When is role playing an innocent expression of playfulness, and when does it cross over into a form of unconscious catharsis that is born of and reinforces either personal psychological trauma or problematic social norms?
Role playing is something we do from a very early age. Pretending to be someone else, particularly an archetypal grown-up, is a staple of childhood play. Two common examples of childhood role playing show how it can be both innocent and highly loaded, even (or perhaps especially) among children too young to really understand what they are doing.
The first example is the classic kids’ game of Cops and Robbers. To me, this seems an obvious case of innocent role play. Has a parent ever worried that by playing the role of a criminal, their small child is prepping for a future as a career felon? There is an obvious social subtext to the game, ostensibly teaching children that crime is wrong, but only the squarest of nosey sticklers would become alarmed if the extemporaneous script developing in the backyard occasionally ends with the bandits getting away with it once in a while? After all, it’s just play.
But then there is the other classic role play game of American children: Cowboys and Indians. This one is much more problematic. Well, not for the kids, of course. To them this is no different than Cops and Robbers. It’s just two groups, one them highly favored, the other one an underdog and a bit of a scoundrel, and off they go to horse around in the summer sun. But the subtext of this game is far more insidious. It serves to reinforce the imperial mythologies that have dominated American culture since its inception. Regardless of which team wins one improvised fracas or another, this role play is reinforcing ideals just as much as Cops and Robbers. But instead of the innocuous lesson of “criminals are the bad guys,” Cowboys and Indians teaches children too young to really understand that America’s Indigenous peoples were supposed to “lose” to Europeans and their descendants.
Children who role play Cops and Robbers and Cowboys and Indians are not acting out personal traumas. They are limited to subtly absorbing (and thereby reinforcing) broad social values. But the former can accompany the latter. Children who have been abused emotionally, physically, or sexually can of course “act out” in any number of ways. And as they get older, that acting out can take the form of sophisticated, self-directed role play.
For much of the 20th century, role playing was largely dismissed as child’s play in America. However, during the 1980s, a cultural revolution of sorts took place. Role playing games (RPGs), most famously Dungeons and Dragons, began to gain a foothold among people of all ages, but primarily teenagers. With the rise of RPGs among young adults, some older adults became horrified; confused concerns about role playing and “acting out” led some parents, religious leaders, and other social critics to believe such games were leading their children down a path that violated Christian precepts.
Dungeons and Dragons and other similar fantasy RPG games are staged in intricate supernatural realms and enmeshed in pretend violence. Of course for the vast majority of players, such games were and are merely a vehicle for expressing their imaginations. And for many, there can be elements of catharsis involved. Who hasn’t occasionally released frustrations by fantasizing about being stronger, better looking, smarter, richer, and in any number of ways more powerful? But for some players, the catharsis at work can indeed speak to deeper and troubling issues, though it rarely has anything to do with worshiping Satan. One example would be players who have been physically abused, either by parents or bullies, and use the game’s imaginary violence to vent their pain and fear.
Thankfully , hair spray, spandex, and shitty synthesizer pop music aloo mostly went out with the 1980s. But RPGs, now mostly online, are more popular than ever as the first generation of RPG fans has grown up, and others have followed. How popular? Believe it or not, if you search the term “Role Playing,” the expected litany of sex-oriented sites actually take a back seat to the kind of gaming that involves chain mail and swords instead of leather and whips. This brand of role playing is now firmly entrenched in the culture.
Beyond cops and orcs, or maybe including them, sex of course has always been a central domain for role playing. As such, it can be very innocent and enjoyable, or darkly complicated. An example would be rape fantasies. Two (or more) happy, healthy people indulging themselves with some kinky fun? No problem. A former rape victim using role play to cope with trauma? It would be a gross understatement to say that is much more problematic.
In all of these forms of role playing, from kids to adults, from games to intense adult behavior, the line between fun, healthy role play and more dubious forms is not always so obvious. And when concerns are raised, the result is rarely unanimity, but rather heated debate and even controversy.
For the longest time, most parents didn’t think twice about their children playing Cowboys and Indians. Perhaps most of them still don’t. And elementary school role plays about Thanksgiving, which serve the same purpose of justifying imperial mythologies, are still a standard part of children’s educational experience. However, more generally there has been great concern about children’s role playing games, particularly with respects to violence and gender roles.
Parents and preachers who targeted Dungeons and Dragons as a vehicle of Satanism may seem laughable now, but concerns were very serious during the 20th century. At one point TSR, the company that sells Dungeons and Dragons, revised the game to exclude references to demons and devils; the Center for Disease Control went to the trouble of dismissing any link between RPG participation and suicide in a large scale study of teen suicide; and prosecutors in a 1988 North Carolina murder case played up the murderer’s involvement with the game, which in turn led to a true-crime book and made-for TV movie that also promoted the angle.
Controversies on sexual role playing are so numerous and as to defy simple summary. They include a myriad of competing views on both private sexual activity, semi-public sexual activity (such as in clubs), and sexual activities produced for the marketplace, ranging from pornography to prostitution.
In my view, a full spectrum exists. Role playing that incorporates sex and/or violence can run the gamut from innocent, innocuous fun to the very troubling. The key then is to be, as much as one can be, both socially and self-aware. Use a keen and honest eye to delineate between that which is good fun and that which betrays.
Like most people, I’d like to think that I can draw that line without much trouble. However, my ability to do so was tested this past weekend.
A friend had purchased some Groupon coupons for a form of role playing I’d never before experienced: paint ball.
These are the same friends I jumped out of plane with. They also practice martial arts. This kind of thing is right up their alley. At the age of 44, however, running around with a bunch of people hell bent on shooting each other with paint guns has limited appeal to me. But my friends had never done it, were hankering to give it a try, had an extra Groupon ticket, and they asked me to come along. I was somewhat curious, so the three of us hopped in a 1984 white Camaro and drove an hour out into rural Maryland.
When we arrived, the role playing elements were immediately obvious. This wasn’t merely about playing a game. For most of the people involved this was about assuming a role. I’d never seen so many civilians in camouflage this side of deer season. While participants ranged in age from childhood (10 year olds could play if a guardian signed) to middle age, they were overwhelmingly male, dressed in costume, and loaded down with props. One friend quickly noted that in some ways they reminded him of Civil War reenactors. For our part, we were wearing beat up old clothes that we didn’t worry about getting paint on. In fact, I was actually wearing my painting work clothes and a work coat. We clearly didn’t fit in.
It was a cold winter day, and we walked past the 50 gallon drum that had a fire burning inside, with men dressed like soldier standing around it and talking about various tactical options. We rented equipment and received instructions on how to use it along with the basic ground rules. Then we played the game.
It is a game, of course. We were involved in the more casual Rec Ball, in which the orange-vested referees divide players up into two teams, send them out onto the course and, blow a horn to start the “battle,” and then monitor the ensuing mayhem. People run around, hide behind wooden barriers, and shoot at each other. It turns out the paint cleans up quite easily. It’s the welts that are more lasting.
We played about half-a-dozen games. Each one lasts for about ten minutes or so and is mostly utter chaos. Standing around between games and casually talking to other players, it was clear that some are heavily invested, both financially and emotionally. While we rented, most own their equipment. Guns can cost hundreds of dollars. There are also sites, holsters, belts, military-style clothing, and various other equipment including the paint balls that serve as bullets. Beyond that, the way many of the players talked about the game and their participation in it reminded me, at least in to some extent, of the way players used to talk about Dungeons and Dragons when I played it during the 1980s
There, I’ve outed myself.
As I played the paint ball war games, my initial unease at this male-dominated form of violent role play began to dissipate. Everyone was remarkably well behaved. The asshole factor was near zero. And the whole endeavor was obviously a game. A not terribly interesting one, I must confess, but reasonably good fun. It was nice to run around outside on a sunny albeit chilly Saturday afternoon, and shooting off round after round of green paint pellets did provide a minor thrill. I went with it.
And then something happened. Just as I was getting comfortable and enmeshed in the innocence of it, the role playing ran headlong into the real world.
The grounds consisted of at least half-a-dozen different courses. They’re all essentially the same: a few acres of field with a random assortment of plywood barriers to hide behind. Among them are some nominal differences. One was wooded. One had hilly terrain. Another featured inflated plastic barriers instead of wooden ones. The referees rotated the amorphous collection of Rec Ball players through the different courses.
“Which one are we going to,” one ref might ask another.
“To the woods,” he might respond.
As we trundled off to one of our last games of the day, one ref turned to his senior partner and inquired where we were headed.
“To Iraqi village,” he said.
I was absolutely stunned.
Given the sub-culture of these particular role players, it should hardly have been a surprise. But I had innocently given myself over to the endeavor some degree, and that typically requires the assumption of similar value systems, at least to a certain extent. And so in that moment, my naivete was shattered and I hand't seen it coming.
I’d like to say that I confronted someone and questioned the situation. But I didn’t. No one said anything. I doubt if anyone else even cared or thought twice. The game started a few minutes later, and the increasingly familiar chaos absorbed all my attention for ten minutes. But afterwards, I found the whole thing troubling enough that, well, for starters I felt compelled to write this article about it.
I have no problem with kids playing Cops and Robbers. As someone who teaches and researches American Indian history for a living, I’m probably more concerned about them playing Cowboys and Indians than the average American is. Paint ball? That proved to be a very mixed bag.
I’m not opposed to all violent role play across the board. I think that’s a simplistic and reductive approach. And there were actually some very positive aspects of this experience. For example, it’s incredibly rare these days to see dozens of people from age 10-50 genuinely interacting with each other of their own free will and more or less on an equal footing. This wasn’t a little league game where the adults are directing and teaching the children. This was open play in which everyone participated. Modern society is increasingly organized by age segregation, and I found this to be quite refreshing.
But the faux-martial qualities of the whole affair were, to say the least, off-putting. And the casual intrusion of real, bloody, tragic, and imperialistic warfare, though it was only in name and an oh so brief aside, poisoned the entire experience.
Role playing can be as complicated and impenetrable as the humans who engage in it. We hold up masks and pretend to be who we want to be. But in some ways, staring into a mask is no different than staring into a mirror. It begs the question, Who are you?
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor