Significant others have asked me the fairly predictable question throughout my entire gaming career:
“Why do you keep playing those silly games?”
While that question is meant as a criticism and designed to belittle the roleplaying hobby, it turns out that it’s a very useful question to ask. Why do we keep playing these games?
In her book, “The Functions of Role-playing Games”, social psychologist Sarah Lynne Bowman discusses the answer to this basic query. In short, participants in roleplaying games create community, solve problems, and explore identity.
The question of why we play is fairly obvious from inside the hobby but opaque to anyone who hasn’t really tried it.
Firstly, we play games to create community. Given that this is why I do almost anything I love, it’s no surprise that roleplaying games appeal to me.
We create community, Bowman suggests, through a combination of, “role-shifting, ritual enactment, narrative construction, and the utilisation of archetypal imagery.”
In others words, we take on the role of a character. This isn’t terribly new, even to people who don’t play these games, because we all play different roles in our daily lives, naturally shifting from one to another. On a weekend, I am husband and son and friend more than I am teacher, for example. I shift into each role as need arises.
Artists and performers do this role-shifting too, such as when rock bands come on stage and take on the role of their band personas. What makes the roleplaying game different is that it forms a recent permutation of the traditional role-shifting involved in artistic expression. We roleplayers get to do it with our friends and in a less-formal manner.
We do this role-shifting together in a communal setting through the ritual enactment of “the game”. The game has rules but from this ordered activity we get to construct a narrative – what some people call a story – in a collaborative format. This in turn allows us to call upon and use the deep archetypal images that are drawn from the well of myths, epics, and fairy tales.
Humans instinctively know the value of symbols. Even young children naturally understand and use symbolic expression to communicate their ideas. Consider, for example, what it means if I present my wife with a single red rose. What is the meaning of that gesture? What symbolism is bound up in the flower? Why is that different from gifting her a bouquet?
Myths, epics, and fairy tales tap into something deep within what Jung called our “collective unconscious”. He posited that we each have access to a wellspring of instincts and archetypes – ancient primal symbols – and that each of us can draw deep insight when we inhabit these symbols and give them meaning. Is it any wonder that the ideal of Heroism is so strong among roleplayers? Or that of the Wise Sage, the Warrior, or the Mystic?
Role-shifting and invoking archetypal images from myth, epics, and fairy tales draws us together as people. We learn to accept one another through experimenting with the various roles we each can assume. We subconsciously let go of the idea that identity is fixed and learn to embrace difference at the gaming table.
Through it all, we also learn to solve problems in community. The teamwork and collaboration involved in playing these games helps us to find new answers to old problems. We explore new places and inhabit fresh ways of thinking. If magic is real, how would that change our experience of the world? If we invent cybernetic enhancements, what will this do to what it means to be human? How can we use power for the greater good? And so on.
It’s my contention that roleplaying games offer a pathway to a rich and empowering experience with others. These are not merely games designed as distractions but a communal ritual which opens the doorway to reflection, experimentation with roles, problem-solving, and the invocation of powerful mythic symbolism. Taken together, roleplaying games are a form of narrative collaboration which can reach deeper than other forms of story media.
This whole process is, by the way, a lot of fun! It’s a great release from the “reality” that envelopes our everyday life and it opens up possibilities for new ways to experience life. Instead of being a teacher in a classroom, I get to be a cunning thief or a powerful wizard. I can be a hardy space grunt or a bold tomb raider. Each role allows me to explore new elements of my own personality and discover the richness that lies within the imagination.