Monday, March 11, 2013

Child Habits

Speaking of writing posts that are meant for children; when I was a child, I was fascinated by things like this: The Largest 100 Countries in the World.

Today I understand that this is not a particularly useful list.  Putting things in order is interesting,  but it tells you very little about the quality of life or the political existence of the countries listed.  The fact that Kazakhstan and Algeria are about the same size as Argentina and Saudi Arabia has little or nothing to do with the infrastructure or culture of those countries.

Yet there was something delightful in ranking them, and regularly I would put together lists like this and like the others linked on the page.  And because I would do that, I was compelled to learn where the countries were, like Benin and Malawi.  And since they were on maps, I would study and memorize the capital cities and other cities and the rivers that flowed through them.  This gave me a really strong background where it came to history, since when some random point was made about the Portuguese starting a colony in Angola, not only did I know where Angola was, I had a very strong conception of the shape of the country, its size ... and in time, its terrain and vegetation.

Today this has led to a party trick I do where I meet some fellow from Nigeria and I ask him if he is from Kano or Lagos.  And he will respond by raising his eyebrows and asking me, "Have you been to Nigeria?"  Because, after all, you can't possibly know the names of two giant cities in a very populous country if you haven't been there.

What's nice for me is that I can perform this party trick whether you're from Malaysia or Burkina Faso or Paraguay.  Now, picture in your mind, without using the internet, where those countries are.  Picture what other countries border them, and on what side, and for what approximate distance.  No?  Can't do it?  I can ... and I do it automatically.

Now, this sort of knowledge makes me "pretentious" in the eyes of some people ... but I want to make something clear.  I learned this as a child.  I was not yet 10 when I could tell you the capitals of every country in Africa.  Why?  Because it fascinated me.

Today, I have proof positive that this fascination extends to a lot of children, none of whom are pretentious just because they happen to be interested in something that isn't baseball statistics.  And here it is:

I would have been almost 30 when this appeared ... but even at nine I knew that the Caribbean was not a nation (its a sea) and that French Guiana is a colony of France - facts which would have really pissed me off as a kid for Yakko getting it wrong, but which now I realize they were needed to make the song come out.  I would have guessed that was why back in my childhood, but back then I was incredibly inflexible.  Not like now.

Now, no one is going to argue the video above wasn't meant for children.  Here's the thing, however ... one of the things we LIKE to do with children is to educate them.  And in this world, apart from all the rhetoric and crap about the carefree life of being a child, I remember they made me spend a lot of time sitting in classes learning stuff.  To me, learning stuff is part and parcel with being a child ... because the point isn't to praise and worship childhood, the point is to take children after birth and teach them to be adults.

So it baffles me when I hear someone say that since D&D is a game for 'children,' it should be simple and fun.  That would be because for me, childhood and the things I liked were not simple and fun.  They were complicated and fascinating and they drove me to wanting to know more and more and more.  It's my childhood that taught me to question why a sword is a sword and how its made and why it should do 1d8 damage and whether or not it weighs 6 lbs. like the DMG says or whether it should weigh 4.  This stuff still fascinates me.

I learned to play D&D at the age of nearly 15.  This is five years after I was doing on the bus going back and forth from school what Wakko was doing (without pictures, obviously, and without music).  By the time I'd hit grade 10 I had torn through science fiction, gothic fiction, history of war, history of science, medicine, astronomy, geology, geometry and I was just beginning to understand computers (this was a bit early for a home version).  But in the summer of 1979, a week before my 15th birthday, I was asking a lot of questions about the meaning and purpose of life and I was reading psychology.  Yes, at the age of 14, I was reading Freud.

Now, I don't really give a shit that adults my age now have never cracked a book about psychology, and I don't really give a shit that if I've gathered some knowledge on the subject in the last thirty years that they don't have that this makes me sound "pretentious."  What that word means to me, whenever I hear someone use it, is "I am a stupid lazy moron and I don't like people who are smart."  This is also something I learned as a child, what with all that time being forced to sit in classrooms with people who did not like books.

There's really no way to avoid the pretentious tag if you want to know something.  In my case, it's a little hard to imagine D&D as a "child's game" stripped free and clear of psychology.  The former, for me, did not exist before the latter.  There was no time in my life when I played D&D without realizing that people lied or resisted inquiry or behaved according to their insecurities according to predictable analysis.  This reader got all that from the get-go.  As a child.

Does this mean that I was never a child playing the game?  Or does it mean that adults do not give children their due?  'Cause I'm willing to bet that at least one of the regular readers or commenters on this blog, and on others, is in fact 8 years old, pretending to be 25, so they can be respected for the knowledge they have and not spoken down to like the moronic idiot we suppose children to be.  And here's the thing - I'm just as willing to bet that 8 year old's insight and ability to express thoughts in words is every bit as good as a million actual 25 year olds barely able to spell.  And to that 8 year old (or 9 or 10, whatever you are), I say good on you!  Just be warned ... people older than you now, people who are the same age as you when you're 25, and people younger than you when you're 50 will go on saying that you're pretentious, just because you had a curiousity.

But forget them.  They're all just bricks in the wall.


Arduin said...

Goddamn. I loved that song, still love it. Waves of nostalgia happening, I knew that thing by heart once.

As for the "hiding your age on the internet" thing, that was also me once, before I reached drinking age.

The post is spot on. Childhood is neither simple nor stupid, though plenty of children (and adults) are.

There are merely the people who grew, and those who didn't.

Lukas said...

If my family had the internet when I was 9, I would probably have been on it.

ESR said...

Alexis - it just occurred to me that the other blogger, whose name I have already forgotten, didn't even know the meaning of the word "pretentious", and didn't like the slap-in-the-face wake-up call that told him that he really could be DM'ing better, and offering more to his players. Instead of taking up the challenge, he rejected the whole idea as something unworthy of his time. Fair enough - but he didn't have to be so insulting about it.

You DO truly have an amazing curiousity and knowledge base, and I, for one, am grateful to suck up some of that knowledge, and be inspired by the curiosity, via your blog.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I had considered going a different direction with this post; from the speech between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from the film Tombstone, which perfectly describes a man like Brad Ncube:

Wyatt Earp: What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc Holliday: A man like Ringo has a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.
Wyatt Earp: What does he need?
Doc Holliday: Revenge.
Wyatt Earp: For what?
Doc Holliday: Bein' born.

Part of that knowledge base is having come across others with the same incomprehension as you and I, ESR, and that they have also tried to capture it in a bottle.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

There was a brief time when I enjoyed the game for purely childish reasons, I think. Somewhere around six to eight. I loved being able to transport myself instantly to different places, and just the idea of rolling dice and doing damage was fascinating to me.

There was nothing remotely good about my games. I just had a vivid imagination, lots of free time, and a fascination with the world.

This period was over before I got to middle school. I didn't make any kind of choice, I just naturally grew up. My enjoyment of the game steadily went down from there. I had some idea how bad I was at it, but I had no idea how to get better. I'd spend hours making plans that turned out to be useless, and watch game after game fall apart. My players started to get busier and value their time more, and the game just wasn't enjoyable anymore.

During adolescence, my games picked up a little. I started reading better books, I learned a little bit of history, and I got familiar with the "OSR" style of doing things, which was much more interesting to me than the fourth edition nonsense I found at stores. It was a time mostly of struggle, disappointment, and self loathing. My games still almost always sucked. Eventually it paid off, and around the end of 10th grade, I started running games that I was somewhat happy with. Which, by the way, was about a year ago if we're talking about our real ages.

A lot of people stopped playing around my age, and I can't imagine doing that. I feel like I'm just starting to enjoy it properly. I can finally run good games that aren't accidents, and I finally understand what I'm doing. I want to see where I can get in ten, twenty, or thirty years if I keep pushing myself.

So I know what he's talking about. There was a brief moment when my terrible games seemed great, and I've missed it since I was about eight years old. But it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of my games. It was because I was exploring something new and fascinating that I considered a worthy use of my time, learning a lot, and working at full mental capacity.

I think this feels easy at first, because as a child the whole world is new and interesting. As you get older, you have to fight harder for it. Today, simply rolling a d6 for damage doesn't quite excite me. I have to make a complicated percentile chart that accounts for multiple variables. And simply telling someone they see a tree doesn't cut it. I have to describe the texture of the bark and the exact smell of the leaves. In a way, I'm doing exactly what that asinine post recommended. I'm trying to stay true to my younger self by constantly improving and continuing to take the game seriously.

I don't think the surface elements of childish games are really what he wants. He wants the feeling. And to get the feeling, you have to put in work.

An adult playing children's games is like a bodybuilder who started off very weak, and remembers his first triumphant pull-up, and now does a single pull-up every day, expecting to get the same feeling of accomplishment. That's not how it works. If you want to enjoy something, you have to set goals for yourself and work hard to accomplish them.

Sorry for the long comment. I just have a lot of thoughts on this subject and I wanted to get them all out. I hope this was interesting to read.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's a brilliant comment.

Resillience, Ozzie. I've been hard on you since your finding this blog, and if you can be 17, take all that shit from me and still come back on here to write a comment like that, you're going to rule the world someday.


Here's a bit of advice, regarding the textures of trees and the smell of leaves. Find a book, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It's comfortable to read, you'll tear through it in a couple of days if you like it. Add reading it to one of the things you do next.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Thanks. That means a lot coming from you. Thanks for being harsh on me before. Half the stuff I said didn't even make sense. Your blog has improved me DMing, and my thinking in general. The way I see it, I can either get whiny and defensive when I'm wrong about something, like Brad Ncube, or suck it up, move on, and come up with something more logical next time. Only one of those options actually helps me.

I'll check out the book. It looks interesting.