Today, let's examine another widely held value judgment, also arrived at through extensive experience from playing: that the player characters of role-playing games are extraordinary people, whose bravery and resolve encourages them to be heroes against forces that would terrify most. To understand why, we need to examine the motivations of players who choose to perceive their characters as heroes.
What is heroism? This is not a simple question. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, has spent more than a decade studying heroism and has established four recognizeable signs of performed heroism:
"First, it’s performed in service to others in need ~ whether that’s a person, group, or community ~ or in defense of certain ideals. Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty. Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice. Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act."
Suppose we take a moment and consider how an Advanced Beginner's DMing efforts might act contrary to the above ... explaining, in the process, many game worlds with some of us will have personally experienced, particularly in our early years of playing.
Our Advanced Beginner might tolerate players who do not act in the service of others, but only for themselves ~ whether against the other players, or the non-player characters under the DM, or even against the DM personally ~ in pursuit of their selfish desires. Our Advanced Beginner might feel pushed to participate as a DM involuntarily, because no one else will play; while some players might feel they're coerced to play a particular kind of game or rule-set, because no other option for play is available. Our Advanced Beginner may steadfastly refuse to make any concessions, or changes to their campaign, or put any personal sacrifice or preparedness into the game session ~ even a few hours time, to make the game better, may be considered a sacrifice too far. Players, likewise, may resent having to sacrifice their personal time to redraw their characters, or properly keep notes as to their advancement, or arrive on time, or any of a hundred other personal sacrifices that make group activities more pleasant. And finally, all the players may constantly gripe and insist on more and more gain for their characters, a constant flow of greater rewards, to make playing the game for them tolerable. Such players may even threaten to quit if the rewards of the game do not meet their standards.
All together, this behaviour becomes unsupportable, destructive, even vindictive over time. Some groups nonetheless stagger on under this burden, supported by the unhealthy combination of a self-aggrandizing DM and selfishly motivated socio-challenged players. Most Advanced Beginniners, however, get a taste of a different game identity embraced by a competent DM, and cease to reproduce the style of play in their own campaigns.
Consider: if the game story and adventure is geared towards the service of NPCs in need, this provides the players with a set of ideals that are clearly recognized as heroic. Non-heroic principles are easy to recognize ~ players who fail to answer the call to advanture, players who fail to recognize the wisdom of a mentor, players who play for selfish pursuits ~ these are clearly not the sort who are going to heroically help a village throw off its oppressors.
Heroes will view the opportunity to help the village voluntarily, as Zimbardo stipulates. They will even go beyond what they are asked to do, willingly doing more than preserving the village, they will lay down their own lives if that's what it takes to make the village a thriving and happy place. No heroic player would refuse to do so ... and so that helps bind the party together towards a single goal, a single purpose, which eliminates much of the selfish infighting that would go on at the sort of table that an Advanced Beginner might tolerate.
Nor would lives alone be the only sacrifice the players might be willing to make. As heroes, they would impoverish themselves rather than hold back wealth from the needy. They would soil their reputations rather than let one person suffer in their stead. And they would do all this, just as Zimbardo points out, with no personal expectation of gain.
This last greatly eases the pressure put on a DM to constantly award more and more treasure. As treasure and advancement become less and less a part of role-playing, the selfish motives to gain either are stripped out of the game and what is left are players acting together to achieve personal redemption rather than personal gain.
If we compare this to the stories we tell, as noted in the source material for the last class, Dan McAdams and Kate McLean argue that redemptive stories lead "to a demonstrably 'good' or emotionally positive outcome" for the participant of the game ~ providing us with legitimate evidence, through research, that acting the part of a hero, and believing that it is motivated by an emotionally healthy impulse, provides greater mental health for the participants of game play.
|The Party as One Mind|
It is natural, therefore, that as games advance towards competent play, DMs would encourage players to act in an heroic fashion. And players, having experienced non-heroic games, would be appreciative of the dynamic of heroic games and therefore embrace them.
However ... the positivity of a redemptive story as described by McAdams and McLean is not limited strictly to moments of heroism. Any person may feel reinvigorated and redeemed by any positive choice they've made regarding any moment or event they encounter. Heroism is, yes, redemptive; but redemption need not necessarily be heroic.
Heroism is, like storytelling, a matter of personal experience with a method of role-play that works better than non-heroic play. This does not follow, however, that heroic play is necessarily the only possible model that challenges non-heroic play. There is no reason to assume that heroism and the lack of it is a black-and-white model. After all, we do not live in a world of only heroes and villains. We all have the capacity to be heroes, and villains, from moment to moment, without being defined as either emotionally.
Which is why we say that Heroism is a theory of role-play. The argument that the players ARE heroes is subjective and without basis of fact. What evidence can we show that absolutely supports the claim? None. So once again, as with story-telling, we must acknowledge the practicality of supporting the players' choice to be heroes, but we must not conclude that heroism is necessarily a fundamental part of gameplay's structure.
Thank you, that's all for today. Please read McAdams and McLean's essay all the way through if you have not done so already.