Phil Vecchione has put together a great post at Gnome Stew about why it’s important for GMs to also continue to play games rather than just GM all the time. The major takeaway from the article is the usage of something that is heavily used in the health and behavioral sciences: perspective-taking, or the ability to put yourself in another’s position and to understand from their perspective. The ability to use perspective-taking allows for the closure of distance between the experiences of discrete parties and helps create stronger social and emotional ties. In short, people understand each other better because they know where each other are coming from, or a GM understands what players are dealing with.
Indeed perspective-taking is actually part of the pervasiveness of actual “role playing” that we all get into when we play games and take on the role of someone else. When we really get into another character’s shoes and begin to think and view the world as if we are actually that character, then perspective-taking often times becomes a primary force in gameplay. In many cases when it’s used in classrooms teaching experiences, it can actually become an incredibly powerful teaching technique that provides immersion and add depth and enjoyment to taking part in the role-play. That same experience and buy-in occurs when you fall in love with your character and the game world and the real world just takes a backseat to the immersion that you have. You and the character are one and the same.
The approach is not without its flaws though, as we are bounded by our own experiences and it’s often hard to step outside of them, there are gaps in the ability to perform emotional perspective taking [PDF], and too much exposure (on target or biased) can lead to a desensitization particularly when emotions are involved. This becomes apparent in such areas of contention within the gamer population when salient social issues such as gender, racial, and other issues are broached in a gaming community and indeed in games themselves (such as the recent declaration regarding gender in the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons). However, the challenges that arise with regards to this are a feature, not a bug, of what happens when two or more perspectives collide; the only way that perspective change occurs and distance (emotional or otherwise) can close is by being actively involved and receptive to understanding others’ perspectives and then trying to work together to find common ground. For actual play in roleplaying games, this means reading, or talking genuinely to others so that you can integrate experiences from others into your own experiences vicariously if you cannot experience them directly.
That brings us back to Phil’s article. Being a player every now and again allows you to go beyond the vicarious and actually move into the experiential which is the most primitive powerful ways to learn. While you can learn vicariously playing games and many do by doing analysis and watching videos or play reports, experiential learning is by far the easiest way to learn when it comes to RPGs, although actual plays are starting to open that up. So, go ahead and be a player on a regular basis if you’re a GM.
To add to what Phil says in his excellent article, I’d add that if you’re a GM, you can’t just keep playing in the same group that you play in all the time. There’s a type of norming that will happen in groups that don’t diversify over time, with each GM/player simply echoing much of what everyone else does after a period of time. To be a better GM means playing in games outside your normal groups so that you can experience how other GMs run their games as well. You also need to perform post-mortems of game sessions that you run and play in, and work out what you liked and what you didn’t like, what felt good, and what didn’t, and you really should document these. A living document that you can keep track of saying things like “I shall do this…” or “I shall not do this…” is a powerful reinforcer of making changes to the way that you GM once you identify things as a player that you think you need to change.