Sunday, January 24, 2021

Roleplaying Games might not be games anymore (although it's in the title)

I should find ways to check my blogroll more often ... Anyway, here are my thoughts on the post What is a Game over on Classic RPG Realm (it's good reading). I commented there as well (comment still pending as of this writing), go at it here from scratch and from another angle.

Not yet back to full form (and I should start talking about something else, maybe), but I gave it my best shot. Here's to more writing in 2021! I'll try to keep it short ...

So 5e is not a game, is it?

Classic RPG Realm (CRR for short?) goes with the definition offered by a philosopher called Bernard Suits called Lusory attitude (wiki source for the following book quote):

"To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]."

I can only argue against what is written above (haven't read the book, but it isn't necessary for the argument I'm going to make), and I would say that while the quote above mirrors to some extent what is happening before and during a "game", it is vague in what I deem most necessary, that (as he puts it) "specific state of affairs": the motivation.

The reason to engage and invest is our most fundamental drive for all activities, and shapes our personalities as much as it expresses them. We do stuff for fun, of course, but also out of friendship or pride or guilt or greed or fame or dopamine or ... well, there is a whole hierarchy of reasons to do anything (or nothing) at all.

So, where I think the definition above is faulty might best be described as a lack of First Principle Thinking (following Elon Musk's definition here, as per the link): the evidence suggests that "gaming" traditionally* is not a separate activity that is to be distinguished from other activities people engage with, as for instance "play" naturally emerges with children as a method of learning and could therefore be argued as a fundamental means to learn about the world surrounding us. It is a variant of adaptation, as can be observed from very early on with babies, for instance. A theme we carry with us through life.


Proof that we are biologically and psychologically wired like that can easily be found in all research out there about immersion and flow states and all that other fun stuff we experience when reading or when "playing". Sports would in that regard be a rudimentary form of "play", so this can be applied very broadly. As a matter of fact, the etymological meaning of "game"  not only derives from old versions of "fun" and "entertainment", it actually includes "sport" (from Old Norse).

And this is where, in my opinion, First Principle Thinking is applicable. At some point we started deluding the original meaning of "game" towards an analogy to what we saw around us instead of connecting it with why we are motivated to do the things we do. In assuming there is a distinction to very fundamental (biological, even) functions we need to exercise in order to thrive, one must end up with something like the definition offered above.

Mr. Suit furthermore defines games as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" (same book, same wiki quote), and I take issue with the word "unnecessary" here, for the reasons summoned above. To solve, for instance, a morale dilemma in a "virtual" or mind space is no different than doing so in reality and by no means trivial. We learn and grow by doing (playing!) those thought experiments.

What's more, taking the "game" serious can actually yield tremendous emotional feedback. In other words, the more a "player" believes it to be real, the more they are engaged, the more insight they may potentially take away from the experience. I'd argue that one could not achieve that kind of involvement without acknowledging that our need to "game" is deeply wired into personal growth and learning!


However, the meaning of words may change ...

We need proper definitions to describe and (ultimately) understand reality. It's how we roll. There happened a lot in the good old world since Old Norse had need to describe it. Things actually changed quite a bit, and so did our entertainment. The question is if the meaning of the word "game" changed with it or if we just expanded on the semantic content the word carries.

This isn't a binary problem contained to the described metric, in my opinion. It needn't be just the one or the other, it rather offers an opportunity: we can define us within that (fake, see below) spectrum between the traditional or modern understanding of what "games" are or we can exclude roleplaying games from being "games" as per the definition mainstream keeps pushing as the new reality what "games" are supposed to be. Because that's where that new definition of "games" nowadays comes from, which would be something to consume, entertainment for entertainment's sake while generating enough motivation to make one pay for it.

Again, if you see "gaming" as an activity isolated from activities necessary for personal growth (as in learning or doing sports, for instance), you end up seeing (and treating) it as a commodity in the classical economical fashion, which MUST lead to a process in which you sooner or later derive the isolated activity of all, say, more artsy or even spiritual elements and reduce it to the equvalent of a theme park experience. And that is, ultimately, what 5e attempts to be.

Hence, my argument would be two-fold. While 5e might be less of a game in a more traditional* sense, it is very much so in the common understanding of the word. We can easily acknowledge that. However, that has huge implications for those more traditional* roleplaying games, as they (and the title of this post already alludes to as much) are not games anymore.

Different realities [source]

See what I did there? The meaning shifted, not the activity. But what does that leave us with? Well, anyone spending any time here on the blog should have an inkling where I'm heading with this ...  If roleplaying games are, indeed, a form of medium (like books or movies are) and if we can accept that all those "classic" mediums are symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality, altered to offer growth through interaction, then we already have our answer. Somewhat.

Here's what I'm saying in other terms: rpgs offer, just like books and movies and all other mediums, an invitation to explore reality by other means (rules, languages, pictures ...). This is the core value of roleplaying games. That the means of interaction with this specific medium can be described as "playing" or "gaming" is only problematic if those words can not mean the same as "reading a book".

To be a traditional rpg, it needs to mirror reality in some non-trivial capacity. In other words, it needs to offer patterns that relate to our understanding of how things work. Can have magic and monsters and all that, but must follow the principle of "what if magic was real" or "what if monsters were real". It needs to connect meaningfully so that those interacting with the medium can extract insight from it that applies to their life. It needs reference to test hypothesis ...

On the other side, if characters are always winning with no risk of death, damage, loss or injury, if the learning pattern is reduced to some form of accumulation dissociated from actions or capabilities (xp just for playing or being there, for instance), if all of it is, in short, reduced to mindless entertainment (as in, entertainment that suggests the mind needn't be engaged**), we sure could argue that we are talking about different types of activity.

And if furthermore the definition of what the word "game" means is shifted so far from the requirements described above that the experience doesn't match that way anymore between editions of the same product (say, 2e vs. 5e), we might have to (at least) make those distinctions known.

Other mediums have the same problem, oh my!

Yes, it's true, the requirements stated above also don't apply to all media. Or rather, all media can manifest more on the 5e side of things. I can't argue that, instead I would say it actually proves my point. If you reduce all forms of entertainment to commodities, you will observe the same phenomena across all media for the same reasons.

Here's an angle that highlights the problem from another side: one way to see that this is true is that the content of media is more and more questioned and then regulated along ideologic or political guidelines. Huckleberry Finn was censored and is censored instead of being discussed in its (historical or morale) context and the discussion if orcs are racist just can't seem to die (they aren't, here's why), to name but two examples.

How does this relate, you might ask? Well, if entertainment is generally deemed a commodity instead of, say, a form of expression (or a sport or even an artform!), it is obvious that those not understanding this as a misconception are tempted to superficially "fill" content with the meaning they see fit or change it to their liking. It's not a new problem, but one that occurs more and more regularly, actually to an extend where people (today (again?) start to self-censor to avoid social media repression (one shouldn't break the law, of course).

And that's just that, since the phenoma are similar across all media, we can not only postulate that rpg are a form of media, but also say that there is a meaninfull distinction between media manifesting as commodity (basically the big corp. or capitalist appproach) and the manifestation as some form of "symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality" (or art, maybe?).

There is a struggle going on and one could be inclined to call it more of a spectrum (art - commodity). However, that would imply that we will see a measurable and more or less static expression of all forms of manifestations across said spectrum, and that definitely is NOT the case as one side (the commodity-side) more and more dominates the other***.

In its extreme, the consumer-approach to media could destroy or taint almost all forms of meaningfull medial expression. Everythig is a theme park, everything is a beautiful icecream cone and everything costs while being a meaningless waste of time. Nothing will relate to reality. Consequently, you own nothing, you owe instead of earning and you do nothing but being entertained as it is deemed proper and ...


We are talking extremes here, of course. Not saying any of this is happening, of course. Microtransactions are fake news, of course ...

Anyway, I digress. The terms "game" and "play" can only mean all of it if one isn't trying to own and destroy the other with an agenda to hold sway on how reality is to be interpreted. It is a general problem concerning all media, and it needs to be addressed.

A rose is a rose is a rose ...

I sure don't have all the answers, but if 5e wants to be a game, it can have the monicker, but it isn't a "traditional" rpg anymore and we should start exploring what those old rpgs are or how to call "our" way of interacting with that new form of medium in a hostile media landscape ... This is my little contribution towards that end, and there will be more of the same in the future (I hope).

Let's close with saying it's a complex issue, but very much worth exploring and talking about, as there are real dangers in how we treat our media. I see a lot of freedom vanishing with big publishers getting more and more powerful. Little voices disappear, big corp dictates the narrative and something needs to be done about that.

Just saying "5e isn't a game" touches on some truth, but really doesn't cut it, imo. 5e is on the winning side, and if we want to see some change, we let them have the terminology and come up with our own. Or at least create some awareness to the difference between playing as a consumer and participating meaningfully in a media-driven interaction.

So what do you guys think?


*Damn, first footnote in ages, feels like. Anyway, "traditionally" is unfortunately a very vague term in this regard, as the original western (culturally, not etymologically) understanding of playing or gaming was that it's a waste of time. It's that old-timey concept you might know from your grandparents, for instance. So to be more precise about what we are saying here, I'd define "traditionally" as the short period of time when psychology recognized the value of play and before it the culture shifted the terminology towards gaming being a commodity. For anyone interested in an excellent treatment of the subject, I recommend this paper by Piaget as a good starting point. I'd wager it mirrors Gygax's understanding of what play means, as he grew up with teachers echoing it into schools ... it's definitely what I'm talking about here.

** Which is, btw, my main gripe with this sort of thing: since we still interact, suggesting that we don't need to reflect on what we are experiencing is VERY VERY problematic as it very nicely covers all forms of manipulation up to infecting people's minds with all sorts of dangerous ideologies. You were just reading Harry Potter, now you accept a society ruled by the elites, that kind of thing ...

*** Ok, this might be a more controversial opinion. That said, scientifically speaking, spectrums describe a more or less static order between two extremes, or if there are shifts, they are also at least cyclic, so that there might be differences in different states, but an overall constant that allows a classification as "spectrum". I'd argue that this isn't the case here, as one form of media expression seems to supersede the other ...

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