Role Playing for Self Improvement
Many articles on this site and others, and the gaming groups I am a part of, only view gaming as a hobby or at most a dramatic art. I would like to present a new perspective because for me, gaming is a much different type of activity. For me gaming is an exercise for self improvement. What I am advocating is a meta-approach to your gaming that includes a self reflective process.
First, nothing in this article or its implied application is meant as a substitute for real therapy, nor is it to be considered authoritative, expert, or professional opinion. If you have a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist I advise you to consult with this professional before trying any of techniques in this document. I assume no responsibility for psychological difficulties, traumas, or pains that may come from employing these techniques. Continuing to read this article indicates you consider yourself able to determine (alone, or in concert with a mental health professional) which techniques will be safe for you and under what circumstances. The following is the theory of one gamer.
Many articles on this site and others, and the gaming groups I am a part of, only view gaming as a hobby or at most a dramatic art. I would like to present a new perspective because for me, gaming is a much different type of activity. For me gaming is an exercise for self improvement. Don't get scared off here, I'm not advocating any far out New Age hippy dippy stuff. What I am advocating is a meta-approach to your gaming that includes a self reflective process I find helps me improve my relationships with others, understand myself better, AND IMPROVES MY ROLEPLAYING.
It is my belief gaming can be used for personal growth in several different ways, but all of these different ways have one basic assumption in common; the game is a reflection of ourselves. From the type of game, be it fantasy or cyberpunk; from character, be he fighter or she magic user; to specific action, from negotiation to holding the trigger down, we create this game. We create it from what we know and can imagine, we create it from our fears and our desires. If you disagree with this basic premise then you are likely to disagree with what follows.
Given this assumption I think we can use the game for self improvement. We can do this in two ways. First, by observing the parts of the game we create and the relationships our creations have. By understanding my character reflects me because I created him, I can learn about myself by observing him. This observation itself can help produce growth because awareness is the first step in making change. Second, because the game is a reflection of ourselves, the game can be used as experimental ground. We can try on new personalities, new perspectives, new ways of being in the world. By trying them on we can discover which of the new ways we would like to use in the real world more. This way I might actually acquire in interpersonal skill I can use in real life. In the coming series of articles I will address how character formation, gaming group dynamics, world creation, NPC generation, GMing, and player/GM interactions can be mirrors for ourselves and can be tools for improving what we find there.
A character is a role, and like any theatrical production, exists independently of the actor.
In this article I will address how the character we choose both reflects a part of us and can be used as a tool for growth. There is an assumption in my gaming groups that the character has nothing to do with the player. While some common trends are acknowledged, our GM often emphasizes that the nature of gaming is dramatic. Choose a character, define his or her motives, write a history for her or him and once you have established a world and life for the character outside of yourself then you are ready to play. Bad roleplaying is defined as slipping into your 'real' self, and not maintaining the character as established. Good roleplaying is defined as never allowing your subjective experience of the character to interfere with the objective, history and/or description. In other words, the assumption in my gaming groups is once you have written the character, anyone else should be able to play that character because now the character is something outside of you. In this perspective, a character is a role, and like any theatrical production, the role exists independently of the actor(s). I do not want to detract from this perspective. I enjoy it. I play in groups that function with it. And it works just fine. There is nothing wrong with it. But, there is another perspective I would like to offer which I think would engender self improvement.
This new perspective acknowledges the characters we play are not just generated ex nihilo, but are generated from within us. Our wounds, strengths, psychology, and even our growth can be expressed through and experienced in our characters because our characters are a part of ourselves. If we base a character on a part of ourselves we don't like we could work on developing affection for that character and so learn self-acceptance. We can play a character with a lot of anger and grow more calm for having expressed it. We can play a character with traits we would like to cultivate and in doing so stretch our ability to manifest that change in our real lives.
Let me illustrate this point with a personal example. One of my current characters is a rogue (D&D 3E). He originally ran away from home when his father shamed him for stealing. He lived on the streets for a few years, and when he became successful he returned home to find his father dead. He mourned the loss of his father and foreswore stealing. He joined the current group of adventurers because he thought they might be able to help him gain prestige and respect. They consist of several priests and a paladin. My character however, feels he is not moral. He never feels like he is good enough and is constantly seeking guidance on moral matters from the paladin in our party. He is self denigrating and lacks a backbone.
It wasn't long in the process of playing before I realized this character reflects a part of me. Though I am an active member of my community, high functioning, and seem to have things pretty well together, there is a part of me who never feels good enough. This is reflected in the character in that he never feels he can make up for stealing against his Father's wishes. I also tend to play it cautious when entering a new group and try, to the best of my ability, to befriend the leaders in the group. My character reflects this tendency of mine by sucking up to the Paladin in the adventuring group. Over the course of the last year, I have been watching some of these dynamics changing both in myself and in my character. For example, I have been working with Fred Luskin's Forgive for Good (Harper Collins, 2003) book. This has helped me to become more accepting of myself for harm I have done to other people, and to accept I am human and therefore I make mistakes just like everyone else. My character, in parallel, encountered a messenger of a God who cursed him (not for transgression but for doubting the God's ability and for thanklessness). My character went through several arduous tasks to be absolved, and dedicated large sums of money and resources to learning his new faith. Finally, after a trial of his flesh, he was absolved of his curse and has since gained a great deal of confidence in his judgment and in his moral fiber.
Reflection upon how your character is a part of you can be a very effective tool for self growth.
By paying attention to my character and his development, it has been possible to see, and experiment with the changes in me over the same time. I think reflection upon how your character is a part of you, could be a very effective tool for self growth. Even difficulty staying in character is a valuable tool in this model. For example, if my character is offended, and if he wouldn't normally have trouble telling the offending PC or NPC off but I don't roleplay him doing that, I have several questions to ask myself. Am I uncomfortable expressing anger? Do I trust the player (of the PC) or my GM (of the NPC) to differentiate between my character's anger and my own? If I slip out of character in order to avoid character death or difficulty am I afraid of my own death? Do I avoid conflict in my own life? And therefore the richness of that experience?
If I find I am constantly playing characters who are paragons of virtue without flaw, is that my own aspiration? Am I putting it into practice in the rest of my life or only taking that risk in the game world? If I am constantly playing characters who are blood thirsty, what is the connection between that and my life? Most of us aren't blood thirsty but such a trend in me would represent that I am dissatisfied with my life and don't express it. It might mean something different for you.
This process could even be extended into the character creation process. When creating a character choose to play some part of you you don't express (if you are an introvert with a hidden wild side, play a hedonist), play a part of you that you want to live out more often (if you are too rigid or judgmental play a character, who is cordial and loose), play a part of you that you want to explore in a safe context (if you have a difficult relationship with a parent, play a character with a similar relationship and make it the character's goal to resolve the problem). All of these techniques will make you much more attached to your character and her/his development than trying to create something objectively separate from you. It also entails a certain amount of risk for you, especially if you reveal your motivations to other players. But I maintain the fruit of such a labor has been bountiful for me and I anticipate it might be for others as well.
Subsequent articles will also cover how to make a world to reflect or enhance your self improvement (for GMs), how to observe the interpersonal dynamics of your gaming group and PC adventuring party for personal growth opportunities, the role of the GM in the growth process, and analyzing specific game events for their significance to you.