I must credit James V. West for inspiring this column. On a game-related forum elsewhere on the world wide web, he raised a question, and then he answered it. Between when I read the question and when I read his answer, I had provided my own answer, which proved to be somewhat distinct from his, and yet to fit with his quite well. Reading his thoughts, I saw in them something of value for this column, and determined to convey them here, combined with my own.
The question concerned why people would be interested in playing a role playing game that wrestled with the meaning of life, of moral and ethical questions and problems. Such play is growing in popularity under the banner narrativism, and games such as Sorcerer and Legends of Alyria are particularly about asking moral and ethical questions and trying to find answers through play.
As I muse on it now, it occurs to me that the entire issue has another layer. Role playing games are frequently played by children—not, of course, many little children, but those in their teens and tweens who are not yet adults but are asserting their independence. Many Christians, and indeed many parents, believe that it is best to shield our children from what we sometimes call the harsh realities of life, to let them grow up protected from the ugliness of the world. If this is the best approach to parenting, why would we want those children to play games in which serious moral issues are presented, and the answers are at best not given and at worst undeterminable?
It happens that the answers to the question of why we as adults would be interested in playing such games are far more powerful when we extend the idea to our children.
Tigers play with each other. They play very particular kinds of games. In a safari park on one occasion, I observed a group of tigers, each as large as a small car, mostly lounging on the grass. One, however, was standing, eyeing another which was oblivious to its presence, and creeping up on it so infinitesimally slowly that you had to watch very closely to see it move at all. It stalked ever closer, not making a sound, making no sudden movements. Then abruptly it sprang, there was a flurry of paws and stripes, and in an instant it was all back to normal. That’s the sort of game tigers play. From the time they are cubs, they attack each other, springing by surprise, defending themselves, fighting. In so doing, they learn to fight, a vital skill to their future lives which they will continue to hone as long as they are able to do anything at all.
Perhaps at one time it was important for people to learn how to fight; it is not so important today, although it is good to have some who can do it well. What is more important in our lives is that we are able to make good moral decisions, to know how to relate to people and what to do in difficult situations. Like tigers, the more we can practice this, the better we will be at it when it matters.
Play is a way of building skills that are useful in life, by using them in controlled situations. A role playing game creates a situation in which a moral question is asked, and the player is called upon to give an answer, and then as play continues the consequences of that answer gradually unfold through the game. We learn how to make good moral decisions by practicing, both by making good ones in play and by making bad ones in play, when the rewards and the consequences are limited to the world of the game but the lessons may still be learned.
If we have practiced, we have examined our own moral boundaries, and had the opportunity to fix them. We are better prepared to say that there are some things we will not do; we are better prepared to take those stands that require us to do something affirmative because our principles require it. We’ve practiced; we’ve been there in the simulator, and now it’s real, but we know what to do.
Role playing games provide context for this beyond that, though. I could give you instruction in moral principles, and give you difficult batteries of tests through which you answer the questions; I could even create computer simulations which rate your choices and tell you what sort of consequences are likely to spring from them. What role playing games do in addition to providing us with the opportunities to practice answering such questions, and in addition to making the consequences of our choices a bit more real to us, is they cause us to communicate about those questions and the answers in a unique manner.
We can use these games to test competing moral and ethical concepts in the same situations, to see whether what we believe works and why we don’t believe the alternatives. It also allows us to get direct feedback from others in the game to indirect statements we make through our characters. We can suggest something as the belief of our characters without committing to it ourselves, and so get the responses of others to those beliefs without these becoming personal attacks. This forces all of us to soften our reactions to these ideas—the ideas are now not stupid, but rather are an interesting alternate way of looking at the issues. The context of the game does not really allow direct argument about positions taken; it requires that alternatives be presented through role playing, by creating characters who hold opposing views and attempting to demonstrate which views are better. In these ways, role playing becomes a forum through which issues and ideas are discussed and communicated between friends, but with some of the edges rounded off. We learn how our friends think, and how we think, without the sort of fights that often spring from direct confrontation about such questions.
All beliefs of all fictional characters are, ultimately, hypothetical; playing a character whose beliefs are presented in the game is very much like presenting hypothetical beliefs for discussion, but putting them in the game creates a medium through which discussions will, and indeed must, progress in reasonable ways.
Thus we role play to discover and test what we believe, and to communicate those beliefs to others while at the same time communicating about those beliefs through their responses. Role playing games thus let us learn about moral and ethical decision-making by experience, without having much at stake.
This article was originally published in May 2004 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.