Monday, December 23, 2013

The Distraction

The embedded youtube video below is from the year 2000, featuring a Malcolm Gladwell who is less sure of himself, pitching his first best-seller, The Tipping Point. I don't expect the reader to watch all of it, though it is worth watching, particularly to see Gladwell gain his confidence so that he speaks like he always does now. It should be clear to the readers of this blog that I very much like Gladwell, though I often disagree. It is only because he sweeps away so many insisted-upon myths, while bringing to light institutional ideas that have been overlooked.

The relevant passage in the video begins at 13:00.

Gladwell talks about how children were sat down to watch Sesame Street prior to that show's launch, with two televisions in the room. The first had the proposed show concept that the creators wanted, while the other had content that was silent, but compelling. Then the creators watched children to learn when they were watching Sesame Street (that show being better) and when they were bored, their attention wandering. It's all very interesting. Gladwell then goes on to discuss how Big Bird was necessary to make the show work, and how the mixture of reality and fantasy proved to be a useful tool for enticing children into learning.

As it happens, I was 5 years old when Sesame Street began broadcasting. I'm of that peculiar age where I remember Mr. Hooper; I was 18 when Mr. Hooper died, so far too old for the show, but young enough to retain the nostalgia for the show, and be affected by it. One could say I was in the range of the target audience ... and since I am not conscious of any time before the show existed, I must have watched it from the beginning. On some level, my brain was affected by the very things Gladwell talks about that were done by the creators of the show. My understanding of person-to-person interaction, right along with speaking with puppets as though they were real, were established. Sesame Street has much to do with how I perceive 'playing pretend' - and in hindsight, understanding why the muppets interacting with humans didn't just work for children, it worked for adults, too. All through the 70s, Kermit and friends appeared on Carol Burnett and with Julie Andrews, and every other major television variety show that existed. The Muppet Show wasn't just a kid's show, it could be dark and full of black humour, which was even more true of the short lived rebirth that came along in the late 90s.

So when I think about role-playing, I have ideals.

Just about every example I see of "role-playing" on youtube, particularly that filmed at various conventions, I can only describe as absolute fucking swill. I really mean that.

And the poster boy for this shit is Chris fucking Perkins. Just look at this below. Take your time, wade through as much as you can choke down, and then we'll keep going.

There's are things that really bother me through the whole video. Perkins himself, for one, having this smug, self-satisfied grin that remains plastered to his face. It's not a friendly grin. It's not a man having a good time. It's a DM thinking to himself, "I AM THE SHIT. Be grateful I let you play." Just stop the video at any point, pause it, and stare at that face for thirty, forty seconds. Then ask yourself, do you like this person?

I don't know. There's an attitude that's here, that I see everywhere. Some player makes a PRETENSE of role-playing. They don't actually roleplay, because they don't actually believe what they're saying - the words are coming out, the shouting, the expressions ... but their faces and expressions always say, "Look at me! I'm so brilliant for making this grunting sound like a fighter!" And then everyone else at the table half-grins and half-laughs, with this nervous, pathetic look that has a mix of "jeez, what a fucking moron he's being" and "I wish I had thought to say that."

These people aren't playing characters ... they're playing this sordid, fucked up game of one-upmanship. And its particularly WEIRD when one of them tries for something really big, recognizes halfway through that they're being a complete, ridiculous idiot, so they break up in a gale of nervous "please don't look at me that was really silly" giggle/whining splat that is always followed by everyone else at the table laughing and the player looking like, "shut up, I was only roleplaying" while still trying to look like it was all in fun.


These are really, really pathetic-looking people. One says he wants his character to be holding the hand of the elf maiden and woah, does he sound pathetic. One is throwing a die while the audience chants "GO ROD GO ROD!" like he's running for the goal line, and it looks and sounds so ... gawdawful pathetic. And through it all Perkins, described in the comments as "awesome" and "a blast to play under" never, ever, gets rid of his ridiculous toothy expression that just screams for, I don't know, a fist through it.

I have been playing and writing about this game obsessively for 34 years, and I'd rather be in a Pakistani prison hole than to be forced to play at this table with these fucks.

At least with the hole, when I escaped that traumatic experience people would have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for me. Sitting willingly at this table would be ... signing up for the Olympic "I am a pathetic pissant" team.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that people regularly view D&D Players as sort of pathetic from the outside, but really, can't you just look at these people through the eyes of a normal person and see that there is really something wrong here?

I just wrote about muppets. The actors who had to act with muppets could see the muppeteer, they could see all the mechanical jazz and weird stage-setting that was necessary to make the muppets look 'real,' and they had to act without grinning stupidly or expressing with their face, "I'm acting with a sock puppet." EVEN IF THEY HAD THAT THOUGHT. Because actual roleplaying means sucking it up and actually fucking pretending to find nothing odd about this!

That is because the habits of grinning, chortling, making side jokes, breaking up in the middle of one's sentence, etcetera, DISTRACT from the actual value of the proceeding. It makes the process something other than a game. It makes the process about personal bad habits, personal weaknesses in the ability to dispense humour and personal failing as a human being, culminating in the lack of actual personal charisma. It ceases to be a GAME so much as it becomes seven monkeys flinging poo in a cage.

It makes the game a really crappy children's show, where what's showing on the other television is better. I'm sorry that these people in these videos, and indeed many of the readers who have gotten this far, don't recognize this.

Perhaps a lot of the reason that roleplaying isn't taken seriously by 99% of the world is because even those people who PRETEND TO DO IT don't take it seriously! Maybe it's because the DM running the game and the players playing the game sound like dumb infant morons with a disturbing dice-fetish.

I don't really like role-playing. I don't like it because it makes people nervous and uncomfortable, and people who are nervous and uncomfortable don't enjoy the game. They would rather PLAY than role-play. Most of the participants in my game have come from the sort of shitty one-upsmanship games depicted in the video (and most every video everywhere online) and they'd rather not participate. They're not much up for the sort of dull, plodding role-playing that you see people playing, that goes like this:

"Uh, friend Elfen, uh, Lady, do you, um, perhaps have a spell that would take away the hit points - uh, that is, the health - of yon ... er, yonder ... no, that's yon enemies." "Yonder," corrects someone else. "Right, okay, thanks, yonder enemies." "I think it's actually yon," says the DM. "Well, whatever, you mean the enemies over there."

I'm just going to go over here and ... bang my head a moment.

These are not things I think any advice or education can help. It's quite clear from the Perkins video above that these are all boys who have successfully overcome the attempts of previously encountered institutions to either educate or enlighten them. The only thing we could hope to improve about their existence would be to STOP SHOWING IT ON FILM.

That, unfortunately, is too much to hope for.


  1. I think the point I had already desired not to watch anymore was when they used the...

    Are you nerd enough to sit at the table? question.

    Seriously. No SERIOUSLY. Who the fuck cares about such an inane detail. I mean yeah, cool story, if you have to pick someone maybe it's a good way to trim things out.

    But the approach screamed that they had to be "cool" enough to deserve being at that table.

    I'm sorry, if you're GMing there's only three reasons I won't let you play. One I feel you are probably going to ruin everyone else's experience, two, I'm doing something somewhat experimental and want to get specific kinds of feedback and not subject new people to a horrible experience or 3 my group is as full as I feel I can realistically manage.

    As you can see, I didn't make it very far. I cut it off at the first character introduction. I couldn't really get over the first minute of the video...

  2. Álexis,
    can you do better? Can SOMEONE show how it can be? show that it doesnt have to be like this...

    There is no shared fantasy here, only playing to an audience.

    the table attitude is EXACTLY why I stopped playing as soon as I left high school. I felt the game had the potential to be so much more yet it was always this type of banter from this type of people....gag reflex.
    It seems I havent missed much in 25yrs.

    from the gladwell talk, he mentions "mavins" having the ability to strongly influence other's emotional state... perhaps this is whats going on here... being a self-satisfied FWit is contageous.

    It is only in the last year, from reading a select few blogs in this so called OSR, that I have felt that maybe it is possible for it to be more than "monkeys flinging poo in a cage" even if I have to build my own group from non RPGers.

    Oh yes, and Sesame Street worked. I have numerous songs hardwired into me. the 12 song comes to mind as I write.

    What would be the tipping point for this game? what is the unexpected Big Bird that needs to be added to the game that would make it accessable?

  3. If I had a group of actors who were comfortable with acting, yes I could do a lot better. But like I said, my players are mostly happy just to say what their characters do and try to overcome the obstacles.

    The online campaign I run has a lot of serious, serious roleplaying; but since its all in print, none of the characters feels absurdly humiliated to speak as their mage, fighter, druid or cleric would. Everyone is perfectly comfortable, no one is judged (which is happening CONSTANTLY in the Perkins' game) and everyone really feels, as near as I can tell, that they're appreciated for presenting characters as serious beings, including myself with NPCs. The online campaign is very, very unusual that way.

  4. That video is a fairly accurate representation of every in-person DnD game I have ever seen or been a part of. Whenever the players get inside their characters' heads, and the tension builds, someone makes a dumb sexual and/or sexist joke and it all goes up in smoke. The disheveled young college kids and flabby middle-aged men roar with laughter; any women might join in, but somewhy never return. Or there are inside references and jokes, which keep the newcomers isolated and grinning nervously in pretense of good fellowship; they also somewhy tend to not return for second helpings.

    I haven't taken part in an in-person DnD game in years. I have no wish to do so, because odds are good that the experience will never change. At least play-by-post games avoid some of the stupidity involved, and it's possible to find folk who treat their characters as more than a numerical representation of some video game character.

  5. Apart from all you wrote about the "mainstream" way of playing rpgs nowadays, which I totally agree with, there is IMO one important problem with filming sessions.
    As I see it, the fact of filming it already makes it artificial and lifeless. It's like with an amateur sex tape, you can't have a truly passionate love making session when you know you're being filmed. Unless you're a professional actor (and not the porn type) and use directors/producers/cameramen to bring the motiion picture to life. Or it simply turns you on - but that's still more likely in the sex tape context. Of course, I don't want to imply that producing a decent record from a engaging game session is impossible. It is merely extremely difficult to achieve.

  6. That is true, Yarivandel.

    What is also true is that video will reveal an asshole for what he is, when perhaps in real life it may not have been noticed.

    (But, since I'm an asshole, I see one first thing every morning)

  7. Well, they seem to be having fun, but this video should never see the light of day.
    If I was to point out every single thing that is wrong with it I would probably write a novel.
    But they surely managed to achieve one thing, show rpg with no role playing whatsoever. Just one long coarse joke.

    I consider myself lucky not have ever participated in such a session. Maybe because in our out-of-the-way country we haven't had enough rpg around to waste it on such folly. Or it's a matter of different mindset. My players were more in-the-game and focused while playing Descent BG...

    This session reminds me of one more thing. It's as honest and natural as an official expression of personal thanks on a corporate meeting.


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