Reacting vs Responding
There’s a good bit of parenting advice that lodged itself in my head once a long while ago, that when possible we should respond to our kids rather than react to them. It’s mostly aspirational; parents are human and we totally react to stuff all the time. But it’s a good reminder, at the very least, to take a breath when your visceral instincts kick in.
So of course, parenting being a human activity and pretty much all human activities can map over to roleplaying, I’ve been thinking about how reacting versus responding is one of my major philosophical issues with the (aspirational IMO) “roleplaying is a conversation” thing that indieland has embraced so uncritically.
I know that when I’m facilitating, a lot of my energies are aimed at evoking reactions. I want the players to feel the feels, to act on them, to not sit there with the situation a good long while and math out optimal solutions. I want reactions. But reactions don’t really have a place in a conversation, either with your players or with a kid.
I also know that as a facilitator I frequently myself am reacting. When something excites or angers or otherwise evokes a reaction in a player, I react to that. This is brain-deep stuff and I am in no way a brain scientist, but again this all comes back to parenting as I understand it: when your amygdala and her amygdala are firing off, ain’t nobody conversing in any meaningful way. We’re pushing each other’s buttons and our lizard brains are running the show.
Of course, if you feel like it’s important or necessary, you can simply make the bucket bigger and call literally any human interaction a “conversation.” Personally I feel like that’s a cop-out. If we ignore the fundamental differences between reactions and responses, we’re ignoring a big part of mastering this thing of ours.
Certainly there are stretches of time where play really is a series of responses. I offer up a thing, the player responds to that thing after some thought. I respond to their response. It’s cool and rational and emotionally healthy. It’s also all arms-length. Sometimes, you know, you kind of want to evoke an unhealthy response.
Bear with me a second! I absolutely do not mean we want to foster emotionally unhealthy play spaces. Good grief. Be more charitable than that. What I’m talking about is that unhealthy reactions are super-fruitful when it comes to human drama (if human drama is a facet of the kind of play you like).
Like, just look at the accompanying graphic. All that ugly shit under React is fucking awesome when it comes to drama, yeah? And then also look under Respond. I don’t know about you, but a game full of responding and no reacting feels chilly and, well, not human. Or at least not really concerned with human concerns.
Probably every play instance everywhere is going to be a mix of reactions and responses. This is just me thinking about how to be mindful of what’s actually happening. Are you reacting? Or are you responding? Should you maybe be doing more or less of one of those?