Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's My Motivation? Escapism in Gaming

You're going to have a hell of a penalty for that. You know that, right?

So, I've been thinking a lot lately about the whys and wherefores of the hobby. Specifically, what is it that drives us, largely grown-ass men and women with jobs and families and mortgages, to sit around a table on a regular basis and play pretend. What, for lack of a better term, is our motivation? I touched on this a little in last Friday's post when I talked about our characters as avatars of ourselves that portray us as we'd like to be. But why? Why do we pull on the cape or the body armor or the pointy hat? Why do we take up the plasma rifle or the staff with the knob on the end? That's the question that fascinates me, gentle readers. That's what I want to touch on today.

Role-playing is, at its heart, escapism, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. With the various stresses in our lives, it's good to have a way to unwind, to blow off some steam or work off some aggression in a controlled environment. Some people work out, some meditate, we pretend to be super heroes of one kind or another. We all have our reasons for it, some healthy, many not. Whatever the reasons, and there are as many reasons to play games as there are gamers, I think the escapism we have in the hobby falls largely into two types; Running to something and running from something.

Running to something is what I think most gamers do of a session. When my friends and I, and most likely you and your friends, sit down for a game, we're there to play pretend for a few hours. We whack some bad guys, get ourselves into and out of trouble, succeed brilliantly, fail miserably and generally have a bunch of fun and laughs. A player running to something is playing so that they can pretend to be someone else for a while. They're pretending to be another person who, while obviously a near super-powered distillation of all our inner wants and desires, is still a walking contradiction full of their own wants and needs and all the little, constant failings that make a person human. They think in terms of character motivation, and build their characters around concepts and ideas as opposed to building them around the right kind of numbers.

For example, I'm a pretty average guy, right? I've got a wife, a kid on the way, a house, pets, self-cleaning oven, the whole bit. I live a pretty average life in a pretty average town, and all in all I'm pretty happy with it. I certainly don't fight fishmen in dark warehouses or blow up heads of secret police forces for a living. My Shadowrun character Yuri, however, does all this and more on an average Tuesday. He gets to carry around an AK, thinks in kilos of explosives, can get through just about any kind of security system imaginable in the Sixth World, technological ones at least, and generally gets to do a whole bunch of awesome stuff that I don't. He's also a walking ball of personality disorders and self-destructive behaviors. He drinks too much, is barely in control of his emotions (which is only exacerbated by his drinking) and he tends to outsmart himself constantly. That's on a good day. That doesn't even get into the fact that due to being blown up by a Bratva counter-bomber he's at least half metal and myomer which has mostly unhinged him, and that he's starting to show signs of PTSD with hallucinations and anxiety attacks and everything else that goes along with it. I love playing him both because he's so awesome and because he is so flawed. I love his ability to succeed and his potential for catastrophic failure. Through him I can live out some fantasies, knock some heads together and do so in the aforementioned controlled environment, in our case Shade's basement.

Players running from something are playing a different game altogether. These are the guys who are the punchlines of our hobby, the min/maxers or munchkins or power gamers or whatever you want to call them. Their characters are nothing more than collections of stats, skill, feats, edges and flaws combined just so to achieve the unachievable, "winning" at role-playing. They have, or perceive that they have, something horribly wrong with their lives or themselves, and they play to not be themselves. It's an unhealthy kind of escapism where the character takes the place of whatever is missing in the player's life. These characters are invincible and infallible. Nothing bad ever happens to them and there are no consequences for their actions. They tend to be made so that they never fail, so that they make up for whatever frustrations or disappointments or perceived lack of control over their lives that the players may have. God help the gamemaster with one or two of these guys in his group. They want all the attention and they don't want the rules to apply to their characters (because maybe they feel that failing in character hits a little too close to home). They'll piss and moan and pout and throw fits when bad things happen to their characters or, heaven forfend, their characters should get killed. They will always, always be looking for that role-playing "cheat code", that loophole in the rules that will make them invincible, give them unlimited money and ammo, and allow them to do whatever they want.

Now, I'm probably alone in this kind of thinking, or at least in the minority. It's true that I tend to sometimes over-analyze things or look for meaning where there isn't one. I guess what I'm trying to say here is, that along with being fun and hilarious escapism, role-playing can also be a good way to take a look at yourself and your thoughts and feelings. What does your character, and his actions, say about you the player? Does your character expose some personal need or desire? Do you play a character to get into character development and some personal exploration, or are you in it solely to win, to fill some hole you have within yourself? Next time you sit down to throw some dice, do me a favor. Ask yourself which way you're running, the answer may surprise you.

1 comment:

Doug Wall said...

I touched on something like this in my own blog a while ago.