Friday, 19 August 2011

Lord Spare Us

A commenter on a post here wrote this:

Robin D Laws has already written that it would be cool if we (the gaming community) finally could get a marxist critique of D&D (you advance by killing and looting) and that it would signify maturity of the medium (being able to think itself in such way). But my question would be what kind of marxist critique. Some easy, neo-zhdanovist and vulgar (obvious product of a capitalist society that indoctrinates young minds…) or one more sophisticated (for example one that is incorporating nuances like the fact that most D&D characters are outsiders and fringe elements that was nicely grasped by Mieville in Perdido Street Station) that would echo that old Brechts joke that we (communists) probably know everything but that for propaganda purposes we must select questions that we will claim that we have no answer to.

And I had to respond; to wit, I can't think of anything less likely to signify maturity of the medium than having a Marxist critique of D&D. The existence of such a critique, I submit, would signify the horrible overintellectualisation of something that needs no overintellectualising, not its maturity. Maturity is something else. Maturity is, in large part, being able to compartmentalise different facets of ones life and being able to embrace and be comfortable with mutually contradictory positions - for instance, that you like playing a game about killing things and taking their stuff in a hyper-individualised Randian wet-dream of a fantasy world, but do not like killing things and taking their stuff in reality nor entertain that particular Randian wet-dream in other spheres of your life.

That isn't to say that pseudointellectual overanalysis of D&D isn't fun. It is. God knows I engage in it frequently enough, as any long-term reader of this blog will know. But I would never for a second pretend that this or this signify my "maturity". They mostly signify that I am often a bit of a pretentious twit.

Perhaps I can summarise my own position in an oblique manner by referring to the Robin D. Laws essay which the commenter in question refers to. In it, Laws begins by saying:

"Role-playing games have existed for many years as an art form without a body of criticism. Reviews of RPGs have been common for nearly as long as the games themselves. Criticism, however, remains an unploughed field. This means that we probably ought to look at the basics of criticism as applied to other art forms before we go charging off to rev up the metaphorical tractor."

To which I would reply, no, role-playing games have existed for many years as games, which means they do not need a body of criticism whatsoever. (Art doesn't need that either, by the way, but let's pretend for the sake of argument it does.) They are created for a reason, and that is to be played. Everything else is incidental. It may be fun, as pseudointellectualisation often is, but let's not kid ourselves that theorising about RPGs is necessary, worthwhile, or would signify 'maturity' of any kind whatsoever.


  1. Agreed! I do a lot of critical analysis work in my day job, and am rarely inspired to bring that mindset into my gaming life. Well said!

  2. Speaking as someone who writes publicly about our glorified games of Let's Pretend; some people take it all far too seriously for what it is.

    To adapt the MST3K mantra: "It's only a game."

    Mathematical analysis of a game? Fine, that has its place among the hard-core design wonks. It helps to make sure that mechanics don't have the opposite of their intended effect.

    Semiotic analysis? Zak's Monopoly with Squatters is about my limit (in abstruseness and word count).

    Socio-cultural analysis? How does that help me pretend to be an elf better? Please answer in 20 words or less, or, better yet, go for a walk in the sunshine.

    Critique? We're playing HeroQuest-with-knobs-on, ya numpties!

  3. Carter Soles: Thanks.

    Chris: Where do you write publicly about our glorified games of Let's Pretend? Outside the blog, I mean.

    James M: And yet you didn't actually press the "+1" button. Tut-tut.

  4. James M: And yet you didn't actually press the "+1" button. Tut-tut.

    My humor is very subtle :)

  5. Whattabunchofhooie University course catalog:

    Gender Studies 101
    Womyn Studies 101
    Marxist Priniciples of D&D 105
    Miniatures Deconstruction Theory 211

    It could happen. :)

  6. I don’t think it signifies any deep amount of maturity, any more than applying Marxist critique to Risk or Go Fish would make for a more mature medium or activity. It’s something you’d do for a quirky paper in a 100 or 200-level philosophy course at your local college.

    It reminds me, in part, of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in freshman-level English. We read the book as a class over two weeks, but then decided to analyze every passage for the next three months. It killed it as a book for me, because rather than appreciate what significance was there, to accept it as what it was, we had to dig and dig and dig, until everything was turned over and abstracted and flipped around and even the basic theme of the book became this blurred, all-too-pixilated mess. I think we do that online; every hobby, every nerd interest, has to be assigned meaning and critique, whether it’s really needed or not. Episodes of ALF become chilling indictments of immigration policy; Fraggle Rock is studied as a commentary on communal life and society. Really, it’s ok for things to just be entertainment; we don’t need this extra level of analysis to achieve maturity as a hobby, any more than model railroaders need their purchases analyzed through a Keynesian lens before they may be considered a mature hobby. No matter how many philosophical terms you throw around for the volatile, capitalistic excesses of Hungry Hungry Hippos, it doesn’t stop being Hungry Hungry Hippos at its core.

    It’s a game. If that’s how you enjoy yourself, cool, but I don’t see where it would indicate any maturity of the hobby. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  7. I happily admit that the style of role-playing that I enjoy is a form of neoteny (retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles) and I'm suspicious of any attempts to evolve it into something more "mature."

  8. I don't want this to happen:

    a situation where we have the StoryGamey academic liberals on one side claiming we have to have a guilt-ridden social-issue-driven analysis of games on one side and a "I don't think 'bout games 'cause I just play 'em" on" the other and nothing in the middle. Or off to the side, or in an unrelated pocket dimension.

    I'm in the middle of reading your massive Monstrous Compendium thing, Noisms and I can safely say games make you think--a lot. and they make Chris Nagoh think and they make James Mal think and etc. etc.

    What I think the hippie gamers who push social-issues-as-the-point-of-gaming don't realize is:

    -there are forms of productive thought that lead to things other than re-affirming faith in liberal principles everybody with half a brain already agrees with, and

    -even if you agree with it, leftist academic criticism of the "mature" art forms to which it is native (art and literature) has done fuck-all to make art better, to make literature better, or to improve anyone's political situation.

  9. Yes! You are officially back! Everything else was just a warm up. Vive le No(-ism)!!!

  10. Perhaps more important and relevant than a Marxist criticism of individual games is a Marxist (or otherwise informed) criticism of RPGs as an industry / practice / hobby etc. The Hickman revolution and the corporate ownership of culture; the relationship between the publishing industry and gift economies/open source models; the IP battles. All this is amenable to some critical analysis.

    The game-systems-as-text for Marxist analysis would be pretty limited. Analyzing play and the play industry itself: not so limited.

  11. Rand, at least by the examples of her fiction, seemed to actually abhor violence. A Randian game world would more likely be focused on inventing new kinds of metal to build things the denizens will gladly pay you for and making long speeches about how the dungeon is the most moral place in the world ("take the left corridor or the right? Right or wrong!").

  12. Zachary: Well, exactly.

    Laowai: Neoteny. I learned something new today, thanks. ;)

    Zak: even if you agree with it, leftist academic criticism of the "mature" art forms to which it is native (art and literature) has done fuck-all to make art better, to make literature better, or to improve anyone's political situation.

    I'd submit it has made leftist intellectuals' (particularly leftist academics') political situations better... But otherwise yes.

    Anonymous: You should have known it would only take me a week or so to start ranting again.

    William: Perhaps the RPG industry is interesting as a case study if you're an economist interested in microeconomics, an IP lawyer, or whatever. Yes, I'll grant you that.

    Joshua: I've never actually read Rand. She never really "made it" in the UK in the same way she apparently did in the US. But she was all about individualism, I gather. Seems like that's what a Marxist critique of D&D would revolve around.

  13. Awesome post sir, nice to have you back the the interwebs! Positing value in'maturity' doesn't do much for me. Sure it's fun to think about things - and even better to think things through sometimes too - but over-intellectualization kicks in pretty fast... maybe I've just seen too much of it already...

  14. I don't know, while the idea that an academic Marxist critique will somehow legitimise a genre is pretentious as all hell, your presentation of compartmentalisation seems a little too easy to me.

    Just because you consider your game a separate space from your life, does that mean sexism, racism, and stuff like torture are cool there?

    There is plenty of anti-intellectualism going around the US, in fact it is the dominant mode here. I don't mind thinking about even the games I play.

    But maybe you are reacting more to the audience you are seeing in the Academy and I am leery of the racist, violent people all around me outside of the Academy.

  15. A lot of campaigns in principle give the players something, or someone, to defend as well as attack. Ultimately these games are about buidling and shaping and society as well as tearing it down. The free hand of the DM spawns a million games to critique. By the way, one of my players is a committed Marxist and he has a lot of fun playing an intolerant, rapacious paladin-type.

  16. Ok, since your ‘rant’ (it didn’t sound like one but the tag doesn’t lie) was about my post I feel somewhat obliged to replay.

    First the maturity ‘angle’: There is no defense, I did put the term ‘maturity’ in Mr. Laws mouth but in the interest of the full disclosures I must add that I wrote ‘maturity of the medium’. So there was no implication that overthinking something is any sign of individual (or even communal) maturity (like ‘grow up and be mature’).

    However there was implication that one medium’s ability to reflect upon itself (which means upon its history) is the sign of the maturity of a said medium/form. Maybe ‘ripeness of the medium’ would have been more fortunate use of words but English is not my first language and probably my intention didn’t come across as clearly as I wanted.

    Second, my point was actually made against certain kind of pseudo-theoretical writing that only succeeds in being simplistically moralistic (and not moral and I feel there is a difference) and more ‘puritanical’ (enjoyment is sinful) than ‘leftist’. That is where ‘Tolkien as a racist’ example came from. I think that even you here at the Monsters and Manuals have commented on that particular wormtonguery on at least one occasion.

    BTW, that particular case against Tolkien [] is a prime example of criticism that both fails to interact in any meaningful way with its subject and also uses it as a moralistic denunciation against certain brand of entertainment. I must add that this kind of argument , were certain practices or works enjoyed by millions, are simply branded as racist, is similar to that old bullying technique were bully asks its victim: Does your mother knows you are gay? You are in for a beating no matter what is your response.

    My response is not only that we (gamers) do not have to shy away from thinking about our hobby but that we need (or at least deserve) better thinking. In the D&D example from my initial post I suggested that if someone asked you ‘why do you play that game of fascist-capitalist looting (you bourgeois swine!)’ it would clearly be wrong, at least in my opinion, to say: Yes I know that D&D is escapist Randian, fascist, fantasy were I as an ubermansch commit various heinous crimes but you know that is my hobby.
    ‘Good’ answer (again for me)would have been: What makes you think that a game of high mortality based on the exploits of obvious outsiders who try to make ends meet but are subjects to the vagaries of the fate that they have no control is Randian not to mention fascist? Suddenly instead of the John Galt typical D&D character appears to be Mack the Knife.

    So, yes with that particular genie out of the academic bottle I would prefer to read something witty, intelligent and knowledgeable about my hobby instead of the accusatory moralizations. And of course, and thank the Lord as Noisms puts it, I have opportunity to read something different.

  17. Which brings us to my third (but not final) point: OSR blogosphere in general and Grognardia in particular. While Mr. Maliszewski can +1 all that he wants but I find him to be a delightful mixture of theological pedant and historical materialist conducting a formidable formalist analysis of the early D&D that would make Vladimir Propp cry tears of joy. In other words he is thinking about it, providing us with some witty (but not the less precise) terminology (‘Gygaxian Naturalism’), deconstructs (that dreaded word) structures of the old school gaming (‘location not story’), researches history of the RPG industry and even does this golden/silver/bronze age historical chronology for TSR , claims that narrative in old school gaming is always an after-the-fact affair and most importantly (at least for me) that RPG games are not literature but something different with its own sets of rules and conventions and most importantly its own history. So, yes for all purposes he is providing us with tools to think about our shared past-time. Also as a result of this, and now I make a bold claim, we have today RPGs like The Secret Fire and Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game. In other words thinking does matter.

    Fourth, compartmentalization. In James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid there is this guy Kemper Boyd who is at same time FBI agents and the Mob confidante. When someone asks him how he juggles his differing loyalties he answers: Compartmentalization. Anyone who has ever read Ellroy already knows that this mixture won’t end well for Boyd). Compartmentalization for me sounds like you are saying that we should have divided loyalties or that we should exclude our gaming from the rest of our lives because it is somehow opposed to it: ‘Oh, I am lawyer but on Sunday I am football hooligan. I know it is antisocial but you know compartmentalization…’ :D
    I say: why compartmentalize with our hobby? We can and should think about it using any tools at our disposal. I love thinking about it and certainly won’t leave a field to the pseudo-intellectuals asking you if you are a fascist if you like slaying orcs.

    One more note: I love reading both Githyanki Diaspora and Monsters and Manuals so I hope that I do not come as harsh or something like that because it certainly wasn’t my intention. I hate quarreling but I enjoy a good debate.

  18. gdbackus: Thanks very much.

    Telecanter: I don't want to speak about the US without having been there, but there is a fine traditional of intellectualism both there and in the UK (which is a country also often accused of being anti-intellectual). It's just that "Anglo-Saxon" intellectualism tends to be strongly grounded in practice rather than being purely theoretical (viz. Smith, Hume, Franklin, Bentham, Paine, Dewey). So it's not the case that thinking about practice is being "anti-intellectual", it's just being intellectual in a non-theoretical way. I think deeply about games; I just don't think that pure theory does a heck of a lot for it. (Zak's comment above alludes to this.)

    Roger the GS: Well this is the thing; any theory about roleplaying games is hampered by the fact that it is an extremely decentralised body - different groups playing D&D don't just play in a different style, they usually even have different rules. And empirical analysis of the way they play is near-impossible because they are so disconnected from each other and so diffuse.

  19. Opossum 101: I didn't realise that comment was you. No hard feelings at all coming across as harsh - I like your comments and you seem like a very nice person, so I'd by no means want to quarrel with you either! ;)

    Thanks for your elaboration. It makes a lot more sense now, and I think in a strange way you and I are saying the same thing - i.e. let's not pseudo-intellectualise the hobby. I think in your original post you talked about neo-Zhdanovist/vulgar marxist critiques, and that's the sort of thing I most strongly object to. (Not just from the hard left angle but from any angle whatsoever.) See my above comment - I'm not against deep thinking about the hobby so long as it's grounded in practice OR a necessary rebuttal of nonsense pseudo-theory of the kind that Faustusnotes usually espouses. (I think Faustusnotes is a nice guy, but I agree with your assessment of his intellectual arguments 100%.)

  20. Cheese and Rice!

    D&D has been around for over thirty years, some of that during the prime 'Marxist' years of college dissertations before the Berlin Wall fell.

    Marxist critical theory has been shown to be a giant load anyway. Sorry 'possum but the world simply passed it by. Theosophy, Spiritualism, Marxist Theory, Freudian psychology, all are dead and only the high priests that go through the motions at their dusty temples still even mouth the ritual words.

    I am dead certain somebody has published a college paper somewhere about the RPG culture using the Marxist critique. Certain as day follows night. I saw Jungian analysis, Christian, pagan, and atheist, and feminist critiques of the game in the seventies. Listening to a English-Lit major tell me at length why Gygax and Arneson were repressing minorities was not the highlight of my high school social experiences. Not only was the jerk keeping me from making out with my girlfriend or sitting in for a few hands of poker, he made me spend skull-sweat refuting the crap he was spewing.

    I am sorry if my criticism of you comes off as harsh. We are all players and admirers of this great game and I get a little proprietary about the mental sweat I have to put into my favorite hobby. If some nimrod went and spoiled it for me by say, I don't know, comparing TEA partiers to Hobbits for instance, I feel the need to kick somebody in the knees.

    I don't need to get sidetracked with bull like Obama as Saruman or McCain as Gollum or the Paladin as a crypto-patriarical agent of Capitalist repression of the orcian masses. I want to concentrate on what matters; preparing for, playing, and most of all enjoying the game.

    The RPG rules are just an extension of the game, 'lets pretend' we all played as kids. 'Cops and Robbers', 'Pirates', 'Cowboys and Indians' whatever we called it, it was just free form RPGs. Kids have been doing it as long as humans have been drawing on cave walls.

    Let's just enjoy our game and let others worry about the maturity level or whatever.


  21. I just can't believe there are still Marxists out there. That's astounding. Wow...

  22. Stick Jockey: Well, yeah. ;)

    EG Palmer: There are plenty of nice and reasonable Marxists out there. The problem is that Marxism was from the beginning fundamentally defunct, and they've been scrabbling to solve all the inherent problems and tying themselves into intellectual knots in order to do so ever since. They do this because, I think, Marxism is superficially coherent and also pleasing for intellectuals, because it lets them think they have an answer for everything.

  23. @stick jockey: i'm really sorry that you got cockblocked by theory. it happens even to the best of us :D

    @e.g.palmer: of course there are still marxists. it is quite similar to the OSR really. trotskys are like guys at dragoonfoot (AD&D is the best), grognardia-guy would be hard-core leninist (lets read gygax to a latter) and planet algol guy is obviously an anarcho-communist (black metal international hell yeah).

    just to clarify: i am a marxist as much as obama. i could have used blood of prokopius blog as an example of the interaction between certain weltanschauung and the gaming (as a positive example btw) but i, wrongly, thought that a political example would be less controversial :D
    btw, there are all kinds of marxists (from benjamin to stalin) so any generalization is probably wrong. but that is not subject of our show.

    Which is: thinking about history (of any idea) is exciting and fun and we use all tools that we have on our disposal.

  24. Robin, a Marxist? Surely you jest. I don't even think he voted NDP last time.

  25. it wasnt a comment on anyone's political affiliation. please read the whole discussion (starts crying softly and rocking...)

  26. Anyway, the critique already exists, and you can play it: Violence.

  27. Huth: Yeah, I wasn't really attacking Marxism in this post or accusing Mr Laws of being a Marxist. It was more the idea that political/philosophical over-analysis of gaming makes it "mature".

  28. Huth: Love your art, by the way.