Some weeks ago, a friend of mine commented that what he liked about this blog was that I tended to relate things that had nothing to do with D&D to roleplaying and D&D ... presumably about such things as history, psychology, politics, personal experiences and so on. The reason I do this is simple - I don't believe that role-playing exists in a vacuum. I believe that it adheres to the same principles that all interactive relationships between people do. In turn it can be understood just as anything else can be understood: by comparing it with our experience and our knowledge and deducing the answers to our problems logically. What is a world for? Why make a world? How do you control your players? How do you create excitement? And so on. These are not only questions that apply to role-playing, but to every activity.
It is because of this belief that I think very little of unified theories where it comes to describing anything that is cross-cultural or highly reflective of individualism - such as art, say, or the correct means to action. I am all for the idea of right and wrong. I think, given a particular situation, and a particular point of view, and an eye to the greatest possible gain, that there is a right answer to be had. The ideal breaks down, however, when someone starts to argue that in every situation, from every point of view, regardless of gain, such-and-such is the right answer. It is the bottom level of thinking, the philosophy that sets out to conform everyone to principles that are convenient for some. Statements such as, "Role-playing is only a game." Or, "The purpose of role-playing is FUN." Etc.
This is not to say that role-playing isn't a game, or that it isn't fun. Of course those things are true. And it is also true that things that aren't much fun rarely attract a lot of people (although, if there are people who are prepared to cut their arms with knives in order to feel something, we must assume there are people prepared to role-play in a manner that is most miserable).
My contention is the demand that it somehow be straight-jacketed to fit a previously formed conception of what it is supposed to be, as opposed to what it is.
I will confess at this point that the motivation for this post is from Ron Edwards' writings, and an exchange I had Friday with Dave Cesarano, who has been a regular contributor/reader to the blog lately. Dave has been around for years and he and I get along; and I can't fault the desire to find some sort of logic in the fabric of role-playing ... which Edwards seems to offer.
I'm going to go way out on a limb here, just the sort of place where the limb can be sawn off and cackles of glee can be heard as it topples to the ground. Mind you, I'm going to do this very gently, and I'm going to stand by my position. The next few paragraphs are, however, not the subject of this post, and I am really not interested in debating them. I only want the reader to have a clear picture of where my perspective lies.
There are a number of 'popular' theoreticians that have popped up on the last century which a very select portion of the population likes to look upon as 'geniuses and gods.' The fact that these individuals are not embraced by the academic community is, for that portion, proof positive that these 'geniuses and gods' are truly as brilliant and far-sighted as they are judged to be. My experience has been that whenever I encounter an individual with high regard for one of these 'geniuses and gods,' I am talking to someone who has not done the reading. If they had, they would recognize that the academic world was right to boot these jackanapes out on their ears, in the cold where they belong.
And here is where the shouting begins, because I'm going to name names. These are names that are, in effect, dirty words in academic circles, but like I say, "gods" to the common unread masses. For 'unread,' the reader may understand that I mean, "does not read textbooks." No doubt, any reader about to get affronted at the blasphemy that I'm about to espouse has read great heaps of really shitty books that serve to promote the religious worship of said names.
Carl Jung, for example, would be the first such individual of this variety that I encountered - and I did it at an age when I was too young to know how full of shit he was. Oh, Jung is fascinating to read, it's an amusing set of passages about the so-called nature of man, blah blah blah, only none of it seems to be applicable, which is why the respectable psychology community has turned its back on the man. Some readers here, as I say, worship Jung. They're getting quite angry right now. That is only because they refuse to accept that the book has been closed on him, and has been for some time. Still, the books are out there, and as long as they are, someone who knows very little about psychology, and has a strong wish-fulfilment idealism about their own self-importance, will embrace Jung whole hog. Another really fun character, in a sad way, is Wilhelm Reich, who started off being quite respectable before deciding to wander off into his own little fantasy world of UFOs, organomics, cloudbusting and so on. The reader may believe me without question that this nonsense is believed steadfastly by a segment with all the fervor that defines the worship of Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha.
A real favorite among the role-playing crowd is Joseph Campbell ... and if I get any hate mail about this post, it is going to be in defense of him. Even Wikipedia has no comment whatsoever about criticism of Campbell or the fact that the only credentials he possessed was a BA. I took an education in Classical history, and a great part of that education included investigation into myth. Campbell was never on the syllabus. Why would he be? He's only a respected scholar by those who are not in the field he purports to describe. Sigh. But what the hell. What do experts know?
Someone is going to write at me screaming about how he's respected by some Classical department somewhere, so let me just tell you to save your breath. I've been in this discussion now for something like thirty years and I can tell you that people a lot smarter than you have failed to convince me - or any of the Classics scholars, writers or researchers I respect. I am telling you now, Campbell, Reich and Jung are not the subject of this post any more than Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha - and the reader would get a lot farther with me arguing that the latter three were brilliant scholars.
This post is about the pattern produced in the writing of such people. The pattern never includes motivations, ideals or associations outside the incredibly certain writings of the author. Edwards, the inspirer of this post, doesn't appeal to the reader's knowledge of psychology; or the principles of contracts; or literary theory on narrativism or design theory on synthesis or simulationism. That is because Edwards pulls his theory straight from himself - with the belief that being an 'expert,' all he needs is his own viewpoint. This is a pattern for this particular kind of theoretician ... and where it meets with the sensibilities of a particular audience, the theory scores.
Knowledge, however, is not self-derived. It is outward derived. That is why it is knowledge. Being outward-derived, anyone might stumble across the same circumstances and, independently, produce the same logic and results. In science, this happens again and again.
No one, however, who has not read Edwards is likely to reproduce Edwards given the available knowledge. When an argument about Edwards arises, the only source is Edwards ... so the argument remains, what did he mean? We can, in fact, never know. Worse, the words narrativist, gamist and simulationist have been hopelessly poisoned by Edwards' use of them, so that even if we were to speak about 'storytelling' in a role-playing game in terms of dramatic criticism (which has a longer, more contextual history), the water for many people in the game is hopelessly muddied. Rather than trying to see the process clear and rationally, they are asking the question, "I'm sorry, is this simulationist or narrativist?"
Which is something akin to asking, "This play, is it meant to be a reflection of real events, or completely make-believe?" That is a hard place to begin one's deconstruction.