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We all role-play now

Adapting Dungeons & Dragons skills for the world of Facebook

[Note: Ethan Gilsdorf speaks at the Boston Public Library Wed, Oct 20. Other upcoming speaking engagements: Attleboro, MA: Oct. 29th (part of a Creature Double Feature tribute!); Brattleboro, VT: Nov 11th; Somerville, MA: Nov 13th; Cambridge, MA: Nov 15th; Providence, RI: Nov 18th; Newtonville, MA: Nov 21; Brooklyn, NY: Nov 22nd. More book tour info here]

We all role-play now

Those Dungeons & Dragons skills can come in handy in the world of Facebook

"The Social Network,'' Hollywood's latest box office king, charts Facebook's meteoric rise to near ubiquity. Few have not heard of the world-girdling website or been ensnared by its tendrils. In six years, Facebook has woven its way into the daily lives of some 500 million users.

Whether to check up on friends' exploits or play games like "Mafia Wars,'' we've grown accustomed to its promise of instant intimacy and, some might argue, its voyeuristic pleasures. Many cheer the way Facebook has democratized the flow of information; no longer top-down, news is now horizontally and virally dispersed. Others gripe that it's warped our idea of significance, making what I had for breakfast as important as the latest developments in the Mideast peace process. Facebook's vast and sticky web of connection has caused us all to re-evaluate what we mean by "friend.'' And, I suppose, "enemy'' as well.

Unforeseen social aftershocks such as these have rippled in Facebook's wake. Others have yet to be detected. But there's something else at work with Facebook. It's actually making role-players of us all.

Role-playing? Like that conflict-resolution exercise your sales team endured last year? Or role-playing, as in Dungeons & Dragons - that strange and wondrous game I (and perhaps you) played back in the Reagan administration, rolling dice in a basement and slaying goblins and dragons and snarfing bowls of Doritos?

I'd argue all these experiences - including posting a witty Facebook update - are cut from the same role-playing cloth. We all share that desire to be someone else. To be better, stronger, faster; to appear more handsome, more clever, more attractive than our fleshy selves might ever be. "My, aren't we having fun?'' say our photos, snapped while we're half drunk and posted in a day-after haze. On my profile, I offer clues that might seduce. I suggest, in a whisper of pixels, "I am your ideal man.''

Not that role-playing is devious. It's a necessary counter to the way we've been civilized. While hidden behind the screen, we give ourselves permission to behave more dauntless or brazen than we'd allow in real life. We get to practice being the best version of the person we can be, or want to be.

That said, some role-playing experiences, especially offline ones, are deemed more acceptable than others. Dressing up as Tom Brady and painting your body blue and red for the big game? That's OK. Dressing as Gandalf and wearing a purple wizard hat for the big game? Not so much. Even as World of Warcraft and D&D and Harry Potter fandom have become passable in many circles, adults raiding Mom's closet for goofy clothes for "make-believe'' still remains verboten.

Except, of course, at Halloween. This odd holdover from pagan times is a socially acceptable way to bust loose. Here, costumes are fine. And playing "bad'' is encouraged. Being Dracula or Nurse Hottie for an evening can be instructive, even liberating.

The irony here is that even in our pre-Facebook existences, we've always engaged in day-to-day role-playing. At a wedding or cocktail party, on a first date or during a job interview, or when home for the holidays, we all dress the part and adopt another character: Brilliant or Well Adjusted, Stockbroker or Salesman, Happy Son or Perfect Mom. If you're not willing to play along and put on a mask, friends (and potential employers) will think, "What's wrong? Come on, get into character.'' Life is a dungeon crawl, full of monsters and opportunities to be on your mettle. Be prepared. Chin up.

So here's the rub. Eventually, we have to live up to these personas we've created. Many a first date has witnessed the crumbling of expectation's towers and spires. And despite my hundreds of Facebook friends, I wonder who I can really count on in times of trouble. When I really do need to be brave and slay that dragon.

Ethan Gilsdorf is author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. More info on Gilsdorf and the book here.

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