Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Impenetrable Nerdiness of RPGs

On a comment thread on G+ I wrote the following: "The nerdishness of RPGs is made of titanium. It is inpenetrable. They will never, ever be cool. They are like trainspotting or morris dancing. Face it." I was half joking, but I also think it's true. All sorts of things are becoming cool nowadays that never were previously, whether fantasy fiction, vinyl or real ale. This is generally A Good Thing, as I think it means that people are becoming less caught up in what's cool and what's not. And that's all to the good, because let's face it, the idea that some pursuits are cooler than others is brainless and awful and responsible for a lot that's wrong in the world.

But D&D is resistant to this trend. It hasn't become cool at all. (Let me make clear, first, that I don't particularly give a shit about this. Whether D&D is 'cool' or not is of the tiniest importance. But it is anthropologically interesting.) Why? I think that it is probably something to do with vulnerability. Not many people like speaking in public, acting on stage, singing openly, putting themselves out there. It scares them. This is because when you are speaking publicly there is nowhere to hide, no protection. It's just you and the audience. You are figuratively naked. Stripped of social protection. You have to perform and everybody is watching. Some people naturally love, or grow to love, being the centre of attention in this way (I can be a bit like this), but most hate it, and even those who love it are lying if they say they don't get a little nervous beforehand.

Playing an RPG is not quite speaking in public or acting, but it is close. It involves making yourself vulnerable: you are going to pretend to be an elf and everybody is watching. This is not just a bit nerdish, then; to most normal people it is both a bit nerdish but also scary. And by definition the people who do it must also be both nerdish and odd enough not to care about the scariness. Why involve yourself in a hobby like that?

This leads me to two further thoughts: this may be why LARPing is the uncoolest thing ever invented - it is scarier yet even than tabletop gaming because it is even more explicitly about making yourself vulnerable. It also raises the question - why is acting not uncool? Partly of course, it is: am-dram is largely the realm of nerds of a different kind. But it may also be to do with the special prestige accorded to the profession - you're entertaining others and they're paying you. If you are playing D&D you are at best entertaining a handful of others and nobody in their right mind is giving you money for it.

16 comments:

  1. There's also something (bizarrely) uncool, in the Anglosphere at least, about *effort*. Computer games about killing goblins or whatever can be relatively cool - but put in some effort to achieve a greater, more imaginative goblin-killing arena on the tabletop or in the heads of the players, and watch the coolness drop through the floor.

    There's also, with RPGs, a kind of Platonic aspect - it's a bit difficult to show a game to a newcomer and convince them that it's terrific (unless they're under a certain age - my son and his friends are convinced that Dragon Warriors is the coolest thing *ever*). A given session might be dull, or might depend on what's gone before, or rest on unspoken assumptions ("orcs are like this"), and so forth.

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    1. Yes, both those points are true.

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  2. I honestly don't think that geek culture is cool at all, much of it is stealing youth from the young. Fanboys obsessed with collecting plastic, forcing parents to be badguys because we won't buy our kids the latest games because they are filthy. Try finding a comic book today that is cool and isn't marketed to adults. Kids want action figures that cost $200, why are there toys that cost $200? The commercialism and materialism is out of control.

    What is wrong with our generation, what causes them to refuse to let go of the past? We are expected to be leaders now, but instead we spend our money buying all of the crap that our moms threw away. One doesn't have to be a "Fanboy" to play D&D, it penalizes drone behavior, if forces you to think. It causes you to see the world that you live in in a different way. I think that that is cool. It brings people together, and keeps them together. For the cost of some cheap books one gets a lifetime of entertainment that evolves with you. D&D isn't just a game, it is more than that, and it always has been.

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    1. I agree with your sentiments generally, but it's not just about fanboys inflating prices for toys. Look at the success of Game of Thrones, for example. There has been a shift away from condemning fantasy and SF stuff as automatically uncool.

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    2. There's an interesting point here about different shades of geekery. When I was a kid, RPGs were (a) initially the preserve of cool older brothers (see ET) and (b) the province of bookish, bright and imaginative kids who weren't necessarily nerdy in other ways. I mean, all the kids I played D&D and Runequest did plenty of sport and hiking and so on. And there wasn't much overlap at all with computer games. The last RPG I played before a very long break was a game of Call of Cthulhu at college; the next time I met one of the players was head-to-head in the scrum in an inter-college rugby game. The GM was the (qualified) referee. Or should that be the referee was the referee? I forget the CoC terminology ... Anyway, back then, an interest in imaginative games didn't entail a distaste for hearty activities.

      "Geek culture", on the other hand, sometimes seems to celebrate a certain sort of unhealthy, indoor lifestyle. And "fanboyism" seems to entail liking things because they belong to a particular genre, rather than because they're *any good*. That's always seemed odd to me. I've got a penchant for the fantastic, but I'd much rather read a conventional literary novel than David Eddings or Terry Brooks or whatever.

      All that aside, I think the relative coolness of fantasy and SF is cyclical. Look at the huge popularity of Tolkien in the 60s and 70s. And before that, Lord Dunsany was celebrated in his day (I once did a Google News archive search for him, and he was *everywhere*). As was HG Wells.

      I think the popularity of Game of Thrones is the same sort of thing. And ASoIAF distinguishes itself from so much genre fantasy by being fairly original, pretty well written and very well plotted. You can enjoy it without making allowances for genre conventions - that is, you don't need to be a fanboy.

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    3. "The GM was the (qualified) referee. Or should that be the referee was the referee? I forget the CoC terminology."

      Keeper. Which would be confusing if you were playing football.

      That said, I have taken part in rugby club initiations that required a Sanity roll.

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    4. I guess that I have never thought that fantasy was uncool. As a little child, I grow up in a small city. My friends and I would spend all day out in the woods and foothills that were nearby and LARP, but we never called it that. We'd play Star Wars, or Robin Hood. We loved sword fights, and it seemed to be everybody in the neighborhood that did that. It was the 70s and early 80's and fantasy and science fiction was pretty popular, though most of it was too naughty. Sword & Sandal films were outnumbered by cop movies, but that is always the way that it is going to be. We'd discuss stuff like Conan, and Beastmaster, we went nuts over Clash of the TItans, which is still one of my favorite movies. Excalibur was a huge deal! I remember HBO showing a special edited version of the film so that us kids could watch it, and everybody did. At my house, my folks invited all of my relatives over just to watch the premier, it was a great time!

      I think that fantasy is rarer because it is so difficult to accomplish, but when it is done, and done well, then it usually is a success. Adventure on the ATARI was a big success, and Legend of Zelda was a game changer! Folks forget how special that game was, especially at the time. Nintendo threw a lot of attention at it, it was more expensive to produce than many of the games at the time, but it's influence is still seen today.

      Little children have real personalities that are unique to them, but this changes when they become teens, then everyone becomes caricatures of personalities that people see in the media, it is really weird and we all do it, and this is were the derogatory term of nerd comes from . . . so from that point on, I think people start hiding their affection for fantasy and sci-fy as it doesn't fit into their new identities as Jocks or Stoners or what have you. Me personally, I'd rather watch Dr. Who than Saved By The Bell anyday of the week!

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  3. I wonder, if there is a way to marry acting and D&D together. Not something serious, but more lighthearted. I know many people enjoy watching Critical Role, which is a D&D game played by voice actors. So maybe that's the first step to helping with the nervousness people face.

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  4. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said here, and may even crib some of these words when I explain tabletop gaming in future conversations.

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  5. I don't know, there's this whole hipster nerd thing going on with the likes of Geek & Sundry - http://geekandsundry.com/ - they're pretty good at making playing D&D look cool - http://geekandsundry.com/critical-role-episode-48-into-the-frostweald/ - at least that's what my newbie players tell me. :D

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    1. Hmm. Do you not think that just makes D&D look cool to people who are already nerds in the first place?

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    2. Who is your target demographic here in terms of non-nerdness? You could end up with "all D&D players are nerds by definition" but that doesn't seem right to me. You and I may be fairly nerdy (though a long way from the Comic Store Guy stereotype), and some of my players fit the nerdy/geeky stereotypes, but others I'd say range from 'normal' to actively 'cool', and hipster beards not uncommon in one group.

      That Geek & Sundry GM is cooler than you or me, right? I personally have little interest in watching 3 hours of tabletop on Youtube, but I doubt many people are watching those actors and thinking "What a bunch of nerds!"

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  6. Interesting. I think (here in the USA) "Nerds" are cool. For example, I just typed "the cone" into Google and it gave me "The Cones of Dunshire" faster than the Millennium Falcon completed the Kessel Run. Look at the success of the Marvel and Star Wars. Dr. Who is back, Settlers of Catan is a best selling game, D and D has probably the biggest audience it ever has, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Will Wheaton are all celebrated nerds....I could go on and on. I started playing D&D in '77. This was before it was popular and I recall the cool mystic it had then, everyone was whispering about it and nobody knew what it was... Then came all the devil worshiping stuff and people were burning their Styx albums. My best friend was a Baptist, his parents forbid him to play. Once the cartoon hit in the 80's, D&D was pop culture and old news, if you were one of them guys, you were defiantly uncool. This lasted (in my mind) for a decade...then "Nerds" started ruling the world. Nerdy things became cool...people are even openly talking about how the the David Lynch Dune has merit. In the field that I work extreme Nerdiness is a prerequisite to success. I think people are much more accepting of things these days. Well, except Napoleonics...(laughs a** off)

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  7. "Why? I think that it is probably something to do with vulnerability. Not many people like speaking in public, acting on stage, singing openly, putting themselves out there."

    Yes, and also that other important vulnerability is CREATIVITY. Some people seem to think that you must be creative in order to play RPGs, and they get shy because they don't think they can come up with stories, etc.
    90% of the people I play with are "creators" of one kind or another (professional or amateur musicians, designers, artists, etc), but in reality I don't think one has to be specially creative to play RPGs. At least no more than, say, you need quick reflexes to play videogames.

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  8. The monetization (or potential monetization) of a niche cultural phenomenon plays a large part in its mainstream popularity. That, and accessibility. For the average person who's never played a table-top RPG, the level of accessibility is pretty damn low. You hear "D&D is cool" and go to a game store to check it out, and find that you need to lay-down a bunch of cash for huge-ass tomes that require lots of study just to learn the rules.

    You can say, "well, the newbie can join an existing group and learn how to play," but consider what you're asking. It's always tough to be the new guy/gal in any activity, and now you're being asked to put your imagination out there on display for everyone? Open yourself up to that intimacy when you're already feeling self-conscious? That's a tall order.

    A lot of popular "geek culture" things can be discovered in private...you can rent a movie or download a TV show and see if you like it. You can buy your piece of technology and experiment with it. You can order your eBook from Amazon. You can pick up a video game as a "gift" for your "nephew/niece" and play it, anonymously, in the privacy of your own home, using built-in tutorials and internet forums to steer you through any rough patches.

    Tabletop role-playing games don't give you the same luxury. This is why they defy popularity and remain "nerdy."

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  9. I think what got said up-thread about effort is really true. There are a lot of activities that aren't really nerdy by themselves but if you put a lot of effort into them they become nerdy. For example playing, say, Scrabble isn't really nerdy but playing it at a competitive level would probably be seen as at least as geeky as playing D&D by a lot of people.

    The exception seems to be things where you get something concrete out of your effort or at least have a theoretical shot at getting that. Which can be a bit fuzzy. Taking car repair seriously isn't nerdy since it gives you something concrete (fixed car) the same with fishing or hunting (food), this still seems to apply to activities where you getting something concrete out of it is probably never going to happen (music and art can make you rich but that's very doubtful but not completely impossible so they aren't as nerdy unless they're kinds of music or art that are completely uncommercial).

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