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.

Designers & Dragons – A Look Back into Gaming History

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Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Industry” sounds like a boring concept. A history of table-top RPGs? Even to a long-time gamer like me it sounded more like a tedious textbook than something fascinating to read. Yet, during conversations on the history of D&D and its original designers, the book kept coming up. After several people recommended I read it, I decided to pick up the first volume (which covers the 70’s).

Although not something I couldn’t put down at times, I have to say this historian’s perspective on RPGs was a lot more fascinating than I’d thought. The first thing I noticed was this didn’t just discuss the gaming industry in the 70’s; instead, it discussed the histories of a dozen-plus important game companies and their influences on the industry. These histories often span decades, from the origins of the companies (or their founders) through their endings or current whereabouts. This provides a far more interesting look at how RPGs have progressed and influenced each other.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this history was the stories of the main figures in gaming. Although wargames (the predecessors to RPGs) had been around for decades, the current industry and hobby was populated by a limited number of key enthusiasts. These individuals helped design and drive a scattered industry into a nationwide (and worldwide) phenomenon. Friends, opponents, mentors, students, etc., “Designers & Dragons” was almost like being in the midst of that sort of drama. You saw people work together, split apart on ideological lines, and then fight with each other over rights and copyright issues. Newer designers would arrive on the scene, mentored by the experienced or simply trying to outdo them and “fix” what they felt was wrong with the current trends. There was probably as much drama and politics in the gaming industry as the fantasy worlds they wrote about.

Another fun part of the book is watching table-top roleplaying games change in style and theme. Starting with the origins of D&D and other 70’s RPGs as antagonistic wargames, where a single referee purposefully pit his players against challenges in a restricted area; characters were stats on a sheet, death was common (and expected), and any story was secondary. Then the 80’s brought about open worlds and story-centered games, where gamemasters acted as both antagonist and support in the hopes of creating “fun”; characters become more in-depth, story became more important than “winning”, and death was a far bigger event. Sadly, as this book focused primarily on companies that arose in the 70’s (few of which made it to the 90’s and beyond), the progression ends there until the next volume. I cannot wait to see as RPGs become more focused on drama and complex moral themes.

This book also helped fill in several gaps for me, as I didn’t start gaming until a decade after the industry took off. Many of the used games I saw were from the 70’s; like syndicated television, I would pick them up without realizing their importance or influence. “Designers & Dragons” allowed me to watch the industry and games move into the era I was familiar with, and to better understand where my hobbies came from and how they would move on.

For my fellow gamers out there, I have to recommend picking up these books. Admittedly, I’m only finished with the first volume, but I can’t wait to watch as more familiar designers appear in the 80’s and how they interacted and changed tabletop-gaming. This is no boring textbook, but a fascinating look into the past (and future) of a favorite pastime.

A Gamer, but not a ~Gamer~ Gamer

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What does it mean to be a gamer in the 21st century? I’m not talking about what type of games you prefer, like divisions between video, computer, tabletop, war, etc. I’m talking about what it means to be a gamer in the modern environment and culture. Popular culture, Hollywood, the Internet, etc. have created a brand new environment with new norms, manners of communication, and paths toward interaction. The new gaming culture seems to be focused on a lot more than just gaming… for good or ill.

I always thought of myself as a gamer. I started playing RPGs in elementary school, even with the social and religious stigma associated with them. Computer games filled my first PCs and my friends had Nintendos that I happily joined them on. High School saw the start of the CCG craze and complex tabletop board games (like Talisman). All through college and well past, gaming was my hobby; I owned entire libraries of RPG books, entire collections of CCGs, at least a few playable war-game armies, a couple of video game systems, and spent way too much time gaming online. Even today I divide my free time between an MMO, offline computer or video games, a D&D session or two, and the occasional war-game battle.

You would think I’m a big geek, nerd, etc. with the amount of time I dedicate to gaming. I’m as knowledgeable on the differences in World of Darkness lines and editions (up until I stopped playing/buying) as I am on the latest X-Wing Miniatures FAQ. Yet somehow, I find myself lost and confused when I converse with others that I thought were on the same level as me. There seems to be a line I haven’t crossed, where just owning and playing games (even for almost 30 years) are apparently the signs of a novice or dabbler.

I know little about the history of gaming. I recognize major names (Gary Gygax, Sid Meier, Richard Garfield, etc.) and their general contribution, but I couldn’t tell you anything about their work or personal history… let alone their interpersonal relationships and drama. I know many of the big company names (Wizards of the Coast, BioWare, Games Workshop, etc.) including their main products, a little bit of background, and the biggest complaints about them… yet I couldn’t tell you their history or any insider gossip. I become so confused when I see people arguing over edition wars, original author intent, intra-company drama, inter-company politics, etc… particularly when many of those arguing weren’t even in grade schoolat the time of these events, let alone participating in them. To me, they look like people who argue over the best translation of the Bible or what the “true meaning” of a passage is, as if they can somehow glean a universal truth from words written in an era long ago to support their own specific interpretations… missing the whole theme of “be excellent to each other and party on”.

Controversies? What controversies? It’s a game, not a social or political issue. I’m not saying games can’t have an influence (and be influenced) by cultural concerns. Misogyny, racism, etc. are major problems in society and they can certainly be perpetuated by media, including games. These are all important issues that are not solely limited to gaming but pervade many aspects of society. Yet to argue over who wrote a game, who helped design it, whether someone involved was unethical, etc.? It’s a friggin’ game! Short of the money exchanged ending up in the hands of hate groups, child molesters, or terrorists, who cares? You could tell me that Mel Gibson contributed to a revised edition of White Wolf’s “Charnal Houses of Europe: The Shoah“, and if I was interested in running a dark game involving ghosts of the Holocaust, I would still buy it. Why does it matter if someone used relationships or politics to push their agenda and/or game? If Barack Obama used his position to create an economic game that wasn’t boring and required alcohol, then it might be worth it for those who like that sort of thing regardless of political stance.

At what point did being a “gamer” cross a line from simply sitting around and playing games to regular debates on the history, politics, and drama of the gaming industry? When I was younger we went to the store, bought what sounded cool, and came back and tried it out. The worst debates were over rules-lawyering, computer game bugs, or who ate all the Doritos… not whether a company was out to make a quick buck or an author was pushing their social agenda. If we didn’t like a game’s theme or play style we just stopped playing it; we didn’t go on endless rants and social campaigns to destroy the “offending” product. Who cares if Jess Heinig sucked Mark Rein•Hagen‘s dick, all for the developer position with Mage: the Ascension? If you liked his changes to the game then play it… if you didn’t, then don’t and/or play the original; you don’t go around being loud about it and trying to ruin either’s career or life. (Warning: All blow jobs mentioned in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual fellatio at White Wolf Publishing is purely coincidental.)

I blame a lot of this on the Internet, that amazing tool that has brought the world to our fingertips. In the earlier days the primary way to communicate was through personal interaction or the occasional message board or BBS. Conventions were the biggest chance for gamers to exchange ideas, no matter how critical, but the ideas were still limited. If someone wrote something controversial or inflammatory, it only went so far… and would rarely hold much water in these face-to-face interactions. Now, however, millions of people can remain anonymous (or at least distant), spouting opinions they’d never be brave enough to say otherwise. It’s not enough to just think something is bad, you have to explain through hyperbole and with venom to try and sway others to your subjective perception of what’s “good”.

Worse, these ideas remain on the Internet, collecting followers that used to be separated by great distances, until they become almost political or religious movements united by their chosen beliefs regarding games and gaming. In the past, if you had that one socially inept guy that had been ostracized from most of the D&D games in town because of his poor behavior, he remained ostracized. Maybe he’d be invited to the occasional gathering or he’d find a game in a nearby town, but he always remained “one of those gamers”. Now, however, that same guy has found hundreds or thousands like him across the country, writing blogs where they espouse their gaming ideology. Suddenly you have an entire organization (informal or not) that encourages and reinforces the same poor behavior of “those gamers”, affecting others enjoyment in the name of their gaming jihad.

These days I’m not even sure if I want the gamer tag, let alone whether I’m worthy of it. Too many times it seems to be a gamer you have to make it a lifestyle, not a hobby. If you don’t go full bore, studying as if you were earning a graduate degree in these pursuits, you’re somehow left behind or looked down upon. Like my enjoyment of science-fiction, the occasional comics series I collect, or even watching a favorite TV show… these are supposed to be escapes. If I wanted useless (and oft-distorted) history, gossip, controversy, and debate, I’d turn on FoxNews.

All I really want to do is play or talk about a game without it devolving into edition wars or social arguments. If that makes me not a gamer, then I suppose it’s better than being associated with the behavior mentioned above.