Gaming: Fun, Social Commentary, or Both?

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All too often I hear a rather questionable remark regarding gaming and social issues: “It’s supposed to be fun, so stop bringing real-world stuff into it.” Something has never sat right with that comment, and only recently have I realized what the problem is. It’s presumption and fallacy in two parts: 1) everyone has the same idea of “fun” and 2) gaming is solely about “fun”.

Having read Designers & Dragons, a great history of the role-playing industry that I reviewed earlier, I realize both of these concepts are erroneous. The industry has changed so much over the decades, that there is no specific goal or approach to table-top RPGs. The 1970’s was all about expansions on wargames and competitive play and overly realistic simulations. In the 1980’s, cinematic simulations and cooperative play stood alongside pop culture licenses to usher in the feel of comics and Hollywood. By the 1990’s, introspective storytelling was king as the other genres adapted and evolved to compete in a growing market. In the 21st century, we’ve had not only a return to earlier styles but also expansion into independent, story-driven systems.

There has never been any single approach to gaming nor has there been any single concept of “fun”, even if there have been zeitgeists. The Fantasy dungeon-delver may not like Gothic-Punk political games, and both may be anathema to the humorous Parody player or the Space Opera lover. If there is no single idea of “fun”, then how can there be a singular criteria by which games are judged as such? If someone enjoys games where social issues take the forefront, they are therefore having “fun” and thus the argument is invalid.

This also assumes that gaming is solely about enjoyment, when role-playing has so many further uses. Role-playing has been used in many scenarios, psychological and educational. You can find examples of role-playing games in therapy, from group sessions to virtual scenarios. Children playing games can learn important social and mental skills and adults use the process as a training technique. Although not all of these are “games” per se, they still represent that putting on another mask and playing pretend can have many uses other than “fun”.

Role-playing of any kind, including at a tabletop with friends, can have uses other than the typical escapism or moment of levity. Some people use it to confront their own psychodynamic turmoil whereas others wish to see life through another perspective. Although many circles of friends just want to slay dragons or plot Machiavellian machinations, others might use this medium to answer questions about themselves, society, or life in general. And who’s to say they’re wrong for doing so? Is not the catharsis from solving a psychosocial mystery possibly as enjoyable as blowing up a space station?

Everyone comes to the table for their own reasons. Certainly it’s common to do so for the same (or similar) concept, but that’s not a requirement. Some players may not want those pesky “real world issues” coming into their games, which is perfectly fine… they can always choose to go to another table with a different game or group. To deny the presence of those who want to confront social and psychological topics, however, under the guise that gaming is solely “fun”? That’s fallacy and rather presumptuous, especially of a hobby that is so varied in its styles, genres, and approaches.

Gaming can be whatever you want, or need, it to be. As long as everyone agrees to the rules of the game and table, then enjoy it however you see fit.

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