This is RPG-ology #66: Identity, for May 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Flirting, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed], but under a new title as five years ago it inspired an article on a similar subject, RPG-ology #33: Flirting, which touches on the same subjects but with slightly different content.
The weekend Deceased went up, while I was waiting for some comment on the forums about my notion that playing funerals might add something to our games, to our characters, to the depth of emotion and reality portrayed, I mentioned to my wife that it had been launched. She said that she thought dying in a role playing game was something for teenage boys; and the rest of what she said suggested the idea for this article. I had already written the first sequel to that story, Believable Nonsense, about superstitions. But I jotted down this idea for the second sequel.
And you might be wondering why dying in role playing games was thought by my wife to be something of interest to teenage boys. I did. The answer surprised me. Teenage boys are often intrigued by death. They take risks, challenging death, feeling the limits of their own mortality. They drive too fast; they get involved in dangerous sports. Those who don’t do these things often write morbid poetry and lyrics and stories, watch horror movies and action flicks, collect medieval and modern weaponry. There is a very real sense in which we males flirt with death, and particularly so in our teens. Role playing games, at least those which are deadly to characters, allow us vicariously to touch death, almost to die, to die–but to do so safely, knowing that even when our character dies, we may continue.
This was rattling around in my head for a couple of days before I remembered reading an article in defense of MUD’s and MUSH’s and MMORPG’s. One thing that was observed was the tendency of many teenagers, and particularly boys, to play cross-gender and alternate lifestyle characters. I have played many females in role playing games, for the challenge of creating a believable character. Even before I was involved in role playing, I took the opportunity in a creative writing assignment to do an internal character sketch of a woman, to try to get into what to me is something of an alien mind (Venutian, they say). It never worried me that my sons played females in online games, or even that those with whom they played were unaware that they were not actually female; and it didn’t bother me that their characters were girlfriends or wives of characters played by guys elsewhere. I already recognized (and mentioned in Embraces) that the distance between the player and the character made such things quite natural.
But what the article suggested was that many teenagers use such cross-gender roles to explore what it would be like to be homosexual without taking any what might be called drastic steps. They are in a sense flirting with homosexuality as part of the process of finding their own sexual identity. (And to my Christian critics, I’d much rather have my sons doing this in the safety of a role playing game than trying to decide how far is too far in reality.)
And as I explored this idea a bit further in my mind, I realized afresh that role playing games give us the opportunity to explore so much of who we are and who we might become.
Years ago, when E. R. Jones first asked me to help write Multiverser™, he was running my character (who, of course, is a version of me in the game world), and dropped me into a World of Darkness™ game he was running for a couple of others. They were playing hunters (but doing so under the rather limited rules of Vampire: the Masquerade™, Hunter: the Reckoning™ rules not available to him at that time), and they were running scared. I, not being afraid of death, began brainstorming on ways to help them. Over the next few weeks, my character became something of a superhero, exercising faith and using the tools available to destroy the undead. As each challenge presented itself, I rose to it. It was exhilarating. But while it was happening in the game, it was also impacting me. That character, as all role playing game characters, was an expression of part of me; and as he found the strength, courage, and resources to overcome obstacles he faced, I gained some confidence that I might also be able to beat some of the problems in my own life. I was exploring who I might be, and finding things I liked within me.
Someone in an e-mail to me once referred to role playing games as the great thought experiment. For a long time I viewed that in terms of the worlds in which we play. That is, I have often built role playing games on strange backgrounds, unusual philosophies, things external to the character which challenge him. It is to me a great thought experiment to ask what it would mean for the world to be like this–like Sliders moving from universe to universe and trying to understand each. But there is another level to that thought experiment. The way we react to these worlds always springs from who we are and who we perceive our characters to be. But that aspect of who we are is another facet of what we explore. Role playing ultimately allows us to be someone else, to “try it on for size”, as it were, and see how it fits.
This may seem the most obvious thing in the world. Of course role playing is about being someone else. But is it really? The characters we play are usually expressions of ourselves, of parts of ourselves which perhaps don’t so often find expression, and of ourselves in situations alien to our experience, but ultimately of ourselves. To consciously push the envelope, to use the game to explore what it is like to be someone else, not just to live someone else’s life but actually to be them, is an opportunity few other endeavors allow. Most of us never think that far into our play. We think in terms of how we would react if we were in that situation; or we rise above it to think about what is consistent for our character. But to reach the point where we are experimenting with what another person would think and feel in these circumstances and discovering that it is different from ourselves is to succeed in finding that role and making it real to ourselves.
There are many people in me. You usually see the one I want to be. When I role play, I get to be some of the others. And in doing so I learn how I can improve the person that I am.
Next week, something different.