<I totally didn’t finish this post when I meant to, so if you read it before 6 pm on the 4th, you may have noticed it felt incomplete. That’s because it wasn’t complete! Feel free to finish reading now that I’ve finished writing it.>
We play lots of different kinds of people when we role-play, including soldiers sometimes. Without getting lost in the politics, I want to talk about if and when this is okay. The short answer in my opinion is “Yes, if done with respect.” Actually, this is generally my answer to “Can I play ‘x’?” where ‘x’ is pretty much anything and anyone. The catch comes in defining “respect.”
I touched on this concept in the piece about playing crazy in games, but it bears repeating. It is just as easy to distill the experience of soldiers into stereotypes and tropes as anyone else’s experience. Movies do it all the time. They are stories we are familiar with. And that makes them appealing character arcs and back stories. If you tell someone “my character is an officer in the Navy,” you can expect they will have some preconceptions that help them contextualize your character in the world, and how their character likely interacts (or doesn’t) with yours.
But can someone who’s never served, who has no immediate family who’s served, really understand what it’s like to be a soldier? To fight in the trenches or serve on an aircraft carrier? Probably not. But there is no such thing as one experience shared by all soldiers. So there is no platonic truth to strive for, even if that were the purpose of gaming. There is no recourse in trying to tell the story of a specific soldier either. In that case, we ought to help them write their memoir instead, because we lose the creative freedom that is such an important aspect of role playing.
I think that’s okay. Even if we don’t know everything, we can read and research and talk to people and learn some part of the experience. And then in playing such a character, we create our own truth, for our character and for us. We learn to sympathize, if not empathize, with people who live this reality.
I’ve played soldiers in both LARPs and Tabletops. Melodi LeBeau is the most prominent example of such a character. There are parts of her story taken from anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have served. There are parts taken from novels I’ve read, like The Valor Confederation series (Which I must confess to only reading the first 4 novels before I got side tracked). And there are parts that I took my own creative liberty with.
Melodi was on active duty, and so the experience we shared was in figuring out how to protect the civilians in our care. She had her unorthodox bits of course. For example, the black ops mission she was serving would make essentially zero sense in real life, but it fit the narrative. I acknowledge that Melodi is not a true to life representation of a soldier’s life, even independent of the fact that she was part of a space faring far future AU. I dare say that this is okay. I’m making no claims on knowing the truth of what any particular soldier has been through, or broad sweeping statements of “I know what war is like.” I’m just saying that through Melodi I learned some things that help me understand a little more about the experience of soldiers.
Shared experience is powerful for building empathy. Second hand experiences like watching documentaries, or playing a roleplay games are a place to start to at least build sympathy. As I’ve said before, the ability to broaden experience and increase a person’s sympathy is one of the many powerful benefits of gaming. And so, on this 4th of July, I’ll leave you with the same sentiment we started with. Play the soldier. Be respectful about it. You might just learn something.