What Do RPGs Teach You?

In my recent article, Your PCs Are Murderous Cretins, I talk about the ethics of violence in RPGs and how most PCs we see are not acting in any way we would consider moral in the real world. I made a side point that ended up generating most of the controversy, which is that how we roleplay can shape our view of the world.  Not so, I am told – it’s completely separate, or cathartic, or whatever.

I find that interesting, especially since when we are talking about positive skills and attitudes, people are happy to explain the benefits that RPGs have provided them. I think many people would say that RPGs have honed their ability to navigate and exploit complex real-world rules, or GMing has made them better at public speaking or management, or they read a lot and learned a lot of history, or whatever.  Many nodded in agreement and not mockery when the X-Files character said “I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons without learning anything about courage.”  Many books have been written by people talking about the character attributes that playing sports, or playing some other game like chess, imparted to them.

Of course, as soon as you bring up the possibility of imparting something negative, you get a lot of fear reactions. People don’t understand or want to deny the cognitive training aspect of RPGs.  But role-playing existed long before RPGs, and what it is specifically used for is teaching new skills and behaviors! Both in formal educational and business settings and in psychotherapy settings.

There’s a huge amount of non-gaming-related literature on role-playing and how it educates both didactically (you set out specifically to teach a certain thing) and developmental (more freeform roleplay which teaches by discovery). Here, try out this Google book from the Instructional Design Library series  that explains role-playing as a technique both to teach skills and attitudes.

If you for some reason cling to the unjustified belief that RPGs are different in nature than discovery-oriented roleplay (except in that people who aren’t paying attention don’t have a clearly focused end goal), try out the latest issue of the International Journal of Roleplaying that talk about this, especially “Immersion as a Prerequisite of the Didactical Potential of Role-Playing” and the part on “drift” in “Stereotypes and Individual Differences in Role-playing Games.” There are a lot of good references there which can point you to other sources that discuss this effect.

Anyway, what you have to understand is that the claim that roleplaying does not cognitively train you is plain false, and not supported by any actual research. It does.

But that’s not a bad thing!  Like I said, RPGs can teach plenty of good things, skill and character trait both.  We should just understand that teaching is a two-edged sword, and we might want to keep an eye on mindsets we might not want to be teaching people. The real world has a lot of other things trying to teach people that “groups that disagree with you are evil” and “don’t worry about the moral consequences of your actions” and a near infinite litany of other negative traits – consider whether you’re helping or hindering that process in your game.

7 responses to “What Do RPGs Teach You?

  1. Hah! I get that all the time. Only it’s folks who insist that shooting folks all day long in a video game has no effect on them, while extolling the positive benefits of RP in the same setting. And if you suggest otherwise, they roll their eyes and say ‘oh, you really swallowed the Kool-Aid on that one, dude”

    ‘Encourages cooperation’, my ass. I know what rewarding bad behavior gets you, even in a simulated environment. Corruption is corruption, and adding the word ‘spiritual’ to it narrows it down to something we are all familiar with (unfortunately, it also trips off every atheist within shouting distance) .

    Yes, we role play all the time. Has no one ever played with their dolls or action figures? Or played ‘house’? Or ‘Army’?

    Good points, Mxyz.

  2. Here’s an example. I was brought up in a small Texas town. Part of that upbringing was a reasonably reflexive equation of people’s ways of life to “right” or “wrong” (and pretty close to “good” and “evil”). Differences in approach were just as polarizing. (Baptists vs. Methodists, fight!)

    I remember how as a young kid, playing with the D&D alignment system really helped me understand not just that people have different ways, but that there might be another axis than “right” or “wrong” to categorize them on. Hey, those Baptists and Methodists are both trying to be Good, but the Baptists are Lawful and the Methodists Chaotic! I was ten or something but I can recall that realization, and made a lasting impression on me, so I can see a clear place where the developmental instruction nature of roleplay did clearly affect my character traits in a positive way. (Though there are probably a couple Baptist holdouts out there that would disagree with the positive part of that.)

  3. According to Jack Chick it teaches me how to cast the “Mind Bondage” spells.

  4. I will say that I no longer run any kind of “villains” games in part because of that feeling. I watched those kinds of games slowly destroy trust and cooperation between players in a way that bled over into other games and other social interactions. Even the last Vampire (Masquerade) game I ran, I tried to stress that horror- and the awfulness of the decisions. But a couple of the players want to run them as ‘superheroes’ without morality, able to do what they wanted. That kind of play might be fun when you’re younger, but I do think it is a set of bad mental habits.

  5. Villain games are always like that though, regardless of system or genre. They don’t have to be, but games with a black and white morality system is what causes them to be so “evil for the sake of evil-ish”. Its why i to this day refer to the book of vile darkness as “the book of WotC missing the point.”

    I’m currently working on a (never to be published) book of villains for the Mutants and Masterminds. The one thing i’ve learned is that the idea of “Evil” as some sort of force is detrimental to writing. No one wakes up one morning and says “I think i’ll put on some black, eat some babies & usurp power. Mwahahahahaha, i’m EVIL!” An unfortunately thats what PC’s always do when told they are playing evil characters.

    Villains are almost always better when they are bad & not evil. An even when a villain is “evil,” he needs a reason. I’ve got one villain i stated twice, once at a low level where he’s still being influenced by his situation (being a robot, who can’t understand the illogical nature of organics) & the second version which occours years later, where he’s launched himself into space, built an army of robots & has decided to cleanse the universe of illogical intelligent life. sure he’s evil, but he has a reason (albeit a stupid one) & it has its own internal logic.

  6. While I think that some people are voluntarily evil because they themselves have miserable lives and they inflict this on others, in general, I agree that people are not necessarily evil. Thus I suppose mowing down those miserable goblins and kobolds and wretched orcs can make a kind of sense. I am not a psychologist (although I know a couple) and I am sure that there is something deep down in our primitive subconcious minds that revels in killing weird things.

    Now, I can say that roleplaying expanding my vocabulary and it did teach me to play well with others. As an only child in a small town with severe allergies I latched on to any sort of creative outlet and D&D was a way for us outcasts to work together. I wouldn’t say that it was a miracle or anything like that, but it might have kept me from becoming a complete psychotic sociopath.

  7. Interesting related note, the latest issue of the Escapist (covering video games mainly) is called “Making Morality Matter” and is about ethical choices and navel gazing too! http://www.escapistmagazine.com/features/issue/308

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