Some Musings of Fantasy Role-Playing Games

By:Donald J. Bingle on:Tue 10 of Dec, 2002
This article describes why role-playing games are good for the world. (Written in response to the Columbine tragedy in 1999).

We go into this weekend of the BenCon? gaming convention (May 28, 1999) with the expectation that attendance will be down because of recent events in Colorado. It is not because we usually get a large contingent from Columbine High School and certainly not because the Trenchcoat Mafia were gamers—in fact, as far as we can tell, the shooters never attended a major Colorado gaming convention and were not members of the RPGA. It is, instead, because Colorado is, in the wake of this tragedy, a sad and somewhat frightened place—emotions which do not translate well into spending a weekend having fun with a large crowd of people. That is unfortunate for the convention and for the prospects of our primary goal in having this gathering, to raise money for Rocky Mountain charities. It is hard to "play games, have fun, and do good" under current circumstances.

Although our press kit encourages the media to "cover some good things kids do for a change," there are still a large number of people in the world who do not understand role-playing gaming and somehow think it is bad. Whether this perception arises out of anti-intellectual bias, early and untrue press coverage in gaming’s early days about death in a steam tunnel, bad Tom Hanks movies, the darker themes of some games (like Vampire and Cthulhu), or simply fear of the unknown, is not important. It is up to us to explain what we do and to behave in such a manner as to improve gaming’s reputation, if we want the bad press to go away.

The first step is simply to explain the mechanics of what we do—which, for the most part is to sit at a table with our friends, roll some dice, and engage in directed improvisational theatre (but without costumes, sets, or props to speak of). In essence, we create the stories, characters, and worlds that Hollywood strives to create, except in a realm where neither the actors, directors, nor writers make any money and millions are not spent on special effects, because we don’t need them. We have imaginations.

We understand the difference between ourselves and our characters, but still enjoy the things our characters do and relate them to our friends, sometimes in first person as if we experienced them, because it is convenient and because we, as players, did enjoy the illusion of the experience. One of the reasons we enjoy the illusion of those experiences is that they are broader and more noble and more varied than the experiences we may have in our mundane day-to-day life. It is, after all, not completely accidental that the genre is known as "fantasy" role-playing. And this is not simply because the first games were sword and sorcery games—after all it is not known as medieval or magical role-playing.

And, no, this is not a fantasy that involves a disconnect from reality or 900 numbers or kinky computer chat rooms. It is a fantasy because the stories take place in worlds where we almost always play the good guys—heroic characters, sometimes with a flaw in the tradition of Greek theatre and Marvel comic books—but heroes, nonetheless. We play characters who right wrongs, find the lost child, deliver the needed medicine, save the maiden or the world, and endure hardships and risks to do so. We play in worlds where our characters can make a difference, fantastic worlds with wondrous sights, magical powers, and artifacts of myth or technology. Sure, bravery and courage and honor are easier to come by in a make-believe world than in the real world, but we see nothing wrong with a game that encourages these things. We play games in a world where right does triumph, but not without tremendous effort and sacrifice, where friends stand shoulder-to-shoulder against a common foe, where one dare not shirk his or her responsibilities, and where actions have consequences. They are not perfect worlds—but for the most part they are worlds where there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, where tolerance of others is necessary or encouraged, and where the sex and violence are mostly PG rated. We know we do not live there, but we see no harm in relaxing there with our friends. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, "Some look at the world around them and ask ‘Why?’. I dream of worlds that do not exist and ask "Why not?".

It is not that I believe playing games itself can change the world, although the charitable mission of BenCon? comes as close to that as it can, it is just that I do believe that no change can occur without imagination, and gaming is excellent at fostering that. Homicidal and suicidal people often do the horrible things they do because they can not imagine themselves escaping from the pain they currently feel. Even if you cannot imagine changing the world, if you can imagine changing yourself or your circumstances, or even if you can imagine a better world, you are less likely to feel cornered, powerless, and desperate. Sure, I think that role-playing games are great for improving reading skills and math skills, for fostering tolerance and socialization, and for teaching the importance of teamwork and shared goals and responsibilities. But most importantly, they exercise the imagination and imagination is a wonderful thing.

Play games, have fun, do good.

Donald J. Bingle