Are RPGs still the enemy?

A trio of Belegarth players pause between battles. Photo by Flickr user Glenn Loos-Austin.

Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t toss a 20-sided die without hitting someone who thought role-playing games were a gateway to Satanism and suicide. Today, those suspicions have moved on to Harry Potter and Twilight. But role-playing games, both tabletop and live-action, are still alive and well. Hopefully, as a new generation is introduced to them, those Reagan-era fears won’t resurface.

Recently, gamer and author Ethan Gilsdorf penned a piece for called “How Dungeons & Dragons changed my life.” It’s a worthy read, full of insight regarding how this nerdy game-based culture has now worked itself into modern life as the gamer geeks of the 1980s move into positions of corporate power and influence.

[Author] Myke Cole, 37 — the first in his military-fantasy “Shadow Ops” book series is forthcoming — echoed Brett’s thought but added one more wrinkle: “We are socially enfranchised and successful because of our D&D days.” A nine-year veteran of military operations and federal law enforcement, he’s been to war three times. “I wasn’t raised to the sword. My parents were committed aesthetes who eschewed violence and the institutions that wield it, and worked hard to instill those values in their children,” he wrote me in an e-mail after Boskone. “It was D&D that permitted the pasty, scrawny weakling child that I was to imagine myself as a broadsword-wielding knight of the realm.” He played a lot of fighters and paladins before he became one in real life. “That game gave me a gift I will never forget: It stretched my mind around the possibilities that hover around us, unnoticed, all the time. D&D taught me to imagine, and that was the first step to bending the world to my will.”

In another recent look at RPGs, Anna Van Straten wrote Planet LARP for City On A Hill Press, a student-run newspaper in Santa Cruz. Straten examines, among other things, a Belegarth group that re-enacts medieval battles in Santa Cruz. Like their tabletop counterparts, LARPers are in it for more than just a good time.

Some LARPers see the game as not only a hobby but as a form of escapism. Rick McCoy, for example, said that as a child he read books constantly.

“You know, that was my escape,” McCoy said. “Then I found role-playing games when I was 10, and it was the ultimate escapism, the ultimate way of getting out of reality.”

Instead of escape, the game can also be seen as a form of control, of building a character up from the ground in whichever way the player desires.

“I think it’s a way of controlling your own person, controlling your own destiny despite what life has thrown at you,” Andrew “Sieglatan” Hodnet said.

It’s a shame that something so psychologically rich would frighten parents. Then again, these kinds of riches — which kids so desperately crave and need — have always frightened adults, who would much rather have their kids remain in the shallow, “harmless”, risk-free worlds of Disney, Barney, and so on.

The moral panic around RPGs and LARPing has died down, giving us the opportunity to look at folks who played these games and ask: were the fears justified? Did these games have any lasting harmful effect on players? If not, then are we right to yank video-game controllers out of kids’ hands when they want to play Red Dead Redemption or Bulletstorm?


3 responses to “Are RPGs still the enemy?

  1. You bringup some good points. Having played D&D for twenty years and workning as an English professor, I can honestly say I wish more of my students played RPGs rather than watching hours of reality TV or surfing Facebook.
    RPG’s improve vocabulary, teach critical thinking, allow for drama, improve creative writing abilities, improve math skills…the list goes on for days.

    Good post, great site

  2. Is “Read Dead Redemption” the more literate version of “Red Dead Redeption”?

    In general, RPGs taught me to respect history, distrust authority, plan ahead, do research, give a great presentation, feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group, understand plot and narrative, do math quickly and calculate statistics. All the important things needed to start my own corporation or devil-worship cult.

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