What do the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) and the typical roleplaying game player’s handbook (PHB) have in common? The character typographies that both articulate are what Kenneth Burke would call “recipes for wise living, sometimes moral, sometimes technical” for fantasy worlds.
Burke got this idea of recipes for living by analyzing proverbs through a sociological and rhetorical lens. He concluded that these short, pithy statements were a form of literary medicine, and that their medicinal quality could be found in all things literary. According to Burke, the medicinal quality of proverbs comes from their “naming” function, or their capacity to “name” recurrent types or situations.
Where the DSM names recurrent mental disorders by type and situation, the PHB names recurrent character classes by type and situation. Both genres draw paths for wise living and script roles for life’s multitudinous narratives. The comparison and contrast isn’t crazy (ha!) if you think about it. The DSM is the inheritor of Freudian psychology via clinical psychiatry, and the PHB of Jungian psychology via Joseph Campell’s hero’s quest. Consequently, the DSM idealizes certain scripts, but pathologizes the antihereo; the PHB embraces the hero and antihero alike. The DSM provides workers in the mental health field with a codified system for diagnosing illness. The PHB emphasize performance, creativity, play, and, well…character. One set of diagnostic tools aligns its patients to right living according to society’s mandates, the other ….well, its narrative telos depends on who is telling the tale, but it’s more airy and flexible.
We can exploit this analogy in some interesting ways, too. For instance, the “mental health industrial complex” propagates categories of mental illness to great profit by codifying and institutionalizing its profession (by which I mean creating formal institutions and putting people in those institutions). The gaming industrial complex propagates categories of characters with cons, splat books, and a whole universe of converging media. Let’s just say that cons are more fun than mental wards, though both are crazy houses.
Still, the primary difference is that one genre has pretentions toward reality, while the other accepts its fictions. Of course, that statement reveals my own bias toward the anti-psychiatry perspective of folks like RD Laing, Erving Goffman, Thomas Szasz, and Michel Foucault.
So, both the DSM and the PHB provide us with recipes for wise living in fantasy worlds. The larger questions are which worlds we want to reside in, what equipment we want to carry, and what kind of character we want to build.
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