There's nobody here but us chickens.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

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?