On Identity in Roleplaying: A Rumination on the Self, the Other and Socially Mediated Ethics

How much does one play oneself in a roleplaying game? In my experience I have come to understand that the answer is “quite a lot.” For the majority of characters, there are identifiable bits of your inner self which you bring out and play with. This is the kind of thing which happens when your friends around the gaming table begin to notice you playing the same type of characters over and over again.

For example, I constantly find myself playing a somewhat whimsical, sneaky but good natured character. Sometimes he’ll break the rules, but it’s never in a way that is intentionally harmful to anyone. Well, not to anyone nice, anyway… Whatever character I play, this sort of thing tends to come through.

Not always, of course. Sometimes it’s possible to put together a character that is totally atypical. But these ones tend to be tiring to play and stay in character. Also, it’s possible that a character you’re playing, even one that you keep on recreating and playing over and over, might be exploring a piece of your psyche which you wouldn’t want to come out in real life. The gaming table provides a safe zone in which to explore that darker side of your nature.

Even when you’re playing an “evil” character, the evil acts undertaken are justified by the fact that you are playing an “evil” character – you’re ok with taking the action for the most part because you have identified it as “evil” or “other”. It is safely “placed” away from personal identity by having been labelled “evil.” Your character can go around doing the most heinous of acts without you having the slightest tweak of conscience in this circumstance.

You really see the issue in stark relief, however, when you are playing a character in a completely different social paradigm, where the very definition of “Good” and “Evil” are different from our current understanding. In this circumstance playing according to the social expectations of the setting can be challenging for players. I admit that I like to explore issues like this when I’m gaming. Throwing out an ethical choice to your players can really get them to dig deep into their character and figure out how they’d think – or to explore their own conceptions of right and wrong, add some deep thought to an otherwise escapist pursuit. I also enjoy it when I’m a player and have to choose an ethical side. But it can be difficult to separate one’s character from oneself. And it was from this perspective that the above issue came to light.

We experienced this in one game based loosely on pre-Christian Viking culture. The players had come across some escaped slaves. Now, these characters considered themselves to be “good” – but in the context of being a “good” Viking, it was incumbent on them to mete out justice to these people. This caused quite a bit of consternation for the players, as they debated the ethics of the situation. It attacked their very sense of right and wrong. It’s interesting to see that such a great number of people seem to be moral absolutists. Even given different cultural norms and understandings of right and wrong, it is difficult for a player to envision their character having different moral “absolutes” than themselves.
Why would this be? I can only presume that the experience of roleplaying is, in some way, an exploration of self, and gives the opportunity to explore one’s own sense of right and wrong. To be somehow forced by the setting into accepting a different set of norms is therefore very difficult.

The “moral” of the story: Tales written in today’s society, even be they set amongst people with a completely different mind-set, take part in today’s discourse.

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About Paul

Cuchulain (otherwise known as Paul) has been playing roleplaying games since he was 10 years old. Although he'll play any game under the sun, he prefers characterisation and plot over tactics and mechanics. He is never happier than when playing in or mastering a horror campaign - preferably with heavy Cthulhu Mythos overtones or theme.
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