Two years ago, I managed the difficult task of becoming an even bigger a nerd then I was: I started tabletop role-playing. Unlike most depictions of role playing, my group’s campaigns aren’t focused on the battles and die rolling. Instead, they’re improvisational storytelling sessions. You create and dwell in a character, just as you would if you were writing a fictional story. Except unlike writing, which allows you time to edit, role playing requires you to be clever on your feet (even if your character isn’t!). So far, I’ve played a young innocent woman running away from court for a life of adventure (Pathfinder) and a socially blunt Nordic blacksmith who has been appointed as a trade guild representative (7th Sea). Obviously, neither of these reflect a lick of my real-life experience. As a result, role playing has forced me to use my imagination and inhabit perspectives very different from my own. Developing this keen empathy for my fictional characters has actually sharpened my skills for relating to real people, including my son.
Creating a new character in a campaign has been good preparation for adopting my new role as a parent. To develop a character, you construct a whole person, with their own background and voice. As you slip into that character, you consider what she would want in any given situation and respond accordingly. Taking on that role can be challenging – in this most recent campaign, it took me a couple of sessions to figure out why my character would be traveling with these ruffians on the first place.
But that process was easy compared to my mental and emotional transition to the role of “mommy.” Instead of coming up with a fictional identity, I faced a whole new facet of my current identity. Rather than abilities like climbing or fighting that I could write on a sheet, I suddenly had to learn a list of hands-on skills, from diapering to breastfeeding. My own needs and wants hit me in a barrage of emotion, causing reactions that my old self would have never predicted. (It’s shocking how many things provoke sentimental tears these days.) Sometimes I felt like a character in someone else’s life, playing an unfamiliar role.
But I was able to handle both challenges with largely the same approach – fake it ’till you make it. I used to hate this idea, feeling that if you can’t do something well that “pretending” was fraudulent. But in both situations, I realized there’s simply no other choice. You can’t become familiar with a character until you play them for a while. No one knows what it’s like to be a parent until it happens. At first, the role is totally foreign. But by acting like a “good parent” even when you don’t feel like one – whatever that means to you – you eventually become one. C.S. Lewis has a good analogy in Mere Christianity, talking the process of becoming a “good Christian.” He explains that we will never reach Jesus’s level of love, but we can “put on his clothes” and practice. Just like little children walking around in their parents’ shoes, we too will grow into the people we need to be.
In addition to helping me take on my new role, gaming has helped me see the world a little more through the eyes of my infant. If he had a character sheet, it would read strength 2, dexterity 1, intelligence 5 (current level of knowledge, not IQ), and charisma 18. While he’s since leveled up in forward locomotion and object manipulation, crying was his sole skill when he was born. Contemplating how much he had to learn – even eating and pooping! – helped me comprehend how overwhelming the world must be. Seeing the world from his perspective has reinforced my patience in even the toughest times, like at 2 AM in the morning.
While many people make fun of role players for living in a fantasy world, it’s actually helped me be a better parent in the real one.