Slavery = Role Playing? Exploring the Dangers of Conformity

Role playing.

It can come in many different forms such as the good old tabletop pen and paper like Dungeons & Dragons, online RPGs where people use chats or forums, and even live action role playing where people dress up and meet at a location to act out a character. Of course, no scripts are involved in any of these roleplaying and it’s all up to you to decide how you want the story to go. It doesn’t have to be just limited to Role Playing Games either. Movies and tv shows where actors assume a role and follow a script to create a character is a form of roleplaying. Storytelling is also a form of roleplaying—you are using your imaginations to live out a story.

In this post, I will be exploring whether slavery could be an escalated form of roleplaying—as slave masters playing one role, and the slaves being another. This idea sparked while I was reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. As I was brainstorming all kinds of questions I had and the aspects I wanted to delve into, I wondered whether role playing had anything to do with slavery issues. On a side note, I want to let you know that I have close to no experiences with Role Playing Games and may miss the most basic terminologies of RPGs.

So the first question is, what about role playing attracts so many gamers? Here’s a comment from an online forum, Steam:

“Invent a whole new world that is in our mind. Escape reality and enjoy something only our imagination can make up.”

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Along with escaping reality and letting our imagination wander freely, having an exact role may give us comfort—just see how many people deal with existential crisis, in which one questions their identity and purpose in life. The next question arises: if, hypothetically, slavery is role playing at its extreme, how can slave owners bring themselves about to do such inhumane treatments to the same people, just with different colors?

I have a few possible explanations. The first is the Milgram Experiment, one of the famous experiments in the field of psychology. This experiment, conducted in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, researched how far people would go in obeying instruction in harming another person if they were given a role. Participants were given a random role of either a ‘teacher’ or ‘learner.’ Every time the ‘learner’ has made a mistake, the ‘teacher’ must electrically shock them, starting at a fairly low power of 15 volts. Then, as the mistakes increase, the voltage increases, eventually to 450 volts, a dangerously severe shock. Guess what the result was? 65% of participants continued to the highest voltage of 450 volts and all of them continued to 300 volts. This experiment shows that ordinary people are mostly obedient to orders given by authority figures. This applies to both the slave’s role and a slaveowner’s role. The slaves are prone to the punishments from their masters (with few people who were able to break free and escape) and the slaveowners, way past even the extremely dangerous voltage of 450, may have subconsciously acted under the authority of the Southern economy. For the most part, both sides had a role, and as horrendous as it was for one side, both slaves and slave owners stuck to them.

Another experiment is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo, where he studied how people would conform to their roles of ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner.’ Not surprisingly, both roles conformed to their roles and even got so into them that the experiment got out of hand and had to be stopped. This explains the cruel, bloody tortures of the slaves by the slave masters.

“The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” —Philip Zimbardo

The bell rack. This bell rack was used by an Alabama slave owner, and rang whenever the slaves attempted to leave the plantation and escape into the forest. Can you imagine a physical “dog tag” around your neck? On top of that, slaves didn’t know their birth dates, thus not knowing their ages—they were labeled “property.” It is logical to say that with physical labels and symbolisms of a “property,” the slaves would lose their sense of identity and go into learned helplessness.

Nonetheless, there were slaves that understood the power of knowledge and risked their physical bodies to escape their state of property. They understood, that if they didn’t take action NOW, their life would be over before they knew it. 

“These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like the bettering the condition of my race.” —Frederick Douglass, from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In any era, there are always two distinct types of people: independent-minded and obedient. Why the difference? How do we reduce the numbers of obedient people and produce more independent humankind? Conformity is a fundamental cause of slavery, and it still is in today’s society; for many, it is much easier to obey authorities than break free and practice independent thoughts and actions. Education and knowledge hold the keys to escape conformity and obedience to authority figures. How can we educate slaves, educate people of the dangers of conformity?

Thanks for reading.

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