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The Contract

Me and My Shadow: Character as Wants

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
June 12, 2001  
I'm a holy knight, on a quest as long as his life, seeking goodness in all things.

Last time we discussed character, we discussed it as a sort of avatar. It was the instrument of translation and basic representation within the context of the game, almost a physical avatar. It is the part of the character that fits naturally and neatly onto a character sheet. The next sort of avatar that character has to do with is a psychological avatar. A character is a mirror of your own mental processes. This is one of those matter-of-fact statements nearly everyone recognizes, but still has vast untapped potential. Besides, I'm an academic (well, now I am a fallen academic, but that's another story). Nothing is real until it has been published. So, how is character connected to a player's psychological perspective?

Any character is a self. A self is a big, important, dynamic thing, something argued about by academic types of all calibers and caf pundits of all orders. Yet, at the same time, we must all know what a self is, simply because we are ourselves selves. To that effect, the quest to define self could be said to be like the eye trying to see the eye without a mirror.

Or, to be a little more burlesque, I only know consciousness to the extent that I am conscious of it.

Even with this, gamers seem to have no trouble whatsoever just tossing on a new consciousness for three hours every other Saturday. This would not be possible without some serious psychic connection between the character and the player. Pre-existing selves are the models for created selves, so created selves share much of the same sort of territory as actual selves. You play who you know, and you know yourself, so you play yourself.

For a gross oversimplification, a racist would likely be racist in her characters, unless she willfully took up a characterization that was not racist. In effect, the creation of a character is psychological plagiarism. Take your own self, copy it, cross out some stuff, cut and paste a little, slap it onto a physical avatar it fits and there you have it.

The above explanation I shall dub the "Amazing Engine" argument. Anyone remember Amazing Engine? It was an early 90s TSR's attempt to create a generic game system. I consider at least one Amazing Engine product to be the essence of any good gaming store's bargain bin. Was it really that bad? Yes, it was sometimes. What really amazed me was that they continued to support it after it was generally panned. Support is an understatement. They seemed to develop a business strategy that the way to succeed with it was to create the most unworkable setting possible, and that it might just all fit together.

A Solar System-based hard SF, revolving around the return of King Arthur was the last setting I saw for it. Then again, perhaps that was just wish fulfillment on the part of TSR, as they wondered why their market share had started to march off to Avalon. Ah, the past, when it looked like revolutions were always around the corner.

Sorry, here's a napkin to clean that nostalgia off your screen. Anyway, the singular interesting mechanic to come out of the Amazing Engine system was the way that they addressed characters. Rather than having one character for one game, each player had a central character behind any specific character. That central character provided a framework for any character that you might create in the game. The notion was that everyone was supposed to play each Amazing Engine setting, and that experience gained by an individual character in an individual setting could be spent to improve the core character, and thus to improve all characters in all games.

Sounds to me like someone bought "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" and never cracked the binding. Still, this character principle would have been a cool idea for Amazing Engine, if the settings had been more fleshy (they were sometimes compelling) and the mechanics not tedious. The funny thing, in retrospect, is that I can now see the embryonic theory of network externalities that would form the basis of the D20 concept in the hazy future that is now. The real question for our discussion is whether this applies, of a central persona that other characters are just dressing on the top, even without a rule set backing it up.

Consider it like typecasting. In the Amazing Engine interpretation, a self is baggage, as it keeps a player from realizing any possible character. Since players are always operating from the same template they end up operating in the same ways. The same baggage gets taken from character to character. We could all recognize in ourselves or in those we play with frequently those character particularities that spring up time and again. A common one is the way that we speak in character, the accent or cadence that we use. Perhaps it is a certain class, or even just a type of ability. Other times it is no more than a piece of character history. Even something like gender could be called out as part of it. There is no reason why people cannot cross gender lines in characters, but for some people, this barrier is an insurmountable one. They know too much about what it means to be one gender to start playing another without all the preconceptions that they already possess about what that gender acts like.

There are reasons for the Amazing Engine interpretation. But can we base the entirety of psychological connection upon this one idea? It seems foolhardy. After all, it is possible to break from baggage, to propel away from it. In fact, this is often an important thing for people to do. Some gamers have been known to intentionally take a character that is as far away from them as possible, playing "The Other" as it were. Yet, in general, this sort of freedom from bonds is discouraged. After all, what is your gut reaction about an undersexed middle-aged male with the coordination of a turnip playing the role of a nubile young female with the grace of a cat? It seems shady, a badly motivated escapism as they try and flee themselves to find something that they are not, and with weird Freudian underpinnings to boot.

The notion of volition being present in character creation makes gaming unusual. Someone, a player, is allowed, even encouraged, to take whatever sort of character they want to have, to be whomever they want to be. The notion almost runs counter to the other notion of wish fulfillment. Instead of limitations, there are only possibilities. Yes, player must create a character that fits within the context of the game, but other than that they are only limited by imagination. A player can be whomever they want, "want" being the critical word. Even though the situation is boundless, it seems logical that we should only take those characters that somehow tickle our fancies.

Those fancies are psychologically motivated. After all, this is a refashioning of a self, and a self that is yours. You are your character, because you have to be. You take on the persona that you play. This is specifically opposed to the theater, even improvisational theater, when the self an actor takes up is limited by expectations about that self; there are precious few external expectations in gaming.

Then why is not every character a wish fulfillment of some sort? Well, that is the next theory: it always is. A character is the act of creating a self that is who you want to be. It is rooted in the Amazing Engine theory, because it is always your own self that you move against, but is much more dynamic. In making yourself someone else you find out who you want to be. The expected way of seeing this is the typically escapist route, getting to play some creature with powers and abilities that only exist in dreams and nightmares.

Even in the playing of truly loathed and ruined characters exists this sort of dreaming. To feel like you have a tortured soul is one thing, to feel put upon by the world or persecuted, to have some notion that a great conspiracy runs to the heart of reality: not all are enviable notions. Yet we only feel these ways. We are not actually persecuted. We have no proof of it. Even people who are persecuted, repressed or so on can be lifted up, because they get to play people who are troubled in different sorts of ways, ways that they do not fully understand.

In games, the ideas that float around in our heads become as real as anything. A dream becomes a world. Likewise, notions that players only have in some vague sense become concrete. No one wants to be possessed of bloodlust, to have only one arm. Yet people feel like they are, know they have the possibility for great destruction or feel disabled by some sort of their bodies or themselves. Being able to engender a character where they get to play someone who really is in a bad way allows an exercise of those feelings. Some notion, some archetypical sense has turned into a foundation.

It is the shadow side of wish fulfillment, because you fulfill wishes that you do not actually want fulfilled. You instead fulfill an anti-wish. In playing someone who is blind a player is exploring the ways in which they are blind, what it would be like to be blind. And so, they are put into better touch with their own emotions on the topic, and get to explore the feelings in a safe field. And in knowing who you are defiantly not, you learn who you really are.

Creating a character is the act of taking a self, putting it into a system of desires, and then making it concrete in a certain context as defined by the game. Character creation is psychological, because it has everything to do with who you are, and what you want to be. The poignant question is whether this is healthy. After all, this means that the act of playing a character is a low-grade sort of therapy. That will be the next discussion.

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