Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gaming and Hierarchy

This post on Chris's blog that links to this post about sexism and violence as "stress release" in RPGs got me thinking about hierarchy in gaming groups and how there are some issues that are kind of "third rails" in discussion of gaming. They're sure to produce sparks when you bring them up.

One of them is the issue of "wish fulfilment" in gaming, how people play these games so they can do things they can't do in day-to-day life. That's an interesting subject, but I think it's being covered in the discussion on Chris's post.

What I've been thinking about though is hierarchy in games, how RPGs sometimes act as a way for groups to reinforce the power structure of the group, how "in character" actions can be a substitute for real life actions, and how sometimes real life issues come out "in game" in ways that we don't expect. I think sometimes players use "in character" actions as a way of keeping others in line socially. I know that looking back at even some quite recent play, there were times when people's in-character actions were clearly about punishing a player for not playing "right", and for not fitting in with the group.

I think "the party" is a pretty clear metaphor for the out-of-play social group.

This is most obvious in adolescent play, where there's a lot of tension and one-up-man-ship in play, where the players are all struggling to define themselves against each other. A lot of interpersonal aggression comes out as in character bickering, fighting, and so on. I don't think it's an accident that GMs tend to be the more socially competent and respected members of their groups. I think the amount of power that traditional games give GMs over the players in the game is directly related to the ways that the people who habitually take the GM role dominate their social groups. I know this was a feature of my early play, and from listening to others, I don't think that's an unusual experience.

I want to take a moment to say that I'm not at all bagging on the concept of GMs in games, or saying that roleplaying is an inherently damaging activity for young people. I'm saying that the format of gaming which has a GM position with considerable power over a group of players naturally facilitates and reinforces the existing social structure of a lot of social groups, and that in-game actions are not exempt from the interpersonal relationships that exist in those groups.
Groups reproduce in play the power structure that exists outside of play. So groups with a strong leader type are going to gravitate towards games that facilitate that role.

I talked about some of this stuff in my post grad thesis, which was about the local gaming club in my town. I didn't really have the roleplaying experience or theoretical grounding to explore the idea fully at the time, but I was very aware of the way that the GM position worked in social groups, and how in-game actions reflected out-of-game social structures. I wrote about how the breakdown in a game I observed was directly related to the power struggle between two players in the group.

Of course, none of this made me very popular in the club. Talking about this stuff was implicitly forbidden. The "It's just a game" mantra was strongly invoked to dispel any analysis of power in gaming.

I think it's pretty clear that it's not "just a game", and that social structures do influence the way people play with each other. What I'm interested in is not the really obviously dysfunctional ways that adolescent players interact with each other in play, but rather the way that all in-game actions are really interpersonal interactions.

I think as a hobby we've got this really strong cognitive divide between "in character" and "out of character" as two totally distinct things. It's an article of faith that what happens in play is totally distinct from our real-life social interactions, and I think that's a mistaken idea.

Not that that is a particularly original observation, but I think it's an important consideration to keep in mind during play, and in design. All interactions between characters are interpersonal interactions between players in the game. They are all "real life" interactions. I think that's one of the strong differences between rpgs and other mediums, and it's both a strength and a weakness of the hobby.

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