Category Archives: RPGs

On Politicians and Villains, Real and Imaginary

i.1.jake-rush-vampire

There’s been quite the kerfuffle the past day or so about Florida U.S. Congressional candidate Jake Rush, a 35-year-old Republican who also apparently plays Camarilla, a live-action vampire role-playing game, in his off time. From the sounds of it, Rush plays some sort of villain in the game, one who’s prone to making upsetting, sexually violent threats against other characters. I won’t quote those threats here; you can click through if you want to see them.

I wrote pretty extensively about role-playing games and LARPs in The Columbine Effect, and interviewed adult gamers who had played with a local Camarilla group in their teens and 20s. Although some people who play seem not to have strong boundaries between their in-game roles and their day-to-day lives, as I mention in the book, for the most part that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know much about Rush and can’t tell you whether he behaves like his Camarilla character on a day-to-day basis. What I can tell you is that there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that you have a curiosity about villains or evil people, and finding a safe and harmless outlet through which to explore that curiosity.

Through play-acting. It isn’t real life. It’s pretend.

By contrast, let’s look at California Senator Leland Yee, who was arrested last week for allegedly conspiring to traffic weapons and also for taking political contributions (bribes) in exchange for favors. (You may recall that Yee was a vocal opponent of allowing minors to play violent video games, sponsoring legislation that was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). Yee was allegedly affiliated with a San Francisco-based organized crime gang, who knew him as “Uncle Leland.” Yee apparently told an undercover agent, who was pretending to be a gun runner, “There’s a part of me that wants to be like you. You know how I’m going to be like you? Just be a free agent [in the Philippines].”

That wasn’t pretend.

Some legislators play the villain in real life and just hope they don’t get caught. Some find a harmless way to do so instead. Why should we attack the latter as though it’s the former? Doesn’t make sense to me.

New book, “The Columbine Effect,” Dec. 1

I have big news! My new book, “The Columbine Effect: How five teen pastimes got caught in the crossfire and why teens are taking them back,” will be released Dec. 1. Those pastimes — violent video games, heavy metal, paganism and the occult, goth culture and RPGs — are also the foundation of this blog, and the book is a partner to what I’ve been writing here. I’ve been working on this project for a long time and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. Please watch the trailer above, and check out a more detailed summary, as well as the first chapter, on my website. Enjoy.

The myth of the deadly RPG (again)

The quasi-role-playing-game Fugitive earned some negative attention this week after a Phoenix-area teen, Andrew Arellanes, died while playing about a week ago.

While this is awful and tragic — as a parent, I don’t know how I could survive the loss of a child — I’d hate to see this turn into a blame game, with Fugitive bearing the brunt. Unfortunately, the TV news report in the link above is full of finger-pointing turns of phrase, describing Fugitive as “a dangerous game,” a “deadly game,” and a game with “a new element — a twist that caused Arellanes to fall to his death.”

Let’s be clear here: saying Fugitive caused this boy’s awful death is like saying a person who dies of a heart attack while strolling through a garden was killed by the garden.

Kids in other places are apparently playing Fugitive unsafely, but the game doesn’t require reckless behavior. There are many ways to play it wisely and safely. That’s up to the players.

We’ve been down this road before with role-playing games, but it’s clear that, for the most part, play-acting is really good for us. So go; play Fugitive. Be safe. Have fun.

Backward Messages is going on hiatus

After more than two years going nonstop, Backward Messages is going on hiatus for a while. I’m working on a major project, and will need the spare hours I normally spend blogging for this other work. If something major happens, I’ll put something up; otherwise, things will be quiet for a while. Thanks to everyone who reads and supports the site. I hope I’ll be back soon!

How a life among monsters can help you learn


RPG gamers: come out of hiding! Photo by Flickr user greenwise art.

Once upon a time, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons were something kids and teens played in secret, for fear their parents would find out. Some parents had become convinced that these games allowed kids to flirt with the occult or even suicide and murder. Today, we mostly laugh at those ideas, and those who hide their RPG tendencies do so less out of fear of what their parents will think, and more out of fear that they’ll be branded as nerds stuck in childhood. Some stigma remains.

Which is why, when an accomplished writer like Samuel Sattin writes about his history as a role-playing gamer in Salon, it’s in somewhat hushed tones:

Now, I realize I’m risking no small amount of social capital by putting my history with Dungeons & Dragons into print. I’ve made similar confessions concerning my long time love of video games, a medium many respected cultural arbiters—Roger Ebert comes to mind—says can never be art. New forms of media, new forms of creative exploration, especially when they try to assume dignity or—shock—artistic respect, are bound to be repudiated by establishment critics who maintain genre is divorced from aesthetic permanence. There’s a reason Ursula K. LeGuin hasn’t won a Pulitzer yet, and it’s not because she isn’t amazing. It’s because there’s a war going on right now, especially in the literary world, over the definition of cultural value.

That, however, is not really the point of Sattin’s essay. Instead, the point is that his experiences playing D&D actually gave him the skills he needed to write his debut novel, League of Somebodies, which is coming out next spring. He talks about how all those hours spent creating characters and stories provided the building blocks for his imagination to craft a story and that, someday soon, we will all be able to experience. Tolkien and Lewis, Milne, George Lucas — they have all created worlds that don’t exist, but that do now because of their imagination, and to some extent they were all role-playing.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to write stories. That’s not the only useful thing to come out of RPGs. Take, for example, 12-year-old Julian Levy, whose D&D monster manual helped his dad, psychologist Alan Kingstone, solve a conundrum about human behavior. Kingstone was studying where people look when examining a new creature; usually it’s the eyes, but what if the eyes aren’t in the expected place?

The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

Kingstone’s research paper is called “Monsters Are People Too,” natch.

Maine WoW gamer wins seat on state senate

Some of you may recall that I posted about Colleen Lachowicz last month, because the social worker’s history of playing World of Warcraft — and saying some very WoW-appropriate but violent-when-taken-out-of-context things — came up during her campaign for Maine’s state senate.

Well, she overcame that, along with ethics-violation claims, and trounced opponent (and incumbent) Tom Martin in last night’s election.

Hopefully this is a sign that the media-reading public knows better than to buy the idea that a candidate’s gaming passion could be a detriment to her leadership abilities.

How RPGs make you more confident & successful

In light of Monday’s post about the negative flak directed at Maine Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz and her WoW alter-ego, I thought it would be nice to end the week with his video from the PBS “idea channel” on the benefits of role-playing games — and how they can make you a more confident and successful person.

It gets into all kinds of good stuff, from Martin Heidigger’s concept of thrownness to how gaming can help players overcome shyness, disorganization, and other attributes that don’t fly so well when you’re trying to succeed. Not to mention how to cope with the random chance that life tosses your way.

Remarkably, many of the comments on the video’s YouTube page are thoughtful and coherent (something YouTube comments aren’t known for). Most of them bolster the idea that RPG builds skills that are useful and important in everyday life. What do you think?