Friday, March 16, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part the Final: Can GMs Change the World?

How arrogant is that, to think GMs can change the world?  Do GMs really need more of an excuse to increase the sizes of their egos?  Well. . .no.  But we'll forge ahead anyway, because this idea—that we can make the world a better, or worse, place through our gaming, one life at a time—is a powerful one, and is in part responsible for one of the biggest threats gaming has ever faced.

In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III "disappeared" in a well-publicized case that inspired the publication of Mazes and Monsters, in which a live-action roleplayer has a psychotic break thanks to participation in roleplaying.  In 1982, Patricia Pulling's son Irving committed suicide.  Pulling blamed her son's suicide on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG and founded BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), an organization dedicated to promoting the idea that tabletop roleplaying games promoted an entire litany of immoral practices.  The idea had a resurgence in 1988 thanks to the Leith Von Stein murder case in North Carolina's own Little Washington, in which a disturbed stepson was able to convince his roleplaying group to aid him in killing his stepfather.  A complete listing of the controversies surrounding roleplaying's biggest name can be read here.

This is a big idea, and while the instances above can be accounted for more by the psychological torments of their perpetrators than any innate danger of roleplaying, this idea cannot and will not be dismissed out of hand.  To this day, Israeli soldiers are officially not allowed to play D&D, as players are "detached from reality and susceptible to influence."  These ideas are often met with the findings of studies which seem to indicate that roleplayers are better-adjusted, less suicidal and more prone to cooperation than the population as a whole.  And when both gaming's detractors and defenders hop on the "gaming can change people" bandwagon. . .this idea warrants some examination.

When you mention the possibility of changing player behaviors or attitudes through gaming, veteran gamers will look at you with horror and shake their heads.  "No," they will say, remembering the dark days of the 80's and all the charges of Satanism and other such nonsense, "changing players is a no-no.  You don't do that."

But some will say something a little different, they'll say "you can't do that."  But the idea has been explored for years, and it used by therapists as a tool for helping patients gain insight into themselves and others, and using those insights to create profound transformative effects on their behavior and mental well-being.  Google it sometime, you may find yourself surprised!

But there's a key ingredient to using roleplay as therapy:  therapists.  If you've got it in your mind that maybe you can be a source of theraputic entertainment to your players, based on your keen interest in roleplaying and your encyclopedic knowledge of Things Dr. Phil Says. . .get that thought out of your head right now.  Therapy, psychological manipulation, is dangerous if done incorrectly, and unless you're a licensed mental health professional, do not go mucking around in the mental health of your players.  Can roleplaying change a person?  Yes.  Should you try and make it happen?  No.  You don't do that.

Because the kind of roleplay we enjoy isn't about therapy, it's about escape.  GMs and players don't necessarily, or don't always, want to deal with real-life issues.  They want to escape their troubles, into a world where they can take actions which have a profound impact on the (fantasy) world around them.  This kind of impact isn't always available to roleplayers in their real lives, and so it becomes doubly important to them in their gaming.  Other games just want to experience something they can't in reality, have some kind of adventure that economics, infirmity, or simply the blandness of the real world will not permit.

And escaping your troubles, for whatever reason, and experiencing something wondrous is a great stress-reliever.  It's what makes television, and sports, such popular pastimes.  So even if we were to take the most basic of elements in gaming, that of stress relief, we make the world a better place.  Gaming helps people unwind, and the world is definitely a better place when there isn't so much tension in it.

Regardless of whether we are trying to teach, or be therapeutic, the simple act of gaming provides ourselves and our players with certain intangible benefits.  Gaming is in many ways a microcosm of real life—you have to win friends, you make enemies, you make choices, you cooperate or don't. . .all of these experiences teach gamers what works and what doesn't.  These experiences develop skills, and those skills—social skills, tactical skills—are useful in real life.  They will help players on the job, at a party, on a date.  And if we are gaming with the younger generation, they are getting a leg up on vital life skills that will serve them well, in-game and out-, as they take over for their parents.

In this way, GMing is in many ways similar to parenting.  Because it is up to us as GMs to provide realistic consequences to our players for their actions, good or ill, or we're perpetuating faulty assumptions and teaching wrong lessons instead of right ones.  By this, I do not mean moral lessons or religious or political lessons, but something much, much simpler.  If the party's bard walks into a bar and insults the barkeep, he shouldn't expect the barkeep to give him a tankard of ale for free. . .but nor should he expect the barkeep to pull out a claymore and try to slaughter him.  These simple lessons are lessons of consequence:  if you insult Bob, Bob will be offended.  If you compliment Bob, Bob will be more positively inclined to you.  If you put Bob's head in a fire, Bob will inflamed.

Ultimately, though, the GM can provide obvious, simple consequences that set proper expectations without bringing moral, religious or political hotpoints into play—otherwise, he defeats much of the purpose of his own entertainment.  We as GMs must do whatever we can to avoid setting ourselves up as therapists or moral compasses, because in the case of making our players better people, in the case of making the world a better place, it is not the gamer but the game that provides the benefits.

Thank you for travelling with me through this exploration of what it means to be a GM, what roles we play in the game and to our players.  It is my hope that I have been able to provide some insight or, if I have not, at least some small entertainment.

As we go about our gaming lives, let us remember that no matter what, by being great GMs, we can make a better gaming world for ourselves and our players, by really showing others how it's done.

Thank you for reading, and may the dice always smile upon you!


  1. *sigh* I wrote a long response to this last night and iOS decided to eat it.

    The portion of this article recounting the history of hysteria that sprouted up around RPGs in the 80s and 90s struck a chord with me. Leith Von Stein was a family acquaintance of ours, and the arguments presented by his stepson's attorneys and the prosecution's investigators at the trial were the foundation of many objections raised by well-meaning but misinformed relatives who didn't approve of my interest in gaming.

    There is a perception in America that incidence rates of mental illness are somehow higher among people who engage in activities that are outside the norm of our media-fueled culture that promotes certain kinds of highly profitable entertainment but neglects others which are less popular or lucrative. But there's really not much difference between a gamer who kills someone and a football fan who kills someone - and both have happened right here in this state at the same university. The sad reality is that there are damaged people everywhere, and we can pinpoint both genetic and environmental conditions that contribute to mental illness - but we should no more blame RPGs for contributing to an antisocial personality than we should a sports rivalry. After all, horrible things are said between fans of UNC and Duke University, but rarely do these fan rivalries end in violence - mostly, it's just bravado in good fun. Gaming is much the same way, and although the stigma surrounding it is much less profound today than it was in 1985-1990, it still exists.

    I do agree that we should not seek to sculpt our players' personalities - I will confess, though, that I believe that the fantasy worlds we bring to life have the potential to explore real-world issues from a parallel frame of reference that removes the baggage accompanying politics and spirituality. I personally prefer not to embrace the hubris that the games I run are anything resembling therapy, but if my players feel better afterward, then I like to think I am doing my job right, at least. =]

  2. An additional observation: Cognitive and behavioral psychology does use roleplay as a therapy tool, but comparing our games to that used in legitimate therapy is much like comparing drinking beer recreationally and responsibly to being on a prescribed regimen of SSRIs for depression.