Over the past several months, there have been a number of things that have gotten me thinking about roleplaying. Not just the kind you do in games, or on stage, but all the different ways we pretend to be someone other than ourselves, why we do it, and which kinds are OK and which ones are not.
I’m going to be very brief here, because this piece about how it relates to my own life needs a post of its own. I grew up with constant reminders from my parents and teachers about how I was a disappointment in so many ways. I spent a lot of time trying to please adults by doing what was expected of me, despite the almost constant evidence that it was wasted effort – I always fell short of expectations no matter how hard I tried. This in itself was roleplaying, obviously, and was the impetus behind my fantasies of becoming an actress or a musician or a famous writer. Not only would I become a person who was well-known, popular, and praised enough to make up for all the criticism, but on top of that, IT WOULD SHOW THEM ALL!!!! Well, I succeeded at these roles as well as I did the ones I was fighting against, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized that the failure was a good thing; it prevented me from having to live my entire life being someone different in order to please others. Roleplaying games and BBS storyboards were a great place for me to pretend without any of the pitfalls of doing it in real life. Sadly, my forgetfulness, inattention to detail, and frivolity were often unwelcome by the people who put much more thought and effort into creating and continuing the stories. I no longer resent the people who criticized me (or booted me out) because I now understand how irritating it can be when you work really hard on something and even one person treats it as something far too trivial. It was fun while it lasted, though.
Again, there’s far more to tell, but I wanted to just touch on a couple of things so that people reading this know that roleplaying has been a big part of my life, both good and bad. Being the type of person who obsessively wants to know everything about something that interests her, I’ve researched and collected information over the years whenever I observed or experienced it as a psychological phenomenon, or watched as the playing of a role directly caused some kind of consequence. As a person who has availed herself of psychological care, I’ve delved quite a lot into the issue as a whole. Understanding it in myself has made me quite sensitive to detecting and observing it in others. And that’s where this blog post actually begins. . .
Roleplaying of all sorts used to require quite a commitment. Communications with others were primarily face-to-face. You needed to pay close attention to what you said and to whom so you could remember to keep your persona (and all your other lies) consistent. It was not something you did for fun as much as something you did to protect or improve your social standing or career. Serious business, indeed. I think pretty much everyone had to do it to some degree just to conform to current behavioral rules, but in that way, they had been taught how. It wasn’t a choice, just something done by rote.
In my lifetime alone, communication methods and speeds and geographical availability have changed dramatically. It was only about 25 years ago that personal computers and modems gave people one of the most ingenious ways to roleplay – the Bulletin Board system. It started from the moment you logged on. The first thing you did was choose a handle, and from there you could be whoever you wanted (within limits). Nobody saw your face or heard your voice, they knew you by your writing alone. Unless you decided to get together. This actually happened quite a bit, since most people called BBSes that were within their free local calling area. Sometimes the person and the persona were quite alike, but sometimes one was clearly better company than the other.
Still, though, being able to pretend like this didn’t eliminate the real-life version. Girls still would change the way they acted or the friends they associated with in order to get a relationship or social connection they thought they wanted. Guys would still outright lie to these girls to get what they wanted, and lie to one another for all kinds of guy reasons (some of which still make absolutely no sense to me!) Anyone who wanted something badly enough was far more willing to say or do things they normally wouldn’t rather than put thought into whether or not they really wanted it or why. I would guess that this has been going on throughout human existence, and will doubtless continue until its end, even though it has caused unhappiness almost exclusively.
Now we’re up to today. The opportunities to roleplay in cyberspace are almost limitless. Anyone can have a blog, post to forums or comment on other peoples’ blogs, and the number of social networking sites is mind-boggling. It’s not surprising that people choose to let themselves be someone else online, but often when I know someone both IRL and online, the difference between the two can elicit some pretty potent emotions. I admit – the person I am online is different from the person I am, but not in any premeditated or deliberate roleplaying way. I feel much freer to release the snark on someone whom I feel truly deserves it, but to hear me debate with someone face to face on something we view oppositely, you might never guess I had an ounce of vitriol in my body. I spend a lot more time thinking, researching, editing, and composing what I write, but offline my mouth is sometimes not even remotely connected to my brain. Overall, though, what you see is what you get.
I still understand the appeal of creating an alternate persona, but what confounds me is when the online persona maintains itself even when communicating with people who know them in person. Despite the fact that everyone knows how easy it is to be misinterpreted, despite the lack of urgency to post the moment you’re done writing, and regardless of the potential that other real-life people might be affected as well, people write things as their online persona without pausing to consider the repercussions it will cause in their real lives. Even if your persona is dealing with people who are not part of your real life, interacting with others in a way that suggests that you might meet in person, or that causes an emotional attachment that would interfere with or damage real-life relationships for the other party never seems to be considered. Plus, while any competent computer user could track someone down and find who he or she is on multiple online locations, roleplayers frequently link to themselves, even if each of their online selves are different from one another. I’m not saying that people who experiment with alternate roles online should be castigated or abhorred for doing it, just that they should remember that behind every other persona is a person, and that sometimes deception is not just good, clean fun.
What happens, then, is that all the normal roleplaying we do in real life, which already has the potential to make us unhappy, isn’t fixed when we go someplace else and pretend to be who we want to be to make up for it. Worse than the harm it might do to others, it is also a way of inflicting harm upon yourself. Consider how the comparison between your pretend life and your real life affects you. Most likely, you won’t want to pretend to be someone who is less appealing in any way. Your persona will be smarter, more attractive, wealthier, better traveled, and so on. In this way, you have created entirely new ways to not measure up. However badly the criticism from others has convinced you that you are unworthy of one thing or another, pretending to be the fabulous creature you always wanted to be and then having to face your less-stellar life only gives you more reason to find yourself wanting. You’ve given yourself an unattainable goal that will insure that everything you could ever possibly accomplish will be a failure by comparison.
Maybe at some later time, I’ll address one or more of the many incidents and experiences that cumulatively gave me so much to think about. Maybe I won’t. This is long enough as it is, and I still have other viewpoints on the same issue that will be just as wordy, and still encompass the whole idea. I might not even remember many of them by the time I’m done, and that will probably be a good thing. For now, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for indulging me.