There's nobody here but us chickens.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Word migration

Hey! MindHacks went Finnish! So if you've been wanting to read me in suomi (a highly distinctive Uralic language, so definitely worth the effort), now you can!

Also out (and sold out!) in Japan.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ownership in shared fiction

I've a claim that I'd like to explore, and I'm explicitly looking for input from people who read this. The claim is about any kind of game which involves making up a story with other people. Here we go:
The importance you give to a character is the importance of that character to your imagined fiction. The more players differ in their investment in characters, the less they are sharing in the same fiction.
Firstly, to the rpg gamers (or ex-gamers) out there, does this strike you as a big deal? A player gets through a session where his character experiences real growth and does stuff that rewards her; in the same session another player flounders, doesn't really connect and ends up introducing elements inconsistent with his character. That this should be as big a deal as if the reverse was true (irrespective of how much the players care for each other)? That it hurts her story just as much either way - or else they're not making a story together?

To those with experience in drama: is there a mismatch between my statement and the way people portraying a role on stage or screen feel? I'm thinking through the implication of the fact that "what's my motivation?" is a cliche, whereas "what's her motivation?" is not. My thinking is that this may be a reality, but one that merely reflects the actors' focus on delivering their best performance. That when appreciating the value of the work as fiction, no-one values the quality of their own performance over anothers, and no-one values the quality of their lines over the lines for other characters.

Is this true? As an audience, I think certainly yes. As an actor enjoying his work as fiction, I say yes - but I'm not an actor. I should make it clear that I'm certain that from the point of view of personal satisfaction, or ambition, you're probably more preoccupied with your own performance more than others. I'm asking about the appraisal that is anchored in appreciation of the created fiction.

To those with experience in neither role-playing games nor acting, I'm almost interested in you most. What do you make of all this? Is it blase? Does it fit with your intuition of what you would be bothered about if someone said "let's make up a story together - i'll be rod and you be jane"? Putting aside the appreciation of the fiction, would you find it simply more comfortable to worry about one character entirely, and let the other person deal with the other - or does it make sense that if we're making a story, you'd welcome any input that was offered on what jane does next?

Ideas stimulated from many areas, but particularly here (and also here ).

A prelude, and the rpg

So I realise that what I really need is a throat-clearing post, the post where you say what a roleplaying game (henceforth rpg) is, how it works, explain why I find it interesting and so on. I fear if I began such an exercise, you'd find my lungs on the floor seven hours later, and you may be none the wiser. I won't attempt that, just yet.

What I will say is that games are not what they were. If we look across historical time, games have always operated in a social context: locking eyes across a card table, gesturing in a parlour, squabbling over the proximity of your ball to the jack. And looking across developmental time, the games you played when you were young were vivid, real and exultant, driven by imagination and tacit agreement.

Games in the historical and developmental now are overwhelmingly console/computer-driven, often played alone (or with others who provide input through the impoverished medium of on-screen actions and text) and offered with a rich front-end that discourages imaginative contributions. I've no interest in dismissing any value of these types of games: what impresses itself is how social and imaginative components seem so absent.

The reason this matters is that games are an amazing thing. They are a system for producing entertainment, rather than entertainment itself. TV can be wonderful, but its purpose is leisure, throwing something to you to digest (yes, and mull over and contest); games demand a minimum of intentful involvement - they are an activity, in which you create the content (which you can then mull over, contest or celebrate). Many traditional games are stripped to a core of simplicity, and the way they reward you during play is often through achievement; chess could be an example, where the social side does exist but may bookend the game rather than permeate it; even here it may directly enter through a shared history or understanding of the game ("the Alekhine Defense? It's been a while. Cool, let's refight that battle."). Other games more clearly provide entertainment in a social sense - the pleasure of the poker table coming from Dan's bravado, Dodge's wisacres, Dave's rise and sudden fall, itself all fed by the way the particular game reliably produces a certain kind of play, coupled with the unique sequence of events in the game.

I'm excited by games that can provide this social underpinning reliably: at base this really just demands getting people in the same room together, as we're pretty social animals. But I'm perhaps more excited at games that also provide that other crucial component - imaginative content. The wonder of this is that it harnesses what is great about pre-produced media but throws it into the social arena, allowing us to collectively produce fictional content. This can sound weird, like a Czech arthouse experiment, but it's really no different from the games we used to play with Transformers when we were kids, or the stories we were read when we would interject: "no, the frog-prince got a sword too!" It's also on a continuum with those Murder Mystery games where people dress up and play a part.

It's all of those things, and its own thing, and increasingly no one thing, but a bunch of them. It's a way to play the TV-show you wish existed; explore morality by looking through the eyes of someone a world away from yourself; scare yourself silly by exposing yourself to the horror within yourself ; give flesh to your wacky ideas of what your cat is really thinking, or what gingerbread men get up to the night before christmas. And do it all with your friends, to laugh, kibbitz, tease, and maybe learn a little about each other.

I should add, with my Polymath-in-training hat on, that when you start to dig deep in this stuff, well, you can go pret-ty deep. Anthopological parrellels, the meaning of fiction, social contracts - it's heady stuff and for the geek in me just reading it can get wild. But the bottom line is to play. With your friends. Like we all used to do.

That's not too strange, is it?

Alex Reloaded

Hmmm, it's been dead here recently. I've been away a bit, plus starting my new job, but that's only part of the story. I've found myself a bit played out on the political blogosphere - the infighting, the signal-noise ratio, the frustration - and given it a miss, so I'm both more ignorant and less bitter at the moment, a mix I'm currently content with. I've also found that link-storage is much more convenient through delicious (which you can always click through to from the sidebar), so cut down on the "Check this! I have nothing to say about it, but it's good." posts, which is probably no bad thing.

I've decided to remedy this, and I'll be getting a little more active for a time, but with a shift in focus. In a way, it's overdue: the ethos of the blog was to proclaim my abiding dedication to the ideal of the polymath, or the diverse amateur - exploring topics just so long as they are rewarding you, and exploiting knowledge from many domains. So I'll be writing about role-playing games, or collaborative fiction games [edit: or story games, which I find a pretty useful shorthand] - a social activity where you make your own entertainment. We'll see where it goes.