Saturday Whiskey Thoughts: Umwelt and fantasy roleplaying.

A recent article in The Atlantic, which is worth reading for it’s implications on bio-enchancement also mentioned a concept I hadn’t thought about in a while: the Umwelt. While the concept of umwelt is much more nuanced, in general it’s how the world is perceived by a specific organism. I wanted to comment on this from two roleplaying perspectives: the macro and micro.

Umwelt in the macro. Isn’t one of the foundations of roleplaying subverting our umwelt? Instead of changing how we perceive the world, we change the world we perceive by imagining a different setting with different rules (magic) and even formal reality (physics). Part of the enjoyment, for me at least, is the challenge of taking players out of the mundane or understood and presenting them with a new reality.

Umwelt in the micro. Conversely, we are also changing our umwelt by playing characters that are able to perceive the world different. Whether that is a Dwarf that can use infravision, an Elf with a keen sense of hearing or vision or a caster that can use a spell that allows them to see through stone. All of these are changes or expansion of our normal human-bound umwelt environment. Digging even deeper, we often look for motivations both physical and psychological to help us roleplay a character. Perhaps there is no better example than those damn Elves! Immortal, immune to disease and often with ethereal powers or auras, it’s a standard trope that Elves have a very different umwelt than humans. They just view the world in a completely different way–and as players we try to understand Elven umwelt to guide our roleplaying. It isn’t easy to play something that you can’t intrinsically understand, and I generally don’t allow players to choose “High Elves” as their race.

For whatever reason, this reminds me of Descartes’ thoughts on formal and objective reality:
The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea.”

While Descartes was arguing that any thought must be based in part in some formal reality (what is real) and was the basis for his argument for the existing of God, I think roleplayers are masters of creating and experiencing objective reality, and umwelt is the lense in which our characters experience it. That’s pretty cool and maybe the underlying, powerful allure of roleplaying?

Today’s whiskey thoughts are brought to you by Rip Van Winkle.

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