What is Role-playing?

by Jonathan Hook published 2019/03/01 11:35:33 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:45:20-07:00
A brief overview of role-playing as a concept and its researched benefits.

“We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

— Kurt Vonnegut from Mother Night


Firefighter, priest, baker, car salesman, lumberjack, grandmother, and criminal.


What came to mind as your read those words?


What do they have in common?


From the perspective of social science these are each social roles. The American Psychological Association dictionary of psychology defines a social role as, “the set of attitudes and characteristic behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a specific position or performs a particular function in a social context” (2019).


From this perspective, the firefighter is characterized not only by their behaviors, but by the social position they hold. Think of all the social dimensions to being a firefighter. Firefighters belong to a firehouse or union where they serve communally with other firefighters, they wear a special uniform which serves more than practical functions, their behavior is grounded on social expectations, and they garner specific attitudes from strangers including respect, admiration, and obedience.


These are but a few examples of the various dimensions of Role Theory as set out by psychologist Bruce Biddle in his 1979 text of the same title. Role Theory explains the variety of ways that an individual’s social roles influence their actions and identity. If you sat and thought long enough, I’m sure you could think of a dozen social aspects to the firefighter which are not merely related to the act of extinguishing fires and rescuing house cats. 


To illustrate this point of view further, I want you to imagine that an upstanding bystander named Jane puts out a fire in a damaged vehicle saving an injured driver in the process. If word of Jane’s accomplishment reaches the news, she will no doubt be considered a hero, but no one in their right mind would from then on refer to her as a firefighter. Not until heroic Jane learns about combustion and water hoses, puts on a uniform and joins a group of like-dressed people will she be referred to as a firefighter proper. Therein lies the power and importance of social roles.


In many ways our identities are not merely the result of the thing we are doing, but of the social role we are fulfilling. Our identities are constructed not only by our behavioral responses to the environment, but by our responses to other people and their responses to us.


So important are social roles to identity, that founding sociologist George Herbert Mead hypothesized that our very sense of self is the result of trying on, or playing roles with, what he called the generalized other or the aggregation of people’s viewpoints (1934). For Mead, the self does not exist outside of a social context.


More contemporary research in the social and personality fields of psychology builds on the notion of how our sense of self is impacted by our social environment (Turner, Oakes, Haslma, & McGarty, 1994).

Of course, many social roles can be taken up with much greater ease than say, firefighting. Some roles are so fluid and diffuse that we can slip into them without even noticing. At various points in our lives we will find ourselves fulfilling roles we did not sign up for, and we will unconsciously ascribe roles to others more often than that.


Take the following humorous and instructive example from the comedy group the Chamber Boys. In the video (link?), Chamber Boy member Pat arrives at a college chemistry class early and pranks the class by pretending to be the professor. Throughout his brief performance of professor, the students follow his command and no one questions him. Pat takes on the role of professor flawlessly. What is crucial is that he is not only deceiving the crowd but fulfilling a role for the students; a role they are more than happy to attribute to him.


Imagine if Pat had come in wearing a chicken suit, was much younger looking, or if he spoke with less confidence. Pat would have failed to inhabit the role. Note that the fact that Pat is lying is of little consequence to the reality of the role he inhabits. What he is doing is one of the most natural of human behaviors: Pat is pretending.



Growing Up with Make-Believe

Children engage in pretend and imaginative play spontaneously. Like all play, imaginative play is immensely important to childhood development. Among numerous other benefits, imaginative play has been shown to help children deepen their theory of mind, better regulate their emotions, improve their vocabulary, and increase their self-control and cognitive flexibility (Slade & Wolf, 1999; Jenkins & Astington, 2000; Singer, Singer, Plaskon, & Schweder, 2003;  Russ, 2004; Singer & Lythcott, 2004; Berk, Mann, & Ogan, 2006; Bodrava, 2008; Jent, Neic, & Baker, 2011; Root-Bernstein, 2012).


It is no mere coincidence that much of what children do in imaginative play is pretend to be somebody else. Children are constantly role-laying and the benefits of doing so arise because pretending is not merely whimsical fun. Just as our physical and social realities help shape our cognitive skills, so too do our imaginations.


All adults go on to use the skills they learned in childhood role-playing, but only some continue to develop these skills deliberately. Perhaps no other social role better exemplifies the use of deliberate imaginative play better than acting. Actors are the ultimate role-players. Their profession is both a social role in itself and one which involves the performance of imaginary roles.


Psychologist Thalia Goldstein believes that performative acting relies on three previously mentioned cognitive skills:

  • theory of mind (TOM)
  • empathy
  • emotional regulation (Golstein, 2009.)

Her acting research program has revealed that actors not only have greater TOM than non-actors, but that just 1 year of acting training leads to gains in TOM and empathy among adolescents (Goldstein, 2011; Goldstein & Winner, 2012). Goldstein’s research program demonstrates the value of role-playing long after childhood.



Role-Playing in Games

Although few of us are professional actors, we all increasingly inhabit imaginary roles. Interest in games wherein role-playing is a central feature has increased tremendously in the last 15 years. The hobby games market in the U.S and Canada has grown 21% since 2015, online role-playing games are now a 30.7-billion-dollar industry (Statista, 2019) and Wizards of the Coast reported that 2017 was their biggest sales year for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) since they acquired the property (Weiss, 2018).  


Role-playing games take several different forms, the most famous (and infamous) being games of the tabletop role-playing variety (TRPGs). In traditional TRPGs such as D&D, players gather around a table with pen and paper characters and cooperatively enact scenes of combat, social interaction, problem solving, and exploration. Outcomes are based partially on die rolls and a special player called the game master (GM) who referees the outcome of player actions. What TRPG players do around a table with friends is itself a form of performative acting, and although some players will be more gregarious than others, all players are encouraged to think, speak, and act as if they were their character. 


The intensity of role-playing varies from game to game and from role-playing group to group, but all require that players use their imagination and play the role of a character. To do this requires some amount of suspension of disbelief and (as role-playing gamers will tell you) the more you believe it, the more compelling and immersive the experience is. Some role-playing game systems  have been developed which require much less effort to believe in and accomplish far greater levels of player immersion. Two of the more extreme examples of this are live action role-playing games (larps or LRPGs) and pervasive role-playing games (PRPGs).


In  (either larps or LRPGs now), players physically portray their characters and usually engage in some form of combat or competition.  Larp gameplay typically takes place in a designated setting such as field or park, but there are also annual events such as Ragnarök where gameplay subsumes an entire campground for a weekend of continual play.


Pervasive role-playing games (PRPGs) take immersion a step further by intentionally blurring the line between daily life and the gaming experience. In pervasive role-playing games, gameplay is ongoing and does end when the player is at home, work, or school. Depending on the game system used, a pervasive game may be played at specific times of day or in a particular location, but more often than not the field of play is ubiquitous. One of the first major games to appear in this genre was Killer: The Game of Assassination. In it, players are randomly assigned a target from a pool of players that (or whom?) they must track down and “kill” like a story book assassin. Targets are killed by non-harmful means, of course, such as poking them with a banana or splashing them with a water balloon.


Players of role-playing games sometimes report feeling completely immersed in the experience of the game. In a process known as bleed, they experience both a positive and negative feedback of emotions between their character and their non-gaming self.


 I observed a strong example of bleed personally while playing a game of Humans Versus Zombies (HVZ) several years ago. My friend and I had lead two squads of humans during a grueling week-long game. I cannot remember how it happened, but in the midst of a fire fight, I was tagged by a zombie. The tag was a fair and direct hit. There was no disputing it; I had been turned. My friend (a grown adult at this time) was beyond devasted. When he heard the news he was at a friend’s house with other players. He threw his phone and swore profusely stammering around in disbelief. The players in his immediate area were certain something real and tragic had happened and in a way it had. For my friend, the separation between the game and life had dissolved entirely. Like a great method actor my friend had fully embodied his role. Although this is a somewhat emotionally negative version of bleed, positive examples abound. I can recall numerous times during HVZ and other LARP activities where a victorious mission felt like a real and meaningful accomplishment.


With immersive systems such as these, can there be any doubt that role-playing games confer similar benefits as acting or childhood imaginative play? In recent years, a nascent field of study has begun to seek an answer to this question. Research on the benefits of role-playing games fall into two general sets.


There is research which examines how role-playing games help to facilitate activities we already know to be beneficial such as classroom education or play therapy for traumatic brain injuries and there is research which investigates how role-playing games can be used as a therapeutic medium. As you may have already guessed there is a deluge of research on the former and scare little on the latter. For a reference list of relevant studies check out our archive.


The facilitative role of RPGs is due primarily to their intrinsic enjoyability. Broadly speaking, role-playing games increase the buy-in of clients and players. That is, people want to play them. Research shows that when you attach a known beneficial activity to a collaborative RPG, client retention rates go up. See Hawke Robinson’s summary of this research here.  


The therapeutic mechanisms of RPGs themselves are not entirely understood, but they no doubt have something to do with the act of imaginative role-playing itself. Tabletop RPGs in particular center around collaborative storytelling, social interaction, self-expansive role playing, and problem solving. Those familiar with commonly used psychotherapeutic orientations such as cognitive behavioral therapy, social skills therapy, and narrative therapy will see just how easily TRPGs fit into a group setting. TRPGs are also a natural ally to the positive psychology movement, which is founded on the observation that psychological interventions need not be painful to beneficial to clients.



Role-playing as Adults

Even though TRPGs have grown enormously in the last several years, many of adults are still afraid of the ridicule which may come from playing pretend. It is my firm belief that the removal of the stigma which surrounds role-playing and the adult use of imagination will confer great benefit to human culture. Regarding the fear of stigma surrounding fantasy and imagination C.S. Lewis (1967, p. 25) said it best,


“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."


From the perspective of social research, role-playing is not an artificial behavior, but one that comes to us naturally. No matter what we do in the social sphere we are playing roles. Indeed, if there is anything artificial at work it is our inhabitation of this very natural instinct. Empirically, we have yet begun to understand how collaborative role-playing benefits personal and social development, but anecdotes of the beneficence of role-playing games abound. Players of role-playing games know that they produce lasting change in those who are willing to suspend belief and take on a new role. If you have never before tried a role-playing game I encourage you to take the leap and discover the benefits of role-playing for yourself!




APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2019). Dictionary.apa.org. Retrieved 25 February 2019, from https://dictionary.apa.org/social-role.

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