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Photo by Brad Helmink on Unsplash

Photo by Brad Helmink on Unsplash

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 6 minutes

Dealing with fear & the unknown using ARG’s & RPG’s

Everyone probably suffers from some form of fear and anxiety about something. I myself suffered from anxiety around public speaking when I was much younger, and currently, I have a mild anxiety/ fear of flying. There is much that can be said for pretending to be something else to overcome a fear of something, and for positive reinforcement within that. With public speaking, it was imagining a point where it wasn’t an issue anymore and simply doing it. Eventually, the anxiety becomes manageable, it never truly went away, it never does, but it’s not something I really fear anymore. Flying regularly and managing the anxiety around that, still a work in progress.

Fear of the unknown though is something that encapsulates all of these anxiety issues. If we look at one of the original writers around the fear of the unknown, H. P. Lovecraft wrote in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” Not knowing is apparently one of our greatest fears. Though it must be said that Lovecraft’s point of view is a product of his own era-specific issues around the unknown and the fear of the “other”. But this isn’t enough to understand the fear of the unknown really.

A more modern definition of the fear of the unknown or FOTU is “an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing”; and an expanded variation on FOTU for what is more useful to us in this piece: “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.” (Carleton, 2016; p. 31).

Fear of the unknown isn’t so much not knowing, but not knowing enough. As with any fear, I’m not afraid of flying, but rather the unknown part of the future where I am flying and might happen beyond that point. It’s the unquantifiable possibilities of possible known situations and learning to deal with the unfamiliar. It is these known situations that allow tools and games such as role-play and alternate reality experiences to help us practice how to manage our fear of the unknown.

The Unknown – positives & negatives

 It must be said though that the unknown has both a positive and negative side to it. The negative is the fear of it, the dangers in the dark, an evolutionary response to avoid going somewhere we don’t know for survival reasons. In addition to that is also the unknown in terms of society and the sense of belonging within that society. This is more in respect to conforming to social norms to retain the safety of being in a community, not doing something unknown for fear of being cast out into the unknown. But we’re looking more at the former in this piece, the avoidance of the dark dangerous places, or at least what the primitive side of our brain still perceives as the dangerous places, both physical and imagined.

 The positive side of the unknown is our curiosity. To find out what the unknown is, again for evolutionary reasons, we continue to progress. In a strange game of minesweeper, we have the insatiable need to keep clicking away to see what’s under the next cube. Sometimes to our elation, and sometimes to our detriment, but at least we tried.

When using ARG’s and RPG’s it is about finding the sweet spot between the negative and positive sides of the unknown. It is going far enough into the unknown with limited knowledge to be able to deal with it enough so that you can keep going and going. Going blindly into the dark night can be exciting but can also ultimately be your final outing as it were. Creating situations that simulate the unknown and overcoming the fear and anxiety around it is how we learn to deal with them in the real world.

Proxy experiences for the unknown

Substituting simulated experiences for possible real situations is an effective way of learning to deal with those situations and for improving resilience when those situations occur in the real world. One of the aspects it teaches us is the extent of our ability to control an unknown situation, and how we need to let go of trying to control something we can’t. This ability to let go also lowers our stress and anxiety when dealing with the unknown.

The use of role-playing in substituting situations is learning to work through the anxiety, not removing it. Having the ‘faux’-experience will help build self-confidence when handling a similar situation in a real environment. But the only way that such a faux-experience can be effective through the tools of role-playing is when the facilitator or Game Master has done adequate research to discover what the participants specific fear of the unknown is.

As I’ve said, it isn’t so much a fear of everything unknown, it is the fear of the unknowable factor of a known situation. Known unknowns are the root cause of the fear and anxiety in your participants. If you are delivering an alternate reality experience where your participants learn to work through their fear of public speaking, the research would be around what unknown factors in public speaking scares them. Is it the people? Not being prepared? Failing? And so on. Then developing situations where these occur and working through them with the participant will improve their resilience towards them in the future.

In essence, what you are doing is helping to quantify the unknown for them, the fear they feel is really just their imaginations running wild with the myriad of possibilities that can occur. The role-play situation, therefore, will help them create and build upon an anchor that gives them the confidence to face the unknown in the future.


The fallacy of overcoming your fears

What I have always found strange when trying to ‘overcome’ a fear is that many ‘self-help’ books and guru’s and so on, advocate that if you face your fear head on. As if you were some imaginary metaphysical St. George slaying the Dragon of fear, vanquishing that fear, never to see it rears its horrifying head at you again. The issue and self-contradiction of such a concept is that to ‘overcome’ the fear is to accept it as being there. And accepting it is acknowledging it that it will never go away. There is no vanquishing, and often an increase in anxiety accompanies those that are unable to vanquish, simply for the fact it was never possible.

It is therefore that I’ve said that when practicing through a role-play experience, you learn to deal with it and work through it. And learning to do so with a variety of fears and anxieties teaches you to deal and work through others. Many people reading this may already have anxiety when they read the words ‘role-playing’ or ‘game’ or ‘alternate reality’. Overcoming that anxiety (and associated stigma) is already a step in the right direction, you’ve opened yourself up to a method and a state of mind that is accepting of that which you can’t control and can’t quantify.

It has been said many a time, the brain is like a muscle, and if you can train it by being bold and entering a make-believe experience where you jump into the unknown, you can slowly train your brain and mind to become accustomed to doing similar actions in the real world. Though taking that step still requires your own strength and volition to do so.

In the end, there is no magic potion that wipes the fear of the unknown away, there never was. There is only opportunity to learn and to practice the ability to deal with it and to move on regardless.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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