How Games Allow us to Shed our RL Shackles

A long time ago, in the years before the Internet, a decade after the Enterprise’s first five year mission, my father bought a book for me while we were on vacation. The title? The Dungeon Master’s Guide. I consumed the book in less than 24 hours. Then I re-read it. Then I studied it. That vacation I poured through that book. My future was remolded that summer in ways I could never have imagined. The book, unbeknownst to me, gave me the tool do something more than just play the game. Sure, I liked playing AD&D, but what I really liked was watching people play AD&D – and the DM gets a front row seat.

When people play games they become something they could never be in real life: honest. We lie in the course of everyday life all the time. We lie at work to convince the boss there is no place else we’d rather be. We lie to our families to convince them there is nothing more important to us than them.[1] We lie to ourselves when we pretend job and family is what really makes us happy. We lie about over eating. We lie about drinking too much. We lie about lusting after the neighbor. We lie all the time.

This state of perpetual lies is so pervasive it’s become normal. It is the socially acceptable thing to do. There is only one place it tends to fall away for most people: when they can “pretend” to be someone else. Don’t believe that’s true? Go read Internet comments on just about anything for 30 minutes and then come back. I’ll wait.

See what I mean. On the Internet, everyone’s an expert and opinions are as good as fact. That’s the honesty of it, we all believe our opinions are the correct ones. The other guy is full of crap. We may debate a person politely face to face, but we get downright ugly when we can allow our honest nature to surface.

That’s what I discovered when I became a Dungeon Master. If you really want to know someone, what makes them tick and how their mind works, study them while they play a game.

Here’s a case in point. I had a friend in school named Joe.[2] Joe was a good guy. He was nice. In fact, he was so nice that it came out as practically saintly. The guy didn’t seem to have a selfish bone in his body. He was always willing to lend a hand, run an errand, take that extra duty shift on the long weekend so you could get away from the stress. Nice guy eh? Actually, he was so self-absorbed he was practically narcissistic.

By watching Joe play AD&D, I soon realized that Joe’s pretty-boy-doesn’t-have-a-scar-on-him-he’s-so-good 12th lever fighter was really who he thought he was. Ray was practically a narcissist. The reason he didn’t have a girlfriend or take weekend passes was that he was in love with himself. He was always with the person he wanted to be with most. And that is how his fighter was. We HATED that character.

One day I decided I’d had enough of Joe’s fighter and his peccadilloes. I decided he’d have to prove how perfect he was by making perfect decisions every encounter. The only thing left of Joe’s beloved self-portrait that session was a nose and Joe had to role very high indeed for even that much. Guess what happened? Yep, rage quit and oh boy how. I’ve never seen a temper tantrum as bad from a gamer. There was stomping and throwing and name calling and almost physical blows at one point. Joe had been part of our group for over three years and yet he left and never returned. Remind you of any Eve players you know or might have heard about?

Absolute honesty is inappropriate in a civilized world. From the white lie to telling your dying father it’ll be okay, we live in a constant state of dishonesty – pretending to be the people everyone else (and we) think we should be. And there’s my point. People say they do what they do in Eve because it’s a safe place to act in ways they never would in real life. I agree. We’re a lot more honest. What you do in Eve is a truer reflection of your inner soul than you realize.

Fly careful.

[1] Hey, people are instinctively selfish and our own happiness is more important to us than anyone else’s including our mother’s. This is something that Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau and others all agree on to one degree or another so get over the statement already.

[2] Name changed because societal norms dictate I lie here.

7 comments on “How Games Allow us to Shed our RL Shackles

  1. Interesting read. I agree with most of the points presented in it, mostly because it's true, but also because I can relate to it myself.

    If I have to be honest, I'm actually a quite violent person in real life. Why? Because I grew up with a drunk dad and got bullied for 9 years straight in school (that was up until 5-6 years ago). I don't know why I got bullied all those years. I never did anyone anything, and tried to avoid trouble of all kinds. As a result of being bullied for 9 years straight, I've somehow grown to think that being rude and mildly violent is okay. At times when I pass by the local kindergarden I even get the urge to just beat up all the small kids. I know it's not okay, but somehow I find it hard to change in real life from one day to another.

    So to make up for that, I go on EVE and I help new players by giving them free stuff and generally making them feel welcome. In fact, when I play, I'm the polar opposite of my RL-self. I'm a nice guy, whom the people I've asked like to hang out and chat with. I just can't be like that in real-life, for reasons I haven't figured out myself yet.

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  2. I actually agree with your observation about the role of a GM in a pen&paper RPG. I have been in that role almost exclusively throughout my RPG playing career for a number of reasons.

    Now the rest of the story is also quite intriguing but I am not sure what to make of it. I am a 'difficult' person IRL. Hell, the other day I managed to single handedly wreck the fun on a friend's birthday party. Still I have a relationship with a man who loves me to bits and there are many people who have deep respect and admiration for me. In game I have the detachment to make a decision and only bring the better qualities of myself into it.

    I am not sure whether it is correct to say that people show their true self in-game. Maybe just a side of themselves which they can not manifest as strongly as they wished IRL.

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  3. Is it gaming allows us to be honest, or is it gaming that allows us to be someone else? I'm a fairly big asshole IRL, but online I'm almost always nice. Is is because I can't/won't/don't know how to change myself in my day to day life? Is it because making my toon different from me increases my immersion?

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  4. To a extreme degree, imagine for a second, if everyone could do what they really want, all the time and to everyone and everything.

    The ability we have to control ourselves, and not kill,steal,use,abuse everything and everyone, is what keeps us from total annihilation, and absolute chaos, we all know this,and yet we still crave to be able to do it even with all the consequences.

    In games we can taste a bit of this “liberty” to a degree, and yet not everyone “abuse” this “power”.

    But in the end it all comes to personal choice, if you are asshole in real live you probably are in game also,and vice versa.

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  5. Fun post – great points. I wrote about this some time ago (http://splatus.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/split-personality/) and in principle I think you are correct – maybe “lying” is a little strong. Early in life, you learned to adapt to your environment against your own curiosity and selfish interest (“be gentle” vs. hitting your baby brother). You learned that manipulating other's impression of yourself is the key to get them to do the desired thing. Its not exactly lying, but it is a conscious and deliberate masking of your own motivation in order to achieve your goal. That grows tiresome of course and I agree, people live out their phantasies of their real selves through games.

    The second point is that gaming levels the playing field. In real life, you need education, be of the proper sex, age and race and connected to the right people to advance in your career. Most of these factors are outside of your control (or so you tell yourself). In games, you need to build your reputation (sure) but all (ok, most) parameters that influence your reputation are under your control. You are truly in charge of your destiny.

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  6. [1] Giving us friends is the way God apologize for giving us a family.

    However if gaming is our true self why are there carebears? People who build and harm no one? Are they the really nice people IRL?

    Also there is a possibility that people lie in a game because they don't play, but use the game as a tool to impress others by their leetness.

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  7. LOL on your #1…
    My dad said it best,
    “Take a good hard look at all the people in your family.”
    “Now, imagine none of them are related to you at all.”
    “Now ask yourself, honestly, how many would you invite to dinner?”
    “You might be surprised at how small that number really is…” =]

    As for the “living a life of dishonesty”… Man is a pack animal, a tribal animal… and he is a hunter/killer and an omnivore… those truths cannot work together without friction. The little/big lies we tell, the masks we all wear everyday, are the grease that keeps us from picking up that thigh bone and destressing ourselves on that idiot in our face. It allows us to live together in huge packs (see New York, Paris, Bombay… et al.) which has proven to be genomically beneficial for the species as a whole… no matter how irritating it can be to an individual.

    In genetic terms, the good of the many ALWAYS trumps the good of ANY smaller group. Period.

    …plus, I can't really say I agree… cause that's be a lie. =]

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