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Spider Dreams

Role Playing Games (A short look)

An introduction for the non-gamer

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                When people talk about "role playing games" (RPGs) or "gaming," computer-generated images of first-person shooters and interactive simulations come to mind.  There is a growing segment of the population that is finding out how cool some of those games are, and the interaction with people from around the globe is helping to fuel that genre of gaming.

                But there were RPGs before there were personal computers and the internet.  The most familiar name associated with pen-and-paper RPGs is Dungeons and Dragons .  It began in the 1970s as wargaming-- re-creating battles using miniature figures (like chess, but without a standard board and with more complex rules).  The rules evolved, and eventually led to a set of rules that didn't require figures, only pen, paper, and dice.  And a little imagination, of course.  RPGs have come a long way since those first days in the Gygax family basement.  The stigma remains, though, which is what most people remember from the late '70s and early '80s.  RPGs have been blamed for acts of murder and suicide, even though a minute segment of the gaming population committed the acts.  (Overall, the percentage of gamers who have committed those acts is likely much lower than those in the non-gaming population that have committed them.  The games themselves didn't drive those individuals to what they did; something went very wrong in their lives outside of gaming.)  However, millions of people have found the good points of gaming, and continue to enjoy it.

                Role playing is an active type of entertainment, like reading.  It requires the participants to use their imaginations, to try to visualize the action in their minds as it is described, and as their characters interact with the invented world.  Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to be a knight in King Arthur's court? or wanted to lead an army against the evil Sauron? or explore a devastated futuristic dystopia, or maybe colonize a new world in space?  These are some of the vicarious experiences that gamers have.  The reality of doing those things is impossible, but the fantasy-- the act of imagining oneself as part of one of those worlds-- exists for the gamers.  Gaming takes those ideas beyond childhood swordfights with sticks in the backyard.  RPGs have set structured rules and provide a framework for the flights of fancy.  From the American old West to Arthurian Britain, from Middle Earth to Alpha Centauri, RPGs can take us where we can only dream of going, and let us do things that we could never do in real life.

                It's escapism, pure and simple.  It's a way of leaving the mundane world of work, school, and stress behind for a while.  Movies, television, and even computer games are escapist entertainment.  The difference is that gaming is active, rather than passive.  Instead of being shown what is happening, and led through a series of events to a predetermined outcome, gaming is fluid-- players determine the outcome, the events, and help to shape the world that the game is set in.  There are no limits, except what may be imagined.  Actually, RPGs might be defined as inter-active, since they are best played in a group.  (Computer RPGs I'd call inter-passive, since they do require interaction between the player and the computer, and even other players, but not on the same level as pen-and-paper RPGs.)

                Computer RPGs have been gaining popularity because of the sense of community that they provide:  in online games, players are able to interact, and talk with each other.  It is a shared experience between people with a common interest, like the Elks Lodge or a book discussion group.  Pen-and-paper RPGs have a more immediate sense of community, if not a smaller one.  Gamers gather to play and socialize.  They have more face-to-face interaction than PC gamers.

                The games themselves not only encourage interaction, they promote teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and even math and language skills.

                The nature of role-playing is that a group of three or more people (though I've played in "groups" with one other person) get together to play.  There is a very social aspect to the games, and players who have similar interests, values, or backgrounds tend to use the game as an excuse to gather.  In my experience (which is extensive), the game serves as a means to engage in social activity with friends, a focal point of the group interaction.  Poker groups, football parties, book discussion groups all serve the same purpose.  They are outlets for recreation and social interaction.  The difference that role-playing has is that players are verbally playing parts, like actors in an unscripted movie.  They are able to imagine themselves in places, situations, and worlds that no longer, or never did, exist; it offers the chance to "be" someone else for awhile.  For instance, a non-athletic person could imagine what it would be like to be a Knight of the Round Table, or an international spy.  Someone who is shy or withdrawn might find a voice as a swashbuckling space pirate or a renowned bard.  On a deeper level, role-playing can become a Gestalt exercise, giving players the chance to explore different parts of themselves that would not normally be expressed.  It is a healthy and safe outlet for the hidden or ideal self that is seldom seen.

                In multi-player games, the players (generally speaking) are working as a team to reach a goal.  The players face challenges and adversaries controlled by the game master (GM) who acts like a director.  The GM describes the world that the characters are in, and plays the diverse roles of the people and other beings that the player characters (PCs, the characters that are controlled by the players) encounter.  In other words, the GM controls everything that the PCs don't control.  The games involve the PCs meeting a challenge to overcome to achieve their goal.  The challenges are often more than simply winning a fight; they may be puzzles, mysteries to unravel, physical obstacles, or any other challenge that a GM can conceive of.  If the players work together as a team, they have a much greater chance of reaching the goal than if they act independently.  Indeed, in most multi-player games, players who work independently too often will fail.  The players must learn to work together and solve problems, both in the game and among themselves, in order to get the most from the game.  One side note:  I don't mean to imply that it is a "players versus GM" scenario; a good GM will help the players when they need it.  Good GMs want to see the players succeed, but they won't give them all of the answers.  (It's a little like being a parent, without the work.)

                Critical thinking is necessary for players to choose the right actions during the game.  But, since the action and events within the games are fluid (not set in stone, and may change at any time during play), both the players and the game master use creative and spur-of-the-moment thinking.  There is a challenge, for most participants, to try to outwit the others within the group (at least, that has been my experience in most of the groups that I've played in).  This also helps in the brainstorming process when faced with an obstacle.  When the players are trying to best each other during play, creative solutions are often borne out to problems or obstacles that seemed insurmountable.  The interaction and the group dynamic tends to generate ideas that none of the individuals would have produced or pursued on their own.  The best groups that I've played in have had a mix of very logical thinkers as well as very creative thinkers.  When they worked best, the two styles of problem solving found more than answers to the obstacles at hand, they also sparked more complex questions and examinations of real-life issues.

                The main reason that people game is for the social aspects, for the same reasons that people gather to play cards or play other games.  Role playing games are simply another excuse to gather on a regular basis.  A side-effect of gaming is in the nature of the hobby-- the rules that are in place are based on basic math, and the means of play is entirely language-based.  Players have to pay attention to math (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication) during play, although many would say that they don't use math that much.  Since it is a part of the game, it's not noticed.  Communication and language skills are important, as all of the action takes place in the players' imaginations.  Language skills, such as communication and description, enhance the game, since they make it easier for players to picture the world that their characters are in.

                I have yet to be in a gaming session (I've been a gamer for two decades) that involved drug use, "real" magic (or any other real-life activity, for that matter), any kind of ritual or worship, or harm.  The problems that have been associated with gaming can be traced to other sources; there was something else going on with the individuals before they started playing the games.  Role playing has always been, for me, a way to relax and forget about the real world for a couple of hours.  It's just a game, after all.

Hope this helped clarify the benefits of gaming a little.
Comments?  Questions?