In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.
The first interview is with role-playing game and media scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman. Her article in the volume “Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games” explores mainstream games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Darkness as means of individuating Jungian archetypes and Campbellian heroic journeys. She contends that the explanatory power of Jungian archetypes may be used to debunk the “escapist” moniker stamped on so many game-related activities.
Here are my follow-up questions:
Evan Torner – When people are playing characters, sometimes they argue that they are channeling something outside of themselves, or that their character has its own autonomous existence. How would you describe and explain that?
Sarah Lynne Bowman – This question remains the most mysterious and, in some ways, unanswerable in any sort of solid, satisfactory way. Mystics have claimed to “channel” the voices of deities for millennia; the Bible is said to contain revelation given to the prophets directly from God. New age correlations include “channelers” such as Esther Hicks a.k.a. Abraham, Barbara Marciniak, Neal Donald Walsch, along with many others. On the decidedly fictional end of things, authors sometimes report the strange experience of their characters “taking on a life of their own.” Songwriter Tori Amos considers herself a vessel through which the songs, which are independent entities, communicate their messages. Role-players also report the strange experience of passively watching as the character “takes over,” particularly in deeply immersive experiences.
Of course, as scholars, we must always question the subjective nature of these reports, hence placing the word “channel” in quotes. Is the character truly channeled from somewhere else or was it present in the psyche the entire time, simply repressed? Is creativity some sort of vehicle for “channeling,” a natural function of the mind? Or does creativity open up a pathway to age-old archetypes and past-life experiences, as channelers such as Abraham claim?
Again, these questions remain ultimately unknowable, just as the nature of the divine — if it exists — is unknowable to our limited, mortal consciousness. However, the mysteriousness of our existence and our creativity inspires me to learn more and find parallels between role-playing and other phenomena. I find it fascinating that so many accounts exist describing the subjective experience of “channeling” an entity or a story; these accounts are also reminiscent of shamanic experiences in tribal cultures, where a religious official “becomes” the spirit of an animal or god in order to combat societal illnesses. Mike Pohjola recently connected shamanism with role-playing in his 2012 Nordic Larp Talk “How to Become a God” and J. Tuomas Harviainen has written on larp as ritual, so I am not the only one making connections between role-playing and ritual experiences.
The way Jung would describe the phenomenon of channeling ties into some of the theoretical principles explained in my article. We engage with our creativity through a process Jung calls active imagination, which allows us to delve into unconscious areas of our minds. Embedded within each of us through our genetic code is deep, symbolic material that bubbles up when we dream and make art. Much of this material is personal in nature, though Jung believed that some of the most potent symbols are universal, which he called archetypes. In his own personal imaginative journeys as documented in The Red Book, he would often encounter “entities,” such as Philemon and Salome. Having no real scientific explanation for these “dialogues,” he tried to explain them in a psychoanalytic manner. Therefore, Jung presents us with terminology and a model for understanding “channeling” that does not negate the power of mystical experiences, but rather tries to contextualize them in a more modern, universal, psychological language. By modern, of course, I refer to early twentieth century modernist thought, the roots of which inform so much of our current research, though we may not often learn the sources of these original premises.
ET – Your recent book The Functions of Role-Playing Games deals with the many ways that role-playing culture is put to use, and how its participants engage with it. How does this piece about Carl Jung fit into that earlier research?
SLB – In Chapter 6 of my book, I describe how humans engage in childhood pretend play in a variety of ways, including creating imaginary friends and worlds. While not all children engage in these activities, pretend play does seem an instinctive and, perhaps, evolutionary evolved behavior. I then describe various theories to explain the adoption of multiple personalities in adulthood, including dissociative theory and psychosynthesis. Historically speaking, Jung worked under Pierre Janet, a pioneer in early psychological research and the originator of the term “dissociation.” While Sigmund Freud believed in a divided psyche that consisted purely of the undefined impulses of the id, ego, and superego, psychologists such as Janet, Jung, and Assagioli also believed that our minds contain multiple egos that sometimes battle for control within us. While this concept may seem extreme, most people can relate to the experience of having to perform multiple “personas” depending on the demands of our social roles at given times, as Erving Goffman explains. These personas are generally defined in terms of one’s social role — i.e. teacher, lover, daughter, etc. Jung also believed in the persona, but thought we harbor much deeper, more complex structures of personality that may wish to express themselves.
In terms of identity, dissociation is the process by which we “shift” from one of these personalities to the other. We may not be conscious of this shift; indeed, if we were conscious every time we adapted our personality to a given context, we would probably drive ourselves mad. Even people with so-called Dissociative Identity Disorder, who display extreme shifts in personality as the result of trauma, do not always perceive these transitions without outside assistance. Erik Erikson believed that individuals experience identity confusion in their youth and must establish a stable sense of ego identity in order to function in society. If we consider that each of us are inherently fragmented in terms of personality — some in more extreme ways than other — this sense of ego identity can never become a unified, monolithic thing. Instead, proponents of psychosynthesis and dissociative theory prefer to use the term Integrator to describe the ego. The Integrator learns to manage these various facets of personality and creates bridges between them, ultimately helping to merge them. In a role-playing context, the players themselves can be viewed as the Integrators monitoring the efforts of each character from a somewhat detached state. The Integrator can always come into the forefront when necessary, pushing the character back into latency, a process that we colloquially refer to as “shifting out of character.”
In the book, I further describe the concept of archetypes and explain how they manifest in the races and classes of Dungeons & Dragons. The most common archetypal structure we see in role-playing games is the enactment of the hero’s journey, to use Joseph Campbell’s model: the call to adventure, the help of the mentor, entering the “belly of the whale,” the confrontation with the monster, the triumphant return to society. This structure is embedded within the format of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books and modules. The whole process of “leveling a character” is a mechanical representation of a hero taking on multiple hero’s journeys over and over again. That being said, Jung and Campbell both believed that the monster in these stories represents the darker aspects of the self that the hero needs to confront, conquer, and integrate. In that respect, we can move beyond the fantastical elements of these roots of role-playing games; fantasy becomes a metaphor for reality. Any sort of inner or external conflict becomes the monster that needs slaying, which is why psychologist Nathan Hook suggests in the Knutpunkt 2010 book, Playing Reality, that all role-players undergo their own personal hero’s journey, regardless of the genre. Similarly, other participants in my studies have insisted that each player is a “hero in their own story.”
In Jungian terms, these conflicts that we need to address narratively stem from the “Shadow” — the aspects of ourselves that we need to repress and deny in order to establish our sense of identity. Since much of the content of role-playing games arises from the participants rather than some external “author” such as the game master, this concept of the Shadow becomes more intriguing. Why do people play “evil” characters? Why do certain conflicts evolve between characters in terms of, say, relationship dynamics? Jeepform games in the Nordic tradition particularly play with Shadow aspects of the unconscious, such as inappropriate sexual fantasies, bullying, and infidelity. Jeepform games encourage you to “play close to home” so, necessarily, parts of your repressed psyche are encouraged to come to the foreground. The Shadow concept explains why people “enjoy” playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade or even the Nordic Larp Kapo, which are both designed — in their radically different ways — to draw out the darker aspects of human nature in order to experience and examine them.
Even with a structured character that is uniformly distinct from one’s self-concept, any long stretch of immersion will begin to tap into deeper aspects of one’s own consciousness by necessity. The Nords have a term called the “Hollow Man,” where the character is too thinly defined and the player must insert parts of their own self into the story. I believe we always explore deeper parts of our personal psyche when we create characters, to greater and lesser degrees. I also think that we tap into essential, archetypal material, which explains how we are able to play characters with which we have no prior experience. I will never know what it means to be a queen, a magician, a goddess, or an immortal. I will never have those experiences in life, yet I have played them in games. One can always claim that media representations allow us to mimic what we have seen previously through these characters. However, if you consider that even in tribal cultures with little-to-no media exposure, individuals claim to channel these supernatural entities in ritual, that answer becomes less satisfying. A structuralist explanation posits that such expressions must be inherent to human culture in some way. A depth psychology explanation posits that such expressions arise from our collective unconscious, a part of our genetic linguistic inheritance.
ET – As a fellow film studies scholar, I am often asked about how my studies of “analog” role-playing games tie into contemporary questions of media studies? What does a film studies scholar learn about film from looking at role-playing games and gaming in general?
SLB – Well, first, I think that the “analog” nature of role-playing games is merely a formal and rather misleading distinction. While a game such as Dungeons & Dragons may be played in-person and in a small group, the original text is definitely a mass media product that has enjoyed widespread cultural influence. That product influenced the development of video games as we know them, as many of the earliest video games were attempts to recreate D&D dungeons. In addition, that product also spawned one of the most successful video games of all time; millions of gamers play World of Warcraft every day, the structure of which tightly follows the adventuring and leveling format of Dungeons & Dragons. For more on this topic, see Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing Games. Just as a film might be viewed by only one or a few people at a time, a role-playing game may be played in a small group. The mode of play enactment does not negate the mass media nature of the game product itself.
In addition, any reception scholar will tell you that fan behavior is subcultural in nature and, therefore, a worthy subject to investigate in terms of cultural studies. Many role-players initially find entry into these games through other generic fandom, including fantasy, science fiction, westerns, or even more “arty”/indie styles. As an ethnographer, I ask people to explain the inspiration behind their character creation. Many participants describe that the genre of the games themselves are based in existing media or that they as players have drawn inspiration from existing characters or themes from other media texts, a direct example of Henry Jenkins’ textual poaching. Instead of writing fan fiction, these players embody fan fiction. The co-creative, spontaneous nature of these games allows expressions of fandom to escape their original context and evolve into something far more eclectic and, in many cases, personal.
Just as film, television, and new media had to fight to validate their relative forms in terms of academic credibility, so, too, does role-playing studies and game studies in general. We are currently seeing a strong push in academia to consider games a serious and worthy object of study and the burgeoning field of role-playing studies is part of this wave, even if the game format is not always digital in nature.
ET – I hear you’re working on a new project about how social tension and conflict create larp culture. Can you tell me a little more about it?
SLB – Though my primary interest remains focused upon the internal, psychological processes that players undergo, the social elements cannot and should not go ignored. Aaron Vanek published an opinion piece in the 2011 Knudepunkt Talk book entitled “The Non-United Larp States of America.” In this article, Vanek claims that in America, we face a near-constant fracturing in our larp communities, where groups splinter and/or refuse to communicate and support one another. Because of this problem, larp as a practice suffers in terms of continuing player base and innovation. His paper represents a sort of call to arms to Americans to put aside differences and collaborate in order for larp to flourish. As a player involved in similar conflicts in my own larp communities, I felt personally motivated to investigate this hypothesis further. I wanted to see if these problems pertain to regional conflicts or happen in many larp communities. I was particularly interested to see if such conflicts emerge within the Nordic larp community, which appears so cohesive from an American perspective. I conducted approximately 30 semi-structured interviews with participants from various places in the U.S. and Scandinavia in order to investigate this question.
I found that splintering seems to occur everywhere, at least as was reported by my small participant base. According to Stephen Balzac, group psychologist and originator of the MIT Assassins Guild, these schisms in communities emerge as a natural evolution of group dynamics. Just as children test the boundaries of parental authority as toddlers and adolescents, according to Tuckman’s Model, individuals test leadership and group cohesion once they reach a certain level of investment in a particular activity. Some groups manage to weather this “Storming” period, leading to an even greater level of trust and productivity. However, many groups face dissolution or regression to an earlier, less collaborative state. Leaders — in this case, game masters or organizers — face particular challenges in this regard. Many game organizers do not have any formal training or experience in a leadership capacity. Even trained leaders may feel taken for granted or personally attacked, leading to clashes or “burning out.”
I also discovered several others problem areas contributing to conflict in role-playing communities. Intimate relationships predictably increase the level of emotional intensity in gaming groups, both in-character and out-of-game, which can lead to problems. The game master vs. player power dynamic can lead to abuses on both ends. Creative agenda differences and clashes within the play culture also contribute to strife. Most interestingly, perhaps, I studies incidents of “bleed,” a term more common in the Nordic community than in America, although many American participants intuitively understood the concept. Bleed is a difficult phenomenon to describe; in the past, theorists such as Markus Montola have defined it solely in terms of emotions. However, I decided to ask participants if they could recall incidents when their emotions, thoughts, relationships, or physical state outside of the game affected events within the game and visa versa, using Montola’s terms “bleed-in” and “bleed-out.” Difficulties with group dynamics may evolve in any organization, as Balzac suggests, but role-playing games add an extra level of complexity in the form of the narrative; not only do we have existing relationships and psychological states outside of the game, but we have other layers of relationships within the game world. This “layering of roles” creates a more complex tapestry of human interaction than is present in most other groups.
This concept of “bleed” helps us describe these experiences in neutral terms, as opposed to the all-too-prevalent and equally unhelpful accusation, “That player simply cannot separate fantasy from reality!” I believe that all players have the ability to separate fantasy from reality when entering the “magic circle” of play. As I mentioned before, we do not fully “become” the character for long periods of time; the player is almost always present and acts as a sort of Integrator when the character is allowed to “take the wheel.” Players sometimes describe the bizarre experience of complete identification with the character, but these moments do not last for long. However, these incidents can feel incredibly profound and cause confusion when we try to make sense of them later. If we can establish and articulate useful terminology such as “bleed,” we can help players to process these experiences in a more fruitful way. Sometimes, bleed experiences represent the most instructive and important parts of the role-playing experience. We should honor these moments and support our fellow players, rather than derogating or ousting individuals who experience negative emotions as a result of bleed.
Sarah Lynne Bowman received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. She is an adjunct professor at Ashford University and Richland College. She published The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity with McFarland (2010). Her research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to character enactment and narrative creation.
Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”
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