Over the weekend, in an apparent effort to twist my attention away from the last stages of getting my book ready, my partner went and bought a copy of The Sims 3, into which she immersed herself as one would do into a pool with no bottom. Being human myself, I spent too many hours on it also (while she slept) ... and so now I have to write about it.
I encountered the first version of The Sims while couch-surfing at a friend's house while between cities of residence in 2002, and I have enjoyed playing it from time to time. The limitations of the first game were not all that evident until the onslaught of editions that followed ... and sadly The Sims 2 was a crap-fest that was clearly built by focus groups who, as usual, led designers far, far away from anything useful. Mostly, the second version severely stupified the game to make it more "accessible," and in the process made it so easy to play that it was hardly worth playing. It was pretty like a dumb blonde.
The third version has gone some distance to rectifying the myopic blindness of the second, while opening up the spaces and making it possible to exist in a greater area than one's property. I enjoyed it, to some degree ... though of course Yachtzee has the last word on the game itself, which is why we love him. "You are the slave!"
Because I am a tortured, obsessed soul, there's absolutely no way I can play this game without seeing is somehow as a yardstick against which D&D must be measured - both in terms of popularity and in regards to game design.
Here's the thing. The Sims is hugely popular. Unlike any game in existence, it is hugely popular with women, and I don't think that is incidental. Apart from its visual, there is a crafting ethic involved in the game that D&D simply does not possess. Most of the women I know who play the game - in any edition - are happy to cheat their way into infinite wealth for the sole purpose of creating elaborate, intricately crafted houses for no purpose whatsoever, except that they're interesting to make and time consuming. The actual people themselves are incidental and - it must be said - unnecessary.
Of course, this is the way that quite a lot of people play D&D. Sorry, I should say, quite a lot of boys. We all know that the ever present mention of players by so-called DMs is a questionable truth ... are there any players, really, among the trolls and bulletin-board stalkers who seem available to comment and scream all the time? Obviously, we're not supposed to ask. We're supposed to assume that yes, JackWhite34 from Lansing has dozens of players who all LOVE his world, and this his adventures are the BEST EVER, so please do not disagree with his design strategy.
Speaking for myself, I have the crew online, but perhaps that's all I have, and the offline game I occasionally refer to is a mad fantasy inside my head, dreamt up to settle arguments and so I can cry out, tears streaming down my face, "My players love me!" and so on. You don't know. Even if I recorded a game, it could have been staged, it could be the one and only time any of us played, etc., etc.
Thus is seems the best thing to do is to imagine we're all furtively inventing dungeons and trade tables and combat scenarios just to make ourselves feel important, and that these things have no more value or importance than all those people manufacturing houses in The Sims. Go on, splatter your dungeons and your worlds on your blogs and sites ... it proves nothing except that you've got a lot of time to spend producing something pretty (or decidedly less so).
Truth is, D&D is not 'popular' ... certainly not compared with, well, virtually anything. And why should we not examine why that is?
Well, it's NOT visual. There are those who will squawk about how the game is better for its absence of hard optiks, and I won't disagree. Still, I rush to point out that the most visual and tactile part of the game - the dice - have been given a virtually HOLY importance among players. The dice are sacred. Everything about the dice has been ramped up to fetishistic importance - the color, the number, the age, the amount of wear and tear, the location from which the dice originate, the manufacturer, the quality, the accuracy, the depth of the number grooves, the extra zeros on the second generation d10s, where and when the dice are rolled, if they should be hidden or rolled openly, what die should be used for what, whether games should be d20 based and so on. This is a lot of dialogue about the nature of dice, particularly when the game is so commonly described as transcending beyond the concrete. Some people, it seems, are hopelessly rooted in the real world.
Regardless of the game's desired conceptualism, most of the world does not actually like things that largely depend upon a person's thoughts ... and so therefore D&D is not popular. Therefore, it would seem to me that one of two positions is called for: either A) change the visuals of D&D and make it more concrete in order to appeal to a larger number of people; or B) decide here and now that those people who cannot deal with having a thought in their head don't matter and will never matter.
Now, I don't argue that DDO is the logical future of the game - but just between you and me, if your desire is for D&D to be something more than a misanthropic self-satisfying excursion with paper and pencil and graph paper (which NO ONE in the sketching/business world uses anymore for any reason), you've got to recognize that some kind of technology that lifts the game out of the dark ages is going to be necessary.
What else makes D&D not what we would call 'popular'?
Well, you might notice that The Sims, as well as DDO, and a wide assortment of other games vaguely related to characters, are entirely mechanical. Oh, please, don't get upset when I say that. Yes, of course we have roleplaying in D&D. All I mean to point out is that roleplaying, as it more or less exists, doesn't seem to appeal to very many people. Sure, it appeals to you and all your friends, and to the little group of pretend-wannabes that are lying to you in chatrooms about their bust size and their income, but on the whole, where it comes to selling a product or spending time with a product once its purchased, roleplaying really doesn't present the most desireable option.
See, where everything is mechanical, people can trust it. The game might be hard, or easy, or it might be a bit mundane or repetitive, but the game is not adversely making shit up out of the blue as we go along. The game is not judging my acting ability, my creativity or my general worth as a person. I may suck at The Sims ... it may take me longer to build my house and get promoted, etc., but in general the game doesn't care.
A huge reason - the only reason, really - why a lot of would-be players of D&D or other roleplaying games never come back after their first night is because they're absolutely certain that they're being fucked somehow. It's partly the steep learning curve of the game, but its MOSTLY the sense that those persons farther up the curve are a bunch of smug pricks ready to exploit that learning curve for purposes that don't quite seem obvious. Thus, as a noob, every time I pick up dice or write something wrong on my character sheet or answer the DM in some not quite standard way, I feel like an idiot. This is not - it may astound some to hear - an encouraging experience. This does not lend itself to thoughts of, "Gee, I sure would like to do this again!"
Moreover, this is intensified by the apparent infantilism that tends to seep into the participants of the game, where the participants are randomly setting fire to things, or killing things, or acting like assholes or self-satisfied pricks, in order to obtain a lewd, momentary sense of control over their surroundings. Usually, its the sort of behavior one expects in High School from jocks or heads or people who are four grades older ... but get a group of nerdish social lepers in a room together to 'hunt orc' and suddenly they possess among themselves all the same dull antagonism of supreme assholes for whom dumping your math books into the mud was the height of their day.
So yeah ... if you possess even a little security about your life and the manner you're living, its difficult not to look at these insecure little twinks slapping around orcs with abandon with a feeling of, "hm, not getting laid much, huh?"
It's not that DDO is so much more played than ordinary D&D - and it truly is - because its better or more accessible. It's that the rules seem not to depend upon dangerously retarded basement despots getting their corruption on. There's an absence of vainglorious clay-footed gods snobbishly keeping the players in the dark "to make the game better." Obviously this sort of thing appeals to some people. Some people like to pour feces all over the floor and have sex in it. There's a wide variety of activities in which some people will indulge. That some people will do this or that and proclaim the feast to be truly piquant is a very tiny, very worthless argument that is, at any rate, demonstrated to be so by the truly small number of participants it applies to.
So where I come off making arguments about the improvements of D&D being a little less reliance on "roleplaying" and a little more upon the "mechanical" fundamentals of the game is that I actually feel the core of the game CAN appeal to more people than a few copraphiliac pundits. And I don't feel I'm alone in this. I believe firmly that there are literally thousands of players who are pretty appalled at the ongoing drudge of the same meandering, effectively meaningless arguments about screens and characters and dice - the ones that are never solved, because they don't matter.
There is one solution to all this shit: mechanics. Mechanics for everything. Visual mechanics, tactile mechanics, causality mechanics, etc., etc. All the persons in the hobby who scream and shriek about the absence of mechanics need not be considered - they have had their four decades of onanism and - ultimately - they have the same voice today as they had in 1972. Virtually none at all.
D&D is not popular. It really could be. And when it is - through the mechanics of computerization and visual representation - all the voices that cried against it will be silenced, or drowned out by the millions who play. Ultimately, a rising tide lifts all boats.
And sinks that which has not been made well.