You don’t have to be a sociologist to note that roleplaying is often a punch line, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it not hard to see why. Consider that, for most people, roleplaying is an activity that’s irrevocably linked to childhood. Even those of us who’ve managed to draw out the experience of playing roles well into adulthood surely began our love affairs with the activity as children. Who didn’t play cops and robbers? Cowboys and … natives? Doctor and … OK, I’m stepping away from this note.
This isn’t to say that role playing is a childish activity, quite the contrary. Children step into it so easily, not because it’s easy, but because the mental barriers that would prevent them from taking pleasure in the activity have yet to form. That is to say: no one has yet told them that they shouldn’t enjoy themselves.
Give a kid a hat and an old pair of binoculars and presto, that kid is now a secret agent, looking for the magic MacGuffin you’ve cleverly hidden somewhere in the house that has now become a secret volcano base. Tape an aluminum star to your shirt and straddle an upside-down mop and we’re now cowboys riding the open range that used to be our backyard.
When I was a child, I would lay a chair on its back in a closet stuffed with computer joysticks and glue-on glow-in-the-dark stars and become an astronaut, roaring into outer space on a giant rocket ship. I’d play guerilla war with my friends, stringing fishing line across hallways and planting folded paper “mines” under door mats. At my friend Doug’s house, we would be adventurers in an underground cavern, diving into his backyard pool to touch bottom and emerge into another cave, filled with new monsters we’d hack to death with foam pool toys.
If you were ever a child, these stories may sound familiar. You surely have your own to tell. Kids, with their entire futures before them, unlimited energy and insatiable curiosity will become anything they desire for as long as they desire, charming themselves and each other with the power of suggestion. “We’re cowboys!” “OK!” Yet at some point, somehow, the magic is lost. We forget how to free ourselves from the bounds of our mundane existence and become the least exciting thing we can be: ourselves.
That’s when the trouble starts. Life is full of pain and anguish and, as adults, we’ve got a lot to deal with. From bills-to-pay to careers-to-build, the stresses are acute and can be overwhelming. And yet, at the time we are most in need of being able – if only momentarily – to extricate ourselves from our increasingly complex selves, we have forgotten, somehow, how to do so.
Tape an aluminum star to an adult and he’ll most likely scowl, annoyed you’ve smudged his shirt. Hand him a mop and he’ll pretend he doesn’t know you. Yet this same adult, if he can see the need to step out of his own mind, will gladly pay a “drama therapist” a hundred dollars an hour to teach him how to play, as if this cherished gift that, as children, we exercised freely, is now an activity relegated to a locked room in the care of professionals. Businessmen visit dominatrices. Housewives read romance novels. Husbands and wives play “teacher and schoolgirl.” This isn’t aberrant behavior, its roleplay.
Here’s what else is roleplay: working late, first dates, meeting your in-laws, going to church, giving a presentation and taking a vacation. Ever wonder why, after a few days off, a couple of drinks or a foot massage you feel “more like yourself”? Because you are, and all the rest of the time you’ve been playing at being somebody else. Someone more responsible, more attractive, better adjusted to living in a complex world.
Roleplaying, in other words, has become so much a part of our daily lives that we no longer notice it, and the idea of doing it “just for fun” seems as irrational as making a game out of breathing. The irony here being that most people could genuinely benefit from playing a breathing game, since most of us are doing it wrong and, by making a game out of something, we’re more likely to learn from it.
So what do we learn from roleplaying? The same thing that we learn about where our car keys are by looking everywhere that they’re not. By playing a role, by pretending to be what you think you aren’t, you learn more about what you really are. By giving yourself the freedom to walk, if only for a moment, in someone else’s shoes, you can become more comfortable in yours – or learn it’s time to buy a new pair.
Most importantly, role playing teaches us that it’s OK to try, fail and try again. It gives us a comfort zone between our fragile selves and an unforgiving world. It allows us to experiment in ways that we might not otherwise. It allows us to have fun, which, frankly, is a worthy enough goal all on its own.
This week, The Escapist Magazine celebrates role playing with issue 263 “Playing a Role.” Alex Donks shares his experience of playing Master of Orion 2, Matthew Smith delves into the world of roleplaying a silent protagonist, Nicholas Branch explains how “realism units” combine play and exhaustive tactical training and Colin Richardson explains why all gaming is roleplaying.
To get into the proper spirit, I encourage you to read each article while wearing a different funny hat. Read aloud using an accent, if it helps.