My friend James of A Dungeon Master's Tale has an excellent post about tabletop D&D not being a 'transitional technology.' I encourage the gentle reader to have a look.
In the post, James quotes the dictum of French sociologist Roger Caillois, in his book Games and Men. For my own convenience, I'll quote the items again of what games "must be":
1. fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
2. separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
3. uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
4. non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
5. governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
6. fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality
I have no problems with 2, 3 and 5. These are technical considerations of where, for what purpose and how the game is played. 6 is a bit more contentious, since I don't believe every game insists upon the awareness of a different reality - some games, such as releasing humans and hunting them for pleasure, are a bit too real. But we'll go with the old adage that if someone gets hurt, it's a sport, and in any case we speaking of D&D so I have no real issue with number 6.
But 1 & 4 ... ah, that's another matter.
Now, I am not here to say that D&D is not fun. It obviously is. My sessions are accompanied by laughter, boisterous shouting, playfulness and all the elements of a children's schoolyard.
Mind you, that's all the elements ... including fury, vociferous disagreement, sulking and boredom. So there are very definitely moments that occur in the game that are not 'fun.' People care very deeply about their characters, they are very involved in the success of their strategies and in staying alive, and sometimes they are very definite about the dice not working out the way they please. So I am wondering ... when the game isn't 'fun,' is it still a game?
Well, obviously. And the argument will be made, no doubt, that in some way all that adrenaline is part of the 'fun.'
But I can't find any definition anywhere for fun that includes "occasionally very pissed off and angry due to temporary circumstances resulting from frustration while having a good time."
Now, I'll keep this example as short as I can. In the battle last week against the petrifying-gaze catoblepas I threw against the party, one of the players had both his main character and his henchman turned to stone. He missed both saving throws by one point. Both by one point exactly. He was not pleased. He did not yell, he did not sulk, but he was very definitely NOT enjoying it.
Despite his stoic outward appearance, however - and I thought he was handling it quite well, as being in a dungeon it means he won't be part of the 'fun' for an indeterminate time to come - the rest of the party was not satisfied with his calm, stiffened exterior (ba-dum-dum). They spent a good twenty minutes of the session encouraging him, with his girlfriend in particular telling him not to sulk, when he wasn't actually sulking ... and that led to a nagging argument and a long, difficult period of psychological adjustment for everyone. I got up, made a cup of coffee, browsed around for something to eat and eventually, we settled down to play out the rest of the combat.
This, as anyone knows who plays regularly, is typical. People are emotional. And where danger threatens, even fictitious danger, people get upset. They don't always have fun. Sometimes, they're turned to stone.
But when the next session begins, you can bet your ass the player is going to be present, stone characters in hand, ready to play the second someone finds the inevitable stone-to-flesh scroll that logically ought to be found in a lair where a catoblepas is kept as a pet. I mean, the pet's owner just has to be prepared for this sort of thing.
Maybe for a whole lot of people, the game is just fun fun fun all the time, and nothing really serious ever happens. But my memories of hopscotch and scrub include - when I think of it - fights over where the little stone landed and where the pitcher was supposed to stand. I remember fistfights broke out over stuff like that. Yet we all wanted to play, most of the time. Maybe not with certain people, like that bastard Brad I knew who tried to whack me with his bat when I said it was his fourth foul and he chose to ignore that house/playground rule we always played by. Brad took his bat and went home and it took us a week to find another. Fun times.
I think it has to be said that with games, fun is a desired outcome, but not an attribute. We can all remember playing some game, somewhere, when we were more concerned with humiliating our opponent than having fun: "I'm gonna practice this goddamn game until I wipe the board with that bastard's ass, and when I do, I'm going to LAUGH right in his fucking face."
Maybe those are not the highest ideals to play by, but it doesn't make the game cease to be a game. Definition-wise, fun doesn't mean shit.
Now, as regards number 4 ... "A game does not accomplish anything useful."
Really. I mean, that's actually part of the definition? Because I am baffled. In the first place, given the number of people who accumulate income via the playing of games, it seems pretty useful in some cases to having more money in my pocket. I've done pretty well at poker over the years, and I have occasionally hurt a few sharks at nine-ball. In the non-fiscal sense, I've seen fame accumulated by others who've done well in competitions, and in one case I know for a fact that led to the rather nerdish fellow getting laid by a very hot chick. Benefits of the game.
But then, perhaps we really are talking only within the exact framework of the game. That is, peripheral benefits aside, the actual knocking down of the pins did not accomplish anything specifically useful to the existence of the pins or the ball.
To make that definition work, it means that I have to ignore the physical benefit that bowling gives to my body, or the social enjoyment of watching others bowl and talking about it, the relief of my stress in most cases that likely increases my overall life expectancy and so on. But then, maybe bowling is a sport, whereas dice rolling is not.
I would argue that the difference is just in the size and exact physical properties of the thing you throw, but okay, let's just stick to throwing dice. Yet I'm still having to discount the moderate burst of seratonins in my system, making me high upon tossing a d20, in order for this to fit the above's definition of a game. Sorry, I find that little rush 'useful' to my state of consciousness, as being high on stuff that isn't actually illegal drugs is sort of my purpose for being.
I can't help it that our sociologist Caillois can't find that in his list of 'useful' things, but tough tookies. What Caillois really means in his definition of useful is that it doesn't fit into what would be catalogued as part of industrial production. It's a waste of time, as opposed to my job or the raising of children, those being reactionary judgments about what's useful and what isn't. The definition is extremely cursory, ridiculously weak in its foundation and utterly dismissive that anything pleasurable can also be useful. It is typical of academicians that, in order to insist that a game is an escape from the daily grind of paycheque living, it must by definition be useless.
This only gives credence to that facet of the population that looks at the pleasurable activities of its citizens, feeling free to define this activity as productive and therefore exploitable by the ruling class, and that activity as useless and therefore unimportant in the grand scheme of things. To hell with that. D&D may not yet be something useful to French sociologists, but it is very much useful to me.
Which means that either D&D isn't a game, or sociologist Roger Caillois has his head up his ass. You tell me.