We Wrestle With Identity All The Time

During a game a little while ago, I remarked that story gamers wrestle with concepts of identity all the time. More than lots of other people and even more than other gamers. It was an off-the-cuff observation, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s absolutely true.

I’m particularly talking about collaborative GMless games, which is what we play the most. We are constantly inventing new characters, and every time you do that you have to establish a whole host of details to make that person someone clear and distinct, who we can all visualize. Which means we have to choose who we want this person to be, from all the possible kinds of people in the world: are they straight, gay, bi, male, female, non-binary, young, old, black, white, brown, etc etc etc etc.

And none of those are sensitive issues, right? I have seen, time and again, the distinct pause that hits the table as we start to envision a character (“yeah, the investigation is led by the head of the department, who is…”) and then have to decide all the details. Do I want the abusive studio chief to be a woman? What themes does that unlock? If we make them a wealthy straight white man is that just too damn obvious? Or does that fit perfectly for the situation we’re exploring?

It’s a careful, thoughtful process, because we are all busy thinking about the implications of our choices. What does it say about the story? And what does it say about me, the player at the table, for making that choice? Because the fiction we make ultimately holds a mirror up to us, the creators. Our biases are reflected in what we make, and we’re wrestling with that out in the open, in front of all the other players.

Other role-playing games make characters too, but generally without the same level of scrutiny. When a GM makes characters, they do it on their own, behind the curtain. They don’t have to discuss *why* they made each character that way. Same if you’re a writer filling the pages of your novel: you don’t have to discuss and debate why you chose that particular identity for each character the moment you make them. Readers may theorize, but they’re not privy to the process.

But in collaborate creative games like we play, it’s much more out in the open. We think and talk about the why of the who all the time. Is it good for our brains? I think it is.

    Ben Robbins | June 7th, 2024 | | show 7 comments