Friday, April 08, 2005

The End of History and the Last Role Playing Game

I was having a very pleasant conversation with a young woman the other day and the topics ranged (as they often do with Millenials) from modern politics to video games to internet dating. At some point during the discussion of video games to internet dating the word, or rather anagram, RPGs came up. Okay, I was the one who mentioned them. The young woman was very non-approving of the RPG phenomenon.

Our conversation went something like this...

ME: The anonymity of the internet brings out the odd characters sometimes.

Maia(the young woman): I know x and y met each other on the internet and are thinking of meeting in person, but recently there has been a lot of IM drama.

ME: I encountered something similar with a group of people I was playing the RPG "City of Heroes" online with.

Maia: RPGs are evil...

She didn't make this comment judgementally (odd as it might seem given the words), or with great ire, she stated them like they were fact. Kind of like, "the sky is blue", "you fall at 10 meters per second per second", or "Old Star Wars is better than New Star Wars." It was just a throw away comment, one she believed, but not with "ideological" cause. I asked her why she thought RPGs were evil and she gave two reasons (probably more, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind):

1) "You should spend more time outside than sitting in front of a machine. Come to think of it in this way blogging is kind of like roleplaying."


2) "They make people commit suicide."

As to her first comment, well it is just true. Especially of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Players, but to a large degree also true of the "grognard" pen and paper role players as well. It also contained a key observation about the nature of journal blogging, the "fictional" persona many exhibit on the internet can be looked at as a form of role playing broadly speaking. So this is an observant and smart young woman I am writing about.

But her second claim..."They make people commit suicide." Well, I guess Tipper Gore and the PMRC have won after all. Either that or she has read this Chick Tract. In her 1987 book Raising Pg Kids in an X-rated Society, Tipper Gore makes that very claim. On page 118, in her chapter on "Heavy Metal Satanism" (and people worry about W's faith), Tipper writes,

"From The Exorcist to the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy roleplaying game, Americans chased one occult fad after another. The popular Dungeons and Dragons game has sold eight million sets. The game is based on occultic plots, images, and characters which players 'become' as they play the game. According to Mrs. Pat Pulling, founder of the organization, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, the game has been linked to nearly fifty teenage suicides and homicides. Pulling's own son killed himself in 1982 after becomeing deeply involved in the game through his school's gifted students program. A fellow-player threatened him with a 'death curse,' and he killed himself in response." [sic]

The thought of having any political opinions in common with Tipper Gore may be sufficient for this one individual to change her mind, ad hominem attacks aren't the best basis for disagreement. So what about the factual claims by Gore and Pulling? Do RPGs lead to suicide?

Michael A. Stackpole has written a detailed response to Gore and Pulling's criticisms in his "Pulling Report." Unlike the writings of Pulling and Gore, Stackpole's conclusion isn't filled with vitriol:

Patricia Pulling, like any responsible adult, is concerned for the welfare and well-being of children in our society. A personal tragedy in her life galvanized her and started her off on a crusade to save children from the horror she saw as having taken her son. Her motivation, both at the beginning and now, is something we can only guess at, but clearly she believes she is fighting a war against diabolical forces poised to consume young Americans.

Just as clearly, somewhere in her career as an investigator, she lost her perspective. She has, willfully or negligently, manufactured reports concerning suicides and murders related to games and Satanism. She has promoted individuals who are, at the very least, in need of serious psychiatric help to deal with their emotional and psychological problems. She has repeatedly represented herself as an “expert witness” concerning games of which she knows little or nothing. She has perpetrated a deception concerning the circumstances surrounding the senseless death of her son.

Without a doubt, Mrs. Pulling started searching for a way to prevent other children from following in her son’s footsteps. Her efforts on behalf of his memory were obviously well intentioned, but as the anti-game hysteria bled over into a war against Satan, the ends began to justify the means. What became important was to sound a clarion-call concerning the dangers of Satanism, and any method that worked to get that message out was perfectly acceptable.

Mr. Stackpole takes Mrs. Pulling seriously in his essay and dissects her claims to suicide links. He is also a very capable RPG apologist, so I won't try to make his arguments for him, rather I recommend those with questions visit his page.

I would like to state some of my own, non-generalizable, experience with roleplaying games.

I have made some of my best friends because of RPGs:

Robert Barker
Joel Allen
Nick Santillian
Wes Kobernick
Matt York
Roger Frederick
John Ford

This only names a few, some of whom I am not currently in contact with, but all of these people I list as friends.

The people in my current group are very interesting people with varied backgrounds:

Joel (USC Law and Business Graduate)
Wes (USC Film School Graduate)
Chris (Researcher at Caltech)
Tony (Student whose father is an online editor)
Ismael (Cool working class guy)
Brian (student)
Albert (student)
and Me (Graduate Student at Claremont Graduate University and Program Director of a non-profit dedicated to increasing youth voter turnout).

Some of my favorite Hollywood types are current or former RPG'ers:

Vin Diesel wrote the introduction to Thirty Years of Adventure.

Mike Myers admitted that Lothar of the Hillpeople was a name based on one of his D&D characters.

Jon Favreau admitted on Dinner for Five that High School was "Too much D&D and not enough dating."

There are more, but I wanted to point out the Favreau one in particular. It seems he has voiced the reasonable criticism...too much.

Roleplaying deals with fantasy, and fantasy "fulfillment." Not sexual fantasy, though you would never know that if you bought the Book of Erotic Fantasy, just fantasy. When people "roleplay" they are pretending to be something they are not, something they desire to be or to understand. Often they are "playing" a idealized version of themselves, especially new gamers. Many "evolve" out of this mentality and do something more akin to acting than roleplaying, but a large number of players are in fact playing characters that represent who the player wishes he or she was. For example, I share little in common with Superman, but it would be fun to imagine what I would be like if I were that powerful. I am not a man of heroic action in my day to day life, but twice a month I get that opportunity. Like when I read a novel and imagine that I am the protagonist, I get to do the same in RPGs. Only...I am actually the protagonist, okay...I and my 5 friends are the protagonists, but close enough.

As a form of "wish fulfillment" roleplaying attracts a good number of players who feel lonely or isolated or different from "mainstream society." Eventually they find others who have the same desire and they meet and play. Some play too much, desiring wish fulfillment over day to day drudgery. But most, the vast majority, leave the fantastic and return to reality with no bleed over between the two.

Gamers enter and leave the gates of Elfland all the time never once harming themselves or others. But sometimes time runs different in Elfland and some find they spend too long there.

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