How to Run a Game (Part 10) - Dealing with Aphantasia

There's a test that has been going around in recent months. The idea is to visualize a red apple in your mind's eye. Think about what the apple looks like within that imaginary space. Is it a realistic thing, shaded and textured, and does it feel like someone could reach inside your head, pull the apple out and start eating it? Is it a vague placeholder that has some of the elements of "apple-ness" about it, but it's more abstract because you know it's not the real thing and your mind just takes shortcuts to give the impression of an apple? Do you completely struggle with generating an image of an apple altogether?

I'd be inclined to suggest that folks who engage in roleplaying tend to fall into the lower numbers here, while those with aphantasia tend to fall into the higher numbers. It takes a degree of imagination, an ability to suspend disbelief, and an ability to manipulate imaginary forms to successfully get into the imagined world of an RPG session.

In my lunch-time roleplaying group, the students present are fairly well curated. I know these students fairly well, they have divided up into groups that have a more gamist agenda, or narrativist agenda (depending on the system we're toying with, some simulationist tendencies have arisen), and generally they tend to be among the brightest and most imaginative students in the school. There's a few students who I think would love the concept of roleplaying games, and I've tried subtly hooking them into the group, but there's only so much time, and only so many students I can spread myself across. I don't think aphantasia is really an issue among a lot of these students. If it is an issue, these students have effectively used pawn stance to stay in contact with what has been happening in the story. 

In the school-sport D&D group, there are a wider variety of students, including some who've just chosen the option because they don't want to engage in the physical activity of other sporting choices. Here's where the aphantasia becomes an issue, and I've noticed it with a few of the students who linger on the edges and don't really want to get involved further. Two particular students I've noticed are willing to sit in the room while a session is being played. One of them was prompted to join, and even though he had watched a few sessions played, laughed at the corny puns, and listened in as dramatic moments came to a head, his response was that he didn't understand how to play, or what he needed to do in the sessions. Even in straightforward turn-based combat encounters, he just didn't get how to engage. He's not a brilliant kid, but he's relatively smart in his keys areas of knowledge (which tend to be more practical, often focused on farming and cars). I've actually seen a few students like this over the years. The second student was simply a bit more introverted and shy. They took a bit of prompting from other students to get involved, but took opportunities to assist other students, and over the course of a couple of sessions started making decisions for themselves.

It has been encountering folks like this over the years that really made me understand that rolep;aying games just aren't for everyone. I guess I tried to be a tabletop roleplaying game evangelist over the years, especially in late high school and in early university years, but the honest thing is that some people just can't be reached. Thankfully, the kind of audience that looks for escapism but struggles with the visualisation element often finds themselves directed toward online computer roleplaying games (for those with a tendency toward pawn stance), or first-person shooters (for those with a tendency toward actor stance). This is a generalisation, and certainly isn't researched, just the reflections of hearsay and anecdotal evidence.

Anomalies, possible including Izaac who was mentioned in an earlier post, exist. Such people want to be a part of the game, but struggle to engage in the shared imaginative aspect of it. Actually, this is probably unfair to Izaac, as he may simply have an overactive imagination, but his difficulty may come from struggles to verbalise the imagery in his mind for an outside audience.

One of the best ways I've found for getting the imagined space into the heads of all players (including those who struggle with internal visualisation) is simply by providing props and maps. If I have time to prepare, I might even pull out 3d mapping, with model obstacles, trees, crates, ruined walls. It instantly helps people perceive things in a similar manner, and limits debate or interruptions. Some people get put off by the "geeky toys", but often these weren't the type of people who'd be interested in engaging the shared imaginary stories anyway.

Another good technique is having appropriately thematic music play in the background. Music works on the brain in different ways to images, and it can evoke the emotional rather than the analytical parts of the mind. The basically circumvents the aphantasia at some level, but can be a little unpredictable because some people have different memory correlations with certain songs than other people. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, because it also reflects that different characters may have a chance of presenting different emotional responses when they encounter a situation.

Just something else to think about...

Addendum: In recent years (particularly 2023-24), there has been a rise in the use of AI Text-to-Art generators. This is a massively controversial topic in many circles, so I won't dig too deeply here, but the aphantasia concept applies here. A lot of folks with the condition struggle to visualise images, but I've seen a few people marvel at the idea that they can generate images based on words and concepts...where previously these had been things they just couldn't do before. I don't know that there will be an equivalent for RPGs, perhaps something that will organically generate stories based on the input of multiple users and a set of mechanical formulae. The tech isn't there yet, and it might be too obscure and niche for tech-companies to consider this a profitable area for research.


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