Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The long summary

You use a telephone to do one thing, and a radio to do another. Seems like a simple idea.

Different mediums of communication/interaction (let's call them media) are suited to different things, thanks to the laws of spacetime. The telephone is excellent for transmitting sounds between two specific users who are in different locations. The radio is excellent for transmitting sounds from one broadcaster to any number of receivers in other locations.

That doesn't mean you have to use them that way, of course. I could hold up my cell phone to a CD player, allowing the person on the other end to listen to music. Or I could broadcast specific messages to my wife over the radio, letting her know that I'll be home late from work. However, these aren't the optimal ways to use telephones and radio. People use the phone when they want to talk to someone specific, and they use the radio to listen to music or generalized talking. It's a matter of using a medium for its strengths - figure out what it does best, and do that with it.

And sometimes different media replace each other. For example, telegraphs used to be very common. If you wanted to get a message to someone and you couldn't wait for the mail, you sent a telegram. With the advent of phones, though, telegraphy went into decline, and the internet has finished them off as a practical option. Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. Radio is also an example of this evolution. It was the first medium to allow simultaneous one-way transmission from a central point to many receivers; in other words, lots of people could listen to the same thing at the same time. So radio became the home of music, storytelling, advertising, conversation, etc. That is, until television came along.

Since TV could actually show pictures, it rapidly took away several things that radio had previously done, especially storytelling. People who used to gather around the ol' Philco, listening to all-audio tales of cops and robbers, switched to actually seeing the stories acted out by live people on screens as large as a few inches across! So television displaced radio for certain things, particularly those things that were best served by having visuals. Radio hung on, though, by doing things that lent themselves to an all-audio-no-visual format. If people want to hear music, radio is suited to the task.

And so I circle back to roleplaying. A while ago, I was blogging about GNS Theory. Although not a perfect model, GNS Theory provides us with a useful set of concepts for discussing RPGs. Some people, it says, are Gamists who primarily enjoy the challenge and competition of playing a game. Some people are Narrativists who want to expose themselves to difficult emotional conflicts. And some people are Simulationists who want to emulate things outside the present world, like being a specific character or experiencing a particular location. While discussing this, I said I was working on a robust and philosophical defense of Simulationism. It took a lot of "Matt-likes-this-and-dislikes-that" blogging to sort it out in my head, but here it is.

Roleplaying games are a medium, just like telephones and radio. They're a set of methods and rules for human interaction, for the transmission of ideas. Like other media, RPGs are better at some things than they are at others. So it makes sense to use them in ways that play to their strengths. And what are those strengths? What do RPGs do better than their peers? Pretending. Roleplaying games are superb at fostering the suspension of disbelief, at creating a certain detachment from the rules and constraints of material life in the here-and-now. In short, RPGs excel at simulation. So let's use them for that.

It's not that they can't do other things, of course. They are games, after all, and you can use them to manipulate rulesets and engage in abstract competition with other people. But you can also do that with Monopoly or Axis & Allies or chess, and frankly those games do it better than RPGs do. If you want to compete, play go. Or take up racquetball. Or join a fantasy football league. Those are all better-designed for your competitive urge than RPGs. The rules in an RPG are there to help you resolve uncertain situations, not as a metric for beating other people at the table.

The same holds for people wanting emotional drama. RPGs can and do deliver that. But novels and movies do it better. If you want to focus on wrenching internal conflicts and difficult decisions, try reading Sophie's Choice or watching... I don't know what you'd watch. I'm not a fan of wrenching internal conflicts. But I know they're out there in other media, media that are stronger at providing them and that are weaker in engaging the participants' personal imaginations. For that matter, there's plenty of emotional drama in real life. It's a reflection of my preferences, yes, but I don't grasp why people would want to pretend to make hard choices when so much day-to-day existence involves really doing so.

Simulation is the one component of an RPG that you can't strip away from it. If there isn't pretending, if someone isn't imagining their personal version of a not-here-and-now, it's not a roleplaying game. It may still be a game. It may still have elements of improv acting. But it's missing the core of what makes this medium, this hobby, different from anything else. Roleplaying games offer an unparalleled chance to be someone you're not, in somewhere that doesn't exist, doing things you can't really do. All the other elements are useful, yes - but simulating stuff is what it's all about. It's a powerful theraputic tool. It's a useful creativity exercise. And it's pretty damn enjoyable.

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