If you've read the little bio blurb I have on here somewhere, you'll know I'm a sociology major at UMass. The trouble with this, is sometimes I feel the need to use my major in my relaxation time, and so this post is going to be one of those. That being said, the concept of the Looking Glass Self is something that is good to be aware of, especially when you are the GM. It can help you with understanding why you might be doubting your abilities, or the game itself, when you're in the middle of running a session where everyone is really into character. So, what is it? Well, read on to find out.
What Is It?
The concept of the Looking Glass Self is one of the ideas being the self as being a social construct. Meaning, essentially, that the idea of the 'self' is more a role played in social activity, than some deep and true part of yourself. The Looking Glass Self, to state it simply, says that people tend to see themselves how they think others see them.
In practice, this means that if everyone around you is smiling, laughing, and having a good time, then you will - in general - think better of yourself, then if the laughter and smiles suddenly leave as soon as you walk into the room, or approach the group.
Get it? Good.
Why Is This Important?
So, why is this important to know about? Well, picture this scenario. You've got something special planned for the next session of your game, a big event. It is going to change the face of your world for the rest of the game, and put the PCs into more risk and peril than they have yet to experience. You spend all week planning it, getting the NPCs set out, getting the stats done right, testing and balancing every encounter, and planning things out as well as you can. Then, the big day comes, and...no one seems to be having fun. People are playing, sure, but their faces are serious, they're challenging some rulings, asking how things are happening. You're ruining your special session, and no one is having fun. It is too forced, too contrived, they know you're a sham....
...or do they? What if they're acting that way because they're engrossed? You have them challenged, and now they're looking for every edge they can to try and get through this. It isn't that they're having fun, it's that they have their game faces on. Those bland expressions are them being in character, and trying to find a way out, while on the inside they're little gamer brains are dancing a jig and rejoicing that you've put all this work into the game.
On the other hand, you could be right, which is where the Looking Glass Self can be such a pain in the ass to deal with. So, how do you tell the difference? The only way I've found is to ask people, and then trust them. "Are you having fun?" If they say yes, than they are and you're doing fine, if they say no, you can talk about it and find out why. If they say yes, when they mean no, then it is their own fault and they get what they asked for.
Sure, but why else?
Now, the important thing is, the above isn't the only - or even most - important reason to know about the Looking Glass Self. The other reason is to be aware of what is going on around your table, and not to necessarily take it out on yourself. See, how many bits of player advice tell the player to pay attention? How many places say it is bad etiquette to have a player reading a book, or playing around online, during game? Honestly, in some circumstances I agree with them, but at the same time, if a player is sitting there for upwards of an hour without being drawn into play, what is wrong with them entertaining themselves quietly?
The reason I think so many GMs get caught up on this is because they see that as a reflection of themselves, and their game. The game isn't good enough for that player, or the player isn't having fun at the game - which makes them a bad GM. Again, these could be true, but it can also be something as simple as they're not directly engaged in the game, and rather than starting a side conversation they're doing something else.
So, how should you handle that? Put it back on the players and not yourself. Don't read into what they're doing as a reflection of your GMing, unless they say so. Instead, try to involve that person more, give them less reason to pick that book up and read, less reason to go looking for web comics, and if they keep doing it, then simply don't reward their distraction. A simple rule I've had at my table for a bit is that if you need something re-explained, and are completely focused on the game, then I will happily do it. However, if you've been stacking dice, reading comics, or playing on your lap top, then I am far less forgiving. The same if you're the only person at the table who doesn't know the situation. It has been harsh at times, but in general it has worked out well, and has people paying attention. At the same time, the people who can, do, and/or need to multi-task have been fine as well. They've only been asked to stop when it has shown itself to regularly be a problem, but that usually solves itself when they don't get a clear picture due to their distraction.
This went a bit off topic, but the main point I feel was still made. Be aware of the Looking Glass Self. Be aware that how you think they see you, may not actually be how they see you, and give your players a chance to plainly state if they are having fun or not. In the end, that is all that matters, isn't it?