Role Playing Games and Liberal Empathy

Role Playing Games and Liberal Empathy

“Fantasy Roleplaying is Hurting America” shouted a provocative title in Christianity Today in July. The article focused on Steve Bannon and his realization that many people yearned for a more exciting life—the kind they could explore in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)—and how he managed to give some semblance of it to them by making them foot soldiers in his anti-democratic vision of America. The thesis of the piece hits on a kernel of truth about an important malaise in the American (especially white male American) psyche—but the analogy to role playing games misses an important reality. While they may allow players to live out fantastic lives that make their own seem mundane, role playing games can also, properly applied, be a strong tool for building exactly the emotional skills needed to strengthen liberal society. 

A key element to building a democratic and free society, one in which persuasion and compromise are used instead of force, is the ability to empathize with and understand others with different experiences and priorities than oneself.  The first step is seeing others as capable of holding views that are as valid as one’s own, or at least understandable without resorting to blaming them on some kind of moral fault. Once this is accomplished, it is possible for the tolerance of a pluralistic society to move beyond just a mutual compromise to avoid conflict and become a true virtue pursued for its own ends. In his famous ‘veil of ignorance’ analogy, John Rawls centers this ability to imagine oneself in an unknown position as a key to building a better tate. 

Less ambitious versions of that position, like that advanced by contemporary philosopher Kevin Vallier, similarly require at least some capacity to imagine oneself holding different views and values, or at least accepting that those values are legitimate.  Building that empathy is difficult, however. Reading literary fiction has been shown as one venue for building this skillset. At Liberal Currents, Cameron Harwick has cited Johan Huizinga in favor of using a sense of ‘play’ as an alternative to the totalizing nature of politics. Role playing games represent a media that uniquely combines the practice of ‘play’ with the narrative possibilities of literary fiction, presenting a unique opportunity to expand perspectives and help players to understand the perspectives of others—and then to interact with them to achieve common goals.

Games cannot replicate Rawls’s veil of ignorance precisely, but they can give us an idea of what it might be like in a very different circumstance. A player in a game is inhabiting the life of another in a way more immersive, with a greater level of commitment, than most any other medium provides, and thus can even more easily feel the frustration and rage engendered by injustice, or the thrill of sudden successes. That role can be created by the player themselves or written by a game author, but in either case it serves to expand the sense of how another person might look at (perhaps another) world. The two primary means by which players take on these roles are through tabletop and computer role playing games.  Though the two media interact with the player in different ways, they can both serve to allow players to immerse themselves in a perspective different from their lived experience, and can create scenarios where players must cooperate with others over whom they do not have coercive control. 

Learning to see through another’s perspective is a lifelong challenge for most people, but both virtual and in person games can help accomplish it.  In virtual media, the world and scenarios are built by a specialized media team, much like an author or a director produces a book or film.  However, in many games in the role playing genre the player themselves control much of the character—from their physical appearance to skills and backstory. The subsequent action of the game will usually involve skill-based components for which games are famous, but usually will also contain components of choice and relationships with other characters.  At its core, the question of how people react to one another is the question of politics, and so it is fair to say that every role playing game is ‘political’ on some level. A few examples utilize this feature to force players to reckon with broad political agendas, ideally separated enough from the recognizable real world to give players a fresh perspective.  Much of the most interesting work in this field is done by ‘indie’ games coming from small studios—however, a few blockbuster titles are notable and have reached millions of players with unusually thought-provoking plot lines.  

The Bethesda title Skyrim, part of their wildly successful Elder Scrolls series, is one such story. In addition to a typically heroic main storyline, there is a somewhat more politically interesting side story. In it, the player can choose between two wildly different paths: supporting the Empire, a cosmopolitan but apparently oppressive monarchy (whose politics have been explored in previous installments of the series) or the Stormcloaks, a group aiming to free themselves of the oppressive empire but indulging in extreme cultural chauvinism in the process.  The parallels to modern post-colonial struggles are obvious, but the history and characters are fictional, allowing for players to choose either side; indeed, ferocious online debate continues to periodically re-arise regarding which faction is in the right. Additionally, while some events are seen by the player directly, much of the rest of the evidence the player receives regarding the actions of the Empire or the Stormcloaks comes from obviously biased speakers, and players are left to construct a narrative from these unreliable narrators. 

In this way, Skyrim manages to re-create the challenges that every historian and really every political participant in a post-colonial or colonized society faces—how to balance sources and values to ultimately choose sides (or sit out a conflict—a choice the character can make without missing out on any of the main story line).  It’s certainly true that a film or book could construct the same dilemma and present two sides in a similar way, but it can only carry a reader or viewer along with it.  In Skyrim, by contrast, a player who wants to continue must make a choice, and live with the result.  This cannot force careful consideration, of course—but it encourages players to consider multiple perspectives and make a decision. This is arguably a microcosm of forming political opinions in a pluralistic society, and the practice provided in narrative games can model the kinds of evaluations of values and sources that make a good citizen of a liberal state. 

The extent to which a tabletop game accomplishes this goal depends of course on who is running it, but the potential is even deeper in these games. Player characters are created and refined in a process that can be brief or substantially more involved—and one which usually goes beyond simple game mechanics. In theory, the player is separate from their character—while they may describe their character’s actions in first person and hop in with particular dialogue, they are also cognizant of the rules (physics, combat, etc) that hold the game together, to a greater degree than in video games.  However, there is nonetheless a great deal of ‘character bleed’, where the feelings and beliefs of the player infiltrate their character, or where the emotional experiences of the gameplay impact the player ‘irl’ (in real life).  For many, this degree of deep immersion is one of the main draws to these kinds of games.

That said, managing ‘bleed’ is also a major goal of running a role playing ‘game’—after all, one is not really playing a role if their character simply acts as they would in a given circumstance. The exact goals for managing character bleed and the extent to which it is desirable or negative vary between players and gaming philosophies. This opens new possibilities, as any attempt to either staunch bleed or even simply recognize when it is happening requires a high level of meta-cognition or even meta-feeling: determining where thoughts or feelings are coming from, and how the experiences of the player and of the character are impacting those. Psychologists have long recognized the value of role playing exercises for interpersonal relationships, but the role playing and associated thought processes in a tabletop or live action game rise to another level—hundreds of hours over the course of years might be devoted to such an exercise. 

This immense time investment can also apply to virtual games, and greatly enriches their depth. Even when set in a specific historical context, role playing games can better serve to illuminate marginalized perspectives. Take French company Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, which asks players to play for dozens of hours from the perspective of an Islamic resistor to the crusades or an Iroquois on the American frontier. The sheer time a player spends looking through these eyes greatly heightens the emotional experience when expectations are inverted—for instance, when the man against whom the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III has sworn revenge for destroying his childhood home is none other than George Washington. Simply reading in a history book that Washington devastated indigenous villages is easily passed over, particularly by Anglo Americans, because Washington’s status in the national mythos makes it difficult to switch perspectives to see him in that light. 

The time spent looking through a different pair of eyes—hours and hours of playing time, in this case—makes the inversion of expectations much more powerful, and the demythicization of Washington more effective. If American communications professor Walter Fisher is correct in his work about the “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm” that narrative—which he argues combined the argumentative and aesthetic themes of rhetoric—is the primary means through which people view the world and persuade others, then roleplaying narratives would seem to be among the most powerful tools for building consciousness of others’ lives and perspectives. The elements of choice and the depth of the immersion due to the time commitment of role playing games—combine to make these media into potent tools for exploring the perspectives of others

Games can also help us develop our skills regarding the relationship to others.  For video games, these ‘others’ can be virtual or real. In some cases they are characters created much like literary characters—an important difference, however, is that these characters interact with us in a very real way.  Their in-game ‘actions’ can determine our *actual* game play experience. Obviously these actions are scripted, but the reactivity of virtual worlds allows for a greater exploration of how others react to our own choices. The Mass Effect series of games by Canadian publisher Bioware, for example, features several consistent characters allied to the protagonist through a series of three games. The player develops relationships with each, which range from thinly veiled hostility to romantic attachment, based on their dialogue and in game decisions. Though obviously not close to replicating the nuance and complexity of actual human relationships, they add another element to the stakes of decision making: decisions are no longer made simply with regard to ideological or practical beliefs but, as in the real world, with respect to how they impact our relationships with others.  

Other virtual games, and nearly all tabletop games, allow and indeed require direct coordination with other human players.  Major MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, for example, often require cooperation of players to accomplish tasks impossible for any one alone.  To facilitate the coordination of these tasks, WoW supports the creation of ‘guilds’ of dozens of players. These groups are persistent and in frequent communication with one another.  They must make decisions regarding how to spend their time, what challenges to pursue, and how to divide resources after a successful ‘raid’.  Managing a WoW guild is not unlike running a large bureaucracy, but if anything the role of persuasion and diplomacy is more important as the tools available for coercion are substantially fewer.  

Tabletop games, with a few solo exceptions, are fundamentally an experience in social cooperation. There is often a game manager who ‘runs’ the game according to certain procedural rules and provides the narrative background, though some games have managed to alter this paradigm in favor of an even more cooperative one. The vast majority of games are played by a small number of individuals who may or may not know one another at the beginning of the game, creating and inhabiting the roles of characters who have various goals they seek to achieve throughout the course of the game. While characters can accomplish individual goals and experience the game primarily in those terms, in most cases the interest of the game derives largely from the interaction with others. While there may be competitive aspects, in most cases tabletop RPGs are cooperative, involving player characters achieving goals together utilizing the differing strengths of their characters.  This multiplies the opportunities to develop empathetic skills.  Players must think about their own character to role play them, and also think about other players—and their characters!—to anticipate reactions. In some groups this is done largely behind the scenes, as players simply respond to one another’s characters in game, while at other tables there may be more meta-game discussion around how characters are feeling, their motives, etc.  In either case, a primary component of the game is analyzing others, imagining their feelings and anticipating their reactions to novel circumstances. 

All of these are, of course, crucial skills in building a liberal community. Recent research in incorporating games into planning suggests that these effects can be observed in practice, with one study finding that cooperative role playing games stimulated more ‘civic creativity’ when incorporated into planning functions.  This is unsurprising, and likely to be particularly valuable in liberal societies: like role playing, the enforced rules in a liberal order are generally minimal, and there is the expectation that civil society—essentially, the other players—will enforce norms and guide behavior as needed.  The mindsets and emotional skills developed by role playing games are key ones needed in the creation and maintenance of such a society.  

The ways in which games, particularly role playing games, can help prepare individuals for participation in a liberal society are myriad and should not be ignored. There are a couple implications—one is that, as has been explored in a few contexts, games likely have educational/training potential well beyond what has been thus far utilized. However, more attention should also be paid to games as a unique media that lends itself to liberalism. While video games have taken their place among the most profitable pieces of media, the practice of reviewing and discussing them still overwhelmingly revolves around aesthetic and mechanical considerations—rarely are they seen as narrative literature with the kind of power or significance of film or books.  And tabletop games, though a flourishing hobby, are still largely perceived in the kind of terms Bannon describes: as fantasy escapism that if anything makes interaction with the real world harder or less effective. Understanding that games instead have immense potential to broaden horizons and develop empathetic skills is key to appreciating them and discussing and developing them as powerful media for interacting with and preparing for liberal society.

Featured Image is a map of a Dungeons and Dragons game