Character Roleplay as a Coping Mechanism

Today I disarmed a bomb. Can you imagine the pressure? The smallest screw-up, and all for nothing. Pain, death. This wasn’t a real bomb, of course. I was just playing a character. However, I had been working for days on end for my character to get to that position. And, in the moment, there was nothing else. I wasn’t me; the world around me wasn’t spinning. There wasn’t the traffic outside my window, or any of my neighbors existing around me in the dorm. All of that was gone. I was simply entrenched in the happenings. My group members sat with bated breath, hoping their characters wouldn’t go down with mine. After the bomb went dead, we all cheered. It wasn’t all in the same room, but the burst of messages over Skype appeared similar enough.

Earlier the same day, I cried during an exam. I left morose and humiliated. I’m not failing the class by any means, but I still felt bad getting a B. I bent under all the pressure. After disarming that bomb, though? I feel like the breakdown never happened. Moments like these keep me and others afloat during rough times. Especially when you have chronic mental illness, or have other life instability, roleplaying groups make a huge difference.

Roleplaying is as it says: playing a role. Someone who isn’t your own person, usually. A character in most cases, sometimes a persona if you really want to be yourself. Like writing, it’s a hobby centered around creating fiction. Lots of people have experience roleplaying even if they don’t consider themselves roleplayers. As stated by Sarah Lynne Bowman in The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, “Young children engage in the shifting of roles unconsciously and un-self-consciously.”

As teens and older, some seek out roleplaying in groups, whether in person or online, in a more conscious and consistent manner. People work on their characters over time, and while stories often have preset ends, roleplay is more open. Most players don’t know who their characters will become after months or even years of play. I’ve been playing my characters for two years or more, for instance. It’s been an adventure to see where they have ended up after all this time. More importantly, what they have done for me while playing them.

Being someone else for a while is actually a surprisingly calming pastime. Even if the in-character situation is hectic, a player can come out of it feeling better than before. Further, there is space to explore a different identity. Fellow group member Natalie commented, “Playing a character is like shedding your skin and becoming someone else. It’s like defying every social concept we’ve learned since day one, or following it to the T. I felt free playing my characters, and every design I made or followed with them was one I didn’t get to explore in real life.  In real life, people knew me as the tomboy, a little too violent, a little too awkward. As my character, I could imagine whatever I wanted for them, both female and male, and I didn’t need to follow any gender norm or act a certain way to get family or friends to like me.”

Sometimes it’s easier to be someone else. Personal situations might be too awful to deal with, or a person might not like who they are and need to work through that somehow. Natalie preferred playing characters different from her own self, but Leon saw aspects of himself in his characters. “My trolls have little parts of me wrapped into them. The fact I can let off some of my emotional strain and use my characters as funnels has always helped me,” he said.

Roleplaying brings in an unconventional way to keep up emotional stability. It doesn’t address problems head-on, but it does make them easier to deal with, at least for a time. I’ve often combated depressive lows by playing a chipper character. It doesn’t always work, nor does it replace therapy, but it keeps me in a better place than nothing at all. So far, it’s a free alternative until I can find someone to see regularly.

However, characters alone aren’t the only things to help people with their hardships. The communities built around the roleplaying groups are an immense help. Between becoming an easy space to vent in, and building personal relationships, they are the other side of the coping coin. Where there isn’t distraction, there’s positive socialization. Bowman asserts, “Regardless, in each of their therapeutic, educational, and leisure contexts, role-playing activities and other forms of interactional drama work to build an overall sense of connection and community amongst participants.”

Leon agreed. “You make friends in the most gradual and unexpected ways. It’s actually comforting. The community as a whole is a safe place I can turn to. While I struggle to really see value in what I do produce or come up with writing wise I generally feel like people enjoy interacting with me (and my characters) so that is a feeling that definitely keeps me coming back for more.”

For Natalie, socialization hasn’t just helped her cope; it’s saved her life. “When I was in tenth grade, I was considering bulimia and suicide, but after being talked down by a lot of close friends and being able to roleplay my characters with my friends, I started feeling better and now, I rarely have bouts of depression and have mostly grown out of my anxiety unless under extreme stress. I’d thrown myself into roleplaying to an extreme degree, and it was my friends online who’d noticed I needed to distance myself from it. To this day, I’m thankful I have such amazing friends who’ve been there for me, even if I’ve never met them in real life.”

There have been a variety of situations where players needed to vent. Whether about their jobs, school, illness, or home life, they’ve had a safe haven to talk. In that open space, too, they can find advice to deal with some of those problems. Roleplaying groups look out for their players. All walks of life merge into a nice space to chill out and chat. During larger scenarios, everyone gets excited. Often, people easily find themselves on the same level, either out of empathy or sympathy. No matter if it’s a good time or bad time, everyone’s always willing to share the mood if need be.

My roleplay group has a core of people who moderate and sometimes control the adventures. They issue the hard limits of what our characters can’t do in the narratives, and sometimes play recurring Non-playable characters as well as their own consistent characters. I asked one of the moderators, Em, for her thoughts on the specific roleplay as a way to help cope. She had a different view, since she has to write out scenarios for the group. “I require a lot of momentum to do writing work, especially since I have moderator duties that crop up.”

She admitted that our group was not as much stress relief for her, but she did find ways to cope in similar places: “I do use other RPing settings for coping–usually video games where there’s zero pressure to interact with another human being. World of Warcraft was incredibly important to me while I was taking care of my mom.” Em lost her mother to cancer this past year. “I didn’t do much outright roleplaying, though I did write a character backstory and played on an RP server. But it was nice to couple world-building elements with incredibly mindless tasks. It was really grounding to feel like I was accomplishing something without having to deal with the troubles of real life.”

Even in different spaces, the similar threads of performing as characters unify to a specific concept, as covered by Bowman, “…[E]mphasis on the development of trust and relaxation in a safe atmosphere is important in all forms of improv, including role-playing.” Roleplaying creates a safe space among players. They can not only be themselves, but they have space to explore aspects of their lives or something entirely different. Like Natalie, it’s possible to be someone else. Like Leon, it’s possible to explore your own traits. Like myself, it can be a combination of both. It’s like a slightly-removed self-reflection, or something removed entirely. Importantly, there’s freedom to do whatever a person wants to. The community trusts each other on top of it with personal details and traumas that make them cope. The first people I’m willing to tell upfront about my life troubles are my roleplay group; this applies to many others in the group as well.

Whether it’s loss, trauma, or mental illness, there are alternatives to lessen the pain. Roleplaying is one of them. Some people may never consider it with the ‘nerdy’ outlook on games like Dungeons & Dragons and Live Action Roleplaying, but these sorts of activities really do help a lot of people who might not find outlets otherwise. While roleplaying will never replace therapy, nor should it, it’s a fun pastime that can make tough times a little easier to deal with. I encourage taking a look into character creation, or getting a group for a tabletop game, or finding a forum roleplay online to check out. Who knows what connections you might make, or what solid foundation you’ll have if you fall off the wheel of fortune.

Leander Ransier
Leander is a pre-junior (almost junior!) English major. She's an aspiring writer focusing on body horror and unfortunate transformations. When she's not causing her characters undue stress, she's searching for a nice burger and shake combo.

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