Using role-play as a research tool

4 minute read

A while ago I attended a philosophy seminar where the last presentation was about using science fiction as a tool for research. For researchers interested in culture and society, it may give invaluable possibilities. The idea is to use science fiction as a “what if”-scenario. Most of the elements of society can be kept constant (gender roles, economic structures) while some (ideologies, length of life span) are altered to see what the resulting societies look like. These scenarios are intuitively understandable, as long as they are close enough to our own conception of society.

Most science fiction writers do this, consciously or not. That is why science fiction so easily becomes a tool for political satire or criticism. Some writers who do this on purpose are actually very competent philosophers. Robots are a very popular tool for exploring the limits of humanity.

Role-play is another, at least as effective, way of exploring possible futures and alternate pasts. This is probably nothing you haven’t done in the past. However, you probably haven’t done it with this purpose in mind. The method is almost identical with the one used in science fiction: you create a narrative with enough shared culture to be recognizable to all participant and then use it to explore ideas.

We used this technique in our game Nutopia, which was about anarchism, social criticism and utopias. The purpose of that game wasn’t research, but it is still a good example. We ended up exploring the limits of free speech and what are acceptable methods for (benevolent) anarchists.

Another useful example is the game I wrote of in my last post, Liquid Crystal. It is a game about robots, so quite naturally, it is also a possibility to explore humanity. The game is all about growing up emotionally. In the end of the game, all the robots considered mature enough are accepted into the society, which is depicted as an utopia. It may tell something about the game or the people I play it with, but only two robots have been accepted of all the ten in our games so far. There has also been a slight but very steady undercurrent of criticism towards the games concept of utopia, once voiced by a robot about to be shut down.

In addition to concepts of social justice, emotional growth and such, the game can be used as a tool for dealing with questions in philosophy of mind. What concepts must all robots retain regardless of repeated mind-wipes? How do they experience and use language? Is there a self that a robot retains regardless of the wipes? The game does not give answers, but it can be used to illuminate different strategies for answering. These can help forming meaningful questions, which in turn can lead to meaningful answers. (A bad question is not worth asking.)

The examples I’ve discussed thus far have been about exploring questions posed in social sciences, philosophy, and politics. There is also the possibility of using role-play in handling personal, existential questions. Role-play may be even better suited for this task than science fiction is. When I say ‘existential questions’ I don’t mean something difficult and incomprehensible. These are simply questions about the way we see the world and choose to live in it. Possible questions might be:

  1. How do I view obligation and freedom? What compromises do I consider worth making in giving up my freedom?
  2. How do I see other people? Do I harbor racist thoughts without realizing it? Is my world gender-biased?
  3. Is my view of religion(s) somehow skewed?

Role-play gives the extraordinary possibility of adopting an unfamiliar religion or ideology, even an apparently hostile or offensive one. This potential has usually been used in impersonating elves, dwarves, and such, but there is nothing stopping you from adopting a world-view of a Hindu, Communist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, Christian or an atheist. This will give you a new perspective into the world, one you can use to better understand it. Even the people you normally consider irrational usually have reasons for things they do.

I used this opportunity for testing out the somewhat inconceivable ideology of Nazism. In the game I already mentioned, Nutopia, I played a neo-Nazi in the dystopian future of Shadowrun. This is a world-view alien to me, even though I have studied the subject somewhat. In dealing with things possibly offensive to you, you must remember that there is a difference between understanding and accepting something. I consider the neo-Nazi to be in error, but this does not stop me from understanding them. The same goes for religion: being a devout Christian should not be endangered in trying out, say, Buddhism, solely in the context of a role-playing game.

One last thing: If you choose to try out some social experimentation, be sure to warn the other players in the game. Actually, I recommend that this be done in coordination and all the players participate in discussing the themes in the game and planning them. (This is how our game, Nutopia, was created.) Even if you are the GM with sole narrative (and considerable social) power at least ask the players if they would enjoy playing a game with the themes you prefer. There is nothing quite as annoying as being force-fed alien political ideas.