This is RPG-ology #33: Flirting, for August 2020.
There was a Game Ideas Unlimited article of this title that addressed these ideas (not, it should be noted, romance). That article appears to have been lost, and this is an attempt to address the ideas afresh.
We roleplay for many different reasons. Ron Edwards has identified three fundamental motivations, ways in which gamers enjoy games, identified as gamism, narrativism, and simulationism, and described at Places to Go, People to Be in the article Theory 101: Creative Agenda. It is the third of those, simulationism, which is of interest in this article.
What characterizes simulationism is the love of learning, of exploring what something is like; it is in some ways the broadest. We explore places, from Narnia to Saturn 5 to post-apocalyptic earth to Toontown. We explore milieus, from medieval Asia and Europe to the wild west to outer space. We explore professions, real and unreal, from gunslinger and swordfighter to wizard and starship engineer. We even explore what it’s like to face death.
Yet I think one of the most interesting, subtle, and overlooked things that we explore is our own identities.
When I choose to be a character, I am tapping into something within myself that aligns with that character. In so doing, I am discovering what I could have been or could yet become. I have always been the kid beaten up by others, but when I play a fighter I find within myself the courage to stand against the bullies, and realize that I could do that. If I play an evil character (which I generally only have done as the referee) I am discovering the depths of my own depravity, my personal selfishness, what I could have been. I reach for my feminine side when I play female characters, and so come to some better understanding of what it would be like to be a woman.
And when my teenaged sons played female characters, or evil characters, this did not bother me in the least. Those are the years in which we are exploring our identities. All of my five sons played female characters at one time or another, and all are heterosexual adults. One of them played a female character on a MUD and had male players asking him on dates. Having them explore their sexuality through role playing games seems a lot safer to me than having them do so out in the world.
And when people play evil characters, I’m comfortable with that, because I trust they will begin to learn the consequences of evil.
The point is that role playing enables us to explore who we might be, and so make more informed choices about who we become. The games are in that sense formative growth experiences, even when you are as old as I am (and I was already a college graduate when I began playing in 1980). They have that impact whether or not you recognize it, but if you do recognize it you can guide the process by choosing roles that explore parts of you that you have left untouched.