Delay Note: Days 5+ were delayed to match September because I got completely owned by some kind of infectious disease for about a week. Verdict is still out on what it was, but as one of the possible scenarios was dengue, no chances were taken. After that was over, I then played catch-up with my life for the rest of August, which brings us to now.
So this is a lot of text blocks.
In highschool, my regular Dungeon Master was conducting a psychology experiment using the table as a blind test group. Underclassmen, the rest of us, none of us knew until we were finally saying our farewells and moving away to separate countries. “By the way…” it was mentioned, together with a brief explanation of what the study had been about. “Psychoanalysis,” he said, but never told us what was learned about us. All he shared was that the stimuli and relative safety of the table to explore difficult themes and create otherwise extremely stressful situations (we died about an average of twice a night) created a window through which an examiner could glean very interesting data as players began to blur the lines between “What would the character do?” and “What would I do if I were in this situation the character is in?”
The message I heard was, “If you pay close attention to people during tabletop roleplaying, you can form a hypothesis on personality traits those people may possess.” I went to college with that in the back of my head, and though I didn’t get to roleplay again until my second year, I started watching people immediately and paying attention to their relationships, body language, and tonal inflection. When gaming began for me again, I shifted to looking for the differences between who people normally appeared to be and what choices they made when under crisis, noting also who thought differently, who clashed, and who had a Freudian preoccupation with large swords throughout campaigns and genres. Hanging out outside of games and adding my new layer of observation during games taught me a lot about my friends and even prepared me enough that I was unsurprised by the choices they made when real life crises emerged. I could, with relative accuracy, predict the people I played with!
A caveat, I feel, though. As I took this knowledge and helped with other studies on the relationship and application of roleplaying games and psychology, it became very clear to me how important it was to not mistake these predictive patterns for real theory. It is dangerous to assume one can learn a whole person or even that person’s core through a single medium — people are more complex than that, and so is psychological theory. One has to keep changing the variables — the table, the genre, the system, the environment — in a myriad of ways to check if results are repeatable or else one walks away with an incomplete and often faulty perception of someone. I’ve seen this happen, and I dislike the lazy intellectualism anything less than true rigour suggests.
Anyway, what is significant about this skill is that I now use it professionally as a teacher — I watch students as they work to figure out their learning styles, I note their responses to stressful stimuli and how anxiety affects their test scores vs practice, and form predictive patterns and teaching strategies around their individual quirks. I won’t claim that it tells me about their true self, but it is a skill that makes my work simpler and more fun (sometimes we are even able to tell who likes whom before the kids are even aware. Caveat: teachers are the most horrendous gossips). In games now, I use it to design tables that won’t give me headaches; I actually champion very much the idea that a group needs to carefully curate a table before play and that failure to do so at the very start is a recipe for disaster that even communication won’t solve. In Canada, it meant keeping our street’s two GMs away from each other, and even here on another continent that seems to hold true also. (Anecdote: it’s always GMs because of their big heads, always.) It’s even given me a semi-reliable method to predict which couples will stay together for the long haul! Come to my classroom sometime, and I’ll teach it to you.
Anyway, that’s the story of how RPGs taught me voyuerism and voyuerism keeps me in a career! See you tomorrow.