Friday, December 3, 2010

Exploiting Your Character's Social Identity

Man, it must be near the end of the semester, because I just can't stop applying some of the sociological concepts I've fully taken in over the last few months to everything I'm seeing around me, and then I usually apply it to gaming. So, today I want to talk about Social Identity, and much like how yesterday's post was inspired by a web comic, here is the one that inspired today's post.

First off, what is Social Identity? Well, social identity builds off the idea that the self is a social construct, or something that you have built for yourself, based partially off of how people have reacted to you in your life. Social Identity builds off of this by going in the direction that how people will view you is based on how you present yourself. For a clear example, think of the movie the New Guy, where a kid goes to a new school in order to reinvent himself. He switches schools, goes somewhere where no one else knows him, and then acts completely differently. In doing so, he constructs an identity for himself as being the 'top dog' at that school.

The comic I linked above is a great, if somewhat violent, way of showing how you can exploit your social identity. The grandma acts nice, kind, sweet, and honest for years. She has constructed that identity for herself of being the sweet and kindly grandma. Then, she makes it look like she was stabbed, and asks the kid why he did it. Everyone looking at the situation sees the sweet and kindly grandma having been stabbed. No one, or at least no one who has accepted her social identity, will doubt what she's said. Why would she lie? That is just not who she is.

A more relate-able example might be the kid in school who acts kind and studious, then claims he forgot his homework at home when he hasn't done it. The teacher, acting off the perception that the kid is a good student then gives the benefit of the doubt, and the kid gets more time to do, and pass in, the homework.

So, how does this relate to gaming? Well, honestly, how doesn't it relate to gaming? As people, all of our reactions and interactions are based off of how we perceive the social identity of ourselves and those around us. We don't go acting tough against people we perceive are scarier than us, we don't act like sheep around people we think are weaker than us. Every interaction you have, and every reaction you receive, is based at least partially off of how you present yourself. Act strong, and people are more likely to react to you as if you are. Act weak, and they may over look you. This is, in a lot of ways, the core idea behind "talk softly, but carry a big stick", or how the main characters of numerous martial arts movies are shown. They act meek, but when push comes to shove, they are more then capable of handling themselves.

Where this plays out the best in RPGs though, is for anyone playing a political, or otherwise manipulative, character. As both a GM and a player you can use this. Have your character act one way, and act that way consistently. Play up the act, show the role you are taking, and use it to hide what is actually going on. Now, some of this may be played off the fact that the players may know what is going on, but a good group won't even have it phase them. I mean, why would the party suspect that you are suddenly holding out on them, when you've turned over everything you've found on dozens of occasions? Who is going to suspect that you are actually in league with the revolutionary forces, when you've been acting the loyal patriot all along?

Watch how you act, and when you need to - when you need the extra surprise - act contrary to that nature for just long enough to get what you need. Just make sure that when you drop that constructed identity, that it is worth it.


  1. I once really threw a GM by taking a new character and making him act like a complete goofball. This was intended to be a kind of ADHD manic stream of thought identity but the GM just thought I wasn't interested in his game. I kinda wrecked his campaign because in line with the character I was trying really out of the box solutions.

    I guess in that case the character's social identity didn't match with my social identity and the GM who is a good friend had no idea how to read me. This is almost the opposite of what you're discussing in the article but I bring it out to show that the player's social identity can really conflict with the character's and lead to people mistrusting or misunderstanding the character.

  2. Definitely a good point, and something I should have addressed. Whenever you are doing this, intentionally, in character you should talk to your GM about it. This way they know that your character is playing a role, and not that you are suddenly acting out of character when things happen.

    Generally though I advocate communicating with your GM on what is going on. It lets them (or at least me when I'm GMing) help you pull off your fun ploys.

  3. Exactly, although I did try to tell him I was going to have fun with the character, he had never seen me play like that and it was a shock. I've played in a lot of styles that they've never seen because I usually GM. I am going to really have to communicate any new or unusual styles I spring on them.