RPG-ology #2: Socializing

This is RPG-ology #2:  Socializing, for January 2018.


Gamers have, or at least not so long ago had, an image of being socially inept.  Many are thought to suffer from high-functioning autistism or Aspergerger Syndrome, to be highly intelligent but have difficulty identifying and expressing feelings, entering into relationships with other people.  The “unwashed masses” once referred to immigrants coming to Ellis Island; now it perhaps describes GenCon.

I have written a fair amount about role playing game theory.  I participated in discussions with (Sorcerer author) Ron Edwards, (Dogs in the Vineyard author) Vincent Baker, and others, in the late 1990s at Gaming Outpost and later at The Forge, as what began as “GNS” (for “Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism”) expanded into something Ron calls “The Big Model”.  My own explanations of that are still at Places to Go, People to Be as Theory 101:  System and the Shared Imagined Space, The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, and Creative Agenda (also appearing in translation on the French version of the site and in print in Jeu de Rôle), and I would like to think I contributed at least a little to the development of that theory.

What The Big Model had at its root was the recognition of something that is in one sense completely obvious and in another completely overlooked:  game playing is a social activity.  It is a way in which people interact with each other within a structured setting, and thus we can reasonably say that it is a structured social situation.

This intrigues me, because I have recognized about myself that I do not do well in unstructured social situations—parties in which people mingle and eat and drink and chat, for example, or that social hour that’s really only about fifteen minutes after the church service.  I don’t know what to do, how to interact, in a sense what my role is.  I do well in classrooms, whether teacher or student, because I understand the roles and play my part.  I similarly do well in worship services, in discussion groups—any situation in which the roles are generally structured and everyone knows what to do, how to act and interact.

What is more interesting, though, is that a role playing game is itself a structured social situation, that is, a gathering of people interacting with each other following an agreed set of rules for that interaction, which itself is about creating a social situation—the interactions of the imagined characters within the game.  Thus people like us, people who have trouble relating to other people in unstructured social situations, enter into a structured social situation in which we are cooperating in the creation of a story about people interacting with each other in an unstructured social situation.  We are, in a sense, teaching ourselves how it’s done by simulating such situations and relationships and interactions between imaginary characters.  We learn how to socialize by creating characters who do that, and we do so by social interactions.

Thus as we come away from our games into the real world, we bring with us this picture of how people converse, how they relate, how they interact, from having attempted to reproduce that kind of conversation, relationship, interaction, in microcosm.  We then begin to become more like our characters, more able to be like other people, to socialize in unstructured situations.

I still have trouble with multi-party conversations—I never know when it’s my turn to speak, whether to hold on to that thing I was going to say and say it later when it’s no longer apropos, or drop it and hope that whenever it’s my turn to talk I will know it and have something to say.  I never have that problem during the game, because the rules, the fundamentally social rules, provide the structure that informs those questions.  But gradually what I have learned about character interactions has worked its way back into my life, into human social interactions.

We the geeks of the world have created our own therapy, a social activity that teaches social interaction.

Who would have guessed.


For what it’s worth, I have written about social interaction in games before, notably in Faith and Gaming:  Fundamentals and other articles in that series.

Previous article: Near Redundancy.
Next article:  History of Hit Points.

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