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The Contract

Aristotle, Aristotle: Character as Therapy

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
July 10, 2001  
"I'm playing a paladin. It's that Don Quixote thing."

The first thing that I need you to do is forget everything your teachers told you about Ancient Greek tragedy.

Everyone have a blank slate? Good.

Previously I have discussed what sort of conditions character operates under, but now we move into another field. Before was the fundamentals of operation, the material basis for characters in a role playing game environment. Our topic now is characterization, the act of charactering. We start this with something that is a bit of a departure: are role playing games good? Are they healthy?

Whether they are or they are not has everything to do with character, and everything to do with characterization. Creating a character is an escapist act, no bones about it. I suffer from a crippling asthmatic reaction when around horses, something that even medication cannot cure completely. I would make a terrible fantasy hero. Yet in games I can ride to my heart's content. Games, in general, do not revolve around playing yourself.

But you, because all the characters that you create come from an impression of yourself, have motives that come from who you actually are. That portion I discussed last month. But how do we evaluate such an action? I think that everyone can sense that escapism is sometimes good and sometimes bad. Sometimes it is a necessary release, sometimes an unnecessary crutch.

How it could be a good thing is what I want to discuss. The way that I see to deal with this question is to look into the practical aspects of playing a character. Who someone is playing must have something to do with it, but I covered that last time. This is the beginning of the exploration of how.

Gamers, as a rule, are attached to their characters. We do not like to see them die. I've seen people fight over the death of a character. I've been in fights over the death of a character, on either side too. Why is this? Is it unhealthy?

It should be clear that this attachment springs from the fact we enter into a character based upon our desires, the volition spoken of in the last column. Since our self is so intimately related to who our characters are, it is no surprise that we fear the destruction of a character. Yet, in terms of the psychological implications of this, I am all for it. I think that people should feel enraged about the demise of their characters. Aristotle is the reason.

Aristotle is an important fellow. He is not always important because what he wrote was so correct or inviolately truthful, but because what he had to say was taken as such for so long. Still, if you imagine yourself an artist in any capacity, you should read the Poetics. The most memorable part of the Poetics is the part dedicated to an understanding of tragedy as a form. In Aristotle's view, central to what makes a tragedy is a tragic hero.

Most people have been taught that being a tragic hero a tragic hero is being a great man with a tragic flaw, as it is called, someone who is spectacular but who has one overriding flaw that leads to their destruction. Oedipus is one swell bastard, but one who is too prideful. Hamlet is in the right, but is too indecisive. This sort of logic leads to the unenviable position that tragedy is truly dead, with Death of a Salesman earmarked as its swan song. There are no more heroes anymore, and so tragedy is just meaningless pain.

This view is a complete and total misinterpretation of what Aristotle actually wrote. He begins by describing different sorts of stories, and why they are not tragedy. Good things happening to a good person is not tragedy: there is nothing sad about that. Good things happening to a bad person is not tragedy. That sort of play is only immoral, displaying the wrong sorts of ideas about the world. The same holds for bad things happening to a good person. Bad things happening to a bad person is almost tragedy. On some level we feel bad for that other person, even if they are getting their comeuppance. Think of The Abyss, or The Naked Gun. There is still an "ouch" to feel, even as you cheer.

No, tragedy is something different because the tragic hero is a specific sort of character. A tragic hero is someone who is not altogether good, but not wholly evil either. A tragic hero is someone who is human. Furthermore, this human fails for a specific sort of reason. They make a mistake through no fault of their own. The word that Aristotle uses for mistake is the same sort of word that someone might use when writing about missing a target in archery. It is a slip up, an error, but the sort of error that ends up resulting in horrifying consequences.

Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, and thus brought down a curse upon Thebes. In getting himself into the situation, he was just being a good guy. Think about it this way: the same sort of person who will commit the first recorded act of road rage is the same sort of person who will rush out to free a city from an oppressive beast. Oedipus had flaws and virtues. But what he did not know and could not be rightfully expected to know, caused all manner of disaster.

What in earth does this have to do with character? The reason why people like tragedy, why they get something out of it, is identification. That is what an Aristotelian tragic hero is, someone we identify with but for whom things go awry. This character on the stage is trying to do the right thing, but they are prevented from doing so. They take actions that end up having much graver consequences than they ever intended, and they are completely destroyed for those actions. If an audience did not feel for the humanity of the character on stage, the happenstance would be meaningless. If the event that caused their demise was not based so much in good intentions and capricious circumstances, we would not be so moved. As it stands, we fear the situation, and that the person on stage, with the degree of events scaled down, could just as well be us.

This is why I like strong character identification in games. In some ways, we are putting our psychologies on stage in much the same way. A character is a person who is the player yet splayed out on a much grander field, one fraught with symbol. We move these selves through their paces so that we may feel for them, enjoy their successes and cry at their demise. Without a strong identification, a role playing game is an exercise in formalism. Emotion cannot be derived from the event, because there is nothing to attach emotion to. You might as well be playing Risk.

This, however, does apply to both sides. A disposable character is just as bad as an invulnerable character. If nothing bad can happen, then the action is equally as meaningless. But I would still err on the side of attachment and survival. It is a factor of characterization, and of genre. Quite simply, in many of the genres of play, character death is not tolerable to the overall style. That is what red shirts are for, to prove the mortality of the situation without disrupting the real stories.

But if there is no vulnerability then there is no real attachment, only fixation. I think of the old complaints about players and characters not being willing to accept surrender, on their part or on the part of their opponents. In this situation the game has become decisively zero-sum, with all the monsters on the level dead before progress can be made to the next, or the game restored to the point before the character bought the farm. Something like this is as inhumane as it is inhuman, and does not serve any good purpose. But a style of play can include bad things happening to the characters without their demise.

I think that the best games have a sense already for this sort of thing, as it is what naturally makes a game interesting. Yet, I want to emphasize the internal portion of the matter. It is not only the obligation of the Referee to assure this balance, but for the characters to act upon it. If a character is not emotionally vulnerable in the ways that people actually are, then the character is disposable, regardless of what the dice decree. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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