"Playing Being Human"

Posted by Jeffrey F. Haines on November 13, 1999 at 07:47:47:

11 Nov. 1999

The road must be trod, but it will be very hard.
And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it.
This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.
Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world:
small hands do them because they must,
while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.
—Elrond, Fellowship of the Ring

“Playing Being Human”

Life in the United States is no game. There are no official rules. There’s no reset button to be found. No one shakes hands when it’s over. Everyone feels lost.
Right and wrong are not uniform from day to day, and social roles clash under the demands of ever-changing expectations. Endless fluctuations in the relationships of the people inevitably lead to social paradoxes, whereupon one’s sanity and self-esteem are tested. Americans, in order to cope, each seek escape through leisure, and choices in how to spend one’s free time become quests for structure and a sense of worth among the masses.

In Western culture, human worth is commonly based on intellect. As a society, we compare and contrast every form of life to human standards of intelligence; the closer it comes to humanness, the more it is respected. With “higher” thinking as the basic expectation, why do American children face the paradox of playground politics? If to be human is to be intelligent, and to be intelligent is to be a “nerd,” and to be a nerd is to be unpopular, less than human, then to show one’s humanity is dumb—bordering on insane. Psychological disorders begin in the schoolyard.
29-year-old Douglas H— lives at home and works for his parents at the family gas station. He’s a nerd; he admits it. He recalls how the other children shunned him when he was young. H— walks with a limp. Growing up with a milder degree of cerebral palsy, he could not achieve the status of “jock,” and the cruel treatment by his pers turned what should have been no more than a bodily handicap into an emotional trauma. To compound the problem, school administration isolated H— within special education classes on the assumption that his handicap was mental as well as physical. For eight years H— coped with the deafening reality of his social status. And then, finally, at last, when he was thirteen, he found his first friends. Shyly referring to themselves as “gamers,” they invited Douglas H— to escape with them for a few hours around the dining room table, whereupon they were to all to take part in modern storytelling, a “roleplaying game.”

Storytelling is a ritual dating back to the very first campfire. Roleplaying—virtually synonymous with the term “gaming”—employs rules to govern how the story unfolds. It is an intellectual, underground sport, but it manifests in the “real” world as something far greater. Perhaps as a natural reaction to the silent pleas of this country for social amendment, roleplaying has evolved into an omnipresent movement currently developing in the back rooms of America. More than just a pastime, gaming has become as inextricable from the sub-culture as football is from the popular culture. In the two decades that roleplaying has endured public fear and stereotyping, it has proven itself to be a compelling tool for self-discovery and teamwork, and it encourages a future integration of social opposites. If overlooked much longer, this movement could someday undermine the paradox surrounding what it means to be human.
In a roleplaying game, players “step out” of Life for awhile, similar to the “out of body” experience offered by video games (Gorman 566). Gaming has provided a means of stress-relief since Dungeons & Dragons first appeared over twenty years ago. Through storytelling, the limitations of American life dissipate and players cultivate an appreciation for the traits that define a person. A single player takes on the role of “gamemaster” and is responsible for narrating the story line and judging the rules of play. The remaining players each assume one fictional role at a time, a well-rounded character that he or she has created, and in an elaborate mixture of taking turns, acting in “real time,” and taking actions in “downtime,” players explore fictional dilemmas presented to them by the gamemaster. Random dice roles determine the successes and failures of the characters’ exploits, but resolution of the story’s fictional conflicts is up to the players themselves. Anyone participating in this type of activity learns about teamwork and individuality. Endgame points, unlike with other sports, are not compared between players to see who “won”; they are spent to improve the characters for the next time the story is told. These ongoing stories give the hobby an epic feel that appeals to more than just “nerds”; roleplaying has grown beyond a fad.

It is the nature of any long-lived fashion to enter into an evolutionary process—then either fade away or, if it has attracted a substantial following, grow stronger. Gaming has established itself as a staple in alternative America, and it is just now reaching the masses, similar to the footsteps of popular music. “Rap is a part of every musical element except country . . .” said Snoop Dogg in a recent magazine interview, “once the country music world welcomes it in, it will be the biggest shit in the world. That’s the only thing we’re waiting on, that last piece of respect.” Rap won its popularity by infiltrating easy listening, pop, metal, goth, industrial, and techno; television, movies, schools, and the acceptance of widening generations of youths. Fantasy gaming has likewise spread. Nowadays, a significant medley of people in every community will admit to having played D&D at least “once or twice back in junior high.” This is not surprising, since there seems to be a roleplaying game for every genre of interest. Fantasy games draw from a variety of sources: cartoons, comic books, novels, music, movies, and even “real life.” The hobby has even made it to television; Aaron Spelling’s prime-time “horror opera” Kindred: The Embraced was an adaptation of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Roleplaying Game. Clearly, the specific industries find equal support in the games they so inspire. During the sixteen-year lull between Return of the Jedi and the grossly anticipated Phantom Menace, George Lucas approved West End Games’ Star Wars: The Role-playing Game, which has helped to generate a perennial need for more and more Star Wars. Without hordes of active fans, the Star Wars trilogy could have gone the way of yesterday’s fashion. Modern-day nerds, roleplayers chief among them, make up a valuable market. These outcasts can now be bought; capitalistic society welcomes them home. However, as of yet, the overall populace does not.

Perhaps fantasy roleplaying games are scorned because people are afraid to let go of old stereotypes. If nerds were to become popular, for instance, what would that mean for society’s beloved jocks? Certainly, then, roleplaying must be viewed as a threat if popular sports are to be excused from scrutiny. In spite of the social stigma, fantasy games are not causal to violence, certainly not to the degree that many sports are. Most notably, football met much criticism in its early years. In 1314, it was banned by Edward II, who called it a “great noise in the city” leading to “many evils” (PFRA 7). In 1583, Englishman Phillip Stubbes described football as rather “a bloody and murthering practise” than a “felowly sporte or pastime.” He wrote, “For dooth not every one lye in waight for his Adversarie, seeking to overthrowe him & to picke him on his nose . . . he careth not, fo he have him down” (PFRA 1). Nowadays, the spite and violence of football is applauded in America. Traditional jocks seem to possess an absurd number of unspoken “rights” when it comes to the humiliation of nerds. This point is well-satirized in the episode of The Simpsons where Homer, after chiding a geeky-looking passerby on campus, says to his wife, “Marge, try to understand. There are two kinds of college students: jocks and nerds. As a jock, it is my duty to give nerds a hard time.” Later in the episode, however, Homer confesses to hanging out with a clique of nerds: “We played Dungeons & Dragons for three and a half hours. Then I was slain by an elf.”
Possibly out of fear of becoming nerds themselves, the public hides behind time-tested stereotypes. But roleplaying challenges these stereotypes. Many sports fans, for instance, might insist that a “sport” is a game requiring winners, losers, and a ball. On the other hand, according to Merriam-Webster, “sport” is not defined primarily as a physical activity; in its foremost sense, it is merely a “recreation” or a “source of diversion.” Roleplaying is one of the few sports in which everyone who participates wins. For gamers, the actual sport is in creation, not destruction. Unfortunately, until the public starts valuing creativity over conquest, gamers will remain mysterious outcasts.

Roleplayer Greg O’Rourke recognizes that gamers are often looked at as “being a bunch of nerds not able to function in modern society.” However, he says, “I attribute more friends to gaming than to my time in high school” (O’Rourke). Or consider the brackish words of college student Miriam Ida Harris. She thinks most people consider gamers “a bunch of nerds who have no life and relieve their sexual frustration with mental masturbation.” Her opinion is that people fearfully group all roleplayers in one category and then slander them. Their fear is one of the oldest kind, a fear of the mysterious. What strange things will happen to the status quo if labels such as “nerd” are discarded? In other words, if Charlie Brown ever kicks that football, will the world come to an end? But did the world come to an end when big-time nerd Bill Gates came out with Microsoft? Of course not. Still, much has changed since—and to stop change, the public must be willing to stop living. The danger of stereotyping is that it freezes time, keeping social roles comfortably uniform; jocks will be jocks, nerds will be nerds. Overgeneralizations are but cowardly attempts at stopping life from passing us by.
The most popular stereotype ever to hit roleplaying regards gamers as dangerous elements in society, and roleplaying itself as a gizmo of Satan. Educator Rebecca L. Thomas said in a personal interview, “Here in the US, I think (frankly) that the growth of the hobby has been impeded by an overzealous religious right and by sensationalism of a few, over-publicized incidents. When the media links roleplaying games to such events as the Columbine High School shooting, the average American is lead to believe that role-play gaming has directly contributed to these actions” (Thomas). One must take a grain of salt with “Geraldo-esque” reporting, which relies on correlative logic, tabloid headlines and scapegoats to hook its audience. Uzi-toting “gamers” who walk into a high school and start shooting are rare, about as rare as the OJ Simpsons out there. However, although some gamers admit that the typical roleplayer “sometimes wants to be violent or aggressive or powerful” except that he or she “feels powerless in this world,” (Harris) the reality is that the average gamer vents human aggression through a method remarkably docile. In the realm of make-believe, violence does occur as part of the adventure, but it’s recorded on paper, not upon human flesh. And, still, roleplaying is reported to be a perilous underground element in both Christian and secular America. “Roleplaying is not an underground thing in other countries,” Thomas comments. “In many European countries, it has a status similar to Scouts here—supported by cities and communities—and is a regular part of extracurricular activities for students” (Thomas).

Fantasy roleplaying has grown into a powerful socio-educational tool. Players bond through a shared exploration of the human character, found in both men and women, in hobbits, in werewolves, in mutants and EVEN in jocks. A gaming group is an expedition into the human psyche to discover what it means to be happy and sad, wealthy and poor, strong and weak, savage and merciful—what it means to be human. Everyone relies on one another to make the experience valuable. As O’Rourke notes, “When you game, you build trust because you invest a certain amount of yourself in a character you create. You reveal something about yourself” (O’Rourke). Harris explains that a gamer can act a different persona “who has her own life, personality, and appearance, and set of abilities . . . We all get stuck in our personas,” she says, “and roleplaying is a safe way out of that” (Harris). Stepping out of oneself and examining the elements of character is, in her opinion, a method of understanding what it means to be human. But it’s a personal quest that cannot be accomplished alone.
Rebecca Thomas, who has teaching credentials in psychology and the sciences, is the director of the Roleplaying Workshop in Oakland, California, a program for kids. Workshop members range from those athletically inclined to those with special needs, which include learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. “Role-play,” she says, “in a ‘psychological’ sense, is used extensively throughout the field of psychology, as well as in conflict-resolution programs, management training programs, and a variety of other situations . . . . It can act as an outlet to emotional frustrations. It provides a safe, therapeutic way to deal with traumas and to experiment with new or different ways of handling situations.” Thomas’ Workshop welcomes jocks, nerds, and anyone willing to shed such stereotypes and get down to the “real” person within every human being. Roleplaying is more than a pastime. It’s a healthy progression of youthful thinking, the seeds of today becoming the trends of tomorrow.

The Roleplaying Workshop is home to a variety of members. The overlapping of cliques encountered in a roleplaying session may very well be a precursor to the amendment of social differences in America. The time may be ripe for a new trend to emerge, beginning with fair treatments between the classes. Therefore, in our future, if Haines 9 bloody dwarven battles are to be euphemized as “roleplaying,” traditional sports, too, deserve tolerance. It cannot be said that football, for instance, is only driven by a need for conquest. It must also be credited with promoting cooperation and tactical thinking (O’Rourke)—just like a fantasy game, where the siege of a goblin fortress is less about usurping a throne than it is about problem-solving as a group. Athletes and gamers share the same basic drive. Social commentator Jeffrey Schrank believes that people choose to follow sports in order to live out certain myths (Schrank 415). Whether jock or nerd, whether clashing over a football or a dragon’s treasure, the playing of myths satisfies a social need to belong to something greater-than-life that operates by clearer and more just rules. Personal worth can be found in how we choose to play by these rules.
Of course, how one translates rules into reality, as does fantasy gamer Dino Fernandez, is entirely up to the individual. Fernandez, now twenty-nine years old, still works graveyard shifts at a gas station mini-mart. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He doesn’t go to school. Every now and then, he makes statements like “I have no life.” Nevertheless, he’s content to be a “full-time” gamer (Fernandez). He considers himself a nerd, but the label doesn’t seem to hinder his small, quiet walk through life.
Greg O’Rourke is very social. He has a girlfriend. He goes to school. He considers himself intelligent, outgoing, and, though he doesn’t see himself as a jock, he’s athletic. He plays softball, racquetball, volleyball, and tennis. Furthermore, he doesn’t see himself as a nerd, though he roleplays. It’s a hobby, but not his only hobby. He has a life. He, too, manages to blow off the myths surrounding his leisure activities.
Dino Fernandez and Greg O’Rourke are friends through gaming circles. Fernandez is one of the most intelligent people O’Rourke has ever met. “People just cast him aside,” O’Rourke says, “because of his hobbies, friends, personal appearance” (O’Rourke). But, Fernandez doesn’t take much offense. Honestly, he’s too busy playing the all-important role, Himself. It seems to be the only intelligent option open to him, to anyone.

One’s ability to work math, write fiction, remember baseball trivia, color-coordinate clothing, or act out pre-conceived social roles is not intelligence, but how one goes about living his or her life is. Intelligence is a personal set of rules to live by, the means by which we express our humanity. Then perhaps human worth, seen in this light, depends on intelligence, after all. Perhaps the manner in which people utilize intelligence is the key to settling the contradictions resulting from social relations. For a country unsettled by paradox, perhaps humanity is the solution.
Perhaps it’s just all part of The Game.

Works Cited

Dogg, Snoop. “Snoop.” Interview Magazine. Sept. 1999: 138-143.

Gorman, James. “The Inside Story of a Video Game You Can Get Inside.”
Common Culture. Ed. Michael Petracca and Madeleine Sorapure. 2nd ed.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 563-567.

Fernandez, Dino. Personal Interview. 2 Nov. 1999

Harris, Mirriam Ida. Personal Interview. 1 Nov. 1999.

“Homer Goes to College.” The Simpsons. By O’Brien, Conan. Fox. Cox Cable,
Eureka, California. 1993.

O’Rourke, Greg. Personal Interview. 6 Nov. 1999.

PFRA. PFRA, Professional Football Researchers Association. Oct. 1999.
Geocities. 3 Nov. 1999. Sideline/5960/index.htm>

Shrank, Jeffrey. “Sport and the American Dream.” Common Culture. Ed.
Michael Petracca and Madeleine Sorapure. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 413-416.

Thomas, Rebecca. Electronic Interview. 4 Nov. 1999.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Great Brittain: HarperCollins
Publishers, 1991.

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