THE ORIGINS OF ROLEPLAY.
Anthropologists have long saught to classify humans, coming up with terms like ‘the thinking animal’ or ‘Man the toolmaker’. But, perhaps the most apt description would be ‘the storytelling animal’. Creating imaginary places and people is a truly universal human skill. From the oral-storytellers of hunter-gatherer tribes, to the folktales written in ancient Sanskrit, Sumerian or Latin, and up to modern times with millions of books, TV shows and movies, storytelling is evident across all culture and throughout all human history.
One consequence of this tendency to weave fictional tales is a blurring of reality and fantasy in everyday life. We do not just live in the objective world of physical objects; we also share each other’s imaginary landscapes. Consider the following list of names. Ayn Rand, Bart Simpson, Charles Dogson, Dagny Taggart, Ella Fitzgerald, George Elliot, Hauldon Caullfield, Indiana Jones, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, Lewis Carrol, Mickey Mouse, Napolean Bonaparte, Oliver Twist, Plato, Ronald McDonald, Socrates, Tom Bombadil, Ulysses, Walt Disney. There is a good chance that you recognise quite a few of the names in that list, but can you say which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary? I will tell you the answer later on, but for now we need to explain this most curious habit of weaving fictional tales.
It may not seem odd, but it is if you think about it. Why would evolution not select against minds that wasted time creating imaginary situations, rather than dealing exclusively with the real world? A branch of study known as ‘Literary Darwinism’ seeks to answer that question by comparing the themes of the tales themselves. Far from being specific to each culture, similar themes and character types appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Anyone who has spent some time ‘people watching’ in SL will have discovered that women there tend to be slim, young and beautiful. It is tempting to blame this stereotype on the fashion industry or Hollywood — endless images of impossibly beautiful people fill our streets and homes via billboard posters, magazine covers and TV shows. But, precisely the same gender description is encountered wherever you move across the landscape of folktales. No matter what continent, or what century, and regardless of whether it is a hunter-gatherer or an industrial society, women are much less likely to be the main characters and more likely to have emphasis placed on their beauty. Meanwhile, male characters are typically portrayed as more active and physically courageous. What these gender stereotypes reflect, it is suggested, are classic signs of reproductive health: youth and beauty for females (signifying the ability to bear children), and the ability to provide for a family (signalled by power and success) in males.
As for the themes, Patrick Hogan (a professor of English and Comparative Literature) has found that as many as two-thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions appear to be based on three narrative prototypes. ‘Romantic’ and ‘Heroric’ scenarios make up the two more common prototypes, with the former focusing on the trials and travails of love and the latter focusing on power struggles. Professor Hogan dubbed the third prototype ‘Sacrificial’. These kind of tales focus on agrarian plenty versus famine, as well as on societal redemption. These basic prototypes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.
The latter need is almost certainly the reason why we have stories in the first place. In order to follow a story, you need an ability to read another entity’s motivations and intentions. Understanding a story, in other words, is a skill that is equivilent to understanding the human mind. Gwyneth Llewelyn habitually counters accusations of escapism by referring to forms of escapism that exist outside of computer-mediated VRs. Crying at a film, laughing out loud while reading a book, and things like that. Her point is, just about everyone indulges in some form of escapism. Psychologists have a name for the kind of immersionism typified by a weepy movie. They call it ‘Narrative Transport’. Whenever your emotions become inextricably tied to a story’s characters, you are displaying the ability to attribute mental states, such as awareness and intent, to another entity. This ability is known as ‘Theory of Mind’ and it is crucial to social interaction and communal living.
Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. It requires interacting with others and learning the rules and customs of society. Storytelling persists because there is no better way to promote social cohesion among groups, or for passing on knowledge to future generations. Stories’ roles in establishing the rules of society are demonstrated in a web-based survey of more than five hundred readers. The respondants answered questions about the motivations and personalities of one hundred and forty-four principle characters from a wide selection of Victorian novels. One thing this survey revealed is an evolved psychological tendency to envision human social relations as morally polarized between “us” and “them”. Another, was a tendency to view antagonists as a malign force motivated by social dominance as an end in itself, something that threatens the very principle of community. We see the former tendency in action in SL. For instance, an individual could use either voice or text to communicate, not exclusively preferring one or the other but rather adopting whichever best suits the current situation. But what debates tend to focus on is ‘voice’ versus ‘text’, as if residents in SL can be divided neatly into two groups that always oppose each other.
Theory of Mind is vital to social living, and it develops in children around age four or five. Once we possess it, we tend to make stories out of everything. This tendency was demonstrated in a 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. They created an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Although the shapes had no minds, people nevertheless described the scene as if the triangles and circle had intentions and motivations. They would make comments like ‘the triangles are chasing the circle’. We have a predilection for making characters and stories out of whatever we see in the world around us.