Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Creator's Self-Delusion

"Game design is a powerful way of imprinting behaviors on people, and that it is entirely possible to imprint behaviors you didn’t want. Just as you can train a firefighter’s instincts through fire drills, just as you can train a people to grow up racist, you can train players to react in certain ways to certain situations. Games are always pretty abstracted from reality, so this training may not be happening in at all the ways you think it is. But it is always happening. Games teach, and you are teaching something . . . But in the end, they can also hugely improve a life. So like any tool, like any cultural artifact, their virtue lies not in themselves but in what the medium is used for. That’s an awesome responsibility."
- Raph Koster, Games affecting people

Here is a favored bits of wisdom to which Literature and Philosophy Professors so dearly cling. "Dear child, don't write something evil - for evil will come of it!"  I have had many a would-be creator preach Koster's sentiment, that on some great level our great works have great effects.  We must therefore soberly reflect upon the deep, abiding, mortifying responsibility we possess unto the world.

My, my, my, isn't it heady stuff?  So demonstrative of our importance as creators, so evidentiary that we have it us the power to write the Bible or Mein Kampf (Koster's examples) - only of course we don't because we are just so darn responsible.  How wonderful it is that we restrain ourselves!  How important it is that we sit together in academic classrooms and clubhouses and discuss at length the terrible obligation we bear to protect society from ourselves - and others, of course, for it is only right that while we restrain ourselves, we ought to condemn all those who do not . . . 

For there lies the crux.  It isn't what we dutiful creators refuse to create, it is the fault we are more than prepared to find in the writing that others do!  The pornographic, the ideological, the dangerous lawless willingness of creators to just create things willy-nilly, audaciously, immoderately, foolishly!  Woe ye that falleth into the pit, for thou creates at the world's peril!

As an ambitiously minded writer whose opinions were stark and direct about things, I was lectured upon this position (and warning) many a time.  I was able to see it for what it was; a fear, a construct to help explain how evil existed in the world . . . and most of all another moralism that could be safely ignored, for I never met a single lecturer who possessed the potential to write anything that might change the world.  Surely, if the goal is to play it safe with human minds, nothing of relevance will result.

The world is a wild and dangerous place, full of willingness to commit evil without so much as a shopping list to support its purpose.  Several millennia of this nonsense has well proven that such people will glom onto whatever convenient text presents itself, so long as it can be turned, twisted and carefully rehashed in a manner that it will ultimately prove/justify whatever we need it for.  Koster's very choice to include the Bible in his list of examples demonstrates rather plainly his apparent unawareness that it was written by several persons, rewritten on several occasions, split apart and hashed back together a dozen more times and carefully translated by various groups in order to create the text desired.  Heaven knows (joke) what the original authors intended - but it no longer matters, because the intention of the author was never part of the equation.

Further, it is silly to presume that we can create anything - a book, a game, anything - with a predictable, rational, singularly-opinionated audience in mind.  Hell, I can't even be sure of the several hundred readers of this blog, much less the potential millions who might read a novel of mine if it reached the popularity of Twilight: I Sat on a Rolled-up Cushion for 700 Pages.  It simply isn't possible to be so sure of every turn of phrase and every description I write that I won't, quite innocently, incite some wing-nut to shoot eighteen people during the showing of the book-made-into-film.  I can't conceive of the narrow-minded perspective necessary to believe that a creator's responsibility can remotely take that into account.  I presume people who spend their whole lives speaking only to people exactly like themselves - which may explain some of the shock when it is a university that falls under some cock-up's gun-sights.

Finally - and this is the thing that most baffles me about the argument - it presumes that I'm prepared to give responsibility for my decision-making process to whomever's book I just finished reading.  As if I am utterly bereft of any sense of consciousness . . . demonstrable when it happens that I read a very strong text - such as Mein Kampf - and immediately become the book's robot slave.

I have read Mein Kampf.  I read it when I was 14.  And I was very affected by it.  I decided it was obviously written by an extremely loony and yet obsessive person who possessed a rather disturbing depth of design along his one obscenely fixed frame of reference.  The book is frightening only in one degree: is it absurdly passionate.  It is not, however, the cursed video tape in the Ring.

But I get people all the time who pull out the old M.K. in this argument, the scary M.K., that has so obviously drawn us all into the destructive void, since at no time in history before the creation of that evil book were there crimes or mass slaughterings or war or racism or any of the other boogeymen we keep in the closet to remind us of the terrible responsibility we possess when we create anything.

Another creator is not responsible for me and my actions.  It is this way because I have no interest in allowing it to be any other way.  It is my responsibility to allow what will affect me.

It is there that the whole argument collapses.  It's only validity exists in my inability to view the world from another person's point of view - and thereby to imagine that I have power over others, simply because I am self-aware of my perspective and no other.  This makes it easy to convince myself that I am powerful and that all others are easily seduced and motivated by that power.

It is all nonsense.


  1. I am quite aware the Bible was not written by one individual. :)

    The crux of your argument turns on two points:

    1) That this is offered as a justification for evil in the world. It is not.

    2) That you are (and presumably everyone is) strong-minded enough to resist any such shaping.

    The former I would counter by saying that it is merely an observation: that the constructs we create shape people. People cry at movies. People are moved by songs. People have their worldview shaped by books. People's emotions are affected by the architecture they live in, the colors they are surrounded by, the sounds they hear. To deny this seems to fly in the face of everything we know about cognition, about the human relationship to art, and about education.

    I mean, really, my examples in the paragraph you quoted were just about training reflexes -- do you deny that games do this?

    The latter, I would counter by saying that no one is that strong-minded, and there's plenty of evidence on that too; from the way in which propaganda can affect a populace to the fact that you are in many ways the sum of the experiences you have had.

    I would certainly not make the claim that we can always have effects with intentionality. The world is too complex, the audience too varied. So I agree with you on that point.

  2. Mr. Koster,

    I do not deny that games do this. I deny that the creator is in control of what the games do beyond the creation of those games, even if the creator wants to be. I believe that the insistence that creators are, or should be, is mere hubris.

    Moreover, I argue that there is so much in the world that is doing this thing that you in your article worry about, it is impossible for any one person to believe they have the power to restrain the effects of the world as the world exists. Again, the belief that creations should adhere to your proposal is hubris.

    I suggest you read the follow up article to this that I've just posted. I do not think you will enjoy it.

    With respect,

    On a personal note, I've been reading your work for years and I have always considered you an expert. But I think you've allowed yourself to invest too much political importance to something that should be an artistic endeavor.

  3. Just now seeing this, will go read the follow-up. :)

    "Moreover, I argue that there is so much in the world that is doing this thing that you in your article worry about, it is impossible for any one person to believe they have the power to restrain the effects of the world as the world exists."

    This leads to a "Tragedy of the Commons."

  4. True enough; but my blog includes more than 1.5 million words on game design. I'm obviously not ignoring the problem. I am addressing it.

    I do not approach this thing, however, with the attitude that I have the power or the RESPONSIBILITY to change anything. I'm simply head-butting the thing anyway. Because I have something to say.

  5. Read mein kamph. That he is an arrogant young man who looked at the diversity of the austro-hungarian empire and saw that there were not enough Germans to govern them all parallels with every government, political party, group, culture, religion, or nutbutter loner on the planet is what should horrify us all. The few govern the many to our detriment.
    Gaming isnt so much about the world the dungeon master creates, its about the world the players create together through consensus.

  6. Sean,

    An incredibly simplified read of history, contrived to create the straw man of the nutbutter loner, to argue something that is stated without any real evidence: "the few govern the many to our detriment." A pat phrase. A bromide. Nonsensical words strung together to make it seem like you have said something important.

    Gaming isn't anything like you suggest.

    Please go away.

  7. "I do not approach this thing, however, with the attitude that I have the power or the RESPONSIBILITY to change anything. I'm simply head-butting the thing anyway. Because I have something to say."

    Ah! Then we are actually much much closer in opinion than I thought.

    To me that just means that you do have enough sense of responsbility, or at least a parallel urge. :)

  8. I came across this comment that I wrote on a post back in 2013, in which I talk about responsibility. This was prior to the inspiration that would enable me to write my book, How to Run:

    This is about half the original essay I was going to write for the book, entitled "Mastering Yourself as DM" ... it is part of the reason why I felt I needed to take a step back and look at the ideals of the book again. While I feel the above is wholly accurate, it is not the spirit nor the feel I believe this book ultimately needs. I don't want to simplify the material, but I want to direct something that is more positive. I'm stuck in the blog-mode, how NOT to DM. I am right now gathering my thoughts, making notes, preparing for the right book, that being how to BE a DM.

    Not get my book? I suppose that has much to do with how much a person really wants to do this. I don't think DMs are necessarily rare, lone wolves, ambiverts, etc. I believe that the RIGHT books have never been written that would enable someone to learn how to do this. I'm very anxious to write the right book, not plow ahead with the wrong one; I'm very conscious of that.

    Listen, being a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, what you will, is hard; the necessary mindset for those professions only very slightly derives from a particular kind of previous personality - the more relevant question is, Will you change your way of thinking so you can think like an engineer? Or a lawyer? Or a doctor? Many people can't, or won't, and find the course work impossible - they are crushed by the course work. They dislike the idea that at the end of their education, they'll be a different person than they were when they went in.

    I don't think D&D is anything like as hard as that - but no one can learn, or 'get' anything, until they decide for themselves that having always known a thing doesn't make it true, and having always been a certain kind of person doesn't mean they always have to be that person. Change is choice; it's not my responsibility to decide who will or won't understand what I'm trying to say.

    It is my responsibility to say it accurately, helpfully and as straight-forwardly as possible. That is enough on my plate, thank you very much. What other people 'get' or don't get is not my problem.


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