While this might be the sort of question one usually only expects to hear on an episode of True Blood, it became a genuine concern this week. It was revealed that Jake Rush, a primary challenger to U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., makes a habit of role-playing as fictional vampires with names like Archbishop Kettering, The Kriesler and most infamously, Chazz Darling, the last of whom has been linked to a controversial blog post expressing the (in-character) desire to sexually assault a fellow character.

At first blush, this might sound terribly odd and potentially sinister. Actually, it is only Americans’ pervasive ignorance of the otherwise harmless role-playing lifestyle that makes it see it that way.

To give some context, Rush, alias Darling, is a member of a group called the Mind’s Eye Society. The conceit is that they are a sub-sect of the fictional vampire clan known as the “Camarilla,” featured in White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade” role-playing system.

Like all role-playing systems, “Vampire” relies on its players to create characters and act as those characters, unless specified otherwise. This can be done around a table with randomized dice rolls being used to determine sequences of events (such as combat).  Or it can be done by actually dressing up and going out to act together as those characters, using improvised fake weapons and/or rock/paper/scissors to substitute for the dice.

Role-playing is, in short, nothing but improvisational theater without an audience. Players should not be taken to be acting in a way that is consistent with their actual personality, any more than Ronald Reagan should be attacked for the actions of his mob boss character Jack Browning in 1964’s “The Killers.” These are role-playing games because the players are literally playing roles, i.e. characters who are not them.

Adding to the confusion is Rush’s specific role within his group’s game. According to SaintPetersBlog, Rush is a storyteller – a “regional storyteller” – a job which, in game terms, makes him the theatrical equivalent of a director, scriptwriter and stage manager all rolled into one. Rush would have been responsible for creating not just his own characters, but also potential antagonists for any sessions he oversaw (role-playing sessions tend to behave like episodic television shows in that they have plots), and probably performed several of those roles himself.  This puts him at an even greater remove from the actions of his characters.

So why is there such a rush to judge Rush for the storylines in which he participated or helped create? Probably because, unlike acting for an audience, role-playing is still perceived as a niche interest of odd and/or undesirable people.

Unfortunately, this is especially true in some Republican circles, where the memory of social conservative moral panics surrounding games like Dungeons & Dragons has not entirely faded. The 2012 election cycle, for instance, saw distasteful mailers sent out accusing Democratic Maine state senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz of being unfit for the office, merely for the crime of playing World of Warcraft, and openly enjoying the experience.

Never mind that conservative luminaries like Hillsdale College’s John J. Miller, or British politician Michael Gove or even bestselling author Michelle Malkin, are all open and avowed role players, to say nothing of the countless other famous writers and actors who have come from the role-playing scene. For some conservatives, the idea of people engaging in what is essentially harmless improvsional theater appears to be too much to stomach. Lachowicz won, but Rush appears to be feeling the same sting.

Of course, opportunism is natural in American politics, but there are points where making certain attacks do more harm than good for a political party. For instance, cases where they create an image that makes the party appear ignorant, bullying, or reflexively judgmental for no good reason. The reaction against Jake Rush by some on the right seems to parallel the complaints of Fox News panelist Greg Gutfeld, who made the following point in an interview with the New York Post:

 OK, so why aren’t conservatives cool? Gutfeld makes a valid point: “From my experience being around conservatives, it’s extremely frustrating how dismissive they are of ‘weird’ things, and that hurts them.”

Gutfeld chooses the music that backs his segments on “The Five” and “my choices are never met with ‘That’s good’ or ‘That sucks.’ It’s always rewarded with anguished looks on the other panelists’ faces and the two-word review, ‘That’s weird.’ “

Automatically dismissing tradition and latching onto whatever’s new isn’t cool. But neither is being closed-minded.

When even a Fox News host is complaining about a lack of openness on the right, there’s a problem. Republicans have already nominated a candidate who professed a love for reading about vampires. Is it really such a stretch to consider one who writes and acts as one in his spare time?

After all, unlike many members of the political class, at least in Rush’s case we can be sure that feeding off the lifeblood of others is only an act.

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