Role Playing

Cubicles and Coworkers: What Role-Playing Games Have to Teach Us

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When I’m training, there is nothing that elicits more groans and eye rolls than announcing we will be role-playing. Participants tend to dislike pretending to be interviewing a job candidate or having a fake conversation about someone’s performance. It feels awkward. It takes them out of their comfort zone.

Which is exactly what role-playing intended to do. It allows a safe place to practice difficult interactions in preparation for when the situation arises in real life.

Role-playing, while no substitute for real life, is an important learning tool. That goes for role-playing games (RPGs) as well. (For the record, I’m talking about table top games, not computer games, which are a completely different unicorn all together.)

If you haven’t guessed it by reading some of my other posts, I’m a bit of a geek. My favorite movie is Blade Runner, I’ve seen all the episodes of every incarnation of Star Trek in order (except the last one, which is an abomination) at least twice, I’ve read The Hobbit 20 times, and yes, in my younger days, I used to spend hours with my friends pretending I was a 10th level mage or a 5th level dwarf fighter, battling trolls and ogres with rolls of 20-sided dice. This was back before Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things made RPGs seem borderline cool. In those days, you didn’t tell anybody in school you “gamed” unless you wanted to be relegated in the pecking order to just below the Chess Club, and never, ever getting a date.

I continued to game into my twenties, until life took over and I slowly lost interest. Around that time, a friend who learned of my hobby, and whose son had started playing, asked me if RPGs were dangerous. No doubt, she had heard the urban myths of kids becoming so obsessed with their character they’d go on violent rampages with homemade broadswords.

I gave her a flat no in response. The chance of a gamer of going berserk is no different than anyone else. To misquote Frank Zappa when asked the same about rock music, if someone plays RPGs, and then goes out and kills someone, there’s more wrong with that person than RPGs.

If my friend asked me that same question today, I’d give her a much more complete response. I’d tell her that not only is gaming not harmful, it can help hone valuable workplace skills.

Social Interaction: Unlike other escapist activities, like computer games, social media, or even reading, gaming requires you to interact with others face-to-face. It gives even the most shy person to get this experience in a safe environment, among people much like themselves.

I was speaking with a middle school student who told me she wanted a job where she didn’t have to work with people. I told her she wouldn’t find it. Even the most introverted professions, scientists and analysts and programmers, need to have the social skills necessary to deal with others on a regular basis.

Teamwork: For those who don’t know, RPGs require a group of characters with varying skills and abilities to come together to solve puzzles, navigate mazes, and yes, slay dragons. None of them has all the attributes necessary to do this alone. They need to learn to work together if they are going to succeed.

Show me a job posting or job description that doesn’t require someone to be a good team player or work well in integrated teams. Teamwork may be a cliché, but it’s also a necessity in almost any workplace.

Negotiation: The other gamers may be kindred spirits, but that doesn’t mean everyone always agrees. There are squabbles about what corridor to take, whether to sneak past the sleeping giant or attack him and risk an untimely death, how to divvy up the dragon’s horde. Gamers have to be able to work out these differences, and learn the important lesson that to get a little, you sometimes have to give a little.

Work often feels like one big negotiation, a constant navigation of different priorities, opinions and courses of actions. Compromise is not the exception, but the norm.

Adaptability: RPGs are improvisation. While a story is generally being followed, it is a living story that can change and take unexpected directions depending on how characters react. Players have to be ready for anything, and make it up as they go along. Not unlike work, where your well-planned day can be thrown into chaos by a phone call from an unhappy customer, or a knock on your door from your manager on a deadline.

Focus on Strengths: RPG characters generally have a list of attributes. A player learns how to focus on the strengths and downplay the weaknesses. For instance, if a character has low scores in physical strengths but high ones in intelligence, the player is not going to force the character to be a warrior wielding a battleaxe. More likely, the player will use the intelligence into making the character into some type of wizard, reading archaic tomes and casting spells.

Too often, organizations focus on employee weaknesses, forcing them to get better at skills they will only ever be mediocre at, while not taking advantage of what these people really do well. Do that with a character in a role-playing game, and that character will be down to zero hit points pretty quick.

Rules: RPGs are run on a set of rules. Part of the game is knowing these rules and using them to your advantage. The rules try to mimic real life. But no one likes a “rules lawyer” a player who sticks to the rules even when they don’t make sense. You have to know when to throw out the rule book and go with what works.

Work is no different. Policies and procedures dictate everything from how to dress to how to manage a multi-discplinary, transformative project. Some even tell you where you should park. Rules can’t cover everything. Sometimes you have to ignore them and go with your gut.

Heroism: While some RPGs have a dark side, requiring characters to do awful and evil things, most are of a heroic nature (most who have tried being the villain in an RPG ended up feeling unsatisfied and even a little dirty). One of the appeals of these games is to be the knight in shining armor, the wise and helpful wizard, the self-sacrificing priest, to be a story book hero.

Work isn’t always so cut and dried. There is often no light or dark, only shades of gray. Still, while no one is perfect, there is nothing wrong with striving to do the right thing, not for fear of punishment or the promise of reward, but for its own sake. Just think of how many fewer women would have been victims of harassment if there were just a few more heroes willing to risk it all to come to the rescue.

I realize that RPGs aren’t for everyone, and there are other ways of gaining these skills. I also realize that it wasn’t gaming alone that made me what I am today. I’m just saying that rather than something to be looked down on as escapist fantasy or a waste of time, it should be viewed as positive an activity as playing sports, being on the debate team, or entering the science fair.

As for me, I think I’ll start making decisions with a good old saving throw.