Thursday, 5 May 2011

When and Why Are You Yourself?

It's a well-worked observation by now in RPG circles: people playing characters in a game can act as they personally would act, or as their characters would act. Different people can identify at different levels; different games can support different levels; people can have fun exploring the boundary between levels.

This is where a fairly arcane theory in psychology comes in. Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist best known for his book Descartes' Error, which influenced a whole generation of thinkers in psychology (myself included) to take emotion more seriously as a positive and functional force in thought. His 1999 book The Feeling of What Happens is less well known. There, he uses the neuroscience of the day to construct a three-layered model of consciousness and the self.

To simplify somewhat, the first two layers of self are reactive. The proto-self, based on the reptile brain, monitors our body boundaries and pretty much stops us from chewing our extremities. And the core self, based on the mammal brain, gives us emotions to deal with threats, thwarting and opportunities.

The third layer of self is the autobiographical self, and it is deeply tied in with the human capacity for self-reflection and language. It lets us plan for the future, look to the past, and construct a story about who we are and where we're going.

I put it to you that in a game, players are most eager and comfortable to:
  • express their character when the autobiographical self is called on, and 
  • express themselves when the core self is called on.
So, for example, character autobiographical self. When a player spins stories about their character's origin at a lull in the game, or starts talking about what they're going to do with all this wealth, that's appropriate and well received.

But not player autobiographical self. When a player spins stories about what happened to them in another game last year, or about this really great pizza place they went to last week, or goes on at length about this Savage Worlds campaign they're planning ... Well, some players do that, but it gets old fast. And a joke that gets older fast - hell, was born old - is when the NPC asks you "Who are you and where are you going?" and you break the frame thusly: "Well, I'm Josh Schmenge and after this game I'm going to drive home, eat a bowl of cereal, and go to bed."

And player core self.  This is when six wights come barreling down on the party's paladin and his player yells "Ohhhh shit!" That's not inappropriate, even thought the contrast between the Lord's knight and the cursing player is funny. In a way, the genuine emotion gives homage to the realness of the situation for the player. Likewise, we cut players some slack for rejoicing according to their native customs when they find the huge treasure horde or defeat those wights.

It's not just emotion. When danger looms, players often go into an analytic mode that calls out the rules and moves in a way the characters never would. Some DMs frown on this, but nobody can stop it completely. Also, it's not satisfying to the players if you force them to act 100% in-character at those times. They would feel like the play-acting was getting in the way of what really engages them - ensuring their beloved character's survival. Maybe this represents the speeded-up processing that high emotion facilitates?

But not character core self. Who do you have more tolerance for - a player who nearly gets your whole party killed because they're roleplaying an incompetent, impulsive fool, or the same situation where the player just is an incompetent, impulsive fool? Hm, yeah, thought so. D&D is still not a role-playing game ... when the adventure's at stake.


  1. Thoughtful post ... interesting!

  2. "Also, it's not satisfying to the players if you force them to act 100% in-character at those times. They would feel like the play-acting was getting in the way of what really engages them."

    Yes. I think this is counter-intuitive to some folks. If nothing else, you are asking them to disengage for a moment before reengaging in a more abstract way. But I'm happy when they say "Oh, shit!", that's when I know I got them and we're rollin'.

  3. If one only uses the PC who is an incompetent fool as an example, it biases the argument in favour of the apparently pre-determined conclusion on the matter.
    --What if the role-playing is that of a hard-driven adventurer torn between party safety and going after more treasure? Isn't that the part that seems to be encouraged as 'the game' part of RPGs?

    Moreover, the analysis is really only describing a style of play. For example, folks playing Amber Diceless or any number of other rpgs are perfectly capable and glad to ignore the mechanisms of the game (such as they exist), and portray their characters. The assessment that since the immersion isn't completely divorced from the Player it isn't: A). as useful, or, B). as desirable as Players moving their Dwarf Fighter Pawn towards the cool stuff -- seems to be the very antithesis of Roleplaying, although it does seem very gamy.

    This shibboleth of role-play ("I'm the dwarf fighter") versus what is termed role-assumption ("Like generations before me, I am a troll-slyer because honour demands that I perform my familial duty, as in the days of Klangeth Klungdorr of Burren Boch...") is one of those things that just makes me wonder where those who parse the RPG that way get it from. Certainly not one iota of text as written in any edition of the D&Ds I've ever read. It seems a clear cultural imperative for its practitioners, but I still can't determine the impetus for it, nor its appeal or value.

  4. I wonder whether mechanical complexity plays a part in the whole business as well. If combat rules are complex, clear declarations of intent help to administrate those rules effectively.

    The D&D group I've just joined has that gear-change whenever battle is joined precisely because the interplay of skills, bonuses and circumstances needs a step back to clarify and sort out.

    In the past I confess I'd have viewed that as a Bad Thing, and I still think that there's a limit to how much mechanical interaction can be set up by inter-player discussion before the question of just how we're planning all this rears its head. These days, though, it's starting to grow on me, as the play with mechanics of a more complex system begins to display its own rewards.

    @Timeshadows - that distinction between roleplaying and role-assumption is a good one which I will probably attempt to make use of in future. Much obliged.

  5. It is interesting to consider those distinctions, but I think I'm with Timeshadows here. The examples seem to be too selective.

    I could for example imagine that my players would have less against a someone who is consciously playing a coward, than someone who instinctively refuses to do dangerous things in-game.

  6. Another thought on the player roleplaying incompetence-- they never learn. In fact, as the player learns what would be most wise to do in every situation, their character climbs toward peak incompetence because their conception of roleplaying is doing the opposite of what would be smart.

    Most of those roleplaying situations are entertaining only to the player, because like a thief stealing from the party, they only consider consequences for that character, in other words they are selfish.

    Yes, I realize we are squatters playing monopoly, but if someone picks up the game board and throws it every few minutes because it would be funny/ironic/in character it gets lame quickly.

    The sophisticated situations you mention Timeshadows come about when players play themselves. "Should I run now and save myself while abandoning everyone" comes about naturally when you are trying to survive, you don't have to take on a persona to achieve those moments.

  7. going off what you wrote in your examples, it just seems like i'd say:

    accessing your own ideas and memories about yourself when talking to NPCs suggests (but does not demand) to everyone at the table your "heads not in the game", however accessing your own strong emotions about what's going ON in the game suggests your head IS in the game.

    Whatever part of the brain is involved, i think it's pretty easy to see that any sign that a person:
    1-is trying to play "right" by local terms (or at least the same way everybody else at the table is), and
    2-is moved or affected by the action therein

    are signs that make everybody feel like they are not wasting their time and the thing they;re doing is entertaining everybody involved. Which is a dynamic familiar in a lot of social situations where people like each other and are trying to have fun.

  8. @ Telecanter: "Yes, I realize we are squatters playing monopoly, but if someone picks up the game board and throws it every few minutes because it would be funny/ironic/in character it gets lame quickly."

    Again, a loaded proposition that doesn't actually map onto the activity being discussed.
    --Here's my ironic reply: Gamists start describing real-world phenomena outside of the game to trans-nerdy degrees and seem to be obsessed with min-maxing their twinky characters.

    That's equally likely and valid as the position framed in the quote, correct?

  9. @Timeshadows: I think you and I probably have more similar ideas about gaming than is apparent.

    I myself think it's interesting to try to take on a persona during roleplaying. I just want to make the points that:

    1) even playing ourselves in these fantastic situations can be challenging and lead to interesting decisions, and

    2) what often passes for "roleplaying" in our hobby is actually very simplistic, even clichéd and can be justification for making decisions that makes the game less fun for everyone else involved.

  10. Interesting discussion, thanks for your perspectives. I probably should have clarified that my remarks apply mostly to the style of game I play - the adventure-based RPG. Certainly it's possible to have a game where the main point is to take on a role and keep in character.