as a criticism, but it is an important question.  Many fields of study havce a natural tendency to expand outward into overarching fields of study.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does strike me as something we need to consider: do we need to step back and consider these wider questions before digging down to the basics of roleplaying, or do we want to start at the basics and work out?

Clearly the tendency (especially over the last couple of months) has been to keep reaching up and out, and it has been a great time.  But is that really what we want to do?

Thomas


2006-02-03 15:58:03 Mendel Schmiedekamp

And that is cultural learning.

But the blinders intuition is, I feel, dangerously incorrect. The people who are seeing each other empathically, are no less blinded than the ones who are not. It's a matter of where they are looking. Trying to remove blinder's in play won't work very well, but trying to entice or encourage players to change their perspective slowly can be very effective.

And then that brings the other concern. The context of cultural learning is very important, as it helps determine how the experience is internalized. And that will influence the social interactions of the players, for good or for ill. When you become aware of this potential, you also become responsible for its careful and safe use. And that is no easy thing.


2006-02-03 17:26:12 Emily

thomas wrote:

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does strike me as something we need to consider: do we need to step back and consider these wider questions before digging down to the basics of roleplaying, or do we want to start at the basics and work out?

I'm not advocating one set of design specs over another. But simply noting that you can approach play & design with the knowledge that there are psychological levels of play, or without.

You can design games that highlight these aspects of play, or not.

However, you can't play without all those levels being present. So if you do play or—most especially—design without being aware of them, you are at best limiting yourself and at worst endangering yourself and others.

Tris made the most damning criticism:

I believe I am capable of, and enjoy, playing characters which are not reflections of myself, and offer no insight into who I am. Games designed to let me do this can also be awesome.

I believe you can tell a story that isn't about you.

Is this so?


2006-02-03 17:29:37 Lisa Padol

Random thoughts:

1. Sometimes, it can be useful for a game designer not to remove the blinders. The example that comes to mind is My Life With Master. If memory serves, Paul's said that he deliberately did not say, "This is a game about exploring emotionally disfunctional relationships" in the book. This seems the right call for that case. And, I think the game takes the correct approach, and that the existence of blinders is useful.

1a. That said, while the pitch sold me (You're playing minions of a mad scientist), it's not a game I expect to play at all often. This is not because Paul pulled one over on me, but because its play style is not mine. It feels too much like a boardgame to me. Clearly, this is not so for everyone.

2. Sometimes, I just want to play the game, not go all deep and reality-confronting. That is, I don't want to go TTP.

3. It's obnoxious to make folks go TTP or some version of IWNAY if they just want to play the game. This should be obvious—consent is a good thing. It interacts oddly with #1 above, though.

4. Absolutely agree about importance of recognizing social dynamics. In my current Sorcerer game, one player has told me, "I'm nowhere near the edge of my comfort zone. Don't worry." I've asked another bluntly how she feels about a potentially nasty PC vs PC situation that might occur. I can influence how likely that is to happen for her PC, and I know she will not thank me in the morning if I decide to put her through the emotional wringer in the name of Excellent Hard Hitting Roleplaying / Story Telling or Deep Psychological Exploration.

5. Oh yeah—this also applies to discussing theory and gaming styles. If someone says something disparaging—or even apparently disparaging—about a particular game or way of gaming, folks who like that game or way of gaming are dang well gonna feel defensive. Their fun is being judged and found wanting, and they—we—I—whatever other pronoun I'm forgetting—are feeling judged and found wanting. Brand's comment

When that happens we aren't just attacking the virtual them, we are attacking the image of themselves as the best they can ever see themselves being. We aren't just saying they suck, but that everything they hope to be sucks

applies here, too.

-Lisa


2006-02-03 17:42:09 Clinton R. Nixon

I said this in marginalia, but that's not what it's for, so:

Tris made the most damning criticism:

I believe I am capable of, and enjoy, playing characters which are not reflections of myself, and offer no insight into who I am. Games designed to let me do this can also be awesome.

I believe you can tell a story that isn't about you.

Is this so?

It's not true! While this is tied into personal belief and probably can't be empirically proven, I do think that you can not create anything that doesn't reflect a part of you.

The "part of you" is important. We contain multitudes, crowds of ideas that argue inside us. But they all come from our brain chemistry and experiences and are the touchpoints from which we think and create. There's no ex nihilo thought process.

I like to think of this as the grotesque: taking a fragmentary part of your imagination and zooming in on it - highlighting it so much that it becomes distorted and somewhat unrecognizable. It's still part of you, though, and the decisions you make in regards to it reflect you and inform your future decisions.


2006-02-03 18:08:50 Emily

Moderating post:

Lisa, you may be thinking of a post by Brand on his own blog. My reading of both his posts here is that he feels that you can learn a lot about yourself no matter how you are playing. Either way, if you're having an issue with his comments, please address it with him via email.

Everyone, the intent of this thread is very much not to denigrate any style of play, but to address the fact that we bring psychology to role play.  What this puts on the block is:

1) lack of awareness of social/human psychological issues during design

2) lack of awareness of players as living, breathing human beings during play (Charles' blinders #1)


2006-02-03 18:11:19 Emily

As Mark & Lisa, Tris Clinton and Charles point out. There are a lot of good, powerful reasons for players to not be self aware during play.  Role playing is one big bag of techniques that help & allow you to do amazing things (self-explore, try on ways of being, have simple fun, engage in power fantasies etc) that you'd likely never just do as your self.  That is the power of the grotesque, it frees us.  (Great term.)

But if we design without being aware of all this, we are missing a lot.  Making the choice to give this freedom to the players is completely different from not knowing that the choice exists.


2006-02-03 18:25:07 Emily

Oh! I mis-read Lisa's comment. I thought she was admonishing Brand—my mistake. : ) The rest stands.


2006-02-03 18:40:54 Chris

Roleplaying exists solely through communication.  "It happens because we agree it happens" via Lumpley Principle, right?  So what we're designing is mechanics that are techniques and rules for communicating.  (Who was it that said roleplaying = structured conversation?)

It's like we're building languages, and if you're unaware of an area that needs to be communicated when designing, you have a limited vocabulary, a stunted language, and difficulty in communicating. I wouldn't use a programming language to try to speak poetry to my true love, nor would I use nursery rhymes to try to do business.

What we're seeing is the Tower of Babel falling- roleplaying has been assuming everyone's speaking the same language, and that the language would allow us to speak about anything and everything- but the fact is, different languages work differently and excel in different areas.

Naturally, if you're hoping to design a new language, it helps to be multilingual.


2006-02-04 04:12:58 Ben Lehman

On the topic of "story that isn't a part of you" I regularly play characters who are very explicitly not me.  Because they are other people that I know.

Clinton, I think we had this discussion before, in New Orleans, but I can't remember what conclusion we came to.

yrs—

—Ben


2006-02-06 13:01:28 anon.

I think this gets nailed right here, in these two passages:

[i]"But if we design without being aware of all this, we are missing a lot. Making the choice to give this freedom to the players is completely different from not knowing that the choice exists."

"Naturally, if you're hoping to design a new language, it helps to be multilingual."[/i]

That hits it on the head for me.  I think that anyone who wants to be the best RPG designer they can be should understand the potential for this play, and the game design elements that lead to it, so they can design it in, or out, of their games.

I don't see into my heart of those of my friends when I go dungeon bashing, and never will, and that this doesn't make dungeon bashing obsolete Roleplaying.

The original post suggested that this potential, to know your own heart, and that of your friend, is present in all play, but hidden behind blinkers.  Now we appear to be at "you can design for this play, and it can rock".

We won't look back and say "Ah yes, the dinosaurs/dungeon crawls.  They were doomed when the big meteorite hit/people realised we could expose our very souls."  But some people will look back and say "when we realised we could do that, I found the type of play I love"

Clinton - there is a difference between "You can't tell a story that isn't about you" and "You can't create something that doesn't come from yourself."  Those don't mutually oppose each other.

I agree with the second, and disagree with the first.


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