Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Player-Character Is What You Are In The Dark

The sub-title on this one is The Phenomenology of Immersion in Dungeons and Dragons, and this is not the last time essay author William J White is going to use the word “Phenomenology.” He really likes that word. White is an associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State with the most lackluster faculty page I’ve seen yet. Being a professor of communication makes me way harsher on his delivery here, because he isn’t easy reading. He’s not entirely lackluster, but Save vs Death is still the easiest essay to read sentence-to-sentence. That one was written by Harvard professor of philosophy Christopher Robichaud. Harvard is a pretty posh university and all, but he’s a professor of philosophy, so I’d still expect the prize for best writing to go to the professor of communications. No dice, though.

William White is saying interesting things for the entire duration of his essay, even if his execution is sometimes lackluster. No paragraphs dedicated entirely to establishing philosophical street cred. No sudden segues into almost completely unrelated subjects which are dropped about as soon as the setup has finished and before really examining the questions posed (the sudden segues do happen, but at least they wrap themselves up before returning to the main point). There are a few paragraphs in one section that are kind of baffling for their inclusion, but outside of that the closest we get to wasted space is the setup going on a bit long, but since the very idea of phenomenology is unknown to most people and it actually is the fulcrum on which this essay turns, so it isn’t really wasted at all even if it would’ve benefited from a more compelling explanation.

What Is Phenomenology?

That’s not me setting up an explanation of William White’s favorite word, that’s White titling one of the early sections of the essay after a question that vitally needs be answered before moving on. Phenomenology is the study of the world as people perceive it, and not necessarily the world as it is. It’s more philosophy than science right now (although that could change within our lifetimes, as science frequently gobbles up philosophical questions whether philosophers like it or not), and includes such questions as “what’s going on when people picture something in their heads that isn’t actually there” and “why are movies and plays compelling even though it is immediately obvious to observers that they aren’t real?”

Both of those are important questions to consider when talking about the phenomenology of Dungeons and Dragons. What visual aids exist in D&D are almost universally crude and symbolic. The story takes place almost entirely in the players’ imaginations. That’s the kind of concept that gets established in a “What is an RPG?” section that is, for some reason, pasted into the front of every core rulebook for every system, no matter how obscure. While the concept is easy to understand, though, it isn’t easy to explain. We all know how to use our imaginations to create a narrative at the table, and we all understand that under the right conditions that narrative can be compelling. The interesting question is why does that work? It’s not like anyone at the table has been deceived by a Descartian demon into thinking that the game world is real.

Is That Question Answered?

No. It’s an unsolved philosophical/neurological mystery, and this pop philosophy book doesn’t hold the secret to finding that particular holy grail. This means that the rest of the essay is somewhat aimless pondering. I said that the essay was continuously interesting, but I never said it built to any kind of satisfying argument or conclusion.

The section Am I My Character talks about how directly associating with the character is not important to find the character’s struggles suspenseful and compelling (we don’t think of ourselves as literally being the protagonist of a movie and can still find movies compelling, after all), and then wanders into a weird digression about how we’re constantly roleplaying in daily life. People cover up certain parts of their personality and sometimes pretend to think or feel things they don’t in order to fit in with certain groups or occasions. Exactly how much play-acting one must do before it ceases to be polite or respectable and becomes dishonest or servile varies depending on who you ask, but it’s hardly uncommon. This is a reasonably interesting parallel to draw but I have no idea what it has to do with the ability to find one’s character’s adventures compelling even when the border between player and character is strong. This section also I think asserts that it is typical to think of character as separate from player, to narrate in the third person and so on. That is, in fact, a pretty mixed bag. In any case, the essay certainly doesn’t bother to address the idea of what narrating a character’s actions or thinking about a character’s adventures in the first person might imply.

Then there’s a section titled Alea and Immersion, in which a story about a knight or paladin of some sort is related. He is captured and imprisoned far from home, prays for salvation, and rolls very well on percentile dice, so the GM has an angel pop in, set him free, and tell him to keep his nose clean before popping out. This is used to make a point about how the dice play a critical role in establishing immersion by placing some amount of power over the narrative in the hands of a non-human entity, which makes it seem more alive. This is kind of related to the idea of immersion and thus to phenomenology, but honestly I’m mostly seeing it as an excuse to mention that an article about D&D once made it into Psychology Today.

And then we’re at the conclusion. A brief section in which all the previous is referenced as sort of an ultra-lite summary, but no particular attempt is made to tie it together to actually mean anything in particular. As meandering as it all is, it does ask and explore some interesting questions. At the same time, I do kind of wonder if I’m only being this nice to it because my expectations have been lowered a bit? I was really hoping for a bit more focus in these essays, and so far half of the essays to have it have been Paragons and Knaves. My overall metric in these reviews have largely been “is this book worth the $12 MSRP,” and Paragons and Knaves really hasn’t done that metric any favors, because on many essays, including this one, my conclusion is that it’s a reasonably interesting essay, but on its own it’s not really enough to reimburse me for having read Paragons and Knaves.

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