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Psychological Role-playing

Started by Clinton R. Nixon, May 15, 2002, 05:26:26 PM

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Clinton R. Nixon

All the recent discussion of Simulationist play has brought up talk about the psychological aspects of role-playing games. I've been more interested in this lately, as well, because of talks with role-players that are as passionate about their goals in RPGs as we are here, but approached it from a very different angle.

My point in this thread is to establish a second goal besides Exploration for role-playing. The idea of role-playing is pervasive in psychology, conflict resolution (real-world conflict resolution, people - like mediation), and team-building. The same goals and approaches used in these non-game arenas are being used today in role-playing games.

I'm not quite certain what to call this sphere of goals - Immersion seems right, but as you'll see below, immersion isn't completely necessary. I'll figure it out as I go along.

Immersive roleplaying, and its goals of play

The goal of Immersion is normally associated with the following:
- "Light" rule systems, often called "transparent"
- Little to no metagame

The overall goal, parallel to Exploration, is to be psychologically immersed in a different mindset or character - to experience a simulcrum of life through another's eyes. This is not a rare form of role-playing: among many circles (see Alarums and Excursions for monthly rants on Immersion) it is considered the ultimate goal of role-play.

Typically, Immersion results in one of three (Three-Fold - you knew it was coming) modes of play: Closure/Resolution, Escapism/Heroism, or (for lack of a better word) Simulationism. (There may well be more - this is my first impressions.)

Closure/Resolution: This mode of play is focused on displacing real-world feelings and situations onto a fictional character and resolving those feelings and situations through that character in order to receive real-world closure or resolution.

Example: Adam (a player) has recently broken up with his girlfriend of two years, who moved away soon afterwards. In the new fantasy campaign he is playing in, he creates a character who recently lost his true love. During the game, his goals are to resolve that character's loss and have him move on, helping Adam move on himself. A common element in this mode would be Adam's character having the chance to bring his true love back from the grave, albeit changed. Does the character have the strength to say no, and let his dead love lie? If so, Adam makes progress in his real life.

In this mode, the player and GM must cooperate on the player's goal, or the player must be given some amount of Authorial or Directorial power in order to present his character with conflict. Without this conflict, closure/resolution cannot occur.

Escapism/Heroism: This mode of play is focused on giving players an experience where their lives are better or more exciting than their real world lives. This is one of the most common forms of role-playing today, and is exemplified by games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, or Vampire. The players receive self-esteem and good memories from this mode, as well as spending several hours not thinking about their real lives, where they are not heroes.

Example: Adam (a player) has recently broken up with his girlfriend of two years - she left him for another man. In the new fantasy campaign he is playing in, he creates a character who recently lost his true love: her soul was trapped by an evil sorcerer in a gem. His goal in play is to find the sorcerer and reclaim his true love. Adam benefits from this because he gets to, through an analogy, fantasize about finding the person who took his girlfriend away, kill him, and take his girlfriend back by force. Note the differences between this mode and Closure/Resolution - in C/R, Adam and his character resolve their problems together. In Escapism/Heroism, Adam portrays his character doing something he either can not or will not do, giving him the rush of imagining it, but not actually resolving the real-world problem.

In this mode, the players do not require as much input. While making the scenario tailored to their real lives may provide the players with more benefit, the GM can often abstract the game into "good vs. evil," which provides heroism for most, if not all, players.

Simulationism: (Seriously, I apologize for reusing the term. I'll think of something else.) This mode of play is focused on giving players a solid experience of life through another's eyes without providing them with a real-world psychological benefit. This mode is very similar to Exploration in that its primary goal is to let players imagine what a different life would be like, while not dictating what how that life should lead. In this mode, characters may often live lives that end in tragedy, or live lives that the players themselves would not want to lead.

The best example of a game that fits this mode would be Unknown Armies - it has a rich background that is very different from our own world, while still having enough parallels that it is easy to identify with; it also has a good system for simulating the psychological wreckage of being in its world, helping players identify with the trauma their characters are going through.

Immersive roleplaying: Does System Matter?

Commonly among groups of immersive roleplayers, it is claimed system does not matter - the ability to focus on immersion is the ultimate tool, and systems that interrupt that are a hinderance. The other element that does matter in this goal is the abilities of the Game Master to (a) realize his players' psychological needs, and (b) convey an immersive game world.

I think system does matter in this goal, although not to the degree as it may in Exploration. With most Immersive play, drift occurs as a system's elements that will hinder immersion are stripped away, usually resulting in lightweight systems.

The most common systems I've seen used with Immersive play are Fudge, The Window, Vampire (drifted away from its heavy combat mechanics), and D&D (also quite drifted). However, I've also found a lot of very unsatisfied Immersive players. I would present that the systems in question do not meet Immersive players' goals well. With the exception of Immersive Simulationism, these players often need a way to meet their psychological needs when their GM is not realizing them. Systems with Authorial or Directorial power are often rejected by Immersive role-players, though, citing that "metagame" (in their definition, an element that does not have a real world counterpart) interrupts their immersion.


I don't have one yet - I really couldn't figure how to end this. I'm looking for questions and comments, though. This isn't a style of role-playing that I'm involved with anymore, but once found myself spending several months playing in an Immersive:Closure/Resolution mode, and do hear people talking about this goal often enough that I think it's an important topic to discuss.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I like this theory a lot, especially since it admits that for a lot of people, escapism is the goal of play, and is willing to view that as a valid style of play, though my gut tells me that we need examples that sound less... um... peforative. Particularly for Escapism. But that's just my gut. My head didn't have any problem with it.

As for the third mode, instead of Simulationism, how about calling it "Playful Immersion" or "Pure Immersion"? Immersion for its own sake, because you want to, and it's fun.
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT


Well hey.

For me it's not about resolution or closure, it's about trying out strategies in a safe, make-believe environment.  My characters, however immersed I am, however clear the 'channeling' experience, are just me.  What can I learn about my own capabilities?  Playing characters gives me an opportunity to watch myself think and act; it's a form of introspection.

I think that (especially given the outcome of my Actual Play thread) a way to make it more satisfying is to do it to Narrativism.  Downplay the story part and upplay the getting-down-and-dirty with an intense moral conundrum part, immerse, bingo!


Clinton R. Nixon


I have to admit, I'm not sure what your question or comment really is. It seems like you could fall right into the "Simulation" or "Pure Immersion" (as Kurt called it) mode of Immersion.


I understand where you're coming from on the pejorative-issue, but I don't really think the idea of people having problems and dealing with them through role-play is pejorative. People have problems. People deal with them somehow. That's a good thing.

- Clinton
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Gordon C. Landis

QuoteThe overall goal, parallel to Exploration, is to be psychologically immersed in a different mindset or character - to experience a simulcrum of life through another's eyes.
Somewhere around here, I've got a post based on a video I saw, where a very strong and clear distiction is drawn between "roleplaying" and "simulation".  Under this distinction, in "roleplaying" you imagine yourself as someone else (for whatever purpose), while in a "simulation" you are yourself, and it is the simulation's responsibility to produce an experience for you that is distinct from your "normal" life.  A parallel might be military boot camp - part of the structure is not to "imagine" yourself as a soldier (although you might do that), rather you are bombarded with a set of stimuli and activities designed to produce an effect on YOU, the person.

I mention this in the context of the current thread because it seems to me that if what we're talking about is "to experience a simulcrum of life through another's eyes," roleplaying (in the strictest sense) is not neccessarily required, nor even the best way to get that result.  You want to know something about what it's like to be in combat?  Go to boot camp.     Imperfect though it may be, I'm pretty sure it's better than any roleplaying game is ever gonna get.  You want to know something about what it's like to be learning disabled?  Go to one of the sessions depicted in the video I watched (FAT City?)

And I think when you talk about "immersion", there are some play groups (and GM styles) that really are more about "producing an effect on the person" than they are about "roleplaying".  Not that the two *have* to be seperate (i.e., clearly roleplaying *can* have an effect on the person), but they sometimes are.  I think Clinton's approach might help illuminate some things about this issue, whereas GNS (at least partially due to the fact it tries to not talk about what a player is "experiencing") doesn't.
Maybe another, simpler way to get at this: what are the factors that "cause" the psycholgical immersion?  And maybe that's where "System Matter" fits in this theory . . .

Gordon (under construction)


You know, this is the first time I can really think of a game that would be deemed worthy to be called a 'role-playing game' even if the reason for this is no more than convenience.

The goal of the game is to play your part as best as you can. It is somewhat like the movie awards. According to different criteria, the best player wins. The rules of the game would have to enforce, reward and punish different game behaviors according to single or multiple judge(s). Therefore, traits like 'strength' or 'wisdom' are irrelevant while 'mimicry' and 'speech' may be vital. The plot could be of minor importance, maybe even 'railroaded'.

Using my own definition of 'game': "a simulation of a dynamic problem with a reachable solution through challenge". The challenge is acting, the dynamic problem is the various points in the game where acting would be tested, and the solution is the result of acting which is measured in comparison with other players.

Kinda like traditional RPG's but without the incoherence, isn't it? :)

With respect,

Joe Llama

Mike Holmes

Nadav, see the game Primeval when it comes out. It's exactly what you described. The only resolution is a determination of who told the best stories along the way.

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Quote from: Mike HolmesNadav, see the game Primeval when it comes out. It's exactly what you described. The only resolution is a determination of who told the best stories along the way.

Cool! I thought I'd have to do it all by myself :)

BTW, any link to something more concrete? I'd love to check it out.



Well said, Clinton.  I think that you've managed to capture the rationale behind the brand of Sim/Exploration/whatever that my players and I enjoy.  I do know that some of the characters that have wandered across my gaming table (so to speak) have been the results of player desires (even if it is the desire to "be a hero").  I also know that my players have admitted that certain elements of their characters (even when playing in a Narrative mode) stem from a certain amount of wish-fulfillment.  And is this a bad thing?  I am reminded of Tolkien's comment to Lewis about the greatest foe of escapism.  :-)

Now, certainly this is not everyone's cup of tea.  Certainly it requires different techniques that Narrativism or Gamism, although I do not think that certain techniques are as foreign as they might appear.  I have made use of OOC information within a Sim context (Unknown Armies, to be precise), and I have had players use moderate Director stance to structure their environment for maximum character exploitation.  For instance, one of my players defined the entire environment for one of our sessions, because it was the mansion where her character had lived since her construction.  (She was a clockwork).  Rather than being used to support a Premise, this was used to support character concept.  Same technique, different reasons.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Jared A. Sorensen


So as someone who used to do what Clinton describes (and still would if I had anything to work out, I guess), I agree with what he says.


How is this kind of play supported/encouraged/rewarded in game systems. The ONLY thing I can think of is that the system would "stay out of the way..." and let the player does his "thing" (whatever that is).

But that can't be it, can it? Again, I think these games...aren't. The rules of the game are pretty much irrelevant given the nature of play (make it up as you go along, be the character, use common sense and make heavy use of drama resolution rather than resorting to an external system, ala dice or stats). These books are setting sourcebooks...and the player and GM make a game out of it.
jared a. sorensen /

Clinton R. Nixon


I completely get what you're saying about rules system seeming irrelevant in the context of psychological or immersive role-playing. However, it's irrelevant only in the context of the models we've already explored (that is, Exploration and GNS.)

I think system can matter highly in these games in that the system provides a social framework. A system which, for example, gives all power to the GM allows for a strong GM (therapist) role and weak player (patient) roles. A system which gives Authorial power to the players allows them to more strictly define the limits of who they are in the scenario and the limits of what they'll allow to be done to them, helping them achieve a strong persona. A system which has a rich psychological model (Unknown Armies is the example, here) gives the players cues on how to act, helping them understand the character better.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Jared A. Sorensen

I agree that UA is a good example of this (though I think UA leans toward the N side of the's just that the game isn't specific enough about what it's truly about).

So, Social contract then...? Is that the most important aspect?

From my experience (playing my werewolf character), I would drift heavily into "Narrativist play" because without that focus, I was simply "being" this other person (well, pretending anyway...I think that roleplaying in such a way willonly give you insight on yourself, not the person you're pretending to be...not that that's not useful or anything). The "My Dinner with Andre" game that I aspired to quickly became a "God damn I wish someone would walk over and trigger some behavior on my part because I'm bored senseless." That's when I injected the concept of a story arc into my character (with corresponding shifts in stance) -- to push him/me into action. Otherwise, yay. I'm a suave-cool city wolf. Go team. *shrug*
jared a. sorensen /

Gordon C. Landis

QuoteThe overall goal, parallel to Exploration, is to be psychologically immersed in a different mindset or character
OK, I've been thinking some about where in my actual play history I might have participated in this kind of gaming, and I ran across an interesting question: is this all about immersion in a different *character*?  Or is it perhaps valid to also talk about psychological immersion in a "different world"?  Perhaps each of the things to be Explored in GNS can become things to be Immersed in here.

I mention this because there were times in my fondly-recalled Talislanta game where immersion seemed a real priority, but not particularly as immersion in your character, but rather in the world itself - and not just as imagined elements in service of something else.  Experiencing different physics, different feel/color, different psychologies-in-general - that was (almost) an end in and of itself.

So - is Immersion a character issue, or does it apply elsewhere as well?

Gordon (under construction)

Jack Spencer Jr

I know I've said this before, but what Jared is talking about here is what I call the Magical Mystery Tour effect. I call it this because of the narrator's description of the movie in the documentary The Complete Beatles:

(paraphasing) The Beatles with some close friends and circus performers in a bus traveling the English countryside filming whatever happened.  Nothing did.

This is something that grates on me about the whole immersion idea. What's the point of being completely immersed in a character when their life is as boring as your own, if not moreso. This means it's up to the GM to make sure something happens. Probably why the Turku school thing has supporting the GM's plots as part of their oath (BTW is that a hoax or are they serious?)

As for player resolving issues doing this, well, all I can say to that is that everyone has issues and that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Fabrice G.


Jack wrote:

QuoteThis is something that grates on me about the whole immersion idea. What's the point of being completely immersed in a character when their life is as boring as your own, if not moreso. This means it's up to the GM to make sure something happens

Well, i think there's no difference here between make a boring character in an Immersive game and in a narativist one. If the player is not interested in the character story/life, what's fun about playing him ? Sure, in Immersive play, the player usually ends up making a lot of IC decisions, but they can still be interesting decisions, no ?

There's much more narrative power given to the gm, sure, so what ? It's part of the game. The point is not to co-create a story, it's to experience something trough a persona.

What I enjoy when playing for immersion is trying to pretend to *be* another, and experience the world through his eyes. The major reward is being able to change my point of view, trying to comprehand another person. It may never serve in RL, but hey, if it was fun to roleplay ...

Clinton, I think that you're right on something here.


As a side note:
What puzzle me is that the arguments running against Immersive play (especially among some narativists): there's no point/it's not a game/it's not rpg ; are exactly those i had to fight when explaining narativism to simulationist. IME, all the players are looking for the same thing : fun. But their means to attain it are quite differents for each one. It seems easier to consider some form of play as an "invalid" way than to get to know how others can have fun "doing what they do".