Today is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Today we commemorate an American hero. No hero is without their faults, but I doubt anyone could argue that Martin Luther King, Jr did as much as anyone, and more than most, to champion the cause of the systematically disenfranchised, especially black Americans. I cannot even pretend to understand the full import of Dr King’s work.

After all, I’m a middle-class American white guy, who comes from a middle-class American white family. I quite simply do not have the experience to create a highly personal emotional attachment to the plight of the poverty-bound individuals across the world, or those of you who are judged, dismissed, ridiculed, or persecuted because your gender, your orientation, or the the color of your skin.

However, I want to understand. I want to empathise with you. I want to be a force for good for the disenfranchised.

Martin Luther King Jr

So what is an RPG?

“But what on earth does that have to do with Role-Playing Games (RPGs)?” you may ask. And you’d be right to ask.

For those of you unfamiliar with RPGs, they are a form of collaborative story-telling where each participant takes on the role of a character in some fictional world and narrates their actions. Some people are method actors, never leaving the character’s mind or mannerisms during play. Other people prefer to narrate their character’s actions from the third person.

These plastic cubes can open the door to imagination.

Imagination Opens Doors to Empathy

Regardless of which style of role-player you are, there is one thing that you have the opportunity to do: imagine being someone else, in a situation different from your own. Imagination can take you on a journey of exploration through a world of high fantasy, filled dragons and magic. It can thrust you into the middle of an intergalactic war with a newly discovered alien race. And it can also allow you to live in the kind of world that Dr King dreamed of in his famous speech:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr

We also have the opportunity to imagine our characters as coming from a background different from our own. We can create a character who comes from a background where poverty and debt are the only thing she knows. You can choose to create a character who is gay, or who is an immigrant. Or you could create a character who comes from greater wealth and opportunity than yourself.

And when you do, a good role-player will not allow their own biases and perceptions to hold sway. They set aside their experiences and begin imagining the situation into which this character, this other person, was born. So, as a good role-player, you should imagine the experiences that formed your character, and allow those experiences to inform the actions you take as that character. As you do this, you may begin to find yourself feeling just a small part of what the people in those kinds of situations must feel, and understanding the actions they may take as a result.

Imagination isn’t limited; we can imagine anything.

It’s Only a Start

Don’t think that I’m saying that by playing an RPG, I or anyone else will be able to fully understand your plight, or the plight of those who struggle through situations different from your own. What I am saying is that we can start to understand. We can exercise our ability to feel empathy and begin to see and feel the world as others must.

It’s probably impossible for me to truly understand the struggle for racial equality the same way black Americans do. It is a futile endeavor for me to make myself feel like women under the brutal rule of foreign despots. It’s probably not even really possible to truly understand what it must be like for those white Americans who grew up in homes dependent upon factory work, and who now face more difficult times.

My experiences don’t match up, and so they don’t let me say from personal experience that “I get you. I understand you.” But by imagining, even for a few hours, that I am one of you, by setting aside my own experiences (as much as is possible) I can begin to feel a kinship with you. I can see a glimmer of the world as you must. And you can do the same for the people who are different from yourself.

Empathy Is Power

When we can start to see a glimmer of what life must be like for the people around us, as well as those far away, we take a step toward making the world a better place.

So, the next time you create a character for an RPG, whether it’s set in our world or a fantasy world, create a character that faces echoes of what our brothers and sisters around the world face. Try to feel at least some small portion of what the people around us must feel. After all, it’s a starting point to making yourself someone who can make the world a better place.