Wednesday, 12 February 2020

RPGs, Intimacy and Stand-Up

RPGs are most often compared to video games or board games, or perhaps to novels. In many ways, they are much more similar to stand-up comedy, traditional communal story-telling, or preaching. This is because at its core playing an RPG is a communal exercise in shared visualisation. 

You can play video games communally, but all of the players are seeing the same things (literally, in the case of the old fashioned shared-screen/split-screen games I used to play; almost literally when it comes to online gaming). When you read a novel, you are trying to visualise something which another person is describing, but it's just you and the writer.

During an RPG session, on the other hand, the DM or a player is imagining something and describing them to the other participants, and they are trying to 'see' what it is in their own heads, all at once. 

The phenomenology of this is fascinating. If it were somehow possible to do so, one would be able to look into the minds' eyes of all of the participants and see a different version of the events being described in each of them, all playing out simultaneously. It would be like a case study in human perception, consciousness and communication, all at once. 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that there is an intimacy in this, but there is, isn't there? Somebody is imagining something, and describing it, and you and several other people are sitting listening to this and trying to imagine the same thing. This can't help but be a bonding experience, I think, even if of a very trivial kind and mediated through humour and distractions and snacks and beer. No big deal - there are plenty of bonding experiences in life. But there aren't many that I can think of that are based around shared visualisation of something, particular amongst a group of people. 

One that stands out is storytelling, of the old-fashioned variety - a person standing up in front of an audience to tell them a tale. This is also true of stand-up, which is a kind of bastard progeny of that tradition, and preaching, which has a strong story-telling component at times. One person is imagining something and describing it to others, and those others do their damnedest to try to imagine it too. It is no accident that these activities are also strong sources of human bonding - whether it's a tribe, a religious community, or an audience watching Dave Chapelle. 

Another way of putting this is: playing RPGs helps you form lasting friendships. You knew that already. But it's worth emphasising. 

12 comments:

  1. Huh. I hadn't really thought of it before, but you're right that there aren't many other shared visualizations. I'm reminded of -C's post about a GM acting as a sort of tribal shaman directing a vision quest:
    https://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2017/12/on-dungeons-dragons-problem.html

    Do you think the intimacy of the shared experience is a factor in why many people can be quite passionate about their idiosyncratic preferences for playing style?

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    1. I think that may well be part of it but I think it's also a "narcissism of small differences" issue too.

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  2. Great piece. I can think of one other very similar experience that springs readily to mind, being an Ayhuasca ceremony, though any shamanic ritual would fit the bill. The shaman literally leads a group of aspirants through the labyrinth of his/her own fantasies (if you like). Sound familiar?

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  3. Yep, it's really weird if you think about it.

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  4. (It looks like) children do this all the time when playing. I've never thought about it before, but as a species we've probably been playing D&D for 10,000s of years.

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  5. I've often said...and written (more than once)...that RPGs provide such a powerful experience because they do facilitate intimacy in a way that very, very few things do in this life. It's why I promote the hobby and have an interest in seeing it survive and thrive.

    That being said, I wouldn't really equate it with stand-up or preaching. The only person truly being intimate (i.e. sharing themselves) in such instances is the comedian/preacher. The audience members are basking in the story-teller's unveiling (which can be powerful depending on how authentic/honest the sharing), but they are not reciprocating.

    In RPG play, EVERYone is sharing of themselves...that's the reason it creates such intimate bonds and (consequently) lifelong friendships.

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    1. Yeah, that's a good point. Everybody gets a turn.

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  6. Interesting timing on this topic especially laden with the keyword "visualize" since there some light social media traffic recently related aphantasia. I've been thinking about my own aphantasia a bit recently due to said conversations, and just found out last night that my son does not share the condition, interestingly.

    Now I need to consider my players as well, I wonder if any of them share this condition or not, and, given its supposed rarity, how they relate to my GM style which I think would be fair to say is light on descriptive words. They all seem pretty happy with the game overall, so I don't think its a huge deal to them, but it would be interesting to see what they think about it.

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