The Psychology of Roleplaying by John Simpson

"The purple worm rests just inside the corridor's entrance, blocking your way. Behind you, five zombies advance, now only metres away. There are no other exits."

The DM looks up, regarding us. Momentarily stunned, we all look back, then scramble for our spell sheets.
"Five_" the DM begins.
"Sliva," I say, some desperation leaking into my voice. "What offensive spells do you have?"
She shrugs. "None. Unless you call Friends an offensive spell."
"Does that work on zombies?" Baraka, aka John, asks.
"Four_" the DM counts.
"Sven Thunderloins," I turn to James. "What about that Ice Wall scroll?"
"Used, remember," he sighs. "The vampires."
Yes, of course. The vampires. How could I've forgotten?
"Dammit, can anyone do anything?" I ask helplessly.
"Whistle?" suggests Tremane, the comedian.
"OK," I say, resolute. "I take my staff and jam it in the worm's mouth, then run inside."
The DM nods, looking at the others. For some reason John smiles.
"Come on!" I yell, forgetting I'm in someone's lounge room and not the belly of a great slug.
John grins widely, looking around at the others. "I move up to the worm," he says casually, "and break the staff in half with a kick."
"You what!?"
"Just before the great jaws snap shut," the DM says, "you see your teammates smile. One by one, their incisors elongate into sharp fangs. It appears your encounter with the vampires was not as successful as you thought!"

And as my character is slowly digested, I can only think one thing. Betrayed!

We've all had times in role playing when the actions of our fellow team mates surprises us. It can be intriguing - and also disturbing - to watch someone you though was sweet and innocent casually behead a villager. For some strange reason even your most trusted buddies can become a scheming bunch of misfits you would never hope to find in a dark alley.

So what gives? Role playing is a vehicle for the imagination, a ferry ride to the other side of the Styx, where nothing is what it seems. It can bring out a side of people that you'd never seen, and had never expected to see. One guy I once played with was given the ability of seduction (similar to a tracking ability but with a charisma check). Almost every encounter, he would ask the DM who was the most attractive woman, and then spend the next half hour frantically rolling the dice, trying to get her into bed. In real life he was plain shy. About as likely to approach an attractive woman as Christopher Skase to return to Australia.

You all know the type, and have probably seen even stranger things happen. All this uncharacteristic behaviour poses the question: are we just "in character" when we do these things, or is this our real selves, coaxed to the surface like so much black oil? Some psychologists would argue that we're all capable of doing what appear to be uncharacteristic actions, but usually hide these feelings by methods of repression. Sigmund Freud for one was enamoured with the idea of the "Freudian slip", whereby we unconsciously reveal our true feelings by making an unintentional comment (a guy looking at a menu on a first date: "I think the beef would be breast - ah_ best!"). Another classical psychologist - Carl Jung - said we all have a "shadow self" that lurks just under the surface, waiting to pounce. Jung said that it's only our notion of morality and social conscience that keeps our dark behaviour in check.

Is there any evidence that we use "psychological plugs" to keep our more fecund emotions hidden? There are a number of interesting case studies that show our brains aren't just responsible for things we do outright, but also control the things we shouldn't do. The case of Phineas Gage is an interesting one. Phineas, a mine worker in 1848, was packing a charge with a metal crow bar. A slip, and the crow bar was launched explosively through his eye socket and out the top of his head, effectively destroying the frontal cortex of his brain. Miraculously he survived.

After a quick recovery, friends and family noticed a curious change about his personality. He was no longer inhibited by his social conscience, saying what he wanted when he wanted, and giving his opinion at the most inappropriate times. He liked going naked, no longer body shy. He became more hostile, to the point where the people close to him feared for their safety. Scientists debated that the accident hadn't made him more aggressive - he'd simply been that way previously, as we all are, but had used his frontal cortex to repress his true nature. Think of the primal urges you momentarily experience when the jerk driving beside you suddenly wants to be in front of you, or your checkout queue moves half as slow as the others. Our true selves bubble to the surface, but are quickly repressed by our social conscience.

Similarly, the case of Natalie, a girl born without an amygdala, or mid-brain. Natalie could not repress emotional responses, a characteristic attributable to the amygdala. We all have an innate fear of strangers and tend to regard them with caution. However, Natalie could not control this fear, encountering an overriding urge to flee when a stranger was in her presence. She would even fear her own reflection, and would often have wild bursts of uncontrollable crying or laughing. Without her primitive brain to regulate and mediate her primal instincts, she had no emotional control.

So what does this say for role playing? Your friend next to you has whipped out the imaginary garot to torture a prisoner - is this what he'd do to you if his mid-brain went missing? Perhaps (if you too had hidden his $10,000 gem!). Then again, role playing may be cathartic. Rather than throttling the checkout chick, we can act it out on an imaginary NPC. It gives us a chance to vent our steam, and be the person we long to be in the real world, using the guise of a short fat dwarf or cyborg. Any actions that we make that are unacceptable in the real world can be blamed on the alignment of our characters.

So the case for role playing as catharsis is a good one, a "release valve for the psyche". Pound the head of your team mate; it's all part of being a Drow! Push that hobbit down the cliff - he deserved it! By taking our repressed aggressive tendencies and putting them into action in a fantasy environment, we do ourselves, our friends and our workmates a service. Compared to sex, role playing is the ultimate in escapism, luring our hidden demons to the surface in an all-pervasive "whoosh!" of action. And tell me truthfully - when was the last time you blasted down a wall, rescued a damsel in distress, and been knighted for bravery while having sex?