One of the topics Andrea gave me to talk about: Gaming.
Well, here’s something I don’t talk about a lot in public: Roleplaying games. To my non-gaming friends, this is the nerdiest thing I do. By miles. Gaming has a bad rep as a hobby for the poorly-socialised and unwashed and/or as a hobby for teenagers who ought to leave their room and go meet a few girls. Pop along to a roleplaying convention, and it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t at least some compelling circumstantial evidence for this point of view. And in fairness, I know what I was like in my mid to late teens (as do a few others of this parish) and, well, yeah. Leaving the house a bit more often probably would have been good for me. But I like to think of myself as being almost socially passable these days, and more importantly, I like to be thought of as socially passable, so I tend not to draw attention to my nerdiest hobby too much. So I thought I’d explain a bit about why an adult male in his early thirties spends large chunks of his time making up weird crap to entertain his friends.
And there’s the first thing: I have a crowd of highly intelligent, well cultured and very attractive friends that I have made through gaming. Not an unwashed mouth-breather among them. This isn’t just me being nice about my friends, you understand – they would not be my friends if they didn’t meet some basic standards for wit and hygiene. But even with that taken into account, these are often savagely clever people, who can (and given half a chance will) talk on a wide range of topics that have sod all to do with gaming.
And even aside from the lovely people: I will absolutely, 100% defend roleplaying a legitimate storytelling capital-A-Art form. This is the bit that gets me into trouble with most people, because gaming is generally regarded, even by the participants as, at best, as an amusing social diversion. And at worst, well, see above. It can’t possibly be used to tell serious stories, like you can in a proper novel or movie, or anything.
This is plainly toss. A story is a story. Whether it’s written by one person, two people, or six people, it’s a story. Whether it’s read by one person, two people, six people, or thousands of people, it’s a story. And any story can be used to talk about our world, and the human condition.
At risk of getting a bit ‘let me tell you about my game’, here’s the high concept pitch for the horror game I’m running at the moment:
4 strangers wake up one day in a squat in a bad part of town, with no memory of the last several years of their lives, and an unknown agency seeking their deaths. It rapidly becomes apparent that they may no longer be the people they once were, and that they may not, in fact, have been good people. What will they do to get their lives back to “normal”?
It’s not the most thumpingly original concept, I admit, but what I hope you can see is that my players and I have explicitly set up a game about the nature of identity, and how much our memories shape the people we are. On top of that I’ve posed a number of moral questions, and then I’ve turned the players loose to see what answers they come up with. It’s not some kind of teenage power fantasy game, or an exercise in probability maths. It’s a genuine attempt to come up with a narrative with the same kind of driving engine that one might find in any other work of fiction. The difference between this and say, writing a novel or screenplay from the same start is that there are five of us contributing to the work, within a loosely agreed framework, whereby I provide elements of detail, and the players react to them, and based on those reactions, I provide more detail, and so on – their reaction to each element informs the choices I make i setting up future elements. They can throw me curveballs, and I can throw them curveballs, and we go back and forth making a narrative between us.
Which all sounds eye-gougingly pretentious, doesn’t it? In the first place, I’ll simply have to ask you to take my word that if you saw us playing, you would not think that. We laugh, we joke, we digress, and we are clearly having fun, rather than sitting about po-faced and serious.
But in the second place, the fact that it mighty be thought of pretentious at all is sort of my point: people would not bat an eyelid if I talked about the theme or motifs in a novel, but apparently, doing that in a roleplaying game is impossible or pretentious – that is:
1. Marked by an unwarranted claim to importance or distinction
2. Ostentatious; intended to impress others
And I firmly disagree with that. I’m not out to do anything than entertain myself and my players with these games – they are, after all, by their very nature, limited-audience things, and the point of them is to have fun with them. But my players and I are intelligent adults, and there is no reason in the world why we should not aim for the same standards in our interactive fiction as we demand of our passively consumed fiction. There is no reason we should not bring the full bore of our education, interests and faculties of critical thought to bear on our hobbies, is there? So why should it be thought of as pretension for us to do so? You don’t call someone pretentious if at 30, they are reading different books that they did at 13, do you? In fact, you’d probably worry about someone who wasn’t. But the fact they’re still reading wouldn’t draw comment, would it? So why should gaming? Yeah, I may have gotten into these games as a shy 12 year old. These days, I am neither 12, nor especially shy.
Yeah, I did just spend almost a thousand words justifying one of my hobbies in a fairly defensive manner, when truth is that I could have done it in just seven: it’s fun, and it entertains my friends. I don’t need or want any more of a justification than that. (Although I think it’s worth making the point that fun doesn’t have to mean childish.) But Andrea asked me to write about it, and I wanted to see what thoughts it shook loose in doing so.
Here’s a thought I want to return to after I’ve done some research: I belong to the second generation of gamers – the first one to come to these games as an established industry. I suspect there’s a reasonable case to be made the gaming is only now reaching maturity as an art form, as my generation is the one to actually grow up with them, and with other forms of systemised interactive fiction, like computer adventure games. But that’s getting off into the history of gaming and interactive narrative. Which I might note, could very easily be traced back to commedia dell’arte. How’s that for pretension?