_The Functions of Role-Playing Games_ –> Review and Notes

Bowman_FRPG_CoverSarah Lynne Bowman’s 2010 text, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, fills a basic gap in the literature about role-playing games by giving an overall history of the development of role-playing games in the United States and addressing the high-level benefits of role-playing to education, business, military and individuals. She attempts to connect research on role-playing, and the positive attitudes toward the benefits of simulation for developing creative scenarios and solving them, to leisure-based role-playing games (RPGs), which have frequently been stigmatized in the United States as frivolous or even dangerous. Her secondary research draws on anthropology, psychology, education, business management, and theatre/drama to make parallels and demonstrate commonalities in role-playing and its benefits across its many manifestations. Her primary research consists of interviews with friends in the role-playing game community, as well as her own experience with table-top and live-action role-playing games (LARPs). In particular, Bowman has been involved with Dungeons & Dragons-based games, and the White Wolf franchises, Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, two popular larps in the US that she and her interviewees have played.

Throughout the book she conflates role-playing with role-playing games, giving  passing mention to the fact that a game has a structure and rule system, whereas role-playing does not. She does not elaborate on this distinction, and instead focuses on the role-playing aspect of the game. Much of the research is about role-playing itself, and its social, creative, problem-solving, and psychological implications. Bowman assumes that this research is applicable to the role-playing game community, by virtue of role-playing being part of the game. The benefits of military simulation, for example, or classroom role-playing, or using computer games for learning, must transfer to the D&D or larp games she describes. I find this move between role-playing that is not in a game context and RPGs (table-top or larp) to be somewhat problematic, especially since there is a distinction, which Bowman notes, regarding their execution and their esteem. The question of WHY “serious” games or role-playing in the context of education, business, or the military is seen as useful while RPGs (computer, table-top or larp) are stigmatized is noted, and Bowman hopes her research can help eliminate this difference, but she does not attempt to explain why. That is a study I would like to see done. What is it about US culture in particular, that stigmatizes these activities seen as “leisure” or “fantasy” while heralding the same general behaviors in other more utilitarian setting? I have some ideas related to America’s utilitarian, protestant, capitalist culture, but that’s to be explored another day.

Bowman outlines three major benefits to role-playing that she connects to RPGs via the role-playing research, the anecdotes and reports of the players she interviewed, as well as her own experience. These are: (1) socialization, social skills, and community building; (2) problem-solving, innovative thinking and creativity; and (3) identity exploration and self-actualization.

She gives literal examples of her own role-playing characters and uses Erving Goffman’s notion of role-playing in everyday life to draw parallels between the skills she used in the game situation and the “fronts” she put on there, and the “fronts” (clothing style, mannerisms, and speech patterns) she uses or began to use out-of-game. She gives anecdotal evidence that playing in the game world with these etiquette and leadership skills (pp. 136-138) helped her to cultivate more mature skills and roles in the mundane world as a result of the practice in the safe space. She also briefly toys with the notion that players are projecting or attempting to embody their Ideal Selves through role-playing.

Bowman gives a primer on the classes and races of Dungeons & Dragons characters, which she ties to cultural archetypes, indicating that D&D draws on some deeper narrative and psychological tropes. Drawing briefly on Jung, Propp, and Campbell, Bowman delineates:

Character Classes in D&D, based on Archetypes

The warrior/fighter archetype, which includes subclasses such as the Cavalier (the chivalric mounted knight, typified by Camelot), the Paladin (typified by Lancelot, combines cavalry with limited spiritual power and devotion, the Ranger (best seen by Strider/Aragorn in LOTR,  skills in tracking and herbalism), the Berserker (Viking lore, undisciplined fighters who can sometimes transmogrify into wolves or bears), the Barbarians (after Conan, powerful and brutish and primitive, fearing magic and civilization) (p. 147).

The Cleric archetype or class, which also includes the Druid. A Knight of Holy Orders, dedicated to faith more than fighting. Uses healing magic and has limited combat skills. Often in the “true neutral” moral philosophy, viewing the binaries of good/evil, dark/light, etc. to be balancing forces of nature. (see Treebeard, Tom Bombadil in LOTR for druid types).

Wizard class, dedicated to magic. D&D divides these spells into “spheres” or “schools”, such as Illusionists (making reality appear different) or Psionicist (exerting control over reality using mental powers). Wizards are often mentors, advisers, tour guides for the heroes; helpers or donors. In RPGs, wizards are often also the hero. (Gandalf)

Rogues — follow their own individual creed and sometimes “swindle, beguile or foll others for personal gain or amusement” (p. 149). Subclasses of rogue archetypes include the Thief (finds treasure, is stealthy, pilfers, unlocks doors); the Assassin; the Bard. The roots of the Rogue class are in the Trickster archetype, boundary-crossers who blur the conceptions of ethical behavior and confuse the binary distinctions that humans tend to make.

Bowman delineates the races seen in D&D, including Human, Halfling (which Bowman sees as representing the friendly innkeeper, country bumpkin, or humble environment from which a hero emerges); Gnomes (typified by skills in the arts and building, as well as pranks) which appeared in Germanic myths and European folklore; Dwarves (superstitious miners who distrust magic) appearing in Germanic and French folklore, often living underground or in caves, including subraces of Duergar Dwarves, Hill Dwarves; and Elves (long-lifespan, associated with beauty, gracefulness, art). Subraces include High Elves, Gray Elves, Sylvan or Wood Elves, Drow (Dark) Elves.

Bowman notes that the general tendency to place characters into archetypal figures, bloodlines, clans, races, and classes is a way of replicating or mimicking traditions in the mundane world and also archetypal personality types such as Caregiver, Fanatic, Judge, Loner and Visionary (p. 153). I would argue that there is a basic sense of nostalgia and a desire to categorize as a way to push back against the fluidity and fragmentation of the post-modern world that is at play in these desires to replicate strict hierarchies in the RPGs, and not merely a psychological connection to shared universal humanity.

Psychological Basis for Role-Playing

In her attempt to legitimize RPGs, Bowman traces the impulse to role-play to early childhood explorations of alternate identities, adolescent blending of various social codes and mores to create a stable ego identity, and the postmodern world that demands a stronger fluidity of identity and multiplicities of self, which she sees as “sub-personalities” that also reflect archetypes that bubble up through the collective unconscious and are identifiable by their continual recurrence in cross-cultural narratives (p. 154). She defends modern role-playing games against critics who would relegate them to “abnormal escapism” by demonstrating that they are connected to inherent archetypal structures, legitimate identity exploration, and a tradition of role-playing.

Bowman sees role-playing as a natural outgrowth of this post-modern sensibility of having to play so many different roles, but then she also traces the popularity of role-playing to the freedom of expression and breakdown of social structures of the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in the US, and also to the basic origins of humanity in tribal cultures. These are never reconciled into a narrative or theory in the book, however, so one is left feeling uncertain whether Bowman thinks today’s role-playing is anything more than modern expressions of basic human behavior or something new and different, though connected to the past. It seems that her point is to demonstrate the connection in order to legitimize modern RPGs such as D&D and World of Darkness. Her point is not to theorize or offer an explanatory or descriptive model, but to report linkages between RPGs and other disciplines as a means to demonstrate that they are “good” and beneficial.

Bowman destabilizes her previous six chapters at the beginning of chapter 7 by saying, “creativity is, by nature, an unconscious process” and thus it may be impossible to understand the causes, motivations and reasons for the characters enacted by players (p. 155). This is surprising, because Bowman has spent the previous chapters attempting to show that the behavior of the storytellers and the players in RPGs is based on unconscious archetypes and cultural traditions being expressed anew in ways that are fundamentally healthy and quintessentially human. She relies on self-reported “flashes of insight” into the creative process of her informants to attempt to pinpoint this process she sees as being unconscious, rather than using the previous research to corroborate a theory that role-playing can be predicted and explained via the psychological and sociological methods. After saying this, however, she goes on to trace the development of a role-playing character using typology and psychological identification between the player and the archetype.

The ideas of identity alteration, though only one of the three functions of role-playing initially identified in the book, seem to be where Bowman is most interested and where her greatest contribution lies. She is interested in HOW a player adopts a new identity and creates the multiple sense of of self. She spends a great deal of time reporting on clinical psychology and ideas of Dissociative Identity Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder, positing that these may not be disorders (and deserving of stigma or repair) but “advantages, resulting from an active, creative and intelligent basic consciousness” (p. 140). Her reasoning is that fantastical escapism can be present without trauma or alienation (though she spent much of Ch. 1 an Ch. 2 discussing how many role-players characterized themselves as outcasts); that the behaviors could be the result of “deeper wells of creative power” and an inherent human nature to draw from the wells of unconscious and represent with symbols, such as art. Bowman believes that role-playing is this same process of art creation, but that the medium and product of an RPG is simply not societally acceptable or economically feasible; and that clinical psychology as a discipline prefers to pathologize rather than “celebrate his or her uniqueness” (p. 141). Her example is that Vincent Van Gogh’s “unorthodox behavior patterns and roller-coaster like emotions” were the result of “high level of creativity” rather than lunacy, and that if only these artists “can acquire patronage or acclaim they become ‘rehabilitated'” (p. 141). Bowman sees exceptional creativity as a heightened identity crisis (drawing obliquely on Erik Erikson) and that role-playing is a manifestation of this creativity and identity exploration (p. 141). While I admire her point that humans do have a tendency to marginalize and stigmatize that which they do not understand, I would offer that a distinction between the creative imagination and true mental illness still exists, and that not all artists would find their troubles disappearing if only they were paid properly with money and esteem.  What I would like to explore here is our (United States) society’s tendency to hold up actors (who are indeed role-players) in high esteem, and to celebrate their talent and eccentricities as well as lament their tragic downfalls as a result of sacrificing themselves to their art or being the type of “creative soul” that is consumed by “normal society (e.g. Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman), while simultaneously stigmatizing those who role-play or act as a hobby (community theatre, larping), counseling against the dangers of a loss of self or not living “in reality”.

Bowman posits that Robert Assagioli’s theory of psychosynthesis, or an assimilation of alternate egos and fragmented consciousness may help get past the context of trauma and pathology associated with multiple identities, but Assagioli himself notes that the cycle of dissolution and reconstruction sometimes is healthy and other times creates “toxic conditions” and “psychopathological abscesses and tumors” (qtd. in Bowman, p. 143). Bowman, agreeing with Assagioli, states that “Integration” (the goal of psychotherapy and the “norm” of psychological health) can take places after ego identity dissolution. Following this logic, though, it would mean that role-playing is an immature consciousness struggling to integrate, and that after a role-playing stage, the player would dissolve these alter-egos and construct a healthy, normative, whole. Perhaps Bowman is attempting to say that the healthy, normative, ego identity is itself a blend of multiplicities and fragments, and that it is never stable, but always evolving and being re-synthesized. However, she does not say this explicitly, nor posit this as a theory to integrate the various sources she uses. This is an interesting idea, though, to think of a role-player as being hyper-aware of the performative nature of everyday life, more comfortable and adept at moving among roles and “fronts” both in-game and out, and eschewing a single “ego identity” that would be formed at a particular time in life, after the adolescent crisis, in favor of a more fluid identity that incorporates experience and the various psychosocial crises outlined by Erikson and that is a more accurate manifestation of the post-modern self than an ostensible singular integration that was posited by psychologists more than a century ago. Bowman spends her time justifying role-playing in broad terms and concentrating on de-stigmatizing or de-pathologizing it. She does conclude with the idea that role-playing various selves (see ch. 7) does help the player with his/her out-of-game primary identity, channeling Mackay, but she does not then reconnect that idea to this psychological research. She argues, agreeing with Daniel MacKay, that role-playing is an art form and role-players are artists. (p. 142). Here, she would agree with the proponents of the Nordic Larp movement, who, since the turn of the 21st century, have been advocating for larp as art.

Bowman puts forth the idea that the creation of alternate selves is an inherent human impulse, and that the content of these identities may arise from specific archetypes that exist in the collective unconscious as explained by Jung.The book is mostly a broad literature review related to role-playing and its origins and contribution. Its research scope is ambitious and broad, making it struggle to come to cohesion. Yet in Chapter 7, (this is the book)  Bowman offers a process for character creation and the beginning of a theoretical model of archetypal roles, which are corroborated by the experience of various players in modern US RPGs and larps.

She offers a four-stage process of character evolution:

  1. Genesis — origin or inception arising from a combination of archetypes, game mechanics, literature, popular culture, personal experience. May be motivated by social needs or psychological needs. Bowman sees this as an individual process, as existing internally to the player creating the character (I might argue that this is inherently social, given that it draws upon culture and society — see Bakhtin). Bowman sees this as the Gestalt of the character, the essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.
  2. Development — adds more details through creative exercises. This is still an individual activity which might include research into costuming, a particular time period, skills, etc., including the writing of backstory or scenarios.
  3. Interaction — a testing of the character within the game system and world. “Brought to life” and tested through play. The nascent personality is enacted and the player attempts to think “as” the character and immerse into the character and the world.
  4. Realization — The player has a distinct sense of “character’s past and present motivations, their complexities and idiosyncrasies” (p. 157). This comes as a result of passing through the previous three stages.

Bowman states that in this process, the player is the “Primary Ego Identity” which still exists, although “the more immersed in the game world the players become, the more they perceive the character as a distinct entity from the Primary Self” (p. 157), manifested in nine different ways with various degrees of similarity to the Primary Ego Identity. Bowman, then, sees a character as an alternative self that is brought to life by the player as a result of tapping into primal psychological urges, universal narrative, collective unconscious, and formed via interaction with other character identities and the social norms of the game world. For Bowman, a character (or persona) is a distinct entity and identity that is related to the player in one of nine ways.

Her Nine Categories of Archetypal Selves that are enacted in role-playing games are as follows (though she notes that some characters will share qualities of multiple categories). She derives these from the interview questions that she asked her informants:

Doppelganger Self — closely resembles the primary ego identity. Puts primary self into new situations. Sometimes  (Bowman says “the majority of the time”, citing Fine and Mackay) dismissed in role-playing (at least in the US and in the traditions Bowman explores) as amateurish and immature, used by “younger, less-skilled players” (p. 165), claiming that “serious role-players” instead concentrate on the  “successful enactment of an entity other than the self” (p. 165). This is seen as “surface level” and a lack of immersion. Bowman cautions that this Self need not be viewed as shallow; that playing a Doppelganger can “enhance self-esteem” and allow the “ordinary” (by which she means the player) to do “extraordinary things” in the game situation.

Devoid Self — this is basically the Doppelganger Self minus one or more essential qualities the player possesses out of game. For example, the character may have a physical disability, lack of empathy, etc. Bowman notes that this single change often radically changes the behavior of the character, distancing it from the Primary Ego Identity.

Augmented Self — Doppelganger Plus. Take the player and add a super power, wealth, immortality, etc. Again, this change tends to change the behavior of the character to create a more distinct persona.

Fragmented Self — take a fragment of the player’s personality and accentuate, amplify it. By exaggerating this aspect, one creates a “new” identity or way of being. Bowman notes that these aspects are played out archetypally (rogue, rake, femme fatale, vixen, animalistic impulses through anthropomorphic play, sexuality — feminine side or masculine side — altruism or greed, etc.) and allow expression of behaviors that may be repressed.

Repressed Self — Bowman refers to this as the Inner Child. Open expression of “childish” or naive behaviors and play with a sense of “well-meaning mischievousness” (p. 170). Can be seen as regression to a less-evolved state or to play or reason with childlike perspective and abandon.

Idealized Self — a persona that possesses qualities the player wishes that s/he had (Fine: “taking on a role helps one overcome deficiencies of one’s ‘real self’ … qtd. in Bowman, p. 172). Often a hero with great physical strength, acumen, and sex appeal who accomplishes amazing feats (and thus, hopes to transfer some self-esteem and confidence to the player). Often the idealized characters behave with altruism, nobility, strength of purpose, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

Oppositional Self — complete opposition to the primary ego identity, including attributes and behaviors that the player finds repulsive (though not always). Could be a philosophical difference (e.g. playing a homophobe or a passive female when the player is tolerant and accepting or an independent, strong woman). Can be a way to explore other mentalities and ways of being to understand those the primary personality has conflict with out of game.

Experimental Self –– character created as an exercise to test the bounds of role-playing and rethink assumptions. Might be fantastical.

Taboo Self — a persona that is able to explore, in the generally safe and consequence-free space of the RPG, topics that are normally off-limits, such as rape, abuse, incest, cannibalism, etc. Often the player’s moral stance is reaffirmed rather than subverted due to the role-playing in this persona.

MacKay, and then Bowman, posit that as a result of experiencing these alternative selves in the role-playing environment, players have an underlying sense of psychological unity that helps them as they navigate the fragmented out-of-game world. Bowman attributes this to the ritual space of the gameworld, which allows for reintegration at the close of the ceremony/game. Using the anecdotes from her informants, Bowman concludes that enacting other entities helps players better understand their primary selves (ego identities). She does not connect this to psychological phenomena or role-playing research she delineated in the first few chapters.

Limitations: Bowman bases all of her conclusions on the slice of RPGs and Larps (particularly World of Darkness) that she has played. Her ideas about character creation presuppose that the player creates the character him/herself (many larps have pre-written characters) and is able to develop the character over time.

Bowman does not give information about her research methods, so it is unknown how she selected her informants, who they comprise, how she collected the information, etc. It is unclear whether those she spoke with constitute a viable sample of the role-playing community and whether their anecdotes are generalizable.


Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games how participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
Fine, G. A. (2002). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mackay, D. (2001). The fantasy role-playing game: a new performing art. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

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