With a swirling cloak and oaken staff raised high, the high elf cast the sleeping spell…energy weapons targeting the crew of the starship clattered to the ships’ deck as the aliens dropped, unconscious… the lone comic, taking this moment to break the tension, shares her song of the bigfoot sightings at Target.
Each of these people – for a moment, a minute, an hour – chose to ‘become’ someone else. While an actor studies his craft, learns the role for art, and perhaps a paycheck, I would argue that role-playing for entertainment fulfills a fundamentally different space in our psyche. Each person who chooses to engage in video games, in cosplay, even tabletop games with richly developed characters, not only experience an alternate world, but – and here’s the key – they experience a world with different rules.
Let’s step back: Think about the world we reside in. Most of us have rules that apply to our household like ‘the TV remote stays on the coffee table, if you drink the last cup of coffee, rinse the pot’. We have rules we follow at work ‘don’t gossip in the break room for more than 2 minutes, don’t leave for lunch alone, ask who else wants to go.’ And rules that only apply to a romantic partner ‘you can’t touch the bottoms of my feet, I’m ticklish’. Most of these are unspoken, and most are specific to a person or a location. What we see in family counseling often is that switching sets of rules can be challenging, especially if someone works from home, spends social time with people they work alongside or have met their romantic partner at work.
Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and director for the Center for BrainHealth is working to address this. "We now know that the brain changes in social engagement and that the virtual reality environment is a viable platform for treatment," she says. "There really are limitless possibilities.” These alternate realities and the corresponding rules they come with help us flex those muscles, like strength training for social situations.
Most of the research is geared towards using commercially available games: a person who struggles with social situations might benefit from an RPG, a person who is experiencing situational depression due to a difficult job environment might benefit from role playing a commander in an army or a captain on a pirate ship via the SCA or a tabletop game like D&D. For writers struggling to develop realistic protagonists, joining an improv troupe might allow them to try on multiple personalities and iterations of a particular character in a real-world testing ground.
I would argue that – for brief periods of time – immersing oneself in a world with different rules allows us space to test limits, explore sides of ourselves that are less present in our day to day, and help us navigate the ‘regular’ world with more expertise. In short – Game On.