The eccentric poet and folklorist Robert Bly once wrote that a central feature of adulthood was '[being] able to organise the random emotions and events of [one's] life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story'.
I know what he meant. Little children experience events in a disconnected jumble. As we grow bigger, we learn to connect the things that happen to us from moment to moment. In adulthood, we can then piece them into something resembling a personal narrative. And if we attend carefully to what happens to us, we can envision our lives as an ongoing story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This allows us, in turn, to think about what we wish to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and in old age - and also to think about the legacy that we will leave behind. The result is a vision of one's life as having an overarching meaning, which, when reflected upon, can guide one's conduct.
Reading novels I think helps to facilitate the development of this ability in a way that other storytelling media (so as films or TV series) do not, partly because it takes a comparatively long time to read one, and partly because of that strange alchemy that takes place in the brain when one is reading words and internalising them through imagined imagery. It is surprising to me that I have never heard or read anybody remark on the fact that reading a novel requires one to be able to maintain a connected narrative and a set of accompanying imagery in one's head despite the big gaps in time between reading one section and the next, and despite the fact that each section of the book may be being read in different surroundings and different circumstances. Currently reading A Soldier of the Great War, for example, I find myself reading 10 pages or so at night in bed, then another 20 pages or so on public transport on my way to work the next morning, then a few more pages in my office at lunch time, and so on. But what I am envisioning in my head when I picture what is happening retains its consistency, as does my knowledge of what is happening and the position the narrative is 'paused' at. This surely has some very significant effect, when repeated again and again down the years, on one's ability to think about life in terms of having a narrative rather than a meaningless series of (fortunate or unfortunate) events.
If this is true of novels, though, it is surely also true of RPGs. What happens in an RPG campaign in some ways can be thought of as what I earlier called a 'disconnected jumble' of events, which we then assemble into something resembling a collective story (the campaign) and individualised stories (for each PC). And, much as with a novel, what is interesting about this exercise is that it happens partly within our brains (as we picture in our minds what is happening from moment to moment) and is also characterised by gaps - in this case, between sessions - during which we have to hold what is going on in stasis in our minds so that we can reconnect it to the past and connect it to the future next time. It seems likely, in other words, that playing in a long-term campaign has the same effect on one's ability to make sense of the world in terms of narrative as does reading lots of novels.
Thinking about RPGs in terms of self-help can be a bit sick-making, but I think it is important to emphasise (as I have tried to do from time to time on the blog) that there is something deeply counter-cultural about physical, pen and paper gaming. One of the problems that we face, living in a heavily digitised environment, is that the conditions confronting us are highly fragmenting of our consciousness - indeed in such a way as to hinder or even reverse the process by which we move from living in a 'disconnected jumble' of events to understanding our lives as having overarching narratives. Since an awareness that one's life is a story is one of the ways we derive meaning from it, and hence develop a properly adult orientation to the world, the result of this fragmentation of consciousness is ultimately a bleak and nihilistic, not to mention stunted and immature, way of approaching things. If playing RPG campaigns - meaning proper long-term ones, in which one regularly sits down with the same group of friends - can work to undermine the conditions which confront us, then that gives the hobby a pertinence beyond being simply a fun thing to do. And I think we can all agree that we should therefore do more of it - indeed as much as possible.
[Something odd happened to the previous version of this post, I think in connection to an internet outage. I have therefore reposted it.]