April 12th, 2005


in dreams, i walk with you

Nietzsche stated the essentially religious problem of the meaning of pain and gave it the only fitting answer: if pain and suffering have any meaning, it must be that they are enjoyable to someone. From this viewpoint there are only three possibilities: the first, which is the "normal" one, is of a moral and sublime character; it states that pain is pleasing to the gods who contemplate and watch over man; the other two are perverse and state that pain is enjoyable either to the one who inflicts it or to the one who suffers it. It should be clear that the normal answer is the most fantastic, the most psychotic of the three.

      - Giles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty: Zone Books, 1989

show me all your mysteries and lies

I’ve been playing D&D and other Role Playing Games for a long time. There was no such thing as a Players Handbook back then. There was just the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (with rules for up to 3rd level characters, a few monsters, a module, and some little, irregular, plastic blobs that vaguely resembled multi-sided dice) and the obscure and incomprehensible White Box containing the original small booklets that allegedly constituted the rules of the game. A couple years later, some moron went insane and died wandering around the sewers, and D&D was blamed. For a brief moment in time, D&D became responsible for teen suicides, school violence, Satanic worship, and anything else that couldn’t be directly pinned on heavy metal music. But for us it was just a good time, a time when we could pretend we were someone else and do things that we ourselves could or would never do. We could be heroes, saving towns, slaying dragons, defeating evil dictators. Or we could put on a villain’s mask, playing the assassin, the dread lord crushing his enemy, the werewolf or vampire that preys on the weak and beautiful. But the idea was always that it was a game in which we put on a mask, we put on a costume, and we play the part of something that is Other.

We sit down to play and we put on the mask. That mask is our character, a handful of words and numbers on a sheet of paper, given meaning only by the rules of the game and the actions we say it takes. We sit down with our sheets of papers and our books and our dice, we put on our masks and we become that which is Other.

The Other, that fictitious person that we play-act for the purposes of the game, who is the thing that we are not: that Other, over time, comes to be ourselves. This is not because we lose our sense of reality, getting sucked into the fictitious world of Orcs and Dragons and things that creep in the dark. We are as firmly or as loosely grounded in reality as anyone. It is because our characters in the game come to mirror our personalities, though not necessarily in obvious ways. The characters are not our replicas, transplanted in time and space and dimension into some fantastic world; they are extrapolations, instead, of what we ourselves be in a world where we are shielded from any real consequences of our actions.

We see real-life instantiations of our characters all the time: the tabloids exist to tell us tales of their exploits; E! dedicates its programming to these people. All manner of bizarre and abominable behavior is normal and tolerated, and it is generally only normal behavior that continues to carry consequences. Power, money and fame give people the sense that they can get away with obnoxious or criminal behavior, while taking some time off to care for a family member can be career-ending. It is said that celebrity can change a person, that it creates monsters and assholes. I contend that this is not true. These people are assholes to start; celebrity merely removes the constraints. In Role Playing Games, we get to be the celebrities. This is a world created for us. Its only purpose is to be a backdrop for our actions, to provide a framework for our existence, and it’s meaning is only that which we give it.

In some traditions, to put on a mask is to become the Other. The mask hides the person who is wearing the mask, and allows the God or Spirit whom the mask represents to come out, to speak and act through the body of the wearer. Instead of hiding the truth, such as we’d see at a masquerade or bank robbery, where the “true” identity of the person can be hidden behind the mask, the mask in these cases instead allows a greater truth to be spoken. The mask reveals that which is hidden. The God, hidden within, is loosed upon the world by the mask. In Ancient Grecian plays, the chorus wore masks, and always spoke the truth. It is the masked that tell the truth, just as it is the blind that see most clearly. The mask allows us to say that which we cannot do, to be that which we could not be, to do that which we cannot do.

In this sense, we are ourselves more truly when we are playing the game than we are in our everyday lives.