We are more than just tokens

The Escapist ran a great story about a game designer who made people cry.

It wasn’t in the same way that Alganon  makes you cry. (Or even the way that Flowers for Algernon makes me cry.) No, what she did was to set up a board game that was all about trying to get a trainful of passengers from point A to point B. The first person to get their train to the end wins. The destination was then revealed to be Auschwitz.

Rohan@Blessing of Kings isn’t entirely happy with this as a setup. He finds that too much of the impact relies on the setting — a similar game in which you had to deliver refugees to a safe camp could have had precisely the same mechanics. It would be the same game, after all?

And my first thought was also that it sounded like a switch and bait. You let people play the game the whole way through and keep that context secret?

But I was talking to my husband about this on the train (I know, ironic) and when I told him that the train (in the game) was going to Auschwitz, he froze. He was honestly, utterly shocked. And then he said weakly, “But that means … you were collaborators!” And then, “Do you think the guys who were operating the trains to Auschwitz knew what was going to happen there?”

Now tell me that game didn’t have anything special to teach people, even purely from its setting. Brenda Braithwaite set out to make games that had an impact, and you cannot argue with an impact like that!

Tobold was writing this week about avatars in games, and lamenting that people get too attached to their in-game personas.  His view is that they aren’t people, just playing pieces.

But if a game can have a genuine emotional impact on you as the player, how can the avatar not be meaningful? The counters in the train game take on a much greater meaning if you associate them with people on their way to Nazi concentration camps. If they’re really just counters, if you play the ‘pure’ game and throw away everything apart from the mechanics, you are denying yourself any kind of emotional impact at all. The game loses its meaning.

Not only that, but this viewpoint basically denies that roleplaying even counts as a game. As soon as you identify with your character, you are sullying the purity of the  game and possibly committing the cardinal sin of taking it too seriously.

As someone with a fairly extensive experience of running different types of RPG both online and offline, I know that some people will get too involved with their characters. But I also know that unless you are playing with professional actors (ie. who are very practiced at donning and doffing roles), every character that a (RP)  player creates has a little piece of themself in it, even if it’s just the way you wish you could be.

Some people do truly detest roleplaying and roleplayers. To them, a character is nothing more than a collection of stats, gear, and achievements through which to play the actual game.

That’s fine, but every time we discuss immersion, every time we feel the gameworld unfold around us, every time we relate to the NPCs (admit it, Varian is a tosser), every time we experience any kind of vicarious emotion through our character, we are in fact playing the role.

To treat a character as a token is to deny the emotional impact of the game. And if you want to do that, why do you play an MMO at all?