R.A. Whipple asked me to comment on his recent column, "To Be or I AM – the role within role-playing" where he posed the question:
How does playing a role-playing game aid in making friends more than in any other activity?
I once played with a high school friend who said his father was against role-playing games -- not because he was concerned they exerted an evil influence on his son, but because "they reveal too much about you." This is the crux of Whipple's argument, that role-playing games refract and reflect the players in a highly personal way with a goal that unifies them. To a lesser extent this is reflected in other team-oriented games, but role-playing encourages repeat play and deeper immersion of the third frame of reference. I explored this in my book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
Dungeons & Dragons models certain kinds of fantasy very well, most specifically teamwork during a time of conflict. The distinction of classes separates skill sets such that no one character is good at everything. As a result, this encourages groups balancing each other by choosing a role. These roles have slowly become more and more formalized as the game evolved. Gygax explicitly identified the class roles as the fighter taking the role of infantry, the thief as spy, cleric as medic, and artillery as the magic-user (Gygax 2007).
Whipple explains how the characters' specialization and their weaknesses causes them to rely on each other:
The point is how the player chooses what his or her character chooses to become is based on the player’s meta-game knowledge of his or her character’s strengths and weakness; that this is a window through which the player may be observed undisturbed. As a mirror, RPGs are a kind of layman’s Rorschach test to promote understanding between players – even if they play far out races. Maybe especially if they choose to play someone so far removed from themselves on paper.
These are attributes that Gary Alan Fine identified as part of what makes role-playing so beneficial for its participants:
Beyond educating players on the details of history or the theories of the future, Fine (1983:62) also listed other acclaimed attributes derived from role-playing games, including the ability to synthesize information, decision-making, leadership, and role-playing as a skill. Role-playing is by its very nature a teaming activity, which requires both decision-making and leadership for the team to be successful. Role-playing as a skill is better described as empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes to help understand them. Child psychologists, adult counselors, and business people all use role-playing as a teaching tool to help understand a different viewpoint, and fantasy role-playing can help in much the same way.
Whipple summed up these benefits at the conclusion of his article:
The game does not limit any player’s ability to display courage, cowardice, perseverance, impatience, team spirit, or individuality through their character. The player is the one, not the system, bringing all that interaction with them based on the foundation of their own attitudes, values and personal experience, which creates their understanding of themselves and others around the table. And that is how you get to know someone by interacting with them for an hour rather than having a direct conversation with them – to paraphrase Socrates.
I believe my friend's father was right: role-playing games do reveal who you are. But I prefer to see it as a positive, team-building experience worth investing our time in.
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