Sunday, April 26, 2020

Innovation in RPG-Land Part 2: The Process and the Innovator

People actually asked for this (okay, one person ... but Part 1 received generally good and encouraging feedback). That said, I wouldn't want to force it. It's a strange and complex topic, and although I didn't go very deep into it, I think I laid out the basics okay. It's just that it all was left rather abstract (and intentionally so), so there is a lot to explore if opportunity (or inspiration) arises. Which actually happened (as I seem to be almost back to form), so here we go, building heavily on what was established earlier ...

Chuang Tze contemplating a waterfall [source]
The Process (beyond craftsmanship)

I'd like to kick this of with a poem by the famous Daoist philosopher Chuang Tze. It is called The Woodcarver and it goes like this (translation seems to be by on Thomas Merten):

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
This is among the earliest descriptions of how creators push beyond craftsmanship while opening themselves for inspiration (roughly 2.100 years ago) and it is quite remarkable for several reasons.

You will find sentiments similar to this among various (if not all worth the label) artists of all kinds. Tom Waits is on record for telling inspiration to go somewhere else when he's driving a car, to name but one more famous example (just don't ask me which interview it had been ... I'm at a loss right now). Inspiration comes to the artist. They are kissed by muses, something speaks to them, they saw it in their dreams ... artists describe inspirations always as something disconnected, as something given to them.

One way to describe this would be that they tap into what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. How to get there is another matter altogether. Meditation, fasting, drinking (as many authors seem to do), other drugs, just taking a walk ... there seem to be as many individual solutions as there are artists. What they have in common is far more interesting, though: it all describes a form of disconnection from what is most commonly referred to as the "ego" (the thing in you that claims to be "I").

The brain getting flooded with impulses ... [source]
It definitely also needs the tools to express those impulses artists receive, so that's craftsmanship. It's where you start, and in a sense it is a different thing altogether. Good craftsmanship needn't be inspired, it is useful and fulfilling on its own.

That's also a very important distinction to make, for the very reason that creativity is connected to the Big Five personality trait Openness as well as to intelligence (interestingly enough, using psychoactive drugs is one of the few things one can do to alter a score in Openness, and it seems to be very hard to change those personality traits at all ...). In other words: people are more or less creative, or even not creative at all (which seems to be an unpopular thing to say, although the science speaks for itself in that regard).

And yet, it doesn't matter (in that sense that it is not an universal and you don't lack anything if you don't have it), since learning a craft is all about dedication and practice, and that's only related to personality in as much as preferences go*. Although Conscientiousness might have an impact on your progress (among other factors). But still, that just determines your approach, not how good you'll get. Right?

If you need a good example for that, look at the cultural implementation of something like Martial Arts in Japan or Yoga in India. Everyone is encouraged to do it, age or social background don't matter, everyone has access to some degree or another (this is somewhat generalizing, but you get the idea).

High craftsmanship is achievable, transcending that might be something else altogether and less connected than generally assumed. Less connected, because craftsmanship has two separate functions: perfection and conservation of an established form (creation of the perfect table, for instance) and innovation beyond the established through creativity and transfer (making a better wheel, for instance).

It's also important to see all this within a spectrum, of sorts. If it's all individual journeys to express inspiration through craft, we are all at different steps in our personal development, sometimes even unsure where we are going or where we'll end (if at all aware).

And while we take our individual dips in the collective unconscious, fishing for inspiration, we are sometimes reduced to being spectators. But that's another thing that's interesting in the process (and very Dao, I might add). We, as a group of individuals, are able to recognizes art, especially over time, although the process for this almost seems as mysterious as inspiration itself. The importance of art, in that sense, can be measured as the time a culture keeps it around (or more precise: the time it carries meaning in a culture).

Within all those complex patterns emerge works of art that alter cultures permanently, and while we could debate the importance of the waves of innovation our little hobby produced so far (see Part 1), the impact of that first game on all cultures that got hands on it, is undeniable and still echoes through all aspects of many cultures as I write this. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure we are not in the least aware how big of an impact we are actually talking about.

As far as the process goes, we see the same pattern emerge that I described above. Simply put, a group of enthusiastic college level war game hobbyists pushed their hobby to a degree where some of them transcended the given parameters out of the necessity to allow for single character games instead of units. Looking back, it seems like a natural development. However, it took some creative minds to tackle the problem (Gygax, Arneson, and so on).

As you'll always have with things like this, many tuned in, either working together, or even being unaware of each other (again, collective unconscious describes best what exactly they tuned into). and the result was what generally is referred to as the first edition of D&D today**.

Famously, this also led to feuds that go on to this day. Who came first up with it, who's the creator, who deserves more praise, all that petty bullshit people fight about over the corpses of those who helped putting the game together. That, however, is a whole chapter on its own ...

Now, what about the innovators?

Did Tesla invent the light bulb or was it Edison? Actually, 22 inventors are listed that made attempts in that direction, and Edison's just was the most successful***. Or did they already have "light bulbs" in old Egypt? They had batteries back then (so-called Baghdad Batteries in Persia, which is mind-blowing in its own right), so what did they use them for?

Light bulbs in Egypt? Check out the Dendera Lights**** [source]
Did the Americans invent Pizza, or was it the Italians. Same for noodles: China or Italy? Are hamburgers a purely American invention, or was it European immigrants inventing short-cuts to sell their fast food better? And what about the Romans? They had a thriving fast food culture, among that selling a beef patty with minced meat between two buns, so they had hamburger over 1500 years ago.

What's more, focus shifts names of inventors change to regions change to nations, and then get forgotten. How many appliances do you have at home with no idea who came up with it? Give it a couple of decades and people may reduce the origins of roleplaying games to America. Give it even more time and it just might end up being a staple like chess.

This is the usefulness and tragic of innovation, actually. The inventor is channeling and manifesting something, with craft, ingenuity and time, and with luck, it ends up resonating with enough others to have an impact. Again, a spectrum, it may be a bestseller that'll be forgotten in a couple of years, it may be penicillin, it might be the thing that inspires the guy that will invent penicillin.

There aren't high chances for success, but if a creative endeavor turns out to be successful, it has a measurable impact. High risk (because you believe in your ideas and invest into realizing them), but equally high reward (if something blows up, it blows up proper).

Sometimes you catch the fish, sometimes ... [source]
Yet, this is just one side of the coin. The other side is that if a creator is channeling, it gets difficult to claim ownership. Sure, you wrote the book, you designed the game, you painted the picture, but in a sense you made the collected conscious manifest. You made it conscious in others, so it becomes a thing of it's own, in a sense.

Insert here the years old discussion about fandom and how much influence a creator has after the creation resonated with the public. Especially with huge successes (I explored that specific rabbit hole in another post not that long ago, and you can join me doing so here). Some can keep on the pulse they created, some try to send new impulses and fail (The Matrix Trilogy comes to mind as a failed example, but there are also enough successful series proofing that the opposite is possible).

It's everyone's game, and it needs to be. As I said in part 1, innovation needs a critical mass to emerge from. If a pattern gains enough interest, lots of lesser successful attempts on it allow for some to hit it out of the park in a way that also encourages others to conserve the attempt through playing with the pattern while repeating it (which, incidentally, is another reason to let go ... and also very Daoist).

There is also the small side of the coin that deserves a bit of contemplation: if creators channel ideas from something that is potentially accessible for all, and manifest those ideas through the established methods of a craft, the whole disconnect created that way between the art and the artist means you really don't have to like the artist (or know them, for that matter) to appreciate the art (or the innovation). Individual expression will always find a way to make itself known, but it is clearly distinguishable from the innovation or the artwork.

Actually, the less you find of the artist in the art, the longer it will last (if it was a success). Look at all the classics. The older they are, the purer they are in their form. Shakespeare is a perfect example for this, imo. Art so powerful, pure and innovative, its impact is felt to this day, 400 years later. Does it matter who he was? Well, of course people want to know who he was and how he lived, but does it matter? No. Not at all.

That doesn't mean artists or innovators don't deserve compensation, mind you (as some seem to think that if you are merely channeling and if what manifests isn't "yours", you didn't seem to do anything special ...). But that's like in that sad joke about the guy asking the other guy why he should pay 200 gold for something that took only ten minutes to make:

See what I mean? [source]
And that's just that. Years of dedication will make you good at what you are doing, and speed is just one indicator how good someone became. You see in the example above that you'll have to remind people of this even if you are only talking craft, with art it gets even less clear cut (the high risk, high reward thing discussed above) as recognizing the possibilities of a thing is not as hard as creating it, but still very hard.

There where cultures that honored the artist for the attempt, for the way of life they chose to (possibly) create something all may benefit from. We don't seem to live in a culture like that.

The only consolidation an unsuccessful artist has, would be that their creativity keeps them entertained. Going that way is a goal worth in itself (which, again, is a very Daoist thing). However, the tragic truth is that a culture that not only ignores spiritual growth (which this all is, obviously), but actively dismisses and denounces it, will also make it a rather privileged endeavor to explore your full potential (or a hard decision).

To end this on a more positive note, though, I'd like to point out that it doesn't stop people from trying and hard decisions are made more often than not ...

And this leaves us where, exactly?

Well, I think that leaves us at a potential part 3, as I still kept this as abstract as fuck :D However, while you might say that this isn't as specific as talking about creating a roleplaying game, it very much is about that very same process. For now, you could think of this as something more like a school of thought than a concrete guide. Maybe we'll go further down that road ...

Learning any craft, being it writing or game design or carpentry, is hard work and takes years of dedication. Furthermore, exploring the outer limits of a craft can be seen as a spiritual journey and manifesting your findings needs you functioning on all the levels described above.

If you recognize this as a possible truth, you will also see where we are at in our hobby. You'll gain an awareness of what is trying to conserve and what's trying to innovate and even, what's couterproductive. To one degree or another. You'll also know one approach to go that way or at least where you are at in the great scheme of things. That's not nothing.

I know it's a struggle, and I'm barely what you'd call an artist. Spiritual, yeah, I'd claim that I dabble in that, but ask me to what end, and I'm somewhat at a loss. I read too much about it and don't live enough of it (mostly because I can't afford to, but partly because it is also very hard to let go). This blog exists for almost 9 years now. I monetize very little (I published a thing that is PWYW ...), because it's a process for me, a way to learn. I'm finally at a point now where I will try my hand at earning a bit more with this. Just a little bit.

See what I mean? 9 years of work here, with years of work before that, and now I feel like I might be in a position to actually earn a buck or two with it. Might still fail, mind you, and I somewhat dread the jump (my first rpg is almost publishable, but I hesitate, and not only because of the pandemic).

Still worth it, though. I regret nothing and I really do believe that taking the journey is worth it. Doesn't matter where it ends, it brought me here, didn't it? So I hope you enjoyed reading those musings and ramblings of mine about what makes art and what doesn't and how innovation is connected to it all. Creating something and sharing it with others at least has the chance to have some stranger leave a bit richer than they had been before, and if nothing else, there is value in that.

The Poor Poet by Spitzweg sums it up for me. [source]

*Here are some thoughts about the Big Five and what they mean for a person. It is important context, but not so important for what I'm writing above. First, we all seem to be primed the way we are from very early on. So much so, that we seem to be born with a specific set of traits (roleplaying gamers can relate: you get what you roll) and we need a big part of our life to come to terms with that (I'm going with Schopenhauer here, in that people don't change, they just change their behavior). This "coming to terms with our personality" will always be a very individual journey, and by no means successful for everyone. If someone is too open and their parents are more of the opposite, that can create conflict. The type of conflict you will see in dramas all over the world. Sometimes people get damaged, sometimes they arrange themselves with something not in sync with their nature. Sometimes extraordinary circumstances force us to be a more rudimentary version of ourselves to function ... It is a very complex subject, as one can easily see, so we think in ideals when we talk about the Big Five. Ideals, because it assumes a person is fully aware of their potential. I just wanted to point out that there are also those people that can't even begin to express themselves (or only when reacting extreme themselves, like getting drunk to write, or cutting off an ear?), because their surroundings don't allow for it. Going this way can be difficult.

**Nothing is that easy, obviously. However, in terms of patterns, we see this all the time, for instance with music genres (Grunge would be a good example, I think). 

***Again, the same pattern emerges ... Just saying. 

****Not necessarily as fact, but as an interpretation or a possibility. We are clever monkeys, after all, and it just took as a couple of 100 years to get where we are today, technologically speaking. It would just take as long to lose all that again, with almost nothing left to proof our technological sophistication. So who's to say what the ancients where capable of? It's a fascinating thought experiment, imo.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.