Ethical rpg storytelling

The first principle of the medical doctor’s Hippocratic oath is: above all, do no harm. Does that same principle apply to table-top games? Does it apply to people who create fiction? I am not thinking libel, instead I am thinking an ethical obligation towards those who have been harmed. And in particular I am thinking of my obligations as I play in a game about forest fires during a time when much of the West is burning.

In what way can we as gamers lean on others experiences to create images for our imagination to hold? The imagination, takes experiences and creates new renditions of these experiences, turning those experiences into something else. For me real world experiences and history seed a rich library for the imagination to draw from in our roleplaying.  Real quickly moves to interpreted, and then into new dizzying forms. Roleplaying, this use of the imagination, helps us close the gap between others and ourselves and can help make sense of the world.  Roleplaying thus becomes an abductive form of reasoning. And from that reasoning can come understanding.

I like to borrow a concept from Stephen Dumcomble, “the tyranny of the possible” – If you haven’t read his Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy you should.  Roleplaying can allow us to break from that tyranny. Where everything is political it can help us build a politics that speaks to the irrational, that employs symbols and associations. By telling a good story I build and reaffirm good politics.

Yes, in building a world that utilizes real world calamities, like fires, I aim to create an intensified experience – frightening, delightful, and fantastic; and I often seek to critique the present. Gaming can help us play out hopes and fears. And then gaming can help build a better world from that realization.

I’m not claiming that my gaming is transformative. I’m just pointing out what gaming can be, and why I feel comfortable using real world tragedies as food for the imagination.

I also strive to be aware of my privilege in doing so. I need to work to avoid cultural appropriation, by which I mean taking part of the power dynamic in which I as a member of the dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

This is why there are some topics that are more difficult than others. The holocaust, slavery, or the genocide against indigenous peoples is a difficult subject matter because it trivializes violent historical oppression.

In the context of forest fires, I know for a fact that many, many people of color and indigenous communities are being deeply hurt. This should always inform what motifs and elements I choose to borrow. I need to borrow them, without lessening their experiences and pain. I need to be thoughtful, respectful and incorporate an anti-racist, anti-classist perspective into my use of real world stories.

For me then, the guideline is simple. The real world can be used as a rich source of gaming. This gaming can transform us. We will never borrow without thinking, we will never appropriate others stories as our own. Instead we use them to fuel the imagination into new areas.

To tell a story that moves us.

I know I don’t always get it right, but thats part of the process. And this is why I will continue to adapt stories of the West burning into our stories. Though maybe not always in the ways I had originally thought fire would be important.

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