Games Blog

Reviews, thoughts and options from the word of paper-and-pencil roleplaying games.

D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths

Mop (Wikimedia Commons)There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.

He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.

Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.

Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?

The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.

What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?

Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.

So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.

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RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

PolyhedralsSome recent attempts by one or two outspoken and polarising game designers to rewrite history has brought up an old post from 2009 chronicling the rise and fall of RPG Theory.

In short, RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

It started out with a handful of uncontroversial truths. It’s true that specific game mechanics encouraging certain styles of play. And having setting and rule elements that reinforce one another tends to result in a better game; we can all name plenty of games that failed due to a mismatch between the game mechanics and the setting. And baroque cruft-ridden complexity in either rules or setting is not a good thing.

But Ron Edwards and The Forge took it way beyond that, building a massive pseudo-intellectual house of cards out of incomprehensible jargon and undisguised contempt both for the vast majority of successful games and the people who actually enjoyed playing them. They styled themselves as the RPG equivalent of the punk movement in music, overthrowing what they considered as the pompous and overblown games of the generation before. But it was a punk movement without the equivalent of any three minute bursts of stripped-down primal rock’n'roll, which was ultimately the only good thing about Punk. Imagine no “Anarchy in the UK”, but keeping Sounds’ infamous one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the iconoclastic bloviating of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. That was The Forge.

Saying that, I own and have played a few of the small-press games that came out of The Forge, and there were some enjoyable one-shot games of Inspectres and Primetime Adventures at Stabcons. But when you look at what actually happened in the game sessions the play experience wasn’t radically different from many a more traditional game. But none of these games really gave the impression they had the depth needed to sustain a satisfying long-term campaign, and more importantly none of them ever seemed to be much more that fifteen-minute wonders. Are there still people playing “Dogs in the Vineyard” in 2015?

A decade on it’s an open question as to the lasting influence of The Forge. Did Ron Edwards’ notoriety obscure more subtle influences on following generations of games? Or was The Forge largely irrelevant to people who make and play games rather than just talk about them on the internet? Certainly many have suggested the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was down to their purging of Forgeist taint that had allegedly ruined the fourth edition. I’m not entirely convinced of that one myself. But do other successful games like FATE or Cortex Plus rely some of the “narrativist” ideas, or did they just develop independently?

And who was responsible for killing off GURPS?

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The lesson you learn from following people on both sides of #GamerGate on Twitter is the effect too much time in internet echo chambers has on people. It makes it far too easy to demonise large groups of people who don’t share your exact values, especially if all you see of them is their very worst, retweeted as “outrage porn”. And too many people appear unable to see the harm being done by elements of their own side.

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Why #GamerGate must end, and why it needs a truce

Two months on and GamerGate is still going on, with every attempt to shut it down merely fanning the flames. But we are starting to see some rejection of the manicheanism and lack of nuance that’s a big part of the problem.

For example, this rant on Popehat that takes no prisoners. But while most of it is aimed at supporters of GamerGate, pointing out how ridiculous the majority of their claims are, he also takes some well-aimed shots at their opponents. In particular the proponents of knee-jerk outrage-driven call-out culture who are shocked to find their own tactics used against them.

If you cultivate a culture in which people react disproportionately to stupid or offensive jokes, sooner or later someone else is going to be freaking out — sincerely or cynically — over someone “on your side” telling a stupid joke.

If you cultivate a culture in which the internet lands on someone like a ton of bricks for being an asshole, sooner or later some segment of the internet is going to decide that you are the asshole, and pile on you.

It is pointed out that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend:

Look, if you see #GamerGate as a vehicle to advance cultural conservative messages that you believe in, more power to you. That’s free speech. But if you are genuinely someone who only cares about journalistic integrity, and you promote Breitbart and Yiannopoulos, aren’t you being a useful idiot?

And both sides are guilty of that:

Yiannopoulos is by no means the only example. There’s also the feculent two-faced pack of scribblers at Gawker Media. Gawker Media, through Kotaku and Gawker and Jezebel, is consistently outraged at the misogyny of #GamerGate, and has retreated into pearl-clutching couch-fainting at the attacks it has recently endured on its own work. But Gawker Media loves feminism like a glutton loves his lunch.

Slate’s David Auerbach notes that there are all sorts of people for or against GamerGate, including feminists supporting it as a proxy war in a long-running feud between different generations of feminism. But it’s all reached the point where the human cost is just too high. It has to stop.

Whatever a troll does under the cover of Gamergate—such as doxxing actress Felicia Day or offering free game codes to accounts that send death threats—is guaranteed to get a lot of attention (far more than typical Internet harassment) and to be blamed not on the individual but on Gamergate collectively. For a troll, this is a perfect setup: maximum effect, minimal exposure. I could dox any woman in gaming, and Gamergate would get blamed. So as long as Gamergate drags on, trolls who care less about games than about causing chaos will wreak havoc

But he also makes the point that GamerGate, despite all the attendant toxicity, is going to continue for as long as the gaming media continues to use the highly visible misogyny and harassement to deflect attention away from things the media doesn’t want to talk about. His conclusion is that in order for GamerGate to come to an end, there has to be some sort of truce with those supporters who aren’t reactionary trolls. Parts of the media do need to clean up their acts, and he’s another to point an accusing finger at Gawker Media, who have not exactly been covering themselves in glory.

I’ve mentioned parallels with the culture wars across music a generation ago before. Back in those days entire genres of music had to fight for their right to exist. In a dishonest hit piece so notorious it’s remembered decades later, Rush and their fanbase were slandered as Nazis. We were told that guitar solos were misogynistic because the guitar was a phallic symbol. Well, perhaps not in those exact words, but that was surely the subtext behind Paul Morley’s ridiculous “Anti-Rockist” movement.

But all that was years ago, and it was really the growing pains of a far more diverse music scene that was rapidly fragmenting into multiple overlapping subcultures. Nowadays genres of music whose audiences are overwhelmingly white and male such as metal or progressive rock are allowed to exist without constantly having to defend themselves against charges of racism and sexism for that reason alone. And because the relative merits of different styles of music is largely divorced from identity politics we can have discussions about homophobia in the metal scene without getting derailed by “You should all be listening to dance-pop instead”.

Music’s bitter culture wars took place in a very different media environment, where a limited number of gatekeepers have far more power, and agenda-driven music journalists really did have the ability to make or break careers. It was far more of a zero-sum game in the days before the internet and the diversification of distribution channels.

Only the other hand, perhaps we’re lucky there was no Twitter during the Punk Wars.

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It seems as though “Gamers are over” is the new “Rock is dead”. We’ve been hearing that rock is dead from people that have never liked rock in the first place, but rock has always refused to go away.

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Gamergate’s complaints about agenda-driven reviews make me wonder how on earth gamers would have reacted had the video game press been anything like as bad as the “mainstream” British music press has been for decades. Have there been reviews remotely equivalent to Dave McCulloch’s dismissive one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in Sounds? Are there any gaming journalists as appallingly bad as Julie Burchill?

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#GamerGate – An Issue With Two Sides

This is an insightful piece in TechCrunch about the #GamerGate controversy

Two sides have emerged, which believe in completely different realities. If you are to listen to the extreme of one side, you will hear that gamers are reactionary right-wingers who excuse harassment. If you listen to the extreme of the other side, every critic of GamerGate is a brainwashed activist who thinks liking Hitman Absolution or GTAV makes you worse than Hitler.

Holding up the extremes of both sides is a great way to avoid dialogue. It’s politics – not, as Tadhg Kelly suggests, in the sense of liberals versus conservatives, but in the more fundamental sense of “my side” versus “your side.”

Though I don’t share the author’s libertarian politics, having seen these same culture wars play out across the tabletop RPG hobby and Science Fiction fandom over the past two or three years, it’s very difficult to disagree with anything he says.

This is an issue where I’m unwilling to take sides because I believe both sides are wrong, and both sides have embraced the mistaken idea that these culture wars are a zero-sum game.

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We The People: A game or a Poe?

It is very difficult to tell whether We the People Fight Tyranny Game is intended to be a serious board game, or whether the whole thing is an elaborate parody of the world view of the all-American wingnut.

It purports to be both a “fun game” and an educational tool about American history, liberry and tyranny.

This is a sample of one of the cards in the game, which gives a flavour:

Sockal Justice

That one card really does speak volumes.

The website is filled with boilerplate rightwing screeds, but gives very little away about the gameplay.  But it leaves the impression that the game is a cross between Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, two of the very worst board games in all history.

So combne two games which put people off board games for life, then marinade the whole thing in heavy-handed ideological propaganda.

And you wonder why it looks like an elaborate parody.

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GamerGate vs Music Journalism

Gamergate still seems to show little sign of dying down, and forms part of the much larger cultural wars that have been raging across the tabletop RPG and SFF worlds over the past couple of years. As is usual for the internet, the loudest and most extreme voices are getting all the attention, and all nuance is lost.

I don’t really know much about the current state of video game journalism, so I don’t know quite how accurate the accusations and counter-accusations I’ve been seeing might be. But they do suggest there are parallels with the state of music journalism and criticism.

Good criticism is an important part of any artistic ecosystem. Critics certainly have a role in publicising and promoting great art. It should go without saying that constructive criticism plays a part in making good art better. And, whatever some fanboys might say, criticism does have a role in calling out bad art that’s undeserving of anyone’s time and money. There is much in the music world that is derivative, formulaic and clichéd. There is art that is tasteless and offensive for its own sake. And there is pretentious nonsense that is nowhere near as clever as it likes to think it is.

But as every music fan ought to know, there is as much bad criticism as there is bad music. There are reviews that seem little more than regurgitated press releases. There are unfairly negative reviews that fail to engage with what the artist is trying to do. There are reviews that have an obvious and unsubtle agenda shared by neither artist nor audience. And the cardinal sin of criticism is still reviewing the audience rather than the performance, usually accompanied by a sneer.

Does any of that sound familiar?

But ultimately both bad art and bad reviews have an absolute right to exist, and only become a problem when they start drowning out everything better. This has been a recurring problem in the music world, but has slowly faded away as the internet has eroded the powers of the old gatekeepers. Is it the same in the world of video games?

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