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Are RPGs Better than Reality?

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I’m not throwing a pity party here, but there was a time a few years back in which things in my life weren’t going as well as they could have been. My long-term girlfriend had just left me, my job was slowly killing my soul, and I was living in a decidedly unquaint farmhouse apartment during a bleak Vermont winter.

And yet I have fond memories of that period, because it was also when I had a three-month, intensely passionate relationship with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.  I was taking odd mercenary jobs in the city of Amn, saving money to fund an expedition to rescue my half-sister from Spellhold, making an alliance with Bohdi the vampire, and trying to figure out why the titanically powerful wizard Jon Irenicus wanted to vivisect me.

I couldn’t have been happier.

As good as Baldur’s Gate II is (and it’s one of the best), almost any halfway decent RPG could probably have taken its place that winter. Why is that?

Escapism, of course. But there are plenty of ways to escape reality, many of which would make me seem much cooler than gaming does. What makes RPGs so special? For me, it comes down to four things:

  • Clear goals. Kill that ogre, retrieve that magical spear, uncover what the ambassador is really up to.Have you ever read a corporate vision statement? It’s never “Sell 5 million widgets.” It’s more along the lines of “Maximize ROI by pivoting on key granular innovations in the widget ecology.” Neat! Now what am I supposed to do again? Shut up and get back to work? Yes, sir.
  • Proportional rewards. Namely, experience points and gold. Most of us have put in time with a guy or girl we’re crushing on only to discover that he or she has long since relegated us to the “friend zone.” Or worse, you’re happily married until you discover that your partner has mentally left months or years earlier. That stinks, but it happens a lot.
  • Progress. You advance in levels, becoming demonstrably more powerful.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ve made “progress” in jobs, relationships, and even happiness over the years. But it often seems to be the result of happening to be in the right place for something to happen. Too often in the workplace, hard work might be taken for granted, but sucking up is always appreciated!
  • Do-overs. Demogorgon making mincemeat of your party? Try again with different tactics. Or different party members. Or say “to hell with it” and don’t fight him at all.  I once called a friend’s fiancée his “human ATM machine.” Oops. Would love to be able to reload the last save before that unintentionally ugly statement came out of my mouth.

Real life can be unfair, and there’s no strategy guide to tell you which path to take. On the other hand, you have as many options open to you as you are willing to pursue. That’s not something any game can provide.

In an RPG, the system is rigged in your favor. In fact, the entire thing exists for you to explore, to thrive, and maybe even come to dominate. Only a madman would expect the same from reality. Doesn’t mean you can’t do those things, but the system is not set up to let you.

But as we go on about our lives, a little escapism never hurt anyone. And if that escapism comes with the magical hammer Crom Faeyr (25 strength, baby!), well that’s just badass.

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About Scott Schriefer

  • DojiStar

    Isn’t this the topic of game designer Jane McGonigal’s book _Reality Is Broken_? I haven’t read it, but it supposedly has ideas for trying to port some of the attractive features of games to real life, such as clear goals and frequent reward feedback.

  • http://www.shamepile.com Scott Schriefer

    I’ve read Reality Is Broken, but not until after I wrote this article. McGonical does indeed define the attractive features of games clearly and concisely. And she backs up her definitions with clinical research instead of personal anecdotes.

    FWIW, the main argument of her book is about “gamifying” most aspects of our lives in order to make us happier and help fix social problems. Good intentions, not really workable.

    I reviewed it on Blogcritics.