Ghosting in Games
Defining the term
Ghosting is when you play an rpg as yourself rather than as a different character.
A game can either be written to be ghosted, or you can play a standard game with a ghost as a vehicle. This can be done for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to self-exploration and personal wish fulfillment.
For example, The Beast is a game de-facto written to be ghosted, or at least very friendly to it. It engages the player’s existing sexuality and takes it into new, fictionalized areas in a structured and guided way.
As a different example, a “play yourself as X” runs of any classic rpg is also ghosting.
Lastly, a ghost does not only have to apply to an individual: it can also apply to a group through individuals. For example, a group of friends can play Monsterhearts as a ghosted version of their community, where each character is a ghosted version of the player, but the relationships and community shape are also ghosted.
When ghosting, bleed becomes even more significant: The game is essentially run on bleed-in as a major source of content-style. Likewise, Bleed-out management has to be done carefully — paying more attention to distance/differentiation with the character and aftercare.
There are two types of distance involved.
The first kind is the natural differentiation that happens when the player translates themselves into the system. While the act of “I suppose these are my stats” does somewhat create a sense of fictionalization, this difference should not be considered automatically sufficient for mediating emotional distance. We as players project ourselves into different situations all the time in real life as well as fiction, and the sense of identity when doing so is strong.
The second kind of distance is emotional distance that is explicitly created to manage bleed-out and ability to emotionally divorce from fiction. This can be done through careful initial framing the activity, modifying the ghost to create a sense of differentiation between the fiction and the player, workshops, or many other techniques.
When ghosting a group rather than an individual, managing emotional distance is even more important. Especially if social dynamics is part of the game, in-game interactions can easily bleed into informing real relationships. This can be good or bad, based on how well it’s handled — on one hand, the exploratory process can evolve and invigorate relationships. On the other hand, it can lead to boundaries being fictionally crossed with real consequences.
When ghosting a group, it is absolutely vital to have an initial conversation about boundaries. (Sometimes, when ghosting an individual, this should still happen in the course of determining how to translate relationships.)
For example, I have a rule that my ghosts will never get into a romantic relationship with anyone other than my husband.
In my ghosted games, I use the technique of having each player pick 2 ways that their ghost is different from themselves. These can be large or small, but they should create a sense of discordance. Some example might be: I went to a different college, I have a good singing voice, I have an additional hobby, I spent a month dating that person I had a crush on.
We also use artifacts of the fiction to manage boundaries. An artifact of the fiction is essentially a manual border element for simulation. (This is really its own article. Other artifacts of the fiction unrelated to ghosting might include, “No one ever takes problems to the police.” “For some reason in this larp, nobody will choose to leave the party, even if they’re afraid for their life.”)
In my ghosted campaigns, I have an artifact that states, “I am married to my husband. He’s abstractly around or at home while I go on adventures, even though we never cover interactions with him. No matter what happens, he is never in danger and will never be plot leverage on me. We just don’t worry about how this literally works.” This allows me to play ghosted games without him, while taking my emotional relationship with him off the table as an area of exploration and change.
In a ghosted campaign I’ve run, a friend had, “I disappear off the grid after being turned into a vampire, and everyone thinks I’m dead. I just don’t worry about this or go back and try to explain vampirism to everyone I care about.”
Despite the stigma around “Mary Sue”-ing, ghosting can be a great opportunity to deliberately create a variety of really interesting experiences.
For example, a transgendered friend chose to create a ghost who was born biologically the same gender. Since she was playing herself as a child in this game, it allowed us to explore a redefinition of her childhood.
My first lengthy ghost campaign is a ‘show up in a magical secondary world’ game that I’ve played a number of times in the past. To my surprise, there were things that every single one of my previous characters did that I myself immediately did the opposite of. (Eg, I resisted believing in magic despite lots of overt and overwhelming evidence for a long time.)
I’ve also gotten over a phobia (heavy grinding machinery) through ghosting, by playing through myself being exposed to and dealing with it. Although that was one scene many years ago, it’s never bothered me again.
I believe really strongly in ghosting for the following reason:
Experiences give us perspective, learning, wisdom (obviously). If you think about it, the range of experiences we as people have access to is really limited. Specifically, if one thing happens, we’re cut off from experiencing alternative routes in an in-depth way.
Ghosting essentially allows us to taste a variety of experiences without the risk of actually going through them. We can work through our issues, testing boundaries, explore fantasies, try out new reactions, and much more rapidly surface what works for us and really matters to us.
In other words, when we run characters on the engine of what we think people do, it allows us to evolve our understanding of what people do (class rp). When we run characters on the engine of our own internality, it allows us to evolve our internality.
RP, of course, does all of these things — ghosting is not intrinsically different from classic RP in any of its functions or advantages. It serves as a very specialized focus.