I started gaming when I was 4 years old. The game was “house” and it involved my kindergarten's house center, and a few other friends. I am pretty sure I was the Daddy, my friend Cheryl was the Mommy and my friend Karen (who was shorter than Cheryl) was the kid. This was play-based learning at it's finest! We got to pretend to be adults, and learn how to be adults through our playing. What did adults do? Cook dinner and do the dishes. (It was a very small house with just one room: the kitchen.) Sure, it didn't have any lessons in mathematics or grammar, but it was still learning: learning about how life worked. The funny thing is, we would keep to these roles. I, being male, would always be the Daddy. Cheryl would always be the Mommy. Karen would always be the kid. It was good, wholesome, 1950's style fun at it's finest. It also didn't leave much variety for trying other perspectives.
I remember that this lack of perspective echoed throughout all of my childhood games. No one wanted to be the bad-guy. Every boy wanted to be the cop, not the robber. Every boy wanted to be the Autobot, not the Decepticon. During our in-class “performance” about Micky Mouse's 50th birthday party, there wasn't a cartoon villain costume to be seen. No one wanted to be the odd person out when we played P.I.G. No one wanted to be the Cheese who stood alone. The only times we were the villains was when it was Halloween, and even then, we looked more like the Munsters than monsters.
Fast forward to the teenage years. Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine's Fear Street (sometimes) replaced books by Robert Muntch and Anne M. Martin. Movies of choice would (usually) not be about Aladdin, but about Jason. With the onset of puberty -- or maybe it was just high school -- the world became a darker place, and our choice of passive entertainment reflected it. Even one of my favorite televisions shows as a teenager, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for all of it's campiness and humor, was symbolic of the things that teenagers go through. The giant praying mantis woman that nearly ate Zander reflected what happens when you get a crush on the teacher. The Invisible Girl showed the effects of being completely ignored (in some ways, worse than being bullied). Angel turning into Angelous is a metaphor for when a guy has sex with girl and than turns into a jerk.
This article from the Wallstreet Journal, discusses the influx of dark materials within modern young adult fiction. Although, perhaps “influx” is the wrong word. As I just wrote, darker fiction has been part of adolescence for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it has gotten a bit more graphic, but so has fiction and television for adults. (Isn't it awesome how they show how the bullet entered into the brain of someone, and bounced around in that episode of CSI? Or how about 1000 ways to die? Or the existence of HBO?)
Parents are worried that these works of fiction are inappropriate for their impressionable teenagers. Maybe the fear is that by reading books with darker themes, the teens would be more willing to do these things. Maybe they are worried about desensitization – the more you are exposed to something, the smaller it's impact upon you.
Intellectually, I can understand why.
From a purely biological perspective, what you learn changes the physical makeup of your brain. By making synoptic connections, what we learn, literally, lays a biological pathway that makes certain attitudes and behaviors easier. This is why many Protestant Christian denominations encourage people to read the Bible: the more you read it, and the more you learn it, the more likely you will act in accordance with it. That is the theory, at any rate.
Now, reading realistic fiction with darker themes is not necessarily a bad thing. For a person who is dealing with issues such as death of a friend, suicide, drug abuse, sexual abuse (or sexual feelings), gangs and violence; reading about how the protagonist deals with these issues in a fictional world may give the person tools and strategies to deal with those issues in the real world. (It would, of course, be best to talk to someone who could provide professional help when dealing with these situations rather than just reading about how someone else dealt with them.)
In terms of role-playing games, things are a bit different. You are in control of your character. This removes a level of ... for lack of a better word... safety. With television and print, the only thing you control is if you want to continue watching the show or reading the book. And what is that saying? “Actions speak louder than words”? Well, in role-playing games, your words are your character's actions. Maybe this is why certain groups are fearful that role-playing games lead to deviant behavior. Sure, these groups say, you aren't actually firing a gun at a real person, but you are imagining firing a gun at someone, and that leads you one step closer to actually doing the deed. Or, maybe you go insane and loose the difference between fantasy and reality all together! The only thing to do is to not play those games, to pull those books from the shelves and burn them! Think of the children we are to protect!
I became interested in role-playing games (complete with dice and official rules) when I was a teenager. I'll go on a limb and say that is when most gamers become interested in role-playing games. And guess what? Most RPGs have some level of violence in them. In fact, most have an entire chapter on combat. Conflict and combat are important parts of role-playing games, because without them, there would be no plot, no story, no fun for the players. How you, as a GM or as a player, portray that conflict makes a difference. Do you say “I shoot him” and then roll the dice, and mechanically state how many hit-points are removed? Do you go into detail about where the bullet hit and how the person should now be on the ground, in pain and bleeding? Both styles of gaming are legitimate, and depending on the group, can be appropriate.
The key word is “depending on the group”. Are you running a game for 13 year olds, 17 year olds or 21 year olds? Those four years of growth, learning and maturity make a difference. And, frankly, there are some stories that I would run with a 21 year old that I greatly adapt when running a game with a 13 year old, no matter how mature the kid is. Furthermore, be aware of where you are. Are you gaming in a private room in your library, an open room with other patrons around, a gaming store with other patrons around or your friend's place? Reading is a private activity, but role-playing games are social and vocal. Other patrons in the library may not understand what is happening when they hear you talk about picking pockets or defusing bombs. When they talk to someone at the reference desk about what is going on at your table, it may take some explaining. (Even being in the privacy of your own home may not make you immune to the “What are they talking about?!” factor. In a post-apocalyptic game, one of my friends made a comment that had his mother come running into the room, shouting “What do you mean 'Who's Hitler?'!!” That took some explaining...)
The point I am trying to make is this: do not be afraid to run your games or tell your stories; but be aware of how you do so. Take the skills that you would use for Reader's Advisory and apply them to the creation of your own stories.
I also offer the following advice.
Parents, follow the advice given by The Insane Scribblings of a Madwoman, YA Books: Too Dark or Hitting Too Close To Home? “Trust your kids. Talk to them. Read with them. Read before them if you feel you have to. Don’t criticize an entire genre just because they’re exposing reality for what it is through artistry and fiction. And mom, thank you for trusting me with my reading.” Also, get in contact with the person who is running the game. Ask questions. Maybe even arrange for a game with other parents so you can see what your kids are doing.
Players, give your GM feedback. Let him or her know what you want to see in your game.
Game Masters / Librarians, ask your players what they want. Ask if there are any topics that they are uncomfortable with (and provide a few examples). Ask if they want to play a game that is action filled, political, or mystery-based. Be aware of where you are playing.
I started this post with by discussing how everyone wanted to play the hero when we were little. Sometimes, it is fun to play a game where you play an anti-hero, or even a villain. Even when you are playing a hero, don't make him lilly-white. The most memorable characters have flaws that they deal with.
Finally, have fun. It's a game.
If you would like to read other librarian's responses to "Darkness Too Visible", please click on the following links: The Light and Dark of Lit by the Censored Genius -- It's Pretty Dark In a Closed Mind from Agnostic, Maybe -- and There's Dark Things in Them There Books! by School Library Journal's Liz B, which includes links to many twitter comments as well as other blogs.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG Cover" http://dustygamer.mcmuumio.net/?p=972 Found on June 12, 2011.
"Lord of the Ring Comic 38a" http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_08tIvF4R-h8/SS7RGwHjXdI/AAAAAAAAAgg/PYFdU0b7wvk/s1600-h/comic_lotr38a.jpg Found on June 12, 2011.
"Wolverine" http://nicktoons.nick.com/tags/wolverine-and-the-x-men-power-pack/ Found on June 12, 2011.