Saturday, March 04, 2006

General gamism

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory #2

A funny thing happened on my way to this article
I lost the plot. Seriously. This 2nd article in my look at current roleplaying theory was intended to be a pithy refutation of the essential underpinning of today's indie roleplaying theory- the idea that roleplaying is an art form. But, reading up on some of Ron Edwards' articles at the Forge amongst other stuff, and trying to familiarise myself with the indie blogsphere- a.k.a. 'the diaspora'- I found myself losing focus.

It was mostly because I was trying to cram up on several years' of debate in a few afternoons' haphazard reading. I was also having some difficulty in filling the gap between my own thinking (which dates right back to the mid/late 80's, before the whole storytelling thing took off- which I essentially missed BTW), on the one hand; and all this new narrativist stuff, on the other. Plus, to be perfectly honest, just like when I first heard an account of Edwards' GNS theory in a lecture at the Worldcon last August, I was finding useful insights in some of the ideas, even if they were just reminding me of stuff I used to have a notion of when I was an occasional GM and regular player back in the 80's.

More than that, I began to understand what it is these narrativists are on about- which had been my purpose in any case. I even began to wonder, to a certain degree, why 'mainstream' roleplayers make such a fuss about this stuff. And then I was rescued by Ron Edwards himself. I'm referring of course to his infamous- and already widely discussed- 'brain damage' thread at the Forge.

The fuss, and what it's about
The thread which caused all the hoo-hah spun off from here, although Edwards clearly hadn't coined the term there, to wit:
Now - your set of examples is more or less a diagnostic board of what I've been calling, with various reactions 'round the internet, brain damage. There are so many bent/broken features of creativity and interaction embedded in those examples that it'd take a textbook to lay them all out in a way which shows what's really wrong.

Yes - "wrong." Since brain damage (which I think is literally the case) seems to get right up people's asses as a term, I'll analogize to limb-based physical limitations.
But brain damage wasn't enough, no. In the major thread itself, Edwards went on to develop his analogy:
Now for the discussion of brain damage. I'll begin with a closer analogy. Consider that there's a reason I and most other people call an adult having sex with a, say, twelve-year-old, to be abusive. Never mind if it's, technically speaking, consensual. It's still abuse. Why? Because the younger person's mind is currently developing - these experiences are going to be formative in ways that experiences ten years later will not be. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the characteristic behaviors of someone with this history, but I am very familiar with them - and they are not constructive or happiness-oriented behaviors at all. The person's mind has been damaged while it was forming, and it takes a hell of a lot of re-orientation even for functional repairs (which is not the same as undoing the damage).
Before examining quite how despicable that statement is, it is worth considering exactly who this storm in a teacup is about. Here is one of the many discussions that sprung up about this thread across the indie blogsphere (in as thorough a search as I could manage I counted 10 in total, 9 of which appeared to be part of the indie diaspora). Here, from the above-linked thread, are the words of Clinton R. Nixon, Edwards' closest associate at the Forge:
Not to get too about the Forge here, but he [Ron] is under an obligation to me, expressed financially through my continued hosting and maintenence of the Forge. He is under an obligation to the community that was built by him and others, as they have built him up and put him in the position he is in. Do you think anyone would be talking about his theories without a continued and vital community surrounding them talking about them outside the confines of one forum? While elections were not formalized, he is pretty much a duly elected president of a movement and community. And that position comes with responsibility and obligation, most certainly.
And here is how Nixon felt about Edwards' remarks:
I'm not really planning on posting to the Forge again any time soon: honestly, I can't morally justify being a part of a community with those sorts of attitudes.
And that's only one remark in which Nixon expresses his utter dismay at this turn of events.

Remember now, this is Edwards' explanation of why people can't understand the rules of his rpg Sorceror (winner of the Diana Jones Award in 2002 no less): they're functionally brain-damaged to a degree that parallels physical handicap or even the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

To put this in context, leave aside for the moment the sexual abuse analogy. Let's just imagine if someone had said that gay men couldn't understand romantic love because they were brain damaged by their own sad experiences, that brain damage being the source of their 'deviant' sexual predilections? Or that woman deserve to earn less than men for the same job because their brains are functionally inferior? Or that black people aren't fit to join polite white society for the same reason?

How many of those who made excuses for Edwards' remarks would let ideas like that pass unchallenged? Why then were so many of them willing to bow down to this sort of misanthropic bile? RPGpundit at TheUruguayanGamer deserves credit for calling out one Levi Kornelsen on this point recently.

The tragic irony of desperate measures?
When I originally read the thread, my first considered reaction after the obvious shock was that there was a pathetic air of desperation about the whole thing. Consider: as I mentioned in #1, RPGpundit reported last December on the closure, by Edwards, of the 'RPG Theory' and 'GNS Model Discussion' forums at the Forge. At the time, the pundit took Edwards' own reason for this decision largely at face value:
This forum is no longer available for posting. It has served its purpose: to develop a sensible framework for discussing play, and the children of play, design and publishing.
In other words, all other comments notwithstanding, the pundit accepted Edwards' decision as an arrogant expression of self-confidence from a secure position. This was fair enough on the basis of the evidence at the time.

But seeing the cheap shock tactics Edwards employed in his 'brain damage' thread, I was reminded of the classic tactic of sectarian leaders: namely shocking the faithful with some abrupt U-turn or other dramatic and unexpected manoeuvre. The purpose of this is to generate a psychodrama that will bond the faithful all the more strongly with their glorious leader by instilling fear in them, then comforting them with your strong and implacable leadership in the face of the pseudo-crisis you've carefully conjured up.

If this is the game Edwards was playing, then why, I asked myself? What was the source of his perceived insecurity? This made me reconsider Edwards' reasons for his decision to close his forums last December. I was thinking about this while I was trawling through the indie blogsphere, and I was struck by a possible reason: the indie diaspora itself.

I mean to say: the Forge was instituted in 2001. Readers will already know of its position in the roleplaying ecommunity. Clinton R. Nixon has told us what it has meant to Edwards, and what Edwards means to it. In its own terms it was very successful. Now imagine the impact on it of the rise of the indie blogsphere: suddenly what was a tightly knit community held together at one virtual location and through one man's vision spins off more and more independent sites, which start to become little communities of their own.

At the same time, it is quite possible that the closed 'RPG Theory' and 'GNS Model Discussion' forums were becoming counterproductive from Edwards' point-of-view, because he was constantly having to defend his theories, and was undoubtedly in danger of tripping himself up. Or maybe he just got tired of all those brain-damaged bozos asking him stupid questions which showed that they had understood nothing they'd read in his major works (it's tough at the top I guess). I don't know, I'm speculating here, but this could be verified if anyone really wanted to sit and read their way through a pile of dead Forge threads.

In any event, what I am suggesting here is exactly what the RPGpundit said last December:
So here Ron has set his dogma. Why now? Probably because he has nothing more to say, and leaving the theory open to ongoing discussion would only result in two things: people pointing out that the theory is full of shit being the first (and by far the least dangerous to him), and the second being followers of his coming up with heretical alterations to the theory that stole his own thunder (and that's the clincher, the one that he's really nervous about).
Well, like I said, the first is verifiable. The second is verified: the FUNnel model, and the AGE Model Core Document v 1.a are just 2 of a few challengers to the Edwards crown I've found recently. The first is too crude to give Mr. Edwards sleepness nights. The second is an example of another threefold model, one "which emphasizes an ecological perspective of gaming"(?!). It seems that, just like in the earliest days of roleplaying, people who're copying each other have to borrow each other's acronymic stylings too.

That's it for now. More on this just as soon as I have time to put it together.

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #1: General gamism
- Roleplaying as art? Not for me
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!
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