I Love Role-Playing…Games

“Our modern world has few, if any, frontiers. We can no longer escape to the frontier of the West, explore Darkest Africa, sail to the South Seas. Even Alaska and the Amazon Jungles will soon be lost…It is therefore scarcely surprising that a game which directly involved participants in a make-believe world of just such nature should prove popular.”

Having searched for the most remote places in the world, it seems paradoxical that more than ninety million results have been found in 0.38 seconds. There are endless lists entirely dedicated to definitively illustrating, with pictures, that any given 10 spots are the ideal place for self-discovery and ritual disconnection from a sphere of the world where respite has become very difficult to find. The quote above given by Gary Gygax, co-designer of the seminal role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, when invoked today is perhaps more accurate than he could have imagined it would be. There are informational archives of astonishing magnitude, growing constantly and exponentially which cannot be left at the front door or in the desk at work. The chances of finding reprieve both from the monotony of repetitious daily life and the pervasiveness of an almost intolerable information overload diminish with each downloaded app asking for permission to use your location and with every meal spent in the company of hunched-over figures, silently leering into the abysmal screen which inches larger each year. Where there once was a separation, now no such line exists and under such keen and knowing eyes there appears to be little personal space for private self-reflection.

As human beings, it is quite normal to develop many personae which are summoned up according to the requirements of the social situation. In front of one’s child, the parental identity is rendered; when presented with a problem at work, one adopts the executive persona; when alone in the living room, yet another aspect is called up. The need to construct multiple identities has been magnified by the instability of our world today, where the rapid cross-pollination of cultures and the fluidity of previously fixed social roles can leave a crippling sense of dislocation. Previous incidences of supposedly objective knowledge have become open-ended once more. According to Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, this uncertainty is most clearly demonstrated when entering into the online sphere where one can very easily construct and maintain one or several online personae which are radically different from one’s real life self. The fluidity of this identity means that the concept of a homogenous, necessarily coherent self is replaced by the possibility of multiple, even conflicting, selves which can be mapped onto different browsing windows simultaneously. In essence, you can be a different person for each different forum, game, or social media account. This possibility is unique to the digital world and it is both an extraordinary and a disorientating one.

Indeed, there is a frightening, thrilling anonymity which comes with the creation of an online presence, an anonymity which is absent from the non-virtual world. Because the unwritten rules of online etiquette are different from those which govern real life, open and frank expression of various aspects of the self are more easily realized as opposed to in one’s social circles in real life which are ruled by an ominously silent dogma, upheld by no one in particular and yet utterly omnipotent. There is a sense of trepidation which accompanies this detachment, one which stems as much from the prospect of discovery as from the possibility of clothing oneself in disguise, rendering oneself largely immune to tangible punishment, and the quiet thought that entering a world without such dogma allows for the forbidden experimentation precluded from one which does. This feeling of imminent escape is a very old one – taking temporary leave of one personality to enter that of another is essential to innumerable forms of artistic expression. Current interpretations of this are part of a long tradition. Such a suspension of the Actual Self clearly manifests itself today in role-playing games and Internet communities which are typically quite open-minded and tolerant. This enables a freedom of movement between characters which is impossible elsewhere. In this way, Mass Multiplayers Online Games (MMOs) and Multi User Domains (MUDs) create societies online where people can feel liberated from responsibility in seemingly untouched surroundings and in unsullied bodies.

What is particularly striking about the nature of so many RPGs is the way in which they continue the tradition of myths and adventure stories into the contemporary era. Each country, ethnic group, or religion has a vast catalogue of myths and legends, usually revolving around insignificant individuals endowed with extraordinary, albeit concealed, talents. These characters overcome their humble upbringing, discover the transcendental source of power and then identify themselves as heroes, usually followed by a return to the earthly and the banal with a new, divine wisdom. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces illustrates this recurring sequence by locating a certain pattern in Western and Eastern mythology which constitute what he terms ‘the monomyth’. His example of Gautama, more commonly known as Buddha is a clear illustration of this pattern. When Gautama, having left home and adopted an ascetic lifestyle for many years, took his place on the Immovable Spot underneath the sacred Bo Tree to achieve Enlightenment, he was able to successfully resist the relentless antagonizing of the god of love and death Kama-Mara, through relentless focus, unshakeable divinity, and with help from the goddess Earth. Having done so, Gautama sat in stillness under four different trees, meditating on four subjects such as the beauty of Nirvana and the doctrine of causality and release until he was ordained by the god Brahma to spread his newfound wisdom, no longer as Siddartha Gautama but as the Buddha.

This example captures the nature of the monomyth succinctly and parallels can be drawn with Moses’ reception of the Tablets of the Law from God in the wilderness of Sinai, having spent months in exile from Egypt. The hero’s defeat of opposing forces inevitably leads to the unlocking of a supernatural wisdom which is in turn disseminated to the rest of society upon return. Through this process, “The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man – perfected, unspecified, universal man – he has been reborn”.

It would be callous to equate the experiences of divine providence and spiritual rebirth undergone by Buddha or by Moses to the experience of role-playing games. However, many RPGs are undeniably informed by these stories and therefore enable the player to reenact these roles on a virtual platform. The stories of mythological figures are often symbolically represented in the adventures and quests of characters in RPGs during which role-players undergo a transformation into the avatar they are playing with and follow in the footsteps of these mythical heroes on the eventual path to self-improvement. RPGs imbue us with a sense of purpose to act out these stories, to locate ourselves within a fulfilling narrative. Hence, we dedicate hours to repetitious ‘grinding’, continually performing the same actions in the hope that we become stronger, or smarter, or more agile to accelerate progress to the ultimate goal.

With this in mind, it is important to consider what informs the characters which we create for ourselves when engaging with communities online. Carl Jung’s work on archetypes is especially poignant when thinking about this – he argued that the recurrence of symbols and images of ritual in dreams are reproductions from an ancient, essential culture formed during the nascence of human language. Through RPGs it is possible to foster these archetypal qualities via a process which places the Actual Self against the archetype and the person you wish to grow into, the Ideal Self. Certain characters in role-playing games are reincarnations of those which have been represented in dramatic narratives across time and as such they resonate with an intangible and essential aspect of human consciousness. It is on this authority that they draw us in and become vivid.

Through this fracturing of reality, we are presented with a different, newly refracted version which creates a both heightened sense of self-awareness and a freedom from one’s history, all within beautifully designed and unpredictable worlds. We are thereby granted the power to practice different roles in an online community and empathise with the characters we have created and from whom we learn. We develop a theory of mind whereby we formalize this empathy into an understanding of how people work and react to certain physical or speech acts. And despite being played in virtual world, this process can generate sharply emotional reactions. People often fall in love online, sometimes with other people (there are, after all, so many hot singles in your area), sometimes with the characters that they have created or with certain ideas or communities. Friends are both made and lost and existing relationships are mended or broken beyond repair. People become both financially and emotionally invested in the maintenance of their online personae and their community, as in World of Warcraft where a monthly membership fee is required, or in Second Life where people convert real dollars into Linden dollars. In 2009, the total size of the Second Life economy came in at at $567 million. This is all done to maintain and develop their characters, exactly as we do in real life. Indeed, the entire MMO Games industry amasses approximately $350bn a year from 20 million players worldwide according to JupiterResearch. Four out ten Americans testify to playing online games, most of whom are young, adult males between the ages of 18 and 34; 45% of American adults regularly play online, video, or computer games. As the sense of mystery in the physical world dissolves, such a turn to the digital feels unsurprising, even if the financial commitment to cultivating a new life online initially seems obsessive rather than formative.

But is this recourse to the digital world in search of escape a spiritually and psychologically healthy choice? Perhaps it is the result of a desire to control where our attention is directed, a power which the unpredictability of the real world doesn’t permit; to feel close to people but never too close so that at the very least we’re sure of some form of company, always heard by someone but neither too intently nor too critically. Despite being constantly connected through the myriad apps available, there is a feeling of heightened loneliness now which was hidden before but is now brash and obstructive. There are productive, rewarding effects to be derived from engagement in online communities, not least from games which foster both teamwork and introspection. And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether it is simply our asinine last attempt to find community in the absence of authentic interaction. Spike Jonze’s film Her deals very sharply with the potential for isolation in a near future where technology is both intensely user specific and inherently impersonal, not to mention totally pervasive. The emotional incapability of the protagonist, Theodor Twombly, to deal with the scarring of a painful separation leads him into the ultimately cold embrace of an operating system which convincingly masquerades as his lover. His conviction that Samantha, the persona of the highly intelligent and perceptive operating system, loves him in a traditional way is tragically misplaced. His heart becomes broken and we are faced with the pathetic sight of a man who has almost completely forgotten how to interact with the untidy and incongruous beings that have replaced his previously immaculate world.

Inevitably, we must ask – is it a good thing that we can alter our online self to represent who we would rather be, that we can model the flesh and the mind of our characters to suit our impressions of who we ought to be and want to become? Is this inspirational or merely sadistic, an exercise in reminding oneself of the glaring flaws that every human possesses before sweeping them to the back of consciousness and diving headfirst into a pristine and perfectly formed world which constantly rewards us. Is there a way to ensure that experiences online translate to personal betterment in real life? Perhaps that is fatally optimistic – one need only scan Twitter or 9gag to find the generous use of racist and sexist memes, used precisely because it is difficult to shame an online profile and because that person can disappear in seconds. The sinister transcripts of interactions between members of the deep web marketplace, Silk Road, point even more accusingly at this. It may be that the austere fate, one which is irreversibly bound to the process of a global immersion in technology, is of isolation and identity confusion. That may be little more than an indulgence in the elegiac, an infantile clamoring for the good old days which were never quite as perfect as we remember and which often seem eminently better than what we have now. What is clear is that virtual personalities are less distinctly confined to the digital sphere. Less so is whether this is empowering or paralytic.

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Boris Linnebank is part of the Editorial team at Entitled. He was born in London to an Indian mother and a Dutch father. Boris loves reading, running, going to the cinema, and all sorts of music. He plays the saxophone badly and the bass guitar even worse, but loves both.