being the mental and scholastic wanderings of Collie Collier
Copyright © 1994 B. A. "Collie" Collier
To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation
tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the story-tellers who
are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are
irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly
help along the psychic destruction of their people.
--Ben Okri, from The Joys of Story-Telling
I realize "The Line" was the theme several Interregnums ago. However, I found it a little difficult to discuss -- I had no idea what to say. I've never had a problem with distinguishing between myself and my gaming characters, for all that I tend to get deeply into persona. Objectivity in gaming was an important technique I learned early, in order to keep from scaring my friends. ;-)
However, I wanted to say something about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. Obviously it is important, because there are people that have difficulty with it. One frequently hears statements that dismiss role-playing games as "kid's stuff" (as if no real adult would do such a thing), or as "escapist fantasy" (as if fantasies automatically make one unable to cope with real life).
Does anyone else think, sour grapes! when they hear that? ;-)
I'd like to quote extensively from an essay in a book I read recently. The book is Snow White, Blood Red, and the introductory essay is by Terri Windling, one of the book's editors. She is writing about "fairy tales," but I believe much of what she writes is immediately applicable to rpgs as well. She writes:
A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder. It speaks of these things in a symbolic language that slips into our dreams, our unconscious, steeped in rich archetypal images.
I have found that the best games, the ones I remember with affection and delight undimmed by the years, are the ones that speak to me in this fashion. I can hypothesize and test my convictions, learn from hard-won experience, and discover strongly-held inner truths. I can do this with my friends, in a mutually created story -- and frequently in situations I could never experience in real life.
Ms. Windling writes later:
A good fairy tale, or fantastic novel, may indeed lead us through a door from daily life to the magic lands of Once Upon a Time, but it should then return us back again with a sharper vision of our own world. Instead of replacing real life, good fantasy whets our taste for it and opens our eyes to its wonders. The fairy tale journey may look like an outward trek across plains and mountains, through castles and forests, but the actual movement is inward, into the lands of the soul. The dark path of the fairy tale forest lies in the shadows of our imagination, the depths of our unconscious. To travel to the wood, to face its dangers, is to emerge transformed by this experience.
Exactly. What is role-playing? A quest through your inner self; a journey of self discovery. In some ways role-playing is quite Jungian.
Ms. Windling makes one more point that I believe is worth mentioning:
I believe fantasy should not be limited to the realm of children's fiction, but it should also not be taken away from that ground where it has been nurtured and has thrived throughout this century -- in spite of sporadic attacks from those who believe that fairy tales are bad for children. Usually this is an argument against the sexism or classism of the tales (which assumes all fairy tales resemble the Walt Disney-fied versions). Or the staunch realists, made uncomfortable by the shifting, shadowy landscape of Faery, warn us against the grave danger of "escapism" which they believe that fantasy encourages in children, teaching them to avoid real life.[footnote: Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his influential book The Uses of Enchantment, suggests that just the opposite may be the case; that many adolescents lost in drug-induced dreams or seeking magic in a religious guru were deprived of their sense of wonder in childhood, pressed prematurely into an adult view of reality.]
Take that, all you people who believe my innocuous gaming pursuits are pointless and childish! I'll never willingly give up my sense of wonder. If an ability to find delight in imagination is truly a sign of immaturity, then I'll accept the label proudly. Better that than the fear- and guilt-driven, quiet desperation I see in the empty eyes of those that condemn a harmless hobby that gives so much pleasure.
Okay, enough rabid ranting. Back to "the line." ;-)
Part of what really bothers me about discussions concerning this metaphorical "line between fantasy and reality" is how we as a subculture (role-playing gamers) seem to accept, to some degree, the perjoratives others attach to our hobby. When I worked at Planet Ten (a comics and games store) I often talked with people that I knew were good role-players, who 'had a life' and a better grip on reality than many of the corporate zombies I knew. And yet these same people would grin and shrug with vague embarrassment when 'accused' of being role-players -- as if it was something they should be ashamed of! :-(
In American society today I could see being embarrassed about something like public nudity, but role-playing?! Why? It's so easy to explain in such a fashion that most people will accept it. It takes so little effort to do so. Why do we let our hobby be scapegoated so often? Why do we even feel we have to ask the question of whether we lose ourselves when we cross the line?
My little sister is a professional, international-level equestrienne. Her conversation consists of two and only two subjects -- horses and herself. International sports -- now there's a subculture that's 'gone over the line'! In comparison with my sister and her frien- er, acquaintances, I don't know a single role-player that doesn't have a firm and healthy grip on reality!
Let's take a single example. In most of South America, soccer fields are surrounded by barbed wire, to keep the fans from attacking and potentially killing the opposing players. How many role-players do you know that behave like Brazilian soccer fans? How many role-playing games are you part of -- where the GM has to hide behind barbed wire? But do we ever ask ourselves if international sports should be outlawed, due to the inability of those involved to keep a grasp on reality? No.
I realize there are people who do have problems keeping a grip on reality. However, this type of person exists in the population at large. In the Venn diagram of life, role-playing gamers and unstable personalities are both subsets of the human race. Unstable personalities are not an exclusive subset of role-playing gamers! Consequently, while I recognize the need to keep myself from self-damaging behavior, I do not consider this need only when I am gaming. I consider it in all aspects of my life. To me, it is as silly to throw myself off a cliff as to lose track of reality -- and about as likely.
All that said, I find that being able to put myself strongly into the 'persona' of my characters enriches my role-playing experience. I want to see things as my PC might; I want to react as my PC would react. I've found that when I can dream from my PC's perspective, I've achieved that goal. I simply have to remember to keep this alternate personality (if you will) held in reserve for the appropriate game. It's not difficult.
Dreaming in character... does this mean I've lost my grip, that I've crossed the line? I don't think so. I almost always 'see' things from someone else's point of view when I dream. I may not remember that I am "I" in the dream, but shortly after I wake up I do. Would I use my PC's reactions in real life? It depends. When appropriate, I have used techniques I first tested while in character. However, I know that "I" am doing this.
An example: Moriah is a character who prefers to talk her way out of things. Physicality doesn't scare her, but she's strong enough that she tends to really hurt things when she resorts to violence. This bothers her -- she feels guilty when she hurts people. So she's willing to spend extensive amounts of time trying (for example) to persuade someone with a gun to put it down.
She recognizes that the gun cannot hurt her -- but if she takes the gun away the criminal will simply pick up another later. If the criminal can be convinced to put down the gun, perhaps there will be less urge in that person to pick up a gun in the future.
Okay, say I'm in a situation where I want to persuade someone of something. I could simply force the issue... but won't I make fewer enemies if I try Moriah's way of solving things? So I decide to give it a stab -- I'll try to persuade rather than to force. If it works, I may try it again later -- and at some point persuasion before violence will become my automatic reaction, rather than a consciously applied technique learned while playing a character.
This is, of course, a simplistic example which I have exaggerated for
effect, but I use it to demonstrate that selectively crossing the line
can be of use. "The line" is nothing but a mental construct that we've
given negative symbolism to. It doesn't have to be that way; it can be
used in a helpful and creative fashion. As Kris Keegan
J'ne comprens pas why anyone would bother doing this role-playing stuff if it was just like playing with Tinker-Toys. One's character is of course an invented person, but she's invented out of bits of oneself, and if you can do this without caring or feeling anything about the character, you're missing something.
Exactly. If we don't really care about our PCs, why are we doing this? I can't truly experience someone else's point of view if I'm sitting huddled at the table, desperately wondering if I'm about to "lose" myself. To me the essence of good role-playing is to be able to try on someone else's passions, point of view, belief system, whatever. And to some degree, to explore myself.
Kris goes on to describe a favorite character as:
[I]ll-tempered, frequently homicidal, described by the gamemaster as "psychotic": things I'm glad I'm not. She was also clever, dedicated to the betterment of her world, and very much in love. Most if not all of the best moments in my role-playing experience come from that game, and those moments are the ones where I knew without thinking about it what Gwenthera would do or say. The fact that it took me a good 24 hours to regain my personal equilibrium after one incident in her life doesn't bother me, because I knew the whole time that it wasn't REAL.
Obviously a challenging character to play, from the sound of it. Also one with some emotional depth -- another of my favorite things to find in my PCs. I like playing ambitious PCs -- I feel they make me play my best. And if I can't, if all my PCs are shallow... what does that say about me?
She later comments:
I certainly don't want her to be real. Even more certainly, I don't want to BE her (my life has NEVER been as grim as hers and I like it that way, thanks very much). But I'm very fond of her and I miss playing her. She was brittle and dangerous but brilliantly alive and wonderfully tragic. And, gracias a Dios, NOT me.
That's why I role-play -- to try someone else's viewpoint, to challenge myself, to cross the line -- but only for the duration of the game. Like good novelists, I want to know and feel what my PC would know and feel. I know I've got the PC's personality down absolutely correct when she does things that surprise me. As Scott Ruggels put it, crossing the line in a game is "fairly common, if you're doing it right."
In further correspondence with Kris, she notes that it's possible to take anything to extremes. She mentions her own experience with the Society for Creative Anachronism, noting:
[M]ost of the people were just ordinary hobbyists, but others seemed to have made the SCA their whole lives, more important than their real lives, even....
Sometimes I think that half the people I encounter are searching desperately for something to give shape and meaning to their lives, and sometimes finding it in the SCA or reenactments or occasionally role-playing games. Personally I think that one's hobbies should add to one's life, but not take it over! Life is its own excuse.
This agrees strongly with what I've seen in my life. My personal pet hypothesis on this type of "crossing the line" is that it's a way of establishing power and control over one's life. If you're powerless in real life; if you're just some faceless office drone, or flipping burgers, or whatever, then the SCA, or role-playing games, or whatever, can be an important and real escape from that constant powerlessness and frustration.
In your "imaginary" world you can be anything and anyone -- ruler, magician, superhero, god even. You're respected and kowtowed to and people listen to what you have to say, and value what you do. When you feel powerless to change your "real" life, when anomie has you so badly you don't even try anymore, you can escape to a fantasy world -- whatever and wherever that fantasy world may be.
I didn't say it was healthy per se... just that it seemed a feasible explanation for things I saw. But I couldn't agree more with Kris' assessment of what hobbies should be in relation to one's life: "...hobbies should add to one's life, but not take it over! Life is its own excuse."
Which brings me to another whinebitchmoan- uh, observation I've come to that puzzles me. Why are role-players (in a general sense) so willing to trash anything (in any media) that they don't agree with? Why don't they look for the good that can be found, or for what can be used constructively in a game? Why is it that we accord more admiration to an acerbic critic, rather than prestige to the creator?
I realize this may not sound clear, so I'll try to explain it with a few examples. This first example was what got me thinking on the subject: I was reading a newsgroup, and stumbled across someone deriding Xena, Warrior Princess -- because no one would really fight with a broadsword like that!
I admit, I had to blink and reread again, to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding. Xena, for those who don't know, is a TV show with a pseudo-classical Greek background, in which a warrior woman who wears very little armor, and who is (to put it idiomatically) quite easy on the eyes, wanders around having adventures. Xena and its thematic companion Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are basically the Western equivalent of some of the better Hong Kong chop-socky movies. In these imaginative modern day stories of mythical pseudo-classical times we have appearing: the gods; mythical monsters; centaurs; amazons; magical potions, creatures, weapons, and items; an almost complete lack of really muddy, bloody, sloppy death; incredibly acrobatic fighting stunts and impossible weapons used in an imaginative fashion; and a constant triumph of good over evil.
And this guy is upset with the show because the broadsword fighting is unrealistic?! Explain this one to me again??
In later reading, I found out that this guy's sole claim to technical expertise in the field of broadsword fighting was that he was a role-player -- not even a member of any martial art. I had to laugh. There really wasn't any other reaction that made sense.
And yet, in retrospect, it was sad -- here was this wonderfully fast-paced, visually beautiful show, with all kinds of weird and well done special effects, spiffy costumes, half-clothed good looking people (male and female! ;-), and interesting stories to tell; with color and excitement and dash -- all things that can be so important to good role-playing! But this guy had decided that because the broadsword fighting was unrealistic, the entire show was worthless. How sad for him, to miss out on such a wealth of potential information and excitement, just because he couldn't look beyond something he didn't even understand clearly.
That was a fantasy-action TV show example. Here's a movie example, in the science fiction vein. Remember Stargate? I heard quite a bit of enthusiastic praise about it. I also heard people say it was an atrocious and worthless movie. There were several complaints: a technologically advanced alien wouldn't keep slaves, the alien acted unrealistically stupidly, it was unrealistic for the scientist hero to have deciphered the writing so quickly...
Okay. I hear all that. But I'll note that there are potential explanations for all those complaints. Firstly, how would anyone from earth know how an alien would act "realistically"? How could we possibly know its motives? We can only guess, not state definitively. Secondly, wouldn't almost four thousand years of unendangered life possibly have created a bit of complacency in the alien's mind set? Might that possibly explain it not reacting immediately and decisively when faced with a new threat? And thirdly, the behavior of the humans kept by the alien just wasn't slave-like.
How many of you have seen a small yappy dog leap between its master and a much larger threat, bristling all over its tiny little body (which looks, I might add, really silly with a Pomeranian! ;-)? A similar situation occurred in the movie -- the humans moved quickly between the alien and a potential attacker. They were not told to do so. The alien did not cue them -- I was watching closely for that. They did it because they wanted to -- just like the little yappy dog wants to protect its master, and has no care that it could be killed.
Nor did these humans stand around with blank faces, waiting to be told what to do. They roamed with the occasional cat, apparently freely, around the pyramid. In the scene where the alien and one of the humans are playing some equivalent of chess, they all hear a loud noise outside. The other humans curiously wander to the window, to see what's going on outside. They weren't acting like slaves, commanded to stay until summoned. They were more like little dogs or cats -- kept because they were interesting to watch and pet and have around.
That was what their body language said to me. Those humans in the pyramid weren't slaves -- the alien didn't need workers. The humans were pets.
It was very easy for me to come up with this potential explanation -- and because I'd done so I had a neat idea for a game and/or a character. Also because of this bit of mental exercise, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit more than I would have had I simply disgustedly decided that no technologically advanced alien would keep slaves. True, the movie was "unrealistic" -- it was fiction, not modern day "docu-drama." But who cares about its lack of modern-day "realism" when compared to the worth of the story, the acting, and the lovely visuals?
To completely deride and devalue the movie instead of looking for potential imaginative explanations for one or two incidents in it is to rob yourself of a rich resource for ideas. If I can look at the movie for more than just a "realistic" alien, then I can also gain from it: a wonderful visual for almost liquidly moving helmets, armor, fighter ships, and other similar paraphernalia within a mythical theme; information on how a supreme being might potentially act; a way to adopt a mythology in a game so that it becomes an artistically pleasing, technically advanced society; or just a straight-forward adventure game plot. Who knows what other wonderful inspirations someone else might get from it? It's not like my experience is the sum total of what can be gained from any particular piece of media.
I find it sad that we as a culture seem to be more approving of destructiveness, rather than creativity. How many of us have turned our noses up at something because some part of it didn't meet our internal standards, without looking to see if there might be something of worth in it? I do not espouse a lack of standards of quality. Instead, I wonder if we are sometimes too quick to be harsh in our assessments of things in our lives. Is it really important that we build our own importance by trashing someone else's creation? Would there not possibly be more satisfaction in granting ourselves merit by creating something of excellence? And perhaps we could learn new and interesting values by trying to understand someone else's definitions of "quality" or trying to see someone else's point of view.
Indeed, point of view can be quite illuminating. What annoys me may be fascinating to someone else. If I can get that someone else to explain to me their view point, I gain tremendously. Not only will I have a new perspective on something that was worthless to me before, but I have made a bridge of communication between me and another. To successfully communicate with another is never a waste of time or effort.
Let us take an amusing role playing example. I was watching some friends gaming in a fantasy game. They knew next to nothing about horses, and so the horses in the game were basically plot devices -- you got up in the morning, rode all day, and then at the end of the day someone in an inn recharged the horse up for the next day's ride. I laughingly told them that they needed someone to role-play the horses, to show them a different point of view on their travels. With slightly bemused interest they asked me if I'd role-play the horses for them for that one run.
For that one run, the game was hysterically funny to the players and GM. They learned, much to their surprise and amused consternation, that horses take a lot of care! Some of the horses got tired or were cranky -- people got bucked off; saddles with improperly adjusted girths slid underneath horses; packs came apart due to pack horses nibbling on each other or fighting and kicking; a shoe came loose, unnoticed, and the horse went lame; horses got balky around noon due to hunger and thirst... the PCs also discovered that riding all day without sufficient preparation hurts! Their PCs were falling off their horses, stiff legged and groaning at the end of the day, and the horses were adding insult to injury by not simply eating grass all night so they could run all day the next day -- no, these horses needed some grain and some grooming! ;-)
This was all done in the spirit of fun, of course. I had no intention of really hurting or antagonizing anyone. We all agreed that there was no need for me to play the horses further, after that one run. It was amusing to occasionally inquire as to how the horses were doing -- I could thus generate a cheerful chorus of groans, laughter, and shouts, "We're feeding them! We're grooming them! They're living on apples and carrots and sugar cubes! We're spoiling them! We dooon't want Collie to play the horses!"
However I was surprised and touched, later, to have the GM take me aside and thank me for playing the horses that one run. According to him, the players now had a completely different viewpoint on what life was like in that time-period. They understood: that things broke, that equipment wasn't always 100% dependable, that care had to be taken sometimes with one's actions, that living things were fragile, not just experience points. Indeed, some of the PCs had started carrying treats in their pockets for animals they met during their travels! According to him, that glimpse into an alternate point of view had enriched the game, both for him and his players.
I mentioned earlier that role-playing was easy to explain. Being someone that is usually willing to talk indefinitely- no, um, to put her money where her mouth is, I thought I'd give a simple example from personal experience.
For about two years I managed Planet Ten, a comics and games store. One day a woman came in with her small child. The woman bought a book about "The Little Mermaid" -- the Disney version had just come out, and the woman wished to share the story (one of her favorites) with her little girl.
She noticed the gaming tables we kept in back and asked what was going on. I explained that the young men in back were playing a role-playing game -- specifically Champions. She seemed disdainful and vaguely disgusted, and asked if their parents knew what the young men were doing. I replied that most of the time it was the parents that dropped the young men off, and asked if she did not approve of role-playing games. She replied proudly that she did not approve of them -- she wished for her little girl to learn things like responsibility and manners, not how to kill things without remorse!
I thought for a moment, then explained that role-playing games were merely a tool for imagination. Tools can be used in a variety of ways, and are not of themselves inherently good or evil. What was important in role-playing was hypothesizing oneself in a different role than one usually occupied. The young men in the Champions game might indeed be playing a game where deaths occurred -- but they didn't have to. Indeed, if their parents had been involved, perhaps the young men could have been learning about ideals such as responsibility and manners.
The woman looked dubious. I said, "Well, let's take an example. You want to teach your little girl about responsibility and manners. So here's the set-up you give her. You're a mermaid who thinks the surface is fascinating. You're late to a concert given in your honor by your father, and you're swimming home as fast as you can. You see a ship on the surface, and it looks like it's in trouble. What do you do?"
The woman looked puzzled for a moment, then a thoughtful look slowly dawned on her face. I added, "The young men in back could have a similar set-up given to them, to teach them similar principles. Let's say they're taking on the personas of people with super powers, and they're in this very shop, with their families. Bursting through the front door comes -- what? That's where you, as the game world's creator, are important, and that's where you can encourage people to consider different ethics. Do you want the players to just whack things? Or do you want them to worry about potential destruction of lives and property?"
When the woman and her child left, she had a much different look on her face than when she discovered what was going on in the back of the store. I may not have sold her any gaming paraphernalia... but if I'm lucky, I sold her on the idea of a little more tolerance for role-playing games.
I've recently started a new part-time job. It's been a somewhat different experience than usual, and has made me think a little about the distinct subcultures that exist within a main culture, often without ever really being seen or understood by the members of the main culture.
A caveat: I'm going to be talking about different races and my perceptions of different people. I'm going to try to sound as nonjudgmental as possible, but it's entirely probable that something I say will strike someone as racist, classist, sexist, or some other -ist. I'm taking this moment to state up front, right now, that to my knowledge I've no intention of being patronizing or belittling. If that's what you see in my writing, rest assured it's not intentional. Rant over.
My job is in a dental office. It's rather a small family practice, and the doctor and almost all the other employees are oriental. I and two other people are occidental - I've mentally tagged us the 'odd squad:' I am of Germanic/Irish descent, one woman is Hispanic, and one is black. All three of us are new, and part time. Everyone else is full time. All told, there are no more than about 10 employees.
I've noticed a couple of rather interesting differences between this small business and other businesses I've worked for. First, this is the friendliest place I've ever worked. In every other business I've worked for, there's been a slight hint of 'oh, you're the new kid' in the behavior of the other employees. This is the first time I've ever felt that I was happily welcomed in, as part of some large, cheerful family.
Second, I'm 5'10". I'm easily the tallest person there - even the doctor is a few inches shorter than me. I'm constantly reminding myself to stand up straight, as there's a very strong urge to slouch in order to appear shorter. Also, people tend to walk right up to me, start talking, and then, while looking up at me, realize quite how close and/or tall I am... and pause and take an uncertain step back. I've started sitting and leaning against counters a lot, so as to appear shorter and hopefully less... um... overwhelming? :)
Third, the personal space of most of the people there is much smaller than what I'm ordinarily used to. I've had some training in how to deal with that, so it doesn't bother me. However, I am occasionally startled when one of the women comes up and touches me in a manner I'd ordinarily categorize as friendly, rather than something one would encounter in a business.
All in all, this situation is somewhat different... rather nice, in an odd sort of way... and it made me wonder how many rich and fascinating subcultures there must be, of which we know next to nothing, within our own home culture. An enormously wide range of different subcultures exist, in a variety of formats, in America today. It is my personal belief that this diversity and richness of cultural variance is one of the things that makes America as societally flexible and adaptive as it is.
In a gaming sense, it made me think... so often we have a culture in our games be a cookie-cutter-identical, monolithic structure. Everyone worships the same god, everyone dresses in their own particular 'quaint and colorful native costume' (with no variations), everyone talks the same way and wants the exact same things. You can even see this convention on TV science fiction shows (e.g. the assorted Star Treks), and in fantasy stories (e.g. all dwarves and elves hate each other).
The only variant on this monolithic 'single-culturalism' seems to be when the culture is at war with itself - and then everyone magically crystallizes into two camps (each a single culture in and of itself) that struggle to obliterate each other with religious fervor. Only the kindly intervention of the Federation (or whomever we're supposed to be identifying with) will teach the foolish and misguided primitives that cooperation is the catch-phrase of the day.
I realize this is a convention that makes less work for the GM... but might it not be interesting to have subcultures within a culture in one's games? Perhaps a large number of subcultures could be used in a game to denote a thriving and healthy main culture, or a very static and rigid main culture with few subcultures could show a society that's lost its ability to evolve. There could be a huge variety of reasons for the subcultures to exist. You could have little enclaves of foreigners perhaps (like my oriental employers), or maybe groups that have collected because they believe in different gods than the main culture (like Jews used to do, and may still well do today for all I know). They'd each have their own particular, fascinating way of looking at things; they'd each have something unique and wonderful to contribute to the culture, the game, and the knowledge of the PCs. Okay, so I'm a dreamer... :-)Comments on Interregnum #21, and #22.
Last Updated: Tues Mar 24 1998