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The Search for a Definition

By Gary Pellino

In which the author explains how to deal with those uncomfortable pauses in conversation, and exactly why RPGs are better than women.

Whenever you happen to mention role-playing games in a conversation, you generally get one of three reactions: the knowing nod of those who know them well, the casual shrug of those who have heard of them, and the blank stare of those who think you are totally insane. The third response is hard to deal with for a gamer, not because we dislike having to explain what we do, but because it is so darn difficult to explain. We usually end up summarising badly and hence giving a bad or mixed impression of our great hobby. Which doesn't really help you, your listener or the conversation.

So why is role-playing so difficult to explain? Here are a few ideas: Firstly, it's due to the introverted nature of the game - people within the hobby have a tendency to shy away from teaching "outsiders" of its mysteries. It makes us feel special if we know something they don't. Secondly, role-playing is highly divergent - it means different things to different people, and has many different interpretations. Thirdly, there is the problem of image. Many people associate RPGs with suicide or satanic cults. Others associate it with being a "nerd", or a "geek". These prejudices in the listener - or the gamer - are difficult to break down, and inhibit the communication.

Most of us have had problems trying to explain to friends and relatives what it is we do. If you have any advice on this matter, why not write to us here and tell us.

But one of the most important reasons why our games are difficult to explain to others is that we can't really explain them to ourselves. There is no simple definition of what they are, there are no five-word summaries we can learn off. In most published RPG's, the section which explains what an RPG is runs for a couple of pages. The ephemeral and alien nature of this hobby somehow prevents those within it to possess a clear idea of what it is, and even why they play. If this is the case, how can we ever hope to explain it to an outsider?

Many have tried to phrase it succinctly. Gary Fine described it as a combination of strategy gaming and participating in a folie-a-deux (shared delusion). It has also been called "co-operative storytelling" and "acting, but where you make up the lines". It has been likened to improvisational theatre, psychotherapeutic regression, virtual reality, toy soldiers, delusional insanity, sexual fantasies and "the ancient stone-age tradition of myth-making". There are a thousand definitions, each having varying degrees of accuracy, but each having exactly the same underlying problem - they dance around the issue, using fancy words and psychobabble, which results in the hobby sounding impressively complex, but without making it any clearer what it actually is.

For more about Gary Fine, see the sidebars in the previous article.

The only way to solve this problem is to simplify the game down to its bare essentials, such that it can be summarised in a way that is acceptable to both those inside and outside the hobby. Which means that we that are inside must be prepared to sacrifice all the sophistication, embellishment and ethos that is associated with the game. We must swallow our pride and strip our game down to the bone. We have to do the equivalent as describing cricket as "a game where you hit a ball with a bat".

So, then, if we are swallowing our pride, what is the answer to the question? What is role-playing? Answer:

It is the grown-up version of the "imagination games" we played as children, sometimes called "Let's Pretend" or "Make Believe".

That is the essence of all role-playing games - pretending to be mages or vampires or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just as you used to pretend to be "Cowboys and Indians" or "Mummies and Daddies", or even, er, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No matter how much sophistication or complex structure you add to it, at the heart is the same old process that turns a pointed finger into a gun, and a red cloth into Supermn's cape. It's no surprise that most role-players especially love Calvin and Hobbes.

And there it is: a short, simple, straight-to-the-point definition. There's just one problem: it doesn't sound very good. In fact, if you asked most people, they'd probably say it sounds pretty insane.

Andrew Rilstone has also written a brilliant piece on this idea of cannonizing childhood. You can find it here.

A wise man once said: "Why is it, when we say a man has the mind of a child, we lock him up, yet children are allowed to roam free in the streets?". This is the problem here. For some reason, society has a problem with the boundary between childhood and adulthood being crossed. Childhood is very much idolised in society, and children lifted up as gods for possessing such things as imagination, playfulness and an open mind. But should those qualities be observed in an adult, well, it's practically a lynching offence.

Role-playing breaks this taboo. It takes something that most people firmly associate with childhood and transposes it into an adult context. Which, given how much most people enjoyed playing "Let's Pretend", sounds like a good idea. But this juxtaposition is very difficult to come to terms with for many people, and so we are forced to bury our definition in long words and sophistry to make it sound more sensible, more "adult" (whatever that means), more reconcilable with the standards of acceptable society.

So our simple definition is defeated by its own simplicity. The basic concept at the heart of role-playing games is too alien to be summed up in one or two sentences. People can understand "hit a bat with a ball", but not this, this crossing of worlds, and this is the inherent problem with defining role-playing. It is just too orthogonal an idea, something most people cannot easily accept on its own terms. This is perhaps why no-one has been able to sum it up - no amount of circumlocution or pseudo-psychological jargon can take this idea and make it not seem totally aberrant.

It seems there is no solution. There is no way we can sum up our games in a sound byte or a rote definition that everyone can understand. Maybe, therefore, we should stop trying. If there's no way we're ever going to be able to explain our hobby succinctly and accurately, should we continue to give people a false image of the game with our half-assed attempts? It would probably save a lot of time and energy - and be more helpful to the hobby - if we just gave up.

Gary ruffled a few feathers with his article about AD&D in our last issue. If you missed it, check it out here.

Of course, we are still left with the problem of what to do when someone gives us that blank look and says "Sorry? What's role-playing?". I guess we'll just have to revert to the old method of sighing, and saying "well, it would take me too long to explain it properly". It sounds pompous, but at least it is honest, and doesn't cause you to trash your favourite hobby in an attempt to express its wondrousness in five words or less. The other good thing about this method is sometimes, if you're lucky, the person you are talking to will say "Oh, I've got time, I'm interested". In which case, you can sit down and spell out exactly what they are, how they work and why they are so bed-wettingly brilliant. With any luck, after half an hour, you'll have a convert on your hands.

Or, more likely, after five minutes, they'll walk away, bored out of their skulls. Ah well, what do you care. You didn't need that non-gaming woman anyway. She'd only try and make you give it up so you can spend more time going shoe shopping with her. RPGs, on the other hand, hardly ever make you go shoe shopping with them...


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