As role-playing games become more technically advanced and more pervasive, one of the main questions scholars must ask is: What kind of learning or experiences can/do players take from these types of games? As John Tynes notes in his essay “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World,” we understand how to learn from films, books, and music, but video gaming and organized role playing are still in their relative infancy, even if games, in general, are not. As these newer types change the conception of games and play in general, scholars have begun to tease apart the appeal of these games and what players can expect to understand after having participated; some thinkers claim that role-playing might be worthless unless it fits a range of criteria, while others maintain that role-playing is imbued with inherent worth.
At opposite ends of this spectrum we find the aforementioned Tynes and Torill Elvira Mortensen, author of the intriguing essay “Me, the Other.” The former insists that RPGs require a sea change to become worthwhile, a type of RPG he refers to as engaging, which are starkly contrasted against those he identifies as escapism. The latter author takes the opposite view and conveys how RPGs have much to tell us about society and human nature just by how they’re structured—no change needed. The former wants to change the genre, the latter to examine it as it is and take from it what can be taken. In this respect, one can’t help but liken Tyne to prescriptivism and Mortensen to descriptivism. Although disagreements are common over which is the best approach, for me, it’s nearly always the latter that makes sense, and this argument offers no exception.
One way we could examine this is through Netflix’s popular show Stranger Things, which received critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season in 2016. The show opens with a quartet of young boys playing a Dungeons & Dragons-esque role-playing game that seems to come to life, as they soon find themselves embroiled in an adventure that follows the narrative of the RPG. But is the show and what the boys are supposed to learn from a strange mix of role-playing and real life merely nostalgic escapism? Or can we glean something deeper from it?
One of the running themes of Stranger Things is whether or not to believe. Are others telling the truth? Is a supernatural event real or just imagined? Is belief in oneself warranted? In the world of role-playing, according to Mortensen, players are able to navigate In Character and Out Of Character with little trouble; it’s reality where playing a variety of roles becomes troublesome. But allowing role play to help players navigate between roles is not necessarily a bad thing: “Once we have seen through the layers of play surrounding us, what happens is not that we lose our grip on reality, but that we see it more clearly” (304). Because the characters’ role-playing has left the confines of the board game, they are no longer able to move between roles in an uncomplicated manner, which means they will need to come to grips with how a subject perceives reality and how to react to that perception. The bounded world of role-playing is a place to try on new roles and work through these difficulties in a safe space.
If we were to follow Tynes in an examination of Stranger Things, however, we might be forced into a far less critical examination, since the main elements of the show are supernatural, and therefore, not real enough: telekinesis, monsters, secret and evil government experiments are not the stuff of life. Tynes writes:
We live in the real world, and our lives are full of real problems and real joys. When works of interactive storytelling can teach us how to solve those problems and discover those joys, while entertaining us just as novels, movies, and music do, these works become worthy of real cultural critique and join the great conversation of human thought. (227)
Tynes goes on to insist that “Endless regurgitations of dwarves and elves or action-packed recreations of Omaha Beach will not get us there” (227). Under Tynes’ formulation, Stranger Things, with its mysterious and supernatural elements, should not to be examined too heavily for meaning as it lacks enough “real world” substance to be worthy of “the great conversation of human thought,” making it a form of what he calls escapism. After all, it is pastiche, a variation on the themes elaborated by the horror greats: King, Romero, and Serling, among others.
Which is it, then? Which conception of role-play do we accept? I suppose it depends on whether we accept that it’s possible to learn something concrete from products of the imagination (something that even Tynes himself must admit, since his “Puppetland” is apparently designed as imagination-slash-education). If not, then we might be forced to separate play and games from education entirely. Play, as Mortensen notes, is unbounded. It stands outside of rules and certainly does not have an educational message as its driving force. Can play be historically involved or situated, as Tynes wants to make it? Yes, certainly. But to exclude every other kind of role-play is to insist that games are not games and they should not be played: They should be learned. And here you have, by prescriptivism, removed the ludic. So, what Tynes argues for, in the end, is not a role-playing game, not play: he wants an educational experience; he wants to give the kid a bowl of broccoli and convince her that it’s broccoli she wants, not ice cream. For this reason I would agree with Mortensen’s descriptive approach. Let the play be play, let an RPG be an RPG, and let’s find what is contained therein and use it to an advantage. Sometimes ice cream isn’t bad; sometimes it’s the sweet release that helps make the healthier more enjoyable, too.
Mortensen, Torill Elvira. “Me, the Other.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 297-305.
Tynes, John. “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 221-228.