Playing Make-Believe

I remember being in kindergarten and making pictures and miscellaneous craft-y things. Coloring, drawing, creating various projects. It was play. It was fun. A few years ago I started calling that art.

I remember being in kindergarten and playing make-believe. I remember talking to people who weren’t there, carrying on conversations with characters in my head. Sometimes they had faces, sometimes not. I remember creating elaborate scenes in which these conversations took place, and I would watch them unfold as I would watch TV. But I wouldn’t only be watching it, I’d be interacting with it.

I remember being in high school and being in a group of friends who’d revert to “childish” games. We’d play tag, hide-and-go-seek. We’d play make-believe. Granted, our versions of these games were more complex. One of my friends, Jay, had a intricate universe in his head, in which we all had a part. I was Boris Dragosani, a character I lifted from a book I was reading at the time, alien vampire and necromage. When we played tag, we were in-character, practicing our attacking and capturing skills. When we were playing hide-and-go-seek—which we often did in small groups, a group of two or three trying to find another group of two or three—we were hunting, or seeking out villains.

Every day for at least a year, we’d go to the park near the high school and take on these roles. We were all part of a paranormal intelligence agency. Jay had hierarchy charts written up of the various other agencies in his universe, and where the one we were in fit into the picture. The characters we interacted with ranged from everyday people to gods, and most of the characters we met were played by him. There was an underlying plot arc that lasted the whole of the year, and could probably have gone on indefinitely.

Later, I was embarrassed telling people about these “kid-games” I played in high school. I would look back on it and psychologize it as some reverting-to-childhood thing that I needed to do to compensate for growing up too quickly. Maybe. But it was play. It was fun. A few years ago I started calling it role-playing.

* * *

Our society is one that discourages imagination in adults. It’s one that tells idealists and visionaries to “grow up.” It’s one that labels people who talk to voices that aren’t there as crazy. It’s one that teaches us that those things we made and did in kindergarten were just childish games, just play, served no real purpose, and had no real worth.

The difference I see between artists and non-artists is not in ability, not in vision, but rather in how much they’ve listened to those voices of society that tell them to grow up, to get a real job, to fit into some socially constructed box and serve a useful purpose to humanity. Likewise, the difference I see between gamers and non-gamers is not in desire, not in creativity, but rather in the fear of those same voices.

I was embarrassed about my introduction to role-playing. Sure, we even called it role-playing at the time, but at the time, I thought that was just a fancy word for what we were really doing: playing make-believe. It was just something to tell the local police why we were loitering or acting strange or scaring off children or trespassing. Role-playing was Dungeons and Dragons, role-playing was Final Fantasy, role-playing was a game you played with dice or on the computer or Nintendo. Role-playing wasn’t whatever it was that we were doing, which felt a lot more like acting.

* * *

Role-playing can be any or all of these things. The games I run now get closer and closer to my earliest days of “gaming”; little to no dice, with a heavy emphasis on character development, character interaction, character progression, a setting complex and chaotic enough to provide many options for adventure, realistic enough to feel personally connected to one’s surroundings, but fantastical enough to allow for the impossible to become probable.

I always feel myself drawn back to role-playing in one form or another. Whether it’s the weekly gaming nights I’ve participated in for the past two years, or the senior project I’m currently working on—an interactive movie that was filmed without ever having written a script. The entire movie was based on character development, character interaction, character progression, the setting I had written, and the events that were “supposed” to happen. The idea behind the game itself was to get the player personally involved and attached to the game, the characters, and the events. To cross the “third wall,” as it’s referred to in theatre. To create something in which the player truly feels like an active participant, rather than a passive one.

While role-playing might, at it’s core, revolve around storytelling, that does not mean that storytelling is a defining quality of role-playing. The BDSM community uses role-playing all the time. In this community, role-playing is very active in many forms. There are the roles of the Master and servant, the Dominant and submissive, the top and the bottom. Each of these are different but related. However, BDSM role-play is not limited to these roles alone. There are scenes that do have some kind of story behind them, depending on the various interests, fetishes, and/or kinks of the participants.

Why am I and others always drawn back to what some people would call “kid’s games”? This isn’t a psychological essay, and so I’m not going to make some claim that role-playing fulfills some deep need or desire. I think it does, but that’s for another person more qualified to do a study on. Nor will I make some sweeping generalization that all people respond to role-playing in a certain way. I think that all people respond to role-playing in different ways. I find myself drawn to it for a variety of reasons, and I think these reasons are general enough to state here with the assumption that some of these reasons might be similar to others’ reasons for being attracted to role playing. Role-playing comes different forms, but I think that the reasons people are attracted to it remain comparable.

* * *

I don’t think the desire or need to play ever goes away. I think the same reason I created scenes in my mind and interacted in those scenes as a child still applies today. Role-playing is fun because it is play, and we don’t have very many forms of play available in our daily lives. What is play defined as? Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary has seventy-four definitions and variations of the word play. Those that I find most applicable here are:

    1. exercise or action by way of amusement or recreation…24. to act or sustain

(a part) in a dramatic performance or in real life…43. to do something in sport which is not to be taken seriously. 44. to amuse oneself; toy; trifle

I don’t find very many “adults” in the “real world” engaging in any “action by way of amusement or recreation,” and I think this is a shame. These same “adults” often envy children their carefree nature, their ability to play. Playing is a way to take a break from the “real world” and just have fun.

In the BDSM community, the word play itself obtains new meaning. Play comes to mean any activities in the clearly-defined boundaries of a scene. A scene can be pre-planned or impromptu, but, either way, the roles of the participants are always active, present, and known by all those involved. Sometimes the most exciting scenes are the ones in which the participants take on roles. The story that is told is a result of the collaborative interests of the participants. The theme in most BDSM scenes, whether there’s a story or not, is control. Often, I’ve found, these role-play scenes are the ones most ridiculed by society, or the ones that repulse society the most. Infantilism, age play, school girl/teacher scenes, rape fantasies, these seem to be some of the most marginalized and least understood aspects of the BDSM community. But what must be remembered is that just because people engage in these fantasy activities does not mean that they wish to actually engage in them outside the fantasy, for example, the rape scene.

The issue in a rape scene is not the rape but the control. Having dealt with issues revolving around rape for a while, I can see a very strong tension that exists when talking about this particular form of role-play. It’s an appalling fact, and one, for that reason, that I think should be commented on and examined, that the greater majority of women I’ve spoken to active in the BDSM community have had rape fantasies of some form or another. Many of these women have been sexually assaulted themselves in the past. Why, then, would they want to revisit an experience like that? I can only speculate. But when I talk to these women, there’s a lot that can be learned in the language they use. The first, and most important point, is that they aren’t being raped. The scene is an activity “in sport which is not to be taken seriously.”

BDSM is play, and it is sport, but more than that, it is used by many to confront serious issues and overcome these issues in a safe environment. Even those women who might engage in a rape scene would only do so under very specific conditions. BDSM revolves around a very high level of trust, and this trust, as well as clearly defined boundaries, would be negotiated long before a scene like this ever happened, if, in fact, it ever did happen. It has been my experience that the elements of control and restraint active in a rape fantasy could be present in a scene that had nothing to do with rape.

I am using BDSM as an example because when I first got into the scene, I was gradually made aware of how we assume roles every single day and don’t talk about it. BDSM, like gaming, is an expression of roles we may play in daily life, may wish to play, or foreign roles may want to explore. Some of the most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had are those that felt most real, the ones that affected me on a personal level. Likewise, BDSM offers an opportunity to explore and experiment with very serious personal issues, and, for many, can be intense and immensely rewarding.

* * *

I’ve mentioned the appeal and power of fantasy that is active in some forms of BDSM play. Fantasy is a potent way to examine one’s self, and role-playing can be used as an expression of those fantasies. Earlier, I talked about role-playing video games. These were never very rewarding for me for reasons I couldn’t really describe at the time. Looking back, I think the primary problem was the lack of personal involvement in games like, for example, the Final Fantasy series. It may be a fantasy, but whose fantasy is it? It’s a constructed fantasy of the developers, it’s not my fantasy, and, therefore, I don’t care about the characters or the events. This is a problem in virtually any video game, one that can only ever partially solved by making the characters likeable or universal, in much the same way characters in a novel are rendered.

Fantasy in role-playing is a double-edged sword. Creating environments that are too fantastical can alienate the participants. However, because role-playing is always assumed to be fantastical anyway, there’s much that can be done with realism that can affect the participants on a deeply personal level. It can create a safe environment to explore issues that one may not be willing to explore otherwise. Because the world of role-playing is a fantasy world, because it is “sport not to be taken seriously,” it becomes okay to deal with real issues.

Fantasy vs. reality is something I often play with in the role-playing games I run. I can use fantasy to bring out the realism of a situation or use reality to explore one’s fantasy. For example, one could set a game on a world which was primarily made up of desert, where a strong caste system was enforced, where the players were in a constant struggle for survival, and this could represent or symbolize the daily life of a homeless person in a third-world country. Or a very real BDSM scene could be an exploration of the participants’ darkest desires. In either example, fantasy plays a strong role in how a story is told and what kind of story it is, and both options have the potential to be amazingly powerful experiences.

* * *

The need for play comes out of a desire to escape one’s surroundings. This is possibly the most important reason I and, I think, many others are drawn to role-play. Role-playing in a pre-negotiated, safe environment provides a break from the “real world” I find necessary to be able to exist and deal in the “real world.”

Role-play at it’s best exists all around you. It’s when you find yourself so immersed in the fantasy world, that you don’t even think about the “real world.” Many of the people I game with will, if they haven’t gamed in a while, will say things like “we need to game again.” It almost sounds like an addiction. On the contrary, however, I think role-play serves as a coping mechanism. Immersing oneself in a world that is decidedly not the one we live our daily lives in is a potent release for stress, it’s a safe environment to be someone other than yourself and not suffer consequences, it’s a sane way to be an absolute bastard if that’s how you feel, and not have to worry about upsetting those around you whom you may care about.

The desire to escape is universal. It is dealt with in a variety of ways, from procrastination to suicide. Role-play, in it’s various incarnations, is just another way. But more than just providing a release and an opportunity to escape, role-playing allows us to be as carefree as a child by creating a fantasy environment that one can be enveloped by, be free to play and act however you want, and not worry about any repercussions.


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