Friday, January 20, 2012

Actual Life

In my long post I made an association between the roleplaying game and something I called 'actual' or 'real' life.  The quote ran as follows:

"Your actual life consists of moments of panic and discord; of terror and bliss; of boredom and intensity. The DMs goal is to reduce the boredom circumstances as much as possible, but to otherwise provide for the same opportunities as a real life provides in terms of distraction and interest."

Very well, what is real life, and how does one achieve it?

Let us not, to start, bog down into a question of whether or not we exist, or for what purpose we exist, or how we came about to exist, or by what means ought we to continue our existence.  These are all very interesting questions, and bear great application to the daily habit of real life, but they are of secondary value in terms of reflecting the qualities of real life, which is the subject upon the table now.  Life, for all its variances, for all its difficulties and rewards, feels remarkably real, does it not?  In that I mean that it possesses a quality that seems to capture all of your attention.  It is, in a word, absorbing.  I don't propose that your job is particularly your cup of tea, or that your relationship is going as planned, or that you've achieved the goals you'd hoped to manage by the age you're at now, no - I only mean to say that whatever quality of life you're experiencing at the moment, you are, in fact, experiencing it.  You've got to admit - real life is pretty goddamned distracting.

This is all a round about way of tackling the subject of immersion, which my functioning wikipedia tells me "... is a state of consciousness where an immersant's awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment, often artificial."

Let's be reasonable.  You are not going to achieve this to the nth degree around a gaming table.  Your players are still going to be aware of the location of the cheetoes, the dice are still going to demand them to recognize the presence of a mechanic apart from the 'game world,' and you're still going to have to get up and take your physical self to the bathroom every hour or so to expel the real coke you're drinking.  No one here is pitching virtual reality.  All we are asking for is a reasonable amount of distraction, something for our imaginations to take root upon so we are not thinking about our jobs, our relationships or our failed ambitions ... right?

Recently, reading Raph Koster's blog, he described the death of immersion in the cloud of internet interconnectedness ... as in, how can there be immersion in video games if thou art repeatedly interrupted by pop-ups and jingles of your internet moving and shaking?  There you are, in the middle of a scene between you and the Princess Raglia, who's husband has just died, and you're informed that BleedingMonkeyFuckBoy22 has just come online.  Kinda sucks.

And I get his point.  There's a general sentiment going around the bourgeois that interconnectedness is both a joy and a curse ... that you need apps to tell you to get off your computer, to fight off the apps that tell you to get on, like people in the 70s taking downers and uppers to sleep at night and get up in the morning.  There's something reassuringingly moronic about the nature of the social middle class, and about the way one-time Bohemians are pulled into it once seduced by owning a house, a car and the comforts of life insurance.  But immersion, or 'real life' as I prefer to call it, isn't passed on, or even feeling a bit sickly.  It's doing very well ... it just isn't the stale product of a repeating video screen.

In a very bad film from the early 80s (never mind which one), David Cronenburg tried unsuccessfully to tackle an emerging social phenomenon - the blurring distinction between actual reality and perceived reality, brought on by the universality of television.  We can't blame Cronenburg for failing - he always fails.  He fails because he always tries to cram incomprehensible contexts into a two-hour film, as though that's the right medium for them, with the recognition that there is no right medium.  In this particular case, he has one of his characters propose the following argument: "... whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it.  Therefore the television is reality ..."

Have you stopped to consider that a part of your memory; a part of the environment that made you you, that fashioned your character and rationalized your decision-making process, has been founded in the passage through several small stone corridors that led you from a perceived surface to a perceived underground chamber, when thence you barbarously slaughtered a bevy of imagined creatures in order to obtain an imagined reward which you then - in reality, mind - transfixed into your consciousness by writing said reward out in detail upon a piece of paper?  When you compare the person you are with the persons your parents chose to be, do you assign a value to how far your adventures went towards making you an adult?  And when you sit at the table as a dungeon master, do you contemplate your effects upon a comparable basis?  Do you consider that you're presenting a perceived reality that is nonetheless teaching lessons commensurate in some degree with not touching a hot stove and not telling your friend that his girl is sleeping around on him?

I would guess not.

The reality of your world begins and ends with the reality you choose to present in it ... or if you prefer, the degree in which you believe in your world.  This is not a strange or unstable phenomenon.  Most writers who invest fully into their works come to accept that their characters have become real persons ... that they, in some alternate reality, walk about and go through the actions of eating and surviving for their own sakes, apart from the writer's actual work.  This is then conveyed to the audience, that reads the work, which then itself comes to believe in the reality of the characters.  Does it not seem necessary that in some place, in some existence, not quite established by science, that Frodo and Bilbo must exist?  Is it not remarkably easy to suppose that in San Francisco in the 1940s there was a Sam Spade, or that a Yossarian spent the 50s quietly and happily burbling to himself in a Valencian cafe, reached after a long sea voyage?

But how do you achieve that?  How do you make your world real, given that you buy into any of this argument and accept that your world being real would be a marvelous thing?

To begin, you must make the conscious decision that it will BE real ... even if it is not.  It is the conscious decision to dismiss reason and judgment in this particular instance, and to embrace that your insistence is a great influence upon your belief than is your observation.  This is not as difficult as it seems ... but it is also not something that can be negotiated.  It is all or nothing - a bit of doubt tears the structure down.

Then you must apply the observances you have made of the world around you to the world you intend to make.  If your experience with this world denies the existence of something, then the matters of your world must not have that thing.  There is nothing physical, for example, to keep me from lifting this computer over my head and bludgeoning to death the fellow sitting at the next table.  My muscles will lift this computer, and swing it.  The fellow may struggle against me, but if my first hit is sound I will have the upper hand.  There will be no god who will restrain my actions.  No rule of existence will intervene.  It is down to my will, and my will alone, that decides what I will do next.  Consequences may come, but only after the event.

If your world is rife with player restraint, it will never be real.  It will never measure up to real life, and will therefore never truly distract from it.

The same is said for every element of your world.  If your setting cannot be explained or expressed to a degree equal to how you would describe your work place, or the village where you holidayed last year, or the house in which you grew up, it will never lift your players to believe in it.  If your player's characters are not fleshed out somehow; if the rules apply like frogs scattering on a pond; if swung weapons fail to terrify; if magic does not cause players to wonder, as it must; if a journey does not take time; if invented foes do not speak or act with the ring of truth; if blood and sweat always produces a reward, or if rewards come regardless of blood and sweat; then your world will fail.  It will always fail.

If you will be a DM, you must lift yourself from your stupor and go look at the world, and see the thing you dare to offer distraction from.  You must understand the world, comprehend it somehow, not merely in its physical manifestation, but in the means by which the denizens of that world struggle and achieve, or wallow and die.

If you will not do this, you do not have a creator in you and you should quit now.  From your limited experience - the experience of only one life, your own - you will manage to do little more than whitewash a cardboard surface ... and this will be the reason you have no players.

1 comment:

Lord Thanatos said...

Interesting thoughts. I like what you said about how much do we realize that a part of my "being" has been formed by my experiences wandering dark, musty corridors and slaying imaginary creatures. WHOA!

Thats true. A good part of my existence has been in imaginary settings, whether its playing a game, reading a book, or watching a movie. Those things DO make up who I am, and in essence have to exist in my "reality".

Kind of worrisome I guess, compared to people 200 years ago. Did they spend so much time dealing with the imagined? Or were they products of a completely "real" environment? How would I get along with, or relate to, someone from the thirteen colonies? Our perspectives would have to be 180º off.

As for gaming, the more "into it" the players and DM are, the more fun it is. It's never fun to run a few anonymous characters through a rubber stamp dungeon, killing everything, taking it all. It's much more fun knowing that my Paladin is constantly on the lookout for "trapped" situations, which his deity demands he offer assistance. Or that our group's magic user, Kalen, is a cowardly, self centered, power monger who will one day get what is coming to him. These things become "real" for a few hours a week, and much more enjoyable than my TPS reports in my cubicle.