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This Gaming Life - Special Guest Issue

Defence Systems

by Steve Darlington (editor, Drew Meger)
August 10, 2001  
"People must never be humiliated - that is the main thing" Anton Chekov

While reworking this article for RPGNet, I asked a friend of mine just when the most recent American school shooting had occurred. "Don't worry about it," he joked, "there's sure to be another one along any minute."

This is the world we live in. We're now at the point where this has happened so many times, we've practically gotten used to it. It's now the standard state of affairs, and each new event only barely registers in the collective consciousness. The Columbine shooting earned a big column on slashdot, but the latest one was barely talked about, outside of Good Morning America. It just wasn't news anymore. That's the scary part.

Of course, one good reason these events aren't news is because we all know the situation. We all know what causes these things (not RPGs), and we all know how they play out. The wake-up call has been well and truly sounded, and nobody has done anything, so now we just have to learn to live with it. That's how these things go - we just degrade our expectations until we accept a world in this situation. It's a lot easier than changing anything.

And in essence, there's some wisdom to this. We can't change the cause of this situation, because it's very much down to human nature. Kids, by their very nature, can and will be cruel, without a second thought, and there's no way to stop that. Bigger kids will always beat up smaller kids, and so on ad infinitum. All that can change is the systems and environments in which these events occur.

However, just because this problem is unavoidable doesn't make it acceptable. Anyone who thinks being bullied is "just part of growing up" was almost certainly not on the receiving end when they were young. Bullying can cause extreme psychological damage - on top of the physical - that takes years to repair. Every time you minimize its effects, you're asking for another school shooting.

Of course, this is exactly one of the changes that has occurred in the school environment. In the past, bullying was more accepted, it was seen as something you had to put up with. The standard solutions offered by our television programs was to tell your parents, or your teachers, and they'd miraculously make it stop. It didn't work, of course, but there didn't seem to be any other options.

Nowadays, we have a lot more honesty in our media, and there's a lot more of it out there as well. We realize there's a problem, so there's a lot more talk about where it comes from, the damage it does. And there is a huge preponderance of talk about the various ways of solving it (or more typically, pinning blame on something). As a result, a whole legion of ideas and scenarios are presented, most commonly through the evening news. So the thinking runs - if some boys in Columbine used a gun to solve their problem, then just maybe that might work for me. It's not a connection many will make, but it does feel more like an option nowadays. And that's all it takes.

Because the more in pain you are, the more likely you are to try any sort of solution you can find. I've just been reading some scientific papers for my work (I'm an epidemiologist) which look at the prevalence of alternative medicine, and the most common conclusion arising in them is that the more pain a person is in, or the more serious their conditions, the more likely they are to try more varied and more intense alternatives. The principle is the same in all things - the more you suffer, the more you feel helpless, the more you'll look to anything to provide a solution, or an escape. Even if it that solution might seem bizarre, or even insane to most other people.

The rash of school shootings in the US has nothing to do with a rise in bullying. It's simply showing a rise in this action being seen by kids as a way to solve their problems. If we want to stop this from happening, we shouldn't concentrate on stopping bullying, because that's impossible. We can only concentrate on stopping this particular solution from seeming viable. Unfortunately, the more it happens, the harder this becomes.

In Australia, the problem isn't so much with shootings, but with suicide. Australia has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world, and the simple reason for it is that suicide is considered a good option. Suicide is almost cool. My mother is a teacher, and last year, one of the students at her school killed herself. And her suicide note, and the testimonials of students at the funeral, and the talk on the schoolyard all carried the same theme - how nice it was in Heaven, and how happy she was now that she was there. This was carried to the point where people were discussing what her room in heaven would be like. It was presented as something that solved the dead girl's problems, in an ultimately positive way. And thus again, sent the message that this was an option.

I know of which I speak, because I came close to the act myself a few times when I was younger. I pressed a knife against the veins in my wrist so many times I lost count. At times, I would stand a little too close to the edge of the platform at the train station, hoping the train would clip me so I wouldn't have to physically jump in front of it myself. Thankfully, I never took my plans any further. A few things kept me alive: one was simple fear; another was a strong and loving family who taught me that killing myself wasn't an option.

And another was roleplaying games.

I was always an imaginative child. I was used to disappearing into my own fantasy world for hours at a time, and blurring away the outside world entirely. But come puberty, most people grow out of that. Me, I couldn't. Because I needed it to survive.

As an early teen, my life was so horrible there were times when I couldn't bear it. So at the age of twelve, I retreated into a fantasy world, and I didn't come out until I was almost sixteen. That fantasy world was primarily built upon the role-playing game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Oh, sure, there other things in there. Batman and Asterix comics. Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Double Dragon. The Dragonlance novels. But TMNT was the king of them all, the overarching story to which I could always return. Not least because I built it myself.

That's what an RPG gives you - a chance to build the world yourself. It's not about playing the game with other people, not really, not at that age. It's about for the first time, being allowed to create something yourself, long before you'll ever consider yourself a writer. I created the characters, the heroes of my world. They were built from everything inside of me. And then I created their stories too. As a result, they were exactly the kind of stories I needed to hear. They were stories about survival against the odds, about fighting back against oppression. They were my very own myths, teaching me what I needed to know to deal with the world around me.

And the end result is that now, I can barely remember anything about my first three years at high school, except TMNT. I went back to my school recently, for the first time in ten years. I wanted to remind myself of what it was like, the memories I'd pushed down for so long. But I soon found all I could recall was TMNT. This was the seat where I rolled up that horse. This was where I ran the guys through the 'Rural Route Five' adventure. Here's where I imagined how the final showdown between the dog and his creator would play out. TMNT was my life line; I surrounded myself in it, turned it into my protective shell, and it seems to have worked exceedingly well. The bad things are forgotten now, and only the fantasy remains.

The point? The point is, if we want to stop people from dying, we need to provide other options. Give them as many other ways to solve their problems as we possibly can. And so far, possibly the best option the world has come up with are fantasies that people can immerse themselves in, so they can step out of their horrible world for a moment, and step into another. Other worlds where they can be safe, and happy, and in control. Worlds where they can get rid of their anger and learn how to deal with their pain. And the more encompassing, the more mythic, the better. In other words, we need the kind of thing that encourages total immersion - we need geek media.

We need comics. We need cult TV shows and movies. We need video games and goths in trenchcoats. And BY GOD, do we need RPGs. And for all these things, we need mad, raving fanboys. We need the psychotic powergamers who know every rule in RIFTS backwards and manipulate them with excruciating glee. We need the Trekkers who know the stardates for every single episode. We need the people who dress up as Batman and don't give a damn that they're twenty stone, because in their head, the costume fits perfectly.

Why do we need these people? Because these people are never going to kill themselves. Or anyone else. They don't need to take that escape route, because they already have one. They're going to survive their teenage years, and come through with less injuries and scarring. And frankly, a mild obsession is a small price to pay for that. Yes, an obsession in music, or sport, or something more "socially acceptable" could do the same thing. But the kids on the edge aren't going to get into those things. The kids in the most danger are the geeks, the victims, the people who don't join things. They need an option that works for them.

So if we want to stop the body count from climbing, this is the way to do it. Get more and more people into RPGs, into comics, into any sort of geek subculture. We should be handing these things out in classrooms instead of condoms. We should be selling them on every street corner. And while we're at it, we need to stop mocking the young fanboys. They're doing what they need to survive - and survive is exactly what we want them to do. They'll leave it behind if and when they no longer need it.

And of all the geek-media, roleplaying games are the ones we most need to push. They're the most effective of all, because they let out the creator within. They allow you to build your own escape route, your own mythology suited precisely to your own needs. They're thus one of the most reliable safety nets you could imagine for those who most need one. They're the best possible option to provide to those who think they don't have any left, except the worst possible choice. Our hobby is able to make a real difference here. Roleplaying games, my friends, can save lives.

I know this, because they saved mine.

Steve Darlington

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What do you think?

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All This Gaming Life columns by Ian O'Rourke

  • Reality TV by Ian O'Rourke, 18jul02
  • The Rise and Fall of 3E February 14, 2002
  • Defence System August 10, 2001, guest column by Steve Darlington
  • Gaming in the Modern World July 4, 2001
  • And It Involves Rubber Swords June 6, 2001
  • A Wasted Youth? May 9, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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