Roleplaying the Other

There are a number of players who prefer to play only their own gender, and the argument against that has always been “what, you’ll play a half-Orc barbarian, but not a woman?” Because the problem, you see, is the unbridgeable gap of imaginative empathy and insight. I understand half-Orcs, but women? Clearly not! But I think that what’s really at stake in this little political side-show is about the intersection of imagination and real life – you can play a half-Orc as incorrectly as you like, there aren’t any at the table to get offended. All kinds of political issues get elided or obviated at the gaming table for the good reason that subjects are uncomfortable in real life, so roleplaying them is uncomfortable. I had a female player recently play a male because she was worried about the inherent sexism of the game setting (the 1920s).

Well, recently steve_hix, tog42 and I decided to try and roleplay one of the most bizarre and alien psychologies that I can think of – we decided to roleplay the senior party officials of the recently defeated Republican party. It sounds like it should be a gimmick, and it easily could have been, but we approached it with open minds and a real desire to try and see under the hood of the radical Other.

Steve played the face of our alternate-history Fox, the de facto GOP spokeswoman. I played a tea-bag party oriented former Governor, anxious to position himself as the 2016 candidate, and Nick played the party glue, the senate majority leader.

The game works by having you identify the main problems facing your group, and our three problems were based around the problems of a coalition between the various kinds of extreme radicals that the party seems to host these days, and the old fashioned moderate Republican. We had an underlying issue that the party was in some level of denial about real-world events. You then play individual scenes which either work to resolve one of these tensions, or move the group further towards a crisis.

My character’s reactionary and extreme politics inexorably pushed toward the fracture of the party, while Nick tried to hold us together. Steve’s character moved from being a passive transmission mode for the party method to a real presence forcing us to really confront the issues facing the party directly, rather than evading and deflecting.

In practical terms, the characters felt like they were always being played on a public stage within the game. The nature of the characters as public figures combined with the issues at stake made the game feel in a lot of ways like a “what if” debate forum, so the stories we told were personal inasmuch as being specific, but the focus was definitely on the impact these decisions would have on the world, rather than the stresses internal to the characters.

I think we all began the game with the idea that it would be a bit of fun, and an interesting thought experiment, but I think we all quickly found ourselves becoming invested in our characters’ diverse ideologies. I think this was a necessary precondition of the game working at all – without a good level of buy-in, it would have felt completely empty and jokey. However, as our decisions inside the fiction began to show consequences for our organization, and for our characters’ lives, it began to feel extremely natural to perceive the situation from their point of view. Without those consequences, the game would just be a series of mock debates, but because they effected change in the game world, it gave the discussions an urgency and reality that reinforced the sense of investment.

So over the course of the 5 or so hours we played, I think we all went from a perspective of complete alienation from our characters, to the point where we could really start to feel an empathy for the situation they had gotten themselves into. For the first time, I began to see just how politicians get contorted into these patent absurdities, and how they feel the need to defend them and posture beyond their positions to force the other party into a more acceptable neutral space. It was a really fascinating experience, made all the more disturbing by the straightforward craziness that we were all in some ways a part of.

I have been sitting on this post since the game, trying to figure out how to extend this lesson back into playing a more typical “Other” – once you can play a far-right anti-gay anti-abortion small-government zealot with such conviction, it seems like you should be able to adopt anything closer toward the “sane” end of a character spectrum. But I can’t quite get there, other than the really basic foundational stuff of taking the game seriously and playing it honestly*. I think that if we had tried to be “ironic”, it would have failed, but we committed – we played “unsafe”, we played with trust at the table. I knew that no matter how hard I pushed an insane and/or actually evil agenda, it would be okay with Nick and Steve, and so we got into a very interesting situation that I wouldn’t have credited in advance.

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