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© 1998-2001 Dru
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after the Santee High School shooting, I wrote a short essay in my roleplaying
newsletter about violence in RPGs, and whether this should be a cause
of concern for gamers or non-gamers. Readers wrote in with many thoughtful
comments and sent some good links, and I want to share them with you here.
Show the Consequences
my quick thoughts on the thought of violence in games and how to prevent
it from spawning real-life violence. SHOW THE CONSEQUENCES! If violence
is like a video game or your average action movie then the "Bad guys"
are just a faceless horde of automatons who die in nice little piles and
conveniently disappear when you're not looking. Many roleplaying games
are like that, too. But what happens when you see an orc mother with a
child crying over the
body of her lost mate? I'll bet your players don't feel so lawful good
after that (or even chaotic good).
Another thing that has
opened my eyes is playing characters that aren't hardened killers. After
all, I'll bet that the vast majority of the people reading this would
react very poorly to having to kill, even to defend themselves. Yet
most of them play characters that have no qualms about this. I can see
why someone would be concerned about many gamers. However, most of the
gamers I know use gaming to work out the stress and violent thoughts
that they build up in the rest of the week. I'd be more afraid if gaming
were outlawed. (Miguel)
Deal with the Repercussions
week you wrote about the Santee High School shooting and violence in RPGs.
This brought something to mind I thought I'd like to share. The last gaming
group I had a chance to play with had been around for many years and gamed
with many different people during that time. One gamer type they mentioned
as undesirable, was the ultra-violent creep. Usually male and maladjusted,
he creates a warrior or an assassin. If playing D&D he chooses "Chaotic
Neutral" alignment ... in other systems he adds "no compunction
against killing" or perhaps "easily enraged." Then, during
the adventures he runs around killing things and NPCs and occasionally
fellow player characters!
argument I've heard on behalf of this type of behavior is that it provides
a release valve for violent tendencies. "At least he only does it
in the game, not in real life." But, I have never seen any study
which supports this. In fact, rehearsing violence can lead to acting out
violently. Especially if there are no negative consequences to the violent
actions. This player type is rarely interested in team work, problem solving,
or even really enjoying the gaming experience. The other players are all
extras to his little tirades. This was what the gaming group complained
about, and they had
no problem with telling these types not to return!
This brings up, what
I feel is an important opportunity and/or danger for violence in RPGs.
Namely, what are the repercussions? I would never advocate using RPGs
to lecture players on some moral issue; hey, I play to have fun, not be
preached to. But, what offends me most about violence in other media (like
movies and TV) is that little or no consequences are ever shown. In fact,
disagreeing with someone seems like a perfectly good reason to punch them
out or hit them with something. Then, instead of facing a night in jail,
standing before a judge and facing assault charges, and being sued for
the assault ... the offender is cheered on by the audience as they stand
their basking in righteous indignation. Maybe, if people saw the REAL
consequences of violent actions, they would pursue non-violent alternatives
with much more interest.
Well, we can do little
to change Hollywood except boycott violent movies or write letters to
zillionaire producers - neither likely to make much of an
impact. But, with RPGs we can tell the kind of stories we want! So, a
GM can allow a character to kill an NPC, and then work the consequences
into the plot fairly and accurately (for whatever genre is involved).
Then I think the players will seriously consider that violence should
only be used when
absolutely necessary, and even then there will be repercussions they will
have to accept.
On the one hand it adds
a touch of realism to the campaign, making the plots even more complex
and interesting. It demonstrates that the characters really are important
to their game world, because their actions have consequences and effect
people. On the other hand, it would put violence in RPGs in a much better
light and do something that very few movies or TV programs do - treat
violence responsibly. (Runester)
Is Roleplaying Violence
don't really know what to say about it; does anyone? It reminds me of
something Stephen King said about how he didn't believe his books caused
people to go on killing sprees, but he did feel they could act as accelerants.
Add to this the notion of therapeutic roleplaying in which people act
out situations they are having trouble with so that they might enact a
fantasy dialogue and express something they can't in real life. I'm not
a psychologist, but I've read several times now that there is cathartic
value to this fantasy reenactment. Between the lines here I'm thinking
that the roleplaying phenomena could, and most likely does, function in
both ways. I imagine we've all had the player who needs to cut loose and
decompresses with a hack session. I had one player who, when he was pushed
out of the nest by his parents, reflected his emotional distress in the
game. He routinely played what we called tanks, combat maximized charactors.
He would wade his chr. into combat and then if he didn't kill whatever
beast/thing offended him within one round would retreat and abandon his
team mates. Later he would only enter battles that he knew he could dominate,
"My Half-Ogre attacks the two Kobolds." It has been a decade
now and he's never really changed. I bring him up as an example of a kind
of "emotionally damaged" individual who finds some respite,
a kind of pressure valve, in rpgs.
I think in games we're
seeing the same phenomena as we saw in Heaven's Gate, The Star Trek fan
who was a juror on the WhiteWater case who showed up dressed in full Starfleet
costume, or the above player; alienation and a gross desire to avoid facing
a life problem and a willingness to follow anyone/thing that offers escape.
The specific player above gets some minor, or more rightly temporary,
catharsis from the experience but it also allows him to excise stress.
He hasn't gotten any better, but what if he hadn't had the social interaction
and stress release?
If there is an answer
to be had, I think it is this: RPGs are far more likely to be beneficial
because they are socially interactive. The violence aspect is there and
some will gain catharsis while others act out, and possibly rehearse,
antisocial fantasy. Everyone has fantasies, vindictive, erotic, celebratory
etc. but fewer people have social support groups. It isn't much of a comfort
but there is something here. (R.)
Help Kids Process Violence?
you're on the topic of violence and how it is processed in the media and
in people's minds, I highly recommend you check out the book Under
Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning in Children's Violent Play
by Jane Katch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001). I've been recommending this
book a lot lately, and I think I even mention it in one of the forums
on your site, because it seems to relate a lot to the issues surrounding
roleplaying. Roleplaying games are not discussed in the book as such (Katch
is a first-grade teacher, so her observation group is mostly young children),
but fantasy role playing is, in the form of children playing make-believe.
The author does not come to any clear ultimate conclusion but makes interesting
observations on parents' and teachers' reactions to make-believe violence
before and after Columbine, and she seems to suggest that children use
violent fantasy games to process violence as it is presented to them in
news, movies, and other forums. I'm not sure how this can be extrapolated
adults and older children. I read it while I was puzzling on the "I
protested Desert Storm, so why does my character carry a sword?"
question. I don't think it answers that, but it did lead to some interesting
thoughts on consensus and exclusion. (David)
Some Final Comments
from "Dr. Dru"
I want to add my two cents, because when I'm not roleplaying, I'm teaching
communication studies at a Southern California University, and I've done
a lot of reading in the area of media violence. This is what I said in
my newsletter: All of the research I've read as a professor in the mass
communications field, about media violence indicates that yes, there's
a lot of violence in the media, especially on TV, including kid's programs.
And yes, we learn how to behave violently from the media. And yes, there
are times when we'll imitate that violence we've learned (when there's
some sort of reward expected; when it's a similar situation to that we
saw in the media; in the absence of intervening opinions from family,
peers, teachers, church, etc.). And yes, prolonged exposure to violence
on the media can desensitize us to violence in real life and think that
certain violent acts occur more commonly than they really do. But no,
there's no direct causal link. Violence in the media is a factor in the
increased youth violence in real life; but it's not the only one, and
not even the biggest one. Like so many problems in society, family life
and social ties may be the biggest causal factors in kids' violent behaviors.
roleplaying violence cathartic? That is, does it help release aggression
in a harmless manner, thus making angry people safe for society again?
In general, catharsis theory has been disproven by social science researchers.
True, like every other gamer, there have been days when I've snarled,
"I wanna play someone evil today, 'cause I'm in a baaaaad
mood." But research indicates that such cathartic action doesn't
solve the core problems causing the aggressive feelings; for that, more
than merely watching a violent show, playing a violent video game, or
pretending to be a violent person is required. Because the problem that
led to your violent feelings will still be there, unresolved, after the
show or game is over.
does that mean that roleplaying violence is necessarily bad? No. Roleplaying
won't solve your anger or violence problems, if you have any, but, in
itself, it won't cause them, either. The world is so much more complex
than media pundits and pop psychologists would like you to believe. Yes,
we learn certain behaviors from RPGs. Some are goodlike learning
to negotiate. Some are badlike learning how to lie convincingly,
or that aggressive behavior can solve problems without incurring consequences.
But will we or our fellow gamers become violent simply because
we play violent RPGs? Or listen to heavy metal or rap? Or watch violent
TV and movies? Or read gory comic books? No, no, no and no. Will we become
violent because we have a bad family life? Because we're abused? Because
we drink or use drugs? Because we're picked on by peers? Because we feel
alienated and depressed? Those are tougher questions. And the answer to
them is, "maybe." Add a couple of those problems to a fascination
with violent media and games and it's warning-signal time. Of course,
1+1 doesn't necessarily make 2 when it comes to something as complicated
as the human psyche. But 1+1 can equal "maybe you should talk to
somebody." So if you or someone you game with seems violent, depressed,
alienateddwells on make-believe scenarios that include revenge,
murder, or rape fantasiesthreatens people, or carries a knife or
firearmfor heaven's sake, do something. Talk to friends, a counselor,
a parent, a member of the clergy, a teacher. Intervene. Or get intervention.
For your friend, for yourself, and for others who might be in danger.
And if you've got kids or are around kids, talk to them about whether
the kinds of violence they see on TV, in the movies, and in games is really
the best way to solve problems.
It ain't just about
roleplaying. It's also about real life.
originally written March 16, 2001
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