Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Guilty pleasures versus real important stuff
My thesis ought to be good news for Lisa Clark-Fleischman, who writes about "Guilty pleasures: The shame of being a role player" in the 2003 fall issue of Daedalus. At the same time, I do recognize the problems she describes:

There is a definite public relations image challenge facing role-playing games. This is bad news for the game industry and hobbyists alike. Gaming has two faces in the public eye. One is a deviant criminal warning sign. The other, more disturbing because of the larger scope, is the social perception of gamers in a negative light. Both prongs are ugly and equally unnecessary, not to mention costly when one considers the missed opportunities of expanding the target market. So why aren't industry leaders howling for change?

In my own department I have received clear - if not official - notice that the research of games is wasteful, silly public sponsorship of a hobby, and it has nothing to do with the research profile of the department, which is democracy, public access and the freedom of speech. When I tell people what I study it is always with a certain defiance and a touch of fear. I have had former classmates pull out the wallet and offer me their money right away, rather than tapping their accounts through taxes and the public research funds - a demonstration of disgust and distaste of my work.

I read this as a demonstration of power. Roleplay is subversive, it channels energy into groups and organisations that avoid definition. It plays with symbols and signifiers, and reveals the strategies of society in order to explore, manipulate and question them. Because of this, roleplaying needs to be controlled and players need to be shamed into keeping their experiences safely in the private sphere, not as learning tools in the public sphere.

I would have loved to see role-play in the public sphere. Imagine the energy used on reporting football matches spent reporting role-play sessions? "Yesterday night, the Roaming Dragons staged a meeting of the United Nations. The player with the US representative character agreed that USA will pay all their dues to the UN, thus financing among aother things all of the asistance in Iran after the earthquake, as well as UNESCO's work to educate girls in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The character playing the Turkish representative was so impressed with this move that he immediately agreed to introduce to his government the plan for integration and independence of the kurds in Turkey, the same plan that had been drawn up by the Arabian alliance in the previous role-playing session in December 2003." We could have had alternative readings of history, testing out of religions, governing structures and class conflicts, with players interviewed afterwards: "What did you really feel when you understood that your interpretation of democracy would fail, and the priests and the conservative/military coalision would win this evening?" Or: "So this time the world was blown apart through impatience and lack of interpretation of the portents. How will you avoid a similar outcome in coming role-playing sessions?"

Silly? Funny? Not any sillier than the questions directed at athletes, sweating, dribbling, exhausted after giving everything in order to run a marathon 20 seconds faster than some record. But that is public interest and important news, because people really want to know and people need heroes and role models. Right?

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