Pretending to be someone else is one of the best parts of mental youth. Some folks “grow out of it,” but others keep that fire alive as long as they can. Zombie walks through Fort Wayne are a good example; another is the GenCon gamers gathering in Indianapolis every summer. My wife and I spent two days there last week — along with maybe 50,000 other playful people. She and I were among the majority who tried to look normal while pretending to run railroads or be Mayan kings or whatnot, but we admired the hundreds of conventioneers who were determined to look unconventional.
The fellow in the photo was one of my favorites. He not only looked the part, but he was sacrificing for his art. His hooves were rigged in such a way that he was walking on the balls of his feet — with no heels! He was joined by pirates and bards and a creature whose upper body consisted of a large cardboard box painted grey and topped with lots of protruding eyeballs. I have no idea who she was supposed to be, but it didn’t matter. Go girl.
An oft-told anecdote about my own lack of imagination took place at the tiny 1974 GenCon in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I was there to play board games and when a guy walked up and urged me to take part in a new kind of game in which I could pretend to be an elf or a wizard, I quickly declined. Of course, he and his friends were playtesting the truly game-changing “Dungeons and Dragons,” and I lost out on bragging rights to be among them. Last week in Indy, the role players were a great multitude.
To me, the key titular phrase in Sarah Lynne Bowman’s The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity is “explore identity.” That’s what’s going on to a small degree in many games, but the role-playing variety sparked by the success of D&D has given thousands of people a safe way to pretend to be something on the outside that they really want to be a little bit on the inside. In fact, I’ll create a bit of pop sociology right before your eyes and suggest that devoted role players have helped open psychological doors for much of the gender-role changes we’ve seen since D&D erupted. I just wish I’d gotten a picture of the blue-gowned, white-haired anime princess at GenCon — the one who still had his full brown beard.