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Are Role-Playing Gamers Insane?

Do role-players confuse fantasy and reality?

For the benefit of my readers who don't get out much: Role playing games are a popular form of amusement in which players assume the identity of fictional characters and embark upon adventures. Some of the parameters of these adventures are specified by the game one is playing, but these games also allow for lots of imaginative improvisation by the players.

When I began researching role-playing games for my book Caught in Play, I read stories about players who had gone over the edge and had been swallowed up in the imaginary world of the game. I also heard such stories from many of the role-players I interviewed. But I never met such a person, and I began to be a little suspicious of the stories. While it's not impossible that there are such people, I've come to believe that they must be vanishingly rare.

Why tell these stories, then? My guess is that a role-player is likely to tell such a story to affirm that although there are people who confuse the fantasy of the game with the real world, he (or she) is not one of them. In other words, "I'm aware of this possibility, and because I'm aware of it, it can't describe me."

This in turn raises the question of why so many role-players are so eager to claim that they have no problem with maintaining the boundaries of reality. My research suggests an answer to this question: Role players do in fact have very powerful experiences of becoming lost in the fantasy of the game, so much so that they sometimes wonder if they are in danger of crossing this line themselves.

For example, I found that role players-without conscious planning-make gestures and movements oriented to the fantasy they are acting out, and they easily and consistently speak as their characters would. The markers of time and place in their speech (words like "now" and "here") consistently refer to the imagined fantasy rather than the real world. In times of intense focus of the game, many role players express and feel the emotions that their imaginary characters would feel. In some very important ways, they are living in their fantasies.

But none of this means that role players have a tenuous grip on reality. In fact, these things are very similar to what happens when us non-role players get so caught up in a novel that we can't put it down or get so focused on a spectator sport that we feel like are on the field ourselves. This capacity to get caught up in fictions and games is also the basis of pretend play in children.

Role players are not insane, rather they-like most other humans-have extraordinarily powerful imaginations that allow them to become caught up in, and carried away by, games and fictions. And this ability is not only the basis for play, it is one of the fundamental cognitive capacities that makes human ways of life possible.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Ville Miettinen.