Seven Benefits Of Roleplaying Games

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.

4 Responses

  1. I grew up playing with things like army men, farm set ups, and construction set ups. I spent hours using my imagination to either make a farm really work well, make roads and build thing with my Erector Set (Damn cool set, but with too many parts toddlers could swallow so they stopped making them) and a defending force always beating back the invading force….I spent hours in my imigination with all those toys. I never became a farmer, I lost interest in going to war when I was old enough to see what was happening in Vietnam, but I did do a lot of construction. Personally…I think some of the old fashioned total imigination toys and/or games might be the best there is.

    Today I play HOGS (Hidden object) and puzzle type games. They’re fun and some even have story bi-lines, but nothing like the games you mention. Maybe when I was younger I might have been into role playing games, but the closest I came in reality was playing hours of army games with buddies and our toy guns. All this talk about the influence of such things on violence with youth….Well…I and most of my friends never became gun toting killers (although a few did go to war). So I’m not convienced some of the games have the influence some think they have. I do however think this general attitude of “Me” at the center of the universe has more to do with the way kids react with others today, and that I think has far more to do with a lot of this youth violence than most anything else…

    1. When I was a kid, I used my Barbies as characters to tell elaborate stories, but my favorite occupation was actually reading, which is another great hobby for the development of the imagination. When I was 12 I carried my dad’s Shakespeare textbook around so I’d always have something to read–and yes, I did read it. (The annotations were, as they are now, quite helpful.)

      Apart from the after-school cartoons I rarely watched television, and though I did play videogames, I usually did that with my mom or brother if possible, so that was family time for me too.

      I like RPGs because it’s a form of cooperative storytelling, and I really enjoy the way people’s individual ideas add up to so much more than the individual components would on their own. With a good group, the synergy is awesome.

      And with a good group, you’re not focusing on killing stuff to kill stuff, but on the fact that your friend just punched a dragon in the face and somehow survived the experience, or that the bad guy who got away is infecting small children with the plague three towns over. And then there’s the occasional possibility that a carnivorous gazebo might eat you, but what’s the likelihood of that…

  2. Wow…Do they move you totally out into the ozone shortly after you’re on line for a little while. You appeared this morning early, and before noon you were totally gone, and I had to hunt your article down….Talk about an extremely short shelf life

    1. On the Sun’s site? It just lists the most recent 5 blog posts in our featured blogs list.

      So if I post on a day when everybody else posts, it gets pushed off pretty quickly. It’s actually an incentive to post more frequently, really, but it’s been so busy here lately I haven’t had much time to spare, alas. I just felt Cooley’s column deserved a response. It would be kind of neat to have a conversation with her about it, but I’m sure she’s busy too.

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