January 15, 2011

You Play What?

People often ask me about gaming, often at the most inopportune times. (Talking with the teller at the bank when i’m depositing a cheque from Hasbro is a surprisingly consistent starter to that particular conversation.) And when i’m asked the usual questions of what RPGs are really about; and why do you play; and did you used to do all that weird freaky shit like put on cloaks and run around in university basements and stuff, i usually go into a kind of prepared spiel about how it’s kind of like a group improv-drama exercise, but there’s strategy and problem-solving and fighting; and because it’s socially and philosophically stimulating; and hell, no. But then a thought popped into my head recently that i think covers the attraction and allure of gaming for me in a way that people who’ve never indulged can easily understand.

If you’re like me and most other people in the world, you’ve probably read a reasonably large number of good books. (I’m taking fiction, here, whether mainstream or genre; and i’m talking books, but the analogy applies just as well to film and TV, so expand it if you like.) These are the books that we read and enjoy; the books that we recommend to other people, that we remember fondly even years later.

However, if you’re like me and most other people in the world, you’ve probably read a much smaller number of great books. These are the books that change us. The books that run us through the emotional or intellectual wringer; the books that not only do we recommend to others and remember fondly, but which we re-read time and time again, seeking what we found that first time and hoping desperately to catch a little bit more of it again.

I’ve always noted this seemingly fixed ratio of good/great in myself, and it seems king of logical and obvious insofar as great is better than good, and so is necessarily rare, so what’s the big deal anyway? But i’ve always noted at the same time that if you take any group of people with similar tastes in genre and drama, their lists of good books will very often run in almost perfect sync — whereas an individual person’s list of great books is almost always exclusively unique to that person.

For each of us, good books are a broadly nebulous continuum; great books are a kind of quantum cluster of specific and often inconsistent states. X and Y might be pretty much the same book in terms of genre, quality of writing, themes, and authorial intent. But only one feels “great” to the individual reader. And the reason for that is that great books aren’t simply better good books. Great books are the books in which we find meaning.

Meaning in fiction is ever elusive. It’s a thing that, to some degree, we as readers bring into a work as much as we draw out of it. Because meaning isn’t about the quality of the work in isolation (what makes it merely good). It’s about the quality of the work as it interfaces with the quality of the heart and mind that reads the work.

So here’s the thing with gaming.

The narrative that is the foundation of any roleplaying game is a gestalt construct created on the fly as the sum total of the reactions of players to circumstances sketched out and changing in real time. (That’s the “it’s kind of like a group improv-drama exercise” bit from above.) Players in an RPG always have a certain amount of themselves invested into the game. A sense of the character. An affinity for the goals of the game. A desire to succeed in a very particular, often very personal way. And so it is that most every RPG narrative is saturated with meaning for those who play it — because that meaning is created by those who play it. However, an RPG is never the equivalent of writing a book for yourself, then reading it and saying “Yeah, that means a lot to me”, because an RPG is transformative. The experience of the overall game is more than the sum of each individual player, but the whole carries all the meaning that each player brings into it.

In my view, roleplaying games are unique among all the various forms of entertainment we can choose to pass time with because they’re a form of entertainment within which the participants shape and craft the meaning they want to extract from the experience. Because everyone involved in a campaign has a hand in “writing” the campaign, it’s impossible for the campaign to not have meaning for those who create it.

Meaning is the difference between good fiction and great fiction. And so for those involved in it, a well-played RPG carries all the weight and importance of a great book — a book pregnant with meaning; one of those rare books that seems to carry a bit of you inside it. And the most awesome thing about RPGs is that this feeling of connectedness carries itself even within the most horrendously contrived narratives, because if you have played RPGs, you’ll know painfully well how most campaign narratives only ever seem cool to the players who were in them at the time. Only by playing the game can you experience the context — experience the warm embrace of meaning — that makes the game what it is.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)