Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Drink This

"Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living--that you are still less likely to believe."
Socrates, Apology 37e-38a

We are given to understand that the context of these words were spoken as Socrates, condemned for things he did not do, was given the option of either exile (ostracization) or death (drinking of hemlock).  I reproduce the whole quote here for one simple reason ... that Socrates himself did not believe that the ordinary individual - indeed, not even his own friends and students - would understand him when he said that the unexamined life was not worth living.  Socrates was a 71-year-old man when he died.  He had plenty of experience in how others responded to his arguments, and just what to expect from them when he made an argument.

Nothing has changed.  Present the argument to an individual today, that they should sit down and at length examine their lives, and you will receive back a blank stare and incomprehension; at best, you may expect them to ponder for a moment, the briefest of motions mind, before asking you, "How?"

Suppose we consider a typical D&D event: the destruction of the big bad, in its lair, sitting upon a heap of treasure.  Suppose as a DM I have you and others roll up characters of 15th level, and zing! pop! I drop you into the big bad's lair and the fight begins.  You hack, you cast, you bring holy damnation upon the big bad and as a result you gain all its treasure.

Does this seem like a meaningful exercise to you?  Is this something that sounds like it would please you, or fulfill you?  Is it something you'd want to do?

If your answer is yes, then you may take comfort in the knowledge that you have just found the attitude you bear that has brought you all the unhappiness that it has in your life.  It is time that you sat down and truly considered why it is you think the way you do, and how that thinking has brought you to the place it has. 

For most of us, the answer would be a resounding "No."  It would be an empty, meaningless way to spend an evening.  It would be as meaningless as a host of reporters showing up at your door, along with the presenters of the Nobel Prize, altogether having the purpose of giving you that Prize for having accomplished the immortal task of picking the grunge out from between your toenails.  The money might be nice, but you would very soon feel like a fool as you were asked questions, and thereafter for the rest of your life compared endlessly with people who had actually accomplished things.

Like real life, accomplishments in D&D are empty and worthless without the greater picture of how those accomplishments were achieved.  The greatest ills in a game are not the number of characters that are killed, but the number of characters who carry toys and power they did not earn.  Not because there is an unfairness about it, but because having a toy you did not earn is an empty, soul-sucking experience ... all the more empty for people who do not know that is what is wrong with the campaign they're running, or in which they're playing.

This is not an uncommon thing.  The world is full of people living in the throes of hedonism, maniacally globbing up every bit of fun and pleasure they can from one moment to the next, concentrating their effort like a laser beam on avoiding any three-minute period of self-examination like the frigging plague.  That is because three minutes without fun brings deep, abiding unhappiness.  An hour without fun is a depression of epic proportions.  And three days without fun can be all it takes to make suicide seem like a viable alternative.

People who play D&D from the angle that ten minutes of 'non-fun' is a great wrong not to be perpetrated against them are playing D&D for reasons that go much deeper than the game itself.  They are avoiding their lives.  They are grasping at straws to escape their lives ... and in that escape, they insist that all must be beautific and great, and that no obstacle can exist that cannot be overcome.  They must be gods or the game does not give them the solace from reality they demand.  They are not getting their fix.  And you, O gentle DM with your world, are the reason they are not getting it.  That is why they are angry.  That is why they are screaming when the die comes up low.  That is why they are sullen once their character has died.  They are not in control of their own lives; they insist they must be in control of their character's lives.  It is the only reason they play.

I do not doubt that this avoidance is the fuel that makes more than a few hundred play this game world-wide.  I do not doubt that the considerable weakness of D&D to provide this sort of escapism is the reason it is not played by millions.  D&D will never measure up with heroin.  It will never offer the terrifying reality-separation to be found with skydiving or spelunking.  It is an extremely crappy sort of avoidance strategy, and for that reason it will never, ever be popular with the great masses of people.  Successful avoidance strategies, by definition, must be available everywhere; they must be simple and direct; they must be immediately effective; and they must work when the participant is alone.

Liquor, for example.

Your player - or you yourself if that is the case - screaming at the die, is an unusual sort of person.  They possess the peculiar mind-set makes this game an escape.  They are in a very tiny minority of individuals.

We are not, however, all invested in this game for these reasons.  We are not all fearful of examining our lives.  We are not all bent upon escapism.  Some who play the game play it because of the opportunity it gives to examine our lives further.  To put our personalities into a laboratory, as it were, and run tests on it, and compare the results of those tests with our ordinary, everyday behavior.  If we suffer loss in our lives, how does that compare with the loss of our characters?  If we are ambitious in our lives, how are we able to be ambitious with our characters?  How do they play off each other.  How does the imagination I put towards my world reflect the imagination I put towards my other art, or my social responsibilities, or my interactivity with other persons?

For the smallest number of players of the game, characters are not measured by their successes, or by how they differ from we ourselves, but by the means by which our imaginations work within frameworks we do not encounter everyday.  I do not, for example, kill monsters on my way to work.  I would much rather not live in a world where that was necessary.  But the process of killing monsters, and the way it tests my ingenuity, is very much a process of my mind examining strategies I don't get to play out otherwise.  And playing out strategies in my mind, regarding my competitors, my writing, my sex life and so on, is the way I self-examine every element of my life.  I examine with gusto, because it is in examining that I determine where I am, where I'm going and why I'm going there.

If my world is going to be useful in that regard, for me or for my players ... if it is going to be a laboratory of any value towards that purpose ... then the one thing it cannot be is disproportional and erratic.  It must operate according to fundamentally particular principles which are the same from session to session, from adventure to adventure, and from campaign to campaign.  The players, when the sit down to play, must know what to expect.  They must have rules they can rely upon.  They must be able to judge accurately the scope of their actions and the limitations they have.  Only in that way can they measure themselves against the world I create, just as they measure themselves against the world none of us created.

The reason worlds like this go on, and on, and on, is because the examined D&D life IS worth living.  It is worth sacrificing moments in the real world for.  It is not replaceable by liquor, or skydiving, or heroin.  There's no self-examination in any of these things, for hedonism is the manner in which self-examination is avoided.

There are elements of this game that rise magnificently beyond hedonism.  These cannot be comprehended escapism any more than life can be.  The very argument of escapism - to escape from life - is the manner in which fools doom themselves.  There is no escape.  This was the point Socrates made.  It is the point I am making.

But he and I are alike in one other way.  I don't expect the listener to believe me, either.


Danny Peck said...

Very interesting post and frightening in a way, because it reminds me of when I first started playing the game of D&D.

My mother was always into the same stuff as me, video games, literature, etc, but she didn't want to play my shiny new D&D game. She was happy that I'd found something new to have a good time with, though, but she also warned me that a game where you pretend to be people in a made up milieu would be very attractive to people seeking escapism, and that she worried that when they found the game lacking, they'd seek to harm the 'guy in charge of it all.'

Over the years, I've had a few of these angry escapists, shouting at bad die rolls and playing in 4+ games a week, not really enjoying any of them. Fortunately, none of them ever quite "work out" at my table, and in the modern day, I seek to surround myself with people who can both enjoy the game as an mentally/socially enriching activity, but also who can analyze it objectively(or mostly so) after the fact and think on how we can better the experience!

Jeremy Morgan said...

This may be the single greatest thing I've ever seen you write.

I think this gives a lot of context for almost every other post you've written. While I don't agree with everything you've said here, I agree with the thrust of it and applaud you for the viewpoint. This topic has been on my mind for a while (I've even blogged about it a bit from a different angle).

Keep up the good work.

Bard said...

A nice thought-provoking post. It brought to mind Pascal's "a king without diversion" which also emphasizes reflection, and denounces escapism.

Alexis said...

Thank you for that, Bard. I haven't read Pascal since my early twenties, and I'd forgotten all about his marvelous style.

ArmChairGeneral said...

Self examination and escapism. Very interesting. It might be just that they want a drink then again the idea that the DND world has rules whereas the real world's rules are much more difficult to ascertain might play a key point when considering the ideas of heroism versus hedonism. Great post!

Carl said...

"Suppose we consider a typical D&D event: the destruction of the big bad, in its lair...

Does this seem like a meaningful exercise to you? Is this something that sounds like it would please you, or fulfill you? Is it something you'd want to do?"

Yes, yes and yes. This is no different than a wargame with set-piece battles. You've described a stateless D&D game here. It's scenario-based play, and it's quite fun and it can be fulfilling. However, the rewards, the pile of treasure, the accumulated XP are meaningless without state. The excitement of the fight and the victory over advesity is the true reward and when it's done, the pieces should go back in the box.

Is your game more fun? Sure, for your players and you (and probably me) it is (would be) more fun. Unfortunately, there aren't many DMs around of your caliber. I've been looking for years. I got so tired of looking that I decided to give it a whirl myself and found my abilities lacking. I decided I didn't want to play in my own game and ended it. That's my own problem, though, as I refuse to do the sensible thing and move to Calgary.

Your greater point, about how people who play D&D as an escape from their (percieved to be)wretched lives is spot-on. People who play the game for an escape are eventually going to seek something else because D&D will not scratch that itch for long, if it ever does.

Jack said...

Hello again. I think I've mentioned that I haven't been a gamer for years, yet I keep coming back by your site. Why? I believe it is the way that you seamlessly mesh the game universe with the real world, as here, to draw conclusions where the rest of us never realized there was a question.

I think real contemplation has been, for most of human history, the province of the elite. When a farmer is fighting off a locust plague, or a man feeds his family by screwing nuts onto axles at an assembly line all day, contemplation of his place in the greater universe isn't necessarily high on his bucket list. In the prosperity following WWII, we baby boomers found ourselves with a sea of labor-saving devices, and easy credit to access them, that freed us up from a lot of civilization's previous drudgery, and became the first generation AS A WHOLE to get into the kind of navel-gazing/kung-yoga lessons/butterfly collecting that has become well-known and common. And I believe it subsides in direct corelation to the advances in computer science. Analyzing your place in the universe is hard work. We've been conditioned to expect both gratification and knowledge to be delivered in nanoseconds. We're willing to wait 3 or 4 seconds for something that's really important, but if the count gets to 5, it's click on refresh, or Next Site; got no time for that!

But, thanks for this insightful post. It got me thinking, and maybe someone else, as well, and that's a gift beyond price. Well done, as always.

JB said...

Oh, I believe you. I think, though, that D&D itself...and its ability to provide this facet of entertainment/knowledge...goes largely "unexamined" by those who play it. I think many players may only grasp this dimly, like seeing through a grimed and filthy window. I know it's taken me years of reflection to grasp it somewhat.

Excellent post! (flattery not intended)