A student at the University of Minnesota Duluth has written a column for the Duluth News Tribune implying that video games, or perhaps roleplaying games, or perhaps first-person shooters, or perhaps tabletop games, or people who dress up in costumes to portray characters, are bad.
I’m honestly not sure which of these elements Jo Cooley objects to, because she (or he) seems to conflate them all together.
Overall, I believe the point of her column is that Duluth does not need a gaming convention. She cites one study purporting to link video games and violence, but seems to believe that video games are the focus of Indiana’s Gen Con. They are not. Gen Con focuses on other types of games–tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering and maybe even Risk and Settlers of Cataan.
Gaming (and I don’t mean gambling) is a huge umbrella term that covers a wide, wide variety of hobbies, from the strategy-wargaming to the roleplaying dice games to LARPing to the many types of videogaming.
Each gaming community is different. It’s just like football fans, who have their own communities dedicated to glorifying the Packers or the Vikings. Just like baseball fans, people get involved at different levels, some just watching a game now and then and others memorizing reams of stats and participating in a fantasy league (which is a form of roleplaying, by the way).
Videogames cover a wide range of topics and the larger, ongoing games have their own individualized communities. Star Wars: Knights of the Republic attracts a different type of gamer than EVE Online does.
Painting every gamer with the same brush is just like making a comment about “the media.” Almost nothing can be said about “the media,” which includes the head honchos of Disney and the small-town reporter who covers high school football games, as well as people who make TV shows, movies and books. The term is so wide it’s useless.
The same is true of “gamers.” I’m a gamer. I do not often play first-person shooters. I do not like strategy games or games with extreme gore. I don’t even usually play more than one video game at a time–I dedicate myself to just one, until I leave that behind for another one.
Currently I’m playing Guild Wars 2, and by the way, the plotline involves saving the world from evil, not being evil. In fact, most videogames I’ve played have been like that. There are a few out there in which you’re the bad guy, and a few more in which you’re allowed to make moral choices yourself, yes, but generally people seem to prefer being the good guy.
This brings me to the benefits of roleplaying–pretending to be a character in a story, either in a video game or in a tabletop game–and yes, I do believe there are some.
- Roleplayers learn about how story works in an interactive way. I’ve learned arguably more about storytelling from participating in Dungeons & Dragons and games like it than I ever learned in school. You learn the nuts and bolts of character and plot, but you also learn about pacing and theme. All of it’s hands-on, where you’re helping make it, so you get a much better grasp than you would by simply reading the definition of “plot.”
- Roleplaying gives you a safe place to explore moral decision-making without hurting anyone. Characters I play tend to be theologically-inclined and concerned about ethics, but like people in the real world sometimes they have to make difficult choices. Do you allow a princess to be sacrificed to save her kingdom? Do you allow her to sacrifice herself to do it? Do you save her regardless of consequences, or do you offer to change places with her? In a good game you will be faced with difficult situations and difficult choices over and over again, and it will prepare you to think about ethical choices in the real world, where there will be real consequences.
- Roleplaying gives you a chance to be in somebody else’s shoes for a little while. If done well, this should lead you to think about what other people’s lives are truly like, and should lead you to empathize with other people’s problems. You can try roleplaying as the opposite gender, or as someone from a totally different race or economic class from your own. What are the consequences of living in a different type of society? What would it mean to live in a society of machines, or people who do not die for hundreds of years?
- Roleplaying often spurs learning. I once roleplayed as a pirate character, and while our pirates were much nicer people than the real thing (real pirates were generally horrible), I did a lot of research on the Age of Sail and pre-anaesthesia medical practices. Roleplaying has also led to research on early stringed instruments and folk music, the law, folklore, floriography and religion. I have learned all sorts of things from roleplaying.
- Roleplaying forces you to work together as a group. In most cases, your character will not last long if he or she goes around stabbing random passersby. He or she certainly won’t do well if he or she stabs other party members. It’s like being a member of a rock band–you have to get along with these people, and that’s both in-character and out-of-character. It’s a social hobby, and you can’t do it alone, so you better leave at least part of your ego at the door.
- Roleplaying can be about forming good values. I’ve been involved in a lot of games over the years, and the most prominent themes have been good conquering evil, family, love, justice and what it means to be human.
- Roleplaying spurs your imagination. In a movie, you know what the protagonist looks like and sounds like and acts like and wears. When you’re playing a tabletop game, you’re not going to know any of that and you’re just going to have to imagine that red dragon bearing down on you, too. Even if you’re roleplaying through a videogame, most games don’t allow a lot of nuance in body shape or voices, so you’re still going to need to adjust the picture in your head according to what’s said.