On the importance of empathy in roleplay

in #roleplaying3 years ago

I love to roleplay, ever since I tried that very first system a few years ago I've been hooked. If I could make any law to benefit most people, I would make the roleplaying class a mandatory course in schools.
That might seem like a silly priority for using up one chance to make any law. I could, after all, make any needed changes that are very hard due to realities of politics. But I truly believe that roleplay teaches one most important thing, that is unfortunately sometimes forgotten - empathy.
To find why I think so, we need to go back to that first game I played, those years ago. In that game, I created a character that due to some genetic messing around with her body, has stopped aging at the apparent age of around 12 years old. In the beginning, I did it purely for aesthetic choice. But then something happened - in my travels, I came upon a place I needed to enter that generally does not allow children in. So the GM stopped me from entering, and so it hit me, of course, that happens, she must have been dealing with this for many years already. It was an obvious revelation, but important. She has her life and unique problems, that are possible only because of her unique circumstances. For the first time, but not the last, I felt true empathy for my character I played.
Remembering that scene now, I realize how much that kind of roleplay could actually help people understand the circumstances of other people. Whether that be different gender, sexuality, race or any other factor that would lead the said person to a different perspective on the world.
No one really understands when told what kind of problems different people encounter, but if they find out for themselves and those problems actually impede their progress in a game. Well, that could only lead to deeper understanding.

What do you think about roleplaying games leading to empathy? Have you ever felt a moment like I described? Tell me about your experiences.


The danger of empathy, or so it's painted these days, is that you might develop empathy for "the wrong people." Which is, of course, part and parcel of the dangers of education as they are usually portrayed.

After all, what GM, after dealing with the murder hobos that most fantasy adventuring parties end up being, hasn't said to themselves, "well, maybe the dark overlord has a really good point about keeping people like this under control"? In particular fantasy settings where evil is objective, gods are objective and real, you can find yourself in a moral environment which is actively oppositional to your own – where killing orc babies is not only "acceptable in extremity" but actively good, bettering the universe as a whole, objectively moral.

I think role-playing is a wonderful way to develop empathy, but part and parcel with that is a recognition of the fact that it is a wonderful way to erode belief in the surety of your own morality and your understanding of empathy as a motivator for ethics and morality.

For a lot of people, it's all well and good to challenge authority – but it's a different matter when you start challenging their authority. And that is both the excitement and the danger of developing empathy.

I don't think that is a bad thing. If the players actually think about their actions from the viewpoint of their characters, even if those actions are evil, I think it could lead to deeper understanding of real-life morality.

True, but that's because your personal perspective on morality is that questioning morality and understanding morality are net positives.

We know that there are a number of people in the world who consider the actual contemplation of morality and judging whether it has subjective worth is an evil act. Any sort of fundamentalism, political or religious, finds actual moral inquiry and empathy with those who do not share that moral inclination, to be active heresy. You can see that in environments as diverse as the mullahs of Iran to the actions of SJWs on Twitter. Anything that increases the potential of empathy with the enemy is, itself, the enemy.

Which from my perspective and your perspective is inherently toxic, but we are certainly interested in experiencing an empathetic connection with characters who have that kind of mindset in order to play with it, to experiment with it, to look for useful bits in it and to see if, under certain circumstances, it's not the right idea. Maybe it is? Maybe it isn't? We don't know; that is the idea of play.

But there is a definite undertone of trepidation in many social circles that role-playing and the empathy that it generates is a threat, or potentially a threat, and that makes them uneasy. Unfortunately, greater discussion of the potentiality of that threat doesn't comfort them – it actually completely reinforces that they have a legitimate concern, because they do.

As people who would like to spread gaming to an even larger population, it's definitely in our best interest to have these discussions and talk about the issues.

Plus, it's fun.

That is a very good point. I guess ultimately it's pretty hard for me to understand the total obedience to some sort of morality. Questioning it seems like a good idea.

And this is why role-playing as an empathic operation and an empathic experience is good for you. It gives you an opportunity to try and understand the total obedience to some sort of morality, in a sandboxed experience where it's safe to play with those kind of ideas.

But that's the danger, of course, as some would say it. You are safe to play with those kind of ideas in the context of role-playing game. It's just like how there is a strong component of the "alt.right" which is engaged in a long-term LARP, in a sense, where they pretend to be anti-Semitic hyper-conservative partisans while trolling because it's a relatively safe space for them to role-play and engage with those ideas.

That's part of why I don't really take anything about the alt.right seriously in any context, and I am endlessly amused by those who do – but that's an entirely different field of discussion which probably doesn't belong here.

Regardless, the idea of playing with philosophies and moralities that don't align with things that you necessarily agree with is one of the most important things that we do in the course of role-playing games. It's also one of the most fun. And it is simultaneously one of the most dangerous from the perspective of a certain point of view.

Very good