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Title: FRPGs as a media - good or evil

Source: rec.games.frp.dnd, January 23rd, 1995

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Newsgroups: rec.games.frp.dnd
From: max@elmail.co.uk (Max Pritchard)
Subject: [Long] FRPGs as a media - good or evil.
Date: Mon, 23 Jan 1995 05:08:17 GMT

It is of interest to note the reactions of various groups within society to Fantasy Role-Playing Games (FRPGs) and in particular Dungeons and Dragons, particularly with respect to their influence on behaviour. This article is a brief discussion on some of the issues raised and a personal look at the influence of role-playing games on the individual and the use of role-playing games as a media.

A media, as used in this text, is taken to be a method of sharing information from a source to a target. In this sense, each media can be classified by a number of major attributes; the number of people that can be influenced by the information presented (known here as the range), the amount of influence on the behaviour of that individual (the influence), the ability of the target to decide on the information content/style or to question the veracity of the information presented (the interaction), the ability of the source to control the reaction of the target to the information presented (the manipulation) and the extent to which the media is subject to scrutiny by external, independent bodies (the control.)

This text examines the FRPG as a media and compares it to another media (in this case television) in terms of how it may effect the behaviour of the individual.

FRPGs as a media
In table-top role-playing, that typically involving a referee (GM or DM) and from 2 to 8 other players, the identification of FRPGs as a media is clear. The entire game is based around the referees explanation of a fictional situation and the players description of their character's reaction to the situation presented to them and from their point of view. This transferral of information between the participants is a clear indicator of the media nature of FRPGs.

What is unclear is the source of the information and the target. Clearly, it is easy to see that the referee holds the key role in deciding exactly what type of information is conveyed, but it is worth noting that the players too, hold more than a small slice in the presentation of information. In such a way, the referee is as much a target of the information as the players are a source.

Television, to compare, has a clear source (the program maker) and a clear target (the viewer.) Its media nature is classified by the transferral of information from the program maker to the viewer.

Clearly the range of FRPGs depends on two factors; the number of participants, and the number of games being played. However, for the comparison to work, we must take a single game and thus the range of that particular FRPG is about 6 on average.

Television has a range of potentially millions. For a popular show in the UK, an audience of 5 million is not uncommon. And thus we may say that television has a range in excess of a million times more than that of FRPGs.

The effect on an individual of a particular piece of information is difficult to define and almost impossible to quantify. What must be looked at is what light the information is portrayed, how it may be reinforced and whether there is any cause to doubt the veracity of the information.

FRPGs usually occur between a peer group of friends. It is generally understood that peers form a major influential group on the behaviour of an individual and as such can have a lasting and powerful influence on behavioural modes. However, knowledge of the source of the information (be it referee or another player) can enable the target to modify the content of the information to take into account the known bias of the source. It is worth noting that if an incorrect assumption of source motive and character is made by the target, that this can be of variable benefit.

FRPGs as an interactive media can also alter the way that the information effects an individual. As a part of the information exchange, if a target believes that they have been part of a mutual effort to create the information
(ie. they have been part of a collective source) thay may accept the information more readily.

Television, as a passive media, offers no such effect. The viewer is not invited to question or participate in any way with the information presented. There is no knowledge of the source of the information and certainly in
sceptical individuals, this will diminish the influence of the media. However it is to be noted that a state persists that television, as well as newspapers and other passive media, often is seen to portray the absolute truth and as
such can be a dangerous to people who don't have the scepticism or knowledge to refute inaccurately presented views or opinions backed up by biased evidence.

With such a range, television cannot be tailored to suit an individual's style or taste and thus a piece of information presented in a way that a viewer cannot, or is unwilling to, understand, has a diminished influence.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that television has less influence than FRPGs but that the chance for misinterpretation of information presented is greater.

Television is, as explained, a passive media. Viewers are not invited to exert control over what information they receive. They have limited control over content (switching channels) but still may receive biased and inaccurate
information. Through the same media, often it is possible to question the program makers views (programs such as "Points of View" and "Write to Reply" in the UK) but for the most part, this might cover flagrant bias and extreme views but fails to address minor discrepencies or even to allow all viewers of the initial information to hear the counter-arguements.

It is to be noted that with the open-fail type presentation that TV offers, people, for the most part, are willing to accept that the information that they are presented is true and without agenda, unless it is a topic about which they are expert.

The same cannot be said of FRPGs. The referee and the players share in the creation and dissemination of ideas and information. A particular situation is open to be questioned by the participants for details on its veracity. Interaction is encouraged and seen by many to be the main attraction of the media. Although the referee has the majority of control over the content and style of the information. The message that the media conveys is as much a part of the players as it is of the referee.

TV, for the most part, is a carefully manipulative media. It is noted that adverts are specifically designed to alter the mind-set of the individual into performing a specific action. News and current affairs are designed to evoke,
often, shock or anger, as well as impart information. It is well noted that programs (presented on the UKs four main channels) are professionally made and thus it is more likely that the viewer reaction has been carefully considered.

FRPGs as amateur and often, ill-designed, do not commonly share this manipulative trait of TV. It is worth noting though that this is not due to there being no ability of FRPGs to be manipulative, simply that in the most part, no effort has been made by the referee to ensure some kind of behaviour on the behalf of the players in response to the information. Also, as an interactive media, it is difficult to predict the results of such a set-up.

In some cases though, with a intelligent and aware referee, and a group of his peers that he knows well, it is possible to finely control the type of information presented to effect some state of behaviour on an individual. In
the most part, this can be a simple trick of entertainment; fear, joy, relief, courage etc. in others it is noted that this kind of manipulation can result in sadness, aggression and paranoia in prone individuals that may influence
their everyday lives.

TV has a host of independent, external bodies devoted to its monitoring and control. As a major part of our society, it is subject to censorship of content and presentation to protect the range of targets from, what society
views as, influences that may lead to inappropriate or anti-social behaviour. (violence and sexual malpractice in the most part)

FRPGs are performed in a closed environment, are subject to no controls (considering material written by the referee) and have no independent body overseeing the effect of the hobby on the behaviour of the individuals
concerned. All in all a "free" or unlimited media.

Television is a long range, low influence media. Millions of people are subject to biased information every day with a moderate amount of control exerted by independent bodies. Well educated or sceptical people can escape, partly, from the subtle manipulation of the media but in some way, we are all subject to its insidious, although in the most part, well intended influence. Although it may well be said that program or advert makers do not consider the right things to be benign. This remains open to question.

FRPGs are a short range, high impact media subject to little or no control over content and able to present powerful and influential ideas to the targets. As such it not only has the potential to be a superb tool for learning, expressing and discussing beliefs and opinions, but also, in a different situation, it could be used to reinforce inappropriate and/or dangerous views.

The image of FRPGs as satanic, evil, or dangerous is inaccurate. It reflects the fears of an ill-informed minority about information being presented that is not being controlled, or monitored by them. This is not to say that FRPGs cannot have a negative influence on the behaviour of individuals, they can, just in the most part that, as with all medias, the information that is being portrayed is intended for benign purposes.

What Can We, As Role-Players Do
The two things that we need to tackle in order to promote the safe and beneficial use of the FRPG media is to study and improve the content and openness of our hobby. Every time that I write an adventure, I try to ensure
that I am not portraying a situation such that violence is the only recourse for the players - such an adventure (as well as boring my players) offers little in the way of learning and can have a negative influence on the potential for FRPGs to teach players about tackling real life situations.

I do not avoid difficult moral or ethical situations. Such an environment, even if the character in the situation is evil, can benefit the players by making them consider the options of such a situation and causing them to question the behaviour of their character.

I reward, what I consider to be, learning and character improvement. I do not reward continued use of single behaviour modes (such as constantly attacking] unless the player exhibits a character reason for that behaviour (usually low IQ) and as a player is seen to understand and interact with the other players in their choices and actions on more than that level.

As for openness, I invite non-gamers, parents and friends to attend meetings and to sit in on adventures and see what is going on. I exhibit all of my creative work to interested parties for them to offer criticism and opinions.
I listen to the views of those that would attack my hobby and rather than simply try and shout them down, I evaluate what they say. They have a reason for their opinions and are entitled to them. It is up to all of us (them included) to decide if those views are incorrect. We can only do this by presenting all of the information that we can to them and arguing our case rationally.

FRPGs Beneficial?
As a media, FRPGs must be considered neutral. It is not the media, not the format of a group of friends sitting round a table and chatting that is the potential problem, but the views that are accepted by the participants as a
result of the information spread by the media.

FRPGs have enormous potential for benefit. I have seen people who are shy and socially awkward brought out of their shells and offered the immediate and lasting support of a group of friends that they did not previously have. I
have seen people close to despair brought back from the brink by finding out that they were not alone in their problems and that there are ways to ease them.

It is no accident that role-playing is often used by psycotherapists in treating disturbed and vulnerable children. As a tool for connecting with other people, it is unsurpassed in its ability.

Added to this are the other benefits of encouraging reading, curiosity, the desire to learn about history, architecture, politics, ecology, ethics and sociology of all kinds. To build worlds, you must know about worlds and it is also of no surprise to me that the profile of gamers shows a marked bias towards high educational standards. (Whether this is due to gaming is a moot point.)

The main benefit as I see it is the ability for gamers to question information from other sources and to evaluate the effects of their actions on other people. By putting yourself in the shoes of someone else (their characters)
every week, they can explore ways in which, in their everyday lives, their actions may effect the people they interact with. This, in my opinion, can only be of benefit.

FRPGs Detrimental?
FRPGs have the potential to be very damaging. The influence of the media and the lack of external controls means that any inappropriate message that is accepted by a group, is not questioned and may well be reinforced by later games or sessions. This can lead, as with any media, to changes in individual behaviour.

The content of FRPGs, often portraying violence and quasi-theological concepts attends the very topics that form a major concern for the public at large. With the lack of external control, in a minority of cases where the group has an ill-conceived idea of information presentation, people may be damaged by exposure to these views.

In the few reports on criminal and anti-social behaviour with respect to role-playing several things are made clear. As a group of people, role-players do not differ significantly from the mean for our demographic group. In fact,
in several studies, role-players are seen to be less prone to self-destructive behaviour and criminal activity than the average.

True, FRPG players differ slightly in personality from the average but it is seen that this can be accounted for by comparison to any hobby or interest where there is likely to be slight deviations from the social norm (eg. Sports

Although the potential for behavioural change is there, as with any media, it is only the fact that FRPGs are not regulated or overseen (and in a way can never be regulated) that is a cause for concern from some quarters.

In my opinion, FRPGs are, compared to television, safer and more beneficial. It seems to me more likely to stimulate higher educational standards, ethical and moral behaviour and less likely to result in damaging behavioral modes.

As with all things though, there is always room for improvement. The things I hope for most in the next few years are the growth of the hobby, more non-gamers taking an active interest in exactly what is going on, more respect, on all sides, of other people's views and opinions and a willingness to listen and intelligently question the sources of those views.

I hope these opinions are of interest and I look forward to responses.

Max Pritchard
I do not speak for my company.

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