Thursday, September 08, 2011

What Good Are RPGs, Anyway?

RPGs as Escapism

Life in the new millennium is fraught with stresses produced by a rapidly changing, often shocking, and at times highly dangerous environment. Stress and danger, however, are not new to modernity. The notion that we would want, and perhaps need, a mental escape from life's stress is not new either, as many have postulated the same through the ages, and pretty much most forms of entertainment are to varying degrees forms of escapism. Added relatively recently to the catalogue of forms of entertainment known to man was the Role Playing Game.  A wonderful invention, indeed.   And clearly, RPGs serve the need for escapism, and this may even be its primary and most useful function.

However, if the RPG is merely a form of escapism then it could be argued that it is no better than doing drugs, rendering one impotent in the real world in proportion to the level of escape achieved. Escapism could be a more than a mere vacation from harsh reality - it could become an unhealthy, and ultimately anti-social, civilization-diminishing addiction. One might even argue that people who spend their time escaping reality will not help to resolve the problems of the real world, and therefore it not only provides no benefit to or enhancement of civilization, but is completely counter productive. Of course, to make that argument is to argue against all forms of escapist entertainment, of which RPGs are merely one.

If escapism is all that they really amount to then it casts a rather gloomy pall over the whole concept of the RPG and I think I might be persuaded to oppose it on principal. However, I am of the opinion that civilization requires alert, energetic and engaged minds to maintain and advance, and that a certain amount of escapism is actually good for people.  It is also interesting to note what Tolkien once said on this subject. 
"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"
S. Lewis was also fond of humorously remarking that "the usual enemies of escape are ... jailers".  I am of the opinion that escapism is actually a healthy and life-enhancing activity, but like everything else, can be taken too far.  So for this purpose RPGs are pretty darn good.   Escape to a Fantasy World for an afternoon, and enjoy adventures that would otherwise be impossible to you.  It's fun.  And, if not taken to an extreme, good for your mind.


RPG: Some Rationals for Justification

It seems to me that there is fundamentally more to RPGs than mere escapism. And for this reason I should like to argue in favor of considering what use RPGs may have for the advancement of individuals and civilization as a whole, and in so doing deflect some of the spurious claims made against RPGs, and attempt to address some of the legitimate concerns which have surfaced.

The principal rationales that come to my mind that could justify the existence and popularity of RPGs are:
  • That it is necessary that some time be spent in mental escape from dull or harsh realities in order to rejuvenate the mind.
  • That it is advisable that some portion of the population that is not able to tackle the actual real issues of the world be offered some means of mental escape least they suffer an incapacitating crisis of stress.
  • That RPGs are not mere escapism but provide a useful function for the advancement of individual mental capabilities, and thereby civilization in general.
Lets consider each of these in turn.

RPG As Mental Spa


To the first point, it is entirely possible that modern stresses and challenges to the psyche are of such intensity that some form of temporary mental escape may be considered a useful mechanism for the rejuvenation of the mind. One might call into question, however, if RPGs are the best mechanism for this effect, as meditation may be much preferred for this purpose. RPGs, after all, can be quite stressful… it is not like watching a field of flowers grow to have your beloved Character threatened to be mashed by the claws of an outraged and hostile red dragon. So if RPGs themselves can produce stress, albeit of a different nature than “real life”, will they really provide a rejuvenating function? This, doubtless, would depend on the nature of the RPG being played in the same way that some movies produce peaceful and happy feelings, while others leave one in a state of noxious anxiety.

However, let us suppose that some RPGs may result in mental rejuvenation. We might think of such RPG games as something like a spa for the mind; a mental workout, which in the end leaves one refreshed and ready to come back and tackle the problems of the real world with renewed vigor. Those seeking mental rejuvenation would naturally gravitate towards such RPG worlds. Which is not to say that all RPG worlds would provide this effect, but that RPGs in general have the potential to do so. If this is the case then a reasonable argument can be made for the potential, if not actual, usefulness of RPGs along these lines.

RPG As Bread & Circus

The second point, that some portion of the population should and must be offered means of mental escape from life's harsh realities is another possible rational. It may be that mass escapism is a requirement of a healthy society. Thus, for those grinding against a harsh reality in such a way as to cause themselves more harm than good, an alternative is available.  RPGs could be seen as a means by which those who can not directly effect the course of affairs of the world may find an escape from the real-world stress, and for them that may be a valuable service. As such, RPGs may be thought of as merely another form of entertainment, like a TV show, or a movie or a novel.

Conversely, one could dispute this by arguing that if everyone did fully participate in the solving of the issues of our time that we could achieve even greater heights of civilization. In this case, escapism, we would argue, would merely be a means by which the masses could be lulled into complacency and denuded of moral and social vigor. The RPG might be considered a form of mental opium, and the argument for its use, like that of the Bread & Circus of Rome, could be construed as a means by which those in power could seek to keep the masses from actively participating in the real world. While this indeed would be deplorable, it would be no more so than any other form of modern entertainment. In fact, were we to accept this argument, we would have to consider the RPG as merely an extension of already existing forms of Bread & Circus in every form of entertainment we have ever had as a civilization.   That seems absurd, and so I think this argument fails the "reasonable people would agree" test.

However, one could imagine Virtual-Reality Massive Online Role-Playing Games (VR-MORG)s of the not too distant future, which may become so “realistic” and graphically addictive that millions play them in order to escape an otherwise dull or grim reality. A world ruled by techno-elites in which the VR-MORG version of RPGs could be used to produce socio-political lethargy in the masses. Perhaps we are already beginning to see this effect in the players of MORGs already present online. The imagination staggers and quails before a vision of millions upon millions of glassy-eyed VR-MORG addicts wearing their Sense-Around Helmets, completely sedated by a virtual fantasy landscape outside of which they are subjected to the humiliation of utter and hopeless defeat in the real world.   The ultimate in divide and conquer.  There was, actually, a Star-Gate episode I saw that posited this exact scenario.

I think we should all glare in horror at this possibility. Yet it is one possibility that must be noted, accounted for, and summarily terminated before it can take root. Nor does it mean that just because such a possiblity exists that we should eliminate RPGs, as some pessemistic far-thinkers might conclude.  Would it not be preferable to seek to find their benefits and encourage them toward better more life-affirming implementations?  By advancing superior alternatives and conceptions, we could prevent the RPG from evolving in the dread direction.  Naturally, it will be up to game designers of the future to determine how to make RPGs life and civilization affirming, rather than the opposite.

RPG As Mind Enhancing Pursuit

Conversely, this brings us to the third point. What positive gain might be had from the RPG, and how might the RPG be used to advance civilization rather than undermine and destroy it? Before I explore that possibility let’s step back for a few moments and review what the RPG is in essence.

I would argue that children who play Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians (and presumably in the middle ages, Knights and Knaves, and in ancient times Warriors and Savages, etc), are in fact role-playing, without the name, and without the organization that usually attends a modern, formal RPG. The act of pretending to be, and performing with ones childhood playmates like a Cowboy is in and of itself role-playing. What the RPG does, that Cowboys and Indians does not, is assign specific rules to encounters, provides an adjudication method that resolves the actions, and is more complex in that it also calls for, relative to the imaginary play of children, a certain amount of knowledge, organization, and skill.

Furthermore, I would suggest that games, first and foremost, from a broad sociological perspective, are tools for learning. Even in the animal kingdom we see that games constitute an essential learning tool. Cubs play at hunting, and learn from those experiences. Children play at being Cops and Robbers and learn from those experiences. What children learn by playing Cops and Robbers? Physical skills, social interaction skills, moral lessons, tactics, team play, problem solving, and of course, how to use their imaginations. All of which provides substantial benefits to the individuals and society as a whole.  It is perfectly natural, and we as mammals have been doing exactly this kind of role-playing-for-learning for millions of years. 

But moreover, and foremost, games, and RPGs in particular, enhance the imagination, without which it would be impossible to create new innovations and perpetuate the advance of civilization. By immersing players in imaginary settings and providing them with adventurous problems to solve, RPGs can be used as a tool to teach organizational, social, and moral lessons. Or rather, the very act of playing a well constructed RPG would by its nature teach such lessons. Depending on the quality of the RPG it can combine a great number of games into a cohesive and comprehensive fabric.

RPGs As Morality Play

Furthermore, I would say that utilizing the role-playing aspect of RPGs, it is possible to teach various kinds of moral lessons. These kinds of lessons may best be derived from experimentation in different modes of moral behavior, which may not be within the realm of social acceptance, but would nevertheless be very instructive to the player. The most interesting capability of RPGs in this regard is the use of the (often maligned) Alignment System. The Alignment System, for those unfamiliar with the concept, posits two axis of moral reality, the Good vs. Evil Axis crossed by the Law vs. Chaos Axis. In this case, players are challenged to think along various pathways that might not be typical for them, and it gives them a chance to see what kinds of consequences are attributable to various kinds of moral behaviors.  That knowledge can be invaluable in life.  And it can be learned via a game much more safely than through life experience.

For example, a child might attempt to play a Lawful Good character, only to learn that the desire to be Lawful Good is not the same thing as achieving it, and that in fact it requires much more perseverance and determination than they supposed, but still discover that in the end it is worth the effort. Conversely, someone might play a Chaotic Evil character only to discover that in the end crime indeed does not pay. And so forth. What makes these lessons possible in the safe environment of play is the RPG game system with its rules, adjudication and consequences.

In this way RPGs can teach and enhance a wide range of skills related to morality, civics, team spirit, planning, organization, strategy, tactics and creative-innovation. It is also well known that RPGs of various kinds foster the desire to learn realms of knowledge such as history, economics, mathematics, literature, philosophy, theosophy, and linguistics, among many others.

In fact, one could reasonably argue that the RPG has the potential to do this as no other game in history because the RPG is the most advanced form of game thus far created, fusing as it does disciplines and methodologies from many other games into one. In this sense, RPGs may prove to be the ideal medium by which to teach exceedingly valuable and complex organizational, social and moral lessons. To the degree RPGs succeed in this area is the degree to which civilization would be enhanced by their presence.

In the great scheme of things, small effects in large numbers aggregate into great effects in total. Such may well prove to be the case with well crafted RPGs. The advantages gained by their players in terms of advanced life skills and mental acumen could distinctly outweigh all of the former systems of game-learning combined, thereby producing an even more advanced individual and civilization than we can readily imagine today. We should hope that such an outcome would be available to us. My contention is that we would benefit to make the effort in that direction, and show tolerance (within reason) for the lesser examples and initial disasters which are bound to afflict any new artistic medium.

RPG As New Art Form

Of course, as said, all of these benefits would be contingent on the successful creation of high quality RPGs. And one can compare this to what is involved with the creation of great literature. There are many poorly written books, but we would not wish for that reason to do without the classics that are truly great literature.  Some RPGs will be bad, many in fact, and produce less than stellar results, and poor quality games. It is inevitable and unavoidable. Some, few perhaps, crafted by genius, will be truly magnificent, artistic achievements, which in time the world would not wish to do without.

RPGs are an entirely new technique of game play. They are not themselves either good or bad. Beautiful and magnificent edifices can be created, and we should encourage it. Thus, the RPG can be seen as a new form of art.  One that can produce marvelous, elegant worlds opening the mind to vistas of the imagination hitherto unknown and teaching lessons which otherwise would be much more laborious, difficult and potentially dangerous or impossible to acquire. The number of benefits civilization might acrue from well crafted RPGs would be difficult to determine in advance, but I think it is clear that there are potentially many benefits possible.

I prefer to consider RPGs as a new and fascinating form of art and game-play with fantastic possibilities and potentialities, which our civilization has only just begun to comprehend. Games are one of the measures by which civilizations may be judged, along with artwork, architecture, literature and other mediums of communication and expression. As such, the RPG represents an advancement of the concept of Game, and is among the most complex, enriching and fantastic Game inventions to grace civilization to date, and in that sense is one of the great achievements of modern world. I advocate that we use RPGs wisely, and encourage them to proliferate and prosper.  Only in this way will all of their myriad possibilities be explored and the Great Worlds brought into being for the benefit of those who are fortunate enough to experience them, and our civilization as a whole.
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