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The Shame of the Game

By Gary Pellino

In which the author takes a scathing look at the prejudices of those outside our hobby, and of those within.


Sometimes, I am ashamed to be a role-player.

Recently, I was in a social situation with a group of strangers, and we were going around the room introducing ourselves - name, job, hobbies and so on. On my turn, I froze up when it came to my hobbies, finally mumbling something about computers after an uncomfortable pause. Although I originally kidded myself that this was simply because I was reluctant to go through the difficulties of explaining the hobby outsiders, I was soon forced to admit this was not the case. I had not said I was a role-player because I was afraid of derision; ashamed of my hobby and my participation in it.

Gary is referring to this article.

I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences of embarrassment towards our hobby. It's true that the problem of explaining the game is quite a barrier (as I explained in issue 2), but there are many other equally arcane hobbies out there that don't suffer from this kind of low self-image. Why is that people would almost prefer to admit to clubbing seals in their spare time than confess to being a role-player? Where does this self censure come from?

One simple reason is that role-playing is intrinsically somewhat embarrassing. In my opinion (again, see my article in issue 2), role-playing is intrinsically childlike: what we are doing is effectively the same as playing "imaginary games", adult versions of "cowboys and indians". And in a society that tends to see the childlike as inappropriate, if not insane, it is no wonder that it is difficult to admit what you enjoy doing with your life. I expect that similar problems are also faced by other hobbies that seem crazy or stupid to outsiders; thrill sports like bungee jumping or parachuting would be good examples. But if this was the only barrier, then, like the bungee jumpers, we would be overly proud of our hobby, always ready to explain exactly why what we do is so incredibly spiritually enriching. There are other reasons behind our reticence.

One major source is our formative years. Since the beginning of time, the school yard has been an arena where the strong have ruled over the weak, where the primitive "jocks" have bullied the more passive "nerds". And let's face it, role-playing is primarily a nerd-ish hobby. In adolescence, along with pocket protectors and anoraks, RPGs are pronounced statements of one's nerd status. And since being a nerd is something that can and usually does result in both mental and physical abuse, this is not something to want to advertise. Indeed, pulling out a D&D manual at school can be the equivalent of waving a red flag at a bull. So it becomes necessary to minimize the signs: hiding the books from view, only playing in the library after school, and most importantly, never telling anyone what you do, on pain of death.

If you also had a hard time being a young gamer, why not write about it for our Once Upon a Time column?

For the unfortunate people who experience a particularly cruel adolescence, as I did, this attitude can be hard to shake off once out of school. After five or six years of this kind of prejudice, it is easy to become conditioned, to believe that being a role-player will forever mark you as a target for abuse or social ostracism. It takes a while to unlearn the survival tactics of the past, and realise that the real world doesn't work like the school yard, that you can now enjoy any hobby you wish without fear of judgement - well, almost.

Unfortunately, the conditioning of the past is not the only reason why role-players often feel embarrassed about their hobby. As anyone will tell you, prejudice against role-playing still exists in general society. Or does it?

Outside of adolescence, I have never encountered anything that resembled prejudice against my choice of hobby. A few times have come close: two years ago the principal of a local school banned the game for a short time, and I once had to answer some heated questions from a concerned church member. And a few times, friends have asked me about the truth behind the suicide story, but that's all I can recall.

What's interesting is that every time I have encountered a situation in which outsiders questioned the hobby, the cause of the problem was lack of knowledge about the game. When the nature of the game was explained to the aforementioned churchgoer and principal, they recanted their stance. Their questioning attitude was not based on any political agenda, or religious dogma, or even media-induced paranoia - merely a natural concern about something they didn't understand. In fact, no-one has ever expressed to me any sort of disapproval of the game, only misunderstanding and confusion. The same goes for all the other gamers I know.

If you have been the victim of this kind of prejudice, don't ignore it. Contact someone like CAR-PGA or RPGA and they will be able to help you defend your rights.

I have never been asked to leave a restaurant or shop because I've been reading a RPG manual. I've never been denied a job, never been insulted in the street, and (since high school), never been beaten up for the kind of games I play. More importantly, no-one has ever questioned my religious beliefs or accused me of practicing Satanism. No one has ever picketed in front of my local gaming shop, or burnt my gaming materials. So how can we dare to call ourselves victims of prejudice?

Sure, sometimes when I've mentioned that I am a role-player, people have given me a look as if I had just started to explain why transporter technology is feasible. But I'm a big boy now, and I think I can survive the fact that some ignorant outsiders can't see past their high school classifications. Of course, this can cause a lot of social discomfort, especially for those of us who also still believe the real world works like school. But for most of us, this is merely an annoying residual effect; it does not indicate the existence of any real prejudice originating independently of our formative years.

So it seems that the idea of a gaming-prejudiced society is somewhat of a myth. When you really take a critical look, nobody really knows or cares enough about role-playing to oppress the average gamer. But if this is a myth, where is all that anti-gaming vibe coming from? What drives us all to act like victims of a world-wide witch-hunt?

Right about now, most of us start screaming something about the evils of the religious right. And fifteen years ago, we might have had a point. It did get bad back then, especially in the US. But that was then, this is now, and things have changed. Pat Pulling is dead, BADD was discredited and disbanded almost ten years ago, and with it went almost the entire anti-gaming movement. Of course, there is and always will be some TV evangelist in the mid-west who'll get up on his high-horse about Vampire: The Masquerade for a while, and this might even now be inducing the odd panicky parent to snatch a gaming book from their child's innocent grasp. And though this isn't particularly helpful for the hobby, it is not particularly harmful either.

To find out more about BADD, see this month's installment of the History of Role-Playing

There will always be ignorant people who have a moral objection to RPGs, but there are now fewer people to listen to them. Slowly, role-playing is being absorbed into the mainstream. People have begun to forget the media hype, and get on with not caring about how complete strangers spend their Friday nights. It's worth remembering that many things we now consider "normal" - such as comic books, television, rock music, movies and even dancing - faced the same sort of conscientious objections as did role-playing, when they were first introduced.

The battle, it seems, has been won. So why have so many of us not laid down our arms? For some reason, whenever people mention anything about BADD, or Pulling, or fundamentalists, role-players are suddenly leaping out of their seats, stumbling over each other to bitch endlessly and repetitively about the kind of propaganda and information abuses of which the movement is guilty. Is there really anyone out there still who doesn't know that BADD manufactured statistics, or bent facts, or manipulated people to their purpose? More to the point, is there anyone who still cares? What can possibly be achieved by constantly defending role-playing against these non-existent attacks? And what is the point of constantly attacking an ideology that is now effectively dead?

The point, unfortunately, is that it feels good. Blind hatred - or prejudice - is a deliriously easy and enjoyable doctrine to follow, as it taps into your most selfish desires, and completely relieves you of the burden of having to think. It makes your beliefs appear to be unshakably correct, and hence anything you do based on those beliefs is vindicated. And that can be quite intoxicating. Best of all, it turns you into a hero. If the enemy is evil, then your opposition of them makes you a warrior for the true path.

As lovers of fantasy, (as most role-players are) this image is one to which we are particularly drawn. If the anti-gaming movement is the evil empire, then we must be the rebels, fighting valiantly to turn back their tide of oppression. And maybe we are as good looking as Han Solo, too. This, then is the reason that players continue to fight even though the battle is over - we are, perhaps subconsciously, playing out our own fantasy games in real life. So the source of the gaming prejudice myth is, in the end, ourselves: we make ourselves into the oppressed , because we enjoy the feeling of hating our oppressors.

Gary encourages readers to take issue with him about the points raised in this article; simply send your opinions to the Forum

However, the real world does not work like fantasy. And, ironically, this attitude is as much a threat to gaming as BADD ever were. Playing the victim only gives more credence to the other side; the more we scream about the evils of our opponents, the more it looks like they have a case. The more we propagate the myth that role-playing is prejudiced, the more people believe that there is a reason for this prejudice. Worst of all, by allowing ourselves to be prejudiced, we end up acting as bigoted and oppressive as did our opposition.

As I said above, one mention of anti-gaming sentiment can have even the most cerebral gamers jumping up and screaming at the top of their voices about the evils of Pulling, BADD, and all fundamentalists. And this is regardless of who raised the comment - I've even seen gamers attack their fellows around the table with this kind of abuse, simply because they happened to voice some not-quite-anti-BADD comments. I've heard BADD and Pulling labelled with words normally aimed at Hitler and the Nazis - bigoted, deluded, oppressive, insane, even evil (that favourite of the fundamentalists). Worse, I've heard these classifications applied to anyone who even remotely resembles BADD, so all fundamentalists, or even all Christians, become part of the evil anti-gaming movement.

It sometimes seems that we are more interested in proving that RPGs are harmless - or more importantly, that its detractors are wrong - than we are with actually playing the things. Not only does this not help the issue, but it reflects badly on the hobby as a whole, making us look like the militant extremists.

It is about time we laid down our arms. Blind hatred or mindless ridicule does nobody any good, and may even lead to a repeat of the same problem. Rather, if we try to understand our enemy, we can examine the cause of the problem, and hopefully correct it. It's time to stop mocking, denigrating and devaluing their opinions, and started trying to listen, and to understand. And maybe even communicate.

If you still feel the anti-gaming movement needs the piss taken out of it, you might enjoy this site

Pat Pulling, and many of her associates were victims of terrible emotional trauma - losing a loved one to suicide. As a defense mechanism against their grief and guilt, they lashed out at a relatively innocent role-playing game. I amm not venerating what Pulling and her movement did, I'm simply thinking that having some compassion, and some understanding of the causes of the problem is more constructive in the long run. We should never forget that this pantomime devil which we enjoyed booing and hissing was actually a real human being, and hence cannot be justly labeled as "evil" or "insane". The same is true for all those that followed her.

BADD has since passed on, and it's time we stopped flogging that particular dead horse, and got on with our lives. It is also time we realised that not everyone who raises criticisms against gaming is a carbon copy of Pat Pulling, nor are they necessarily advocating the hobby's destruction. Rather, they are usually raising some points about the hobby which, it's about time we realised, are both reasonable and valid.

Take the issue of violence. Now I have seen some things in games like Quake that I found incredibly violent, to the point of making me physically ill. I've also been involved in role-playing games where players have described and role-played some equally sickening displays of gore and sadism. Some would argue that the concept of acting out this sort of thing is much worse than seeing it splattered in high-detail rendering all over your monitor. Not being a psychologist, I can't find myself being able to refute them.

Gaming, being a prominently male hobby, can also foster a "locker-room" type of environment, and hence promote sexist attitudes

Have you ever played a game where the real world has all but melted away, and the feelings and actions of you and your character became indistinct? If you have, you most likely feel that this was one of the best games you've ever played, that gaming at its most brilliant when the boundaries of reality and fantasy are blurred. It makes sense then, that role-playing could nurture the delusions of those whose grip on reality is already fractured, and as such could be dangerous. Is it any wonder then that some people think that the depths and lengths which some people devote to gaming demonstrate a not entirely healthy obsession?

Then there's the religious issue. The biggest myth of all in gaming is that RPGs contain nothing to offend religious groups. Most role-playing games have not just rules for magic, but also for spiritualism. Some of these advocate the character using symbolism and ritual, and many of these accessories are borrowed from real religions or cults, and usually they don't do much to disguise these origins. The author of Pendragon is a shaman, a magician was consulted in the design of the magic system in Shadowrun, and the source books for White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension are practically a guided tour to the world's occult.

And when they're not injecting occultic ideas into games, designers are meddling with Christianity. Steve Jackson's recent In Nomine details a war between demons and angels, and has dice rolls that represent the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Nephilim calls Jesus a "zero Arcanum Nephilim", while games like The Rapture, The End and C. J. Carella's latest, Armageddon, play around with the idea of the Second Coming. It's kind of difficult to act affronted by claims of anti-Christian content when this is what is on the shelves.

The game Witchcraft devotes two pages to explaining that they mean no offence, then emblazons every page with a pentagram; a perfect example of the self-defeating practices of the industry.

Of course, we can hide behind the old adage of "but it's only a game". But think about what would happen if the setting of one of the games above was turned into a movie. There would be an uproar of, shall we say, biblical proportions. And some people might refute those offended with the argument that "it's only a movie". However, that's not the issue. The issue is whether a movie - or any art form - can be justified in twisting, perverting or even defaming someone else's religious beliefs in the name of art, or even entertainment. And that's a very difficult question to answer.

And I don't think that role-playing games are "just games". I believe they are something far beyond a game, and far beyond story-telling, a chance to interact with a fictional world. They represent an opportunity to live out your own fantasies, and as such can be a powerful and emotional experience. So I can understand that people may have a problem with gamers role-playing out practices of a more occult basis. And when games like Kult or Blood encourage characters to be brutal, sadistic killers, I tend to share these reservations.

You might disagree with that, and that's fine. However, it doesn't make me wrong, nor does it make me "anti-gaming". More importantly, it doesn't mean that the question shouldn't be asked in the first place. Role-playing is a young hobby that is still very much changing and expanding, and we should be investigating every aspect of it. But generally, any opinion that doesn't support gaming entirely is devalued, labeled as either religious extremism or fascist bullying, thus ending all hope of any meaningful examination of the hobby.

And far too often, those that express such views are immediately pounced on and silenced under a barrage of accusations by militant gamers, who justify their own oppressive policies on the basis of defending a hobby that isn't actually under attack.

And it is then that I am most ashamed to be a role-player.

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