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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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RPG Violence

Shortly 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 of Violence

Just 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 of Violence

This 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!
One 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 Therapeutic?

I 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.)

Does Roleplaying Help Kids Process Violence?

While 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 to
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"

Now 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.
Is 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.
But 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 good—like learning to negotiate. Some are bad—like 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, alienated—dwells on make-believe scenarios that include revenge, murder, or rape fantasies—threatens people, or carries a knife or firearm—for 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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