Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Being Watched

Apparently, watching other people play D&D is a thing. It's growing in importance. In a sense, it's not difficult to see why: watching other people do things seems to be a hugely popular hobby nowadays. You can watch other people play video games, watch them drink whisky and eat food (this is big in South Korea, apparently), watch them draw or paint... And people do the watching in their millions. I think, if I wanted to play amateur sociologist for a second, that there is something linking the prevalence of online porn with that of these other forms of passive entertainment - clearly, there is something in our brains that makes us dangerously susceptible to vicariously enjoying fun things without having to go to the bother of doing it ourselves. 

(There seems something qualitatively different about watching people play a sport and watching them play D&D or have sex or drink whisky. I'm shit at rugby but I enjoy watching it. I can actually do all of the others.) 

It also isn't difficult to see why this is growing from a marketing point of view. Putting liveplays of D&D on youtube and doing nothing to discourage people from uploading such content themselves is a no-brainer for WotC. Of course that works as a form of marketing, and it's sort of amazing that nobody really thought of doing it properly until recently. 

Part of me welcomes this, even if the thought of watching other people play D&D generally brings me out in hives. When all's said and done, it's no different to watching TV, and I'd be a hypocrite if I said I never watched TV. And I would not disparage people who choose to do it, either as performer or audience. 

On the other hand, there's part of me, the fuddy-duddy Roger Scruton-reading part of me, that wants to assert that actually no, this is really fucking weird: watching other people play D&D is one of those fall-of-the-Roman-empire-style symptoms of civilisational decline - I can't think of much else that is more decadent and pointless, more of a waste of one's precious seconds on God's beautiful Earth, than watching other people play RPGs. At least the Romans got to have orgies and nice wine when they were allowing their civilisation to go to the dogs, for fuck's sake. 

But anyway. What is perhaps a more productive line of inquiry is: what happens to RPGs when they're performed in front of an audience - for the players and also the watchers? 

For the players, it seems to me that the urge to satisfy the audience must become overwhelming, and that this urge, if pursued, can't help but lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Instead of being about the game, the practice will end up being about making sure that the content is entertaining. That will inevitably, I think, lead to narrativist-style Dragonlance-ism and pre-plotted campaigns: the idea that the game will speak for itself and let story emerge organically will be seen as too much of a risk of becoming boring or not making sense. (At its worst, this will lead to widespread scripting, which was clearly going on in Titansgrave: The Whatsit of Thingummy.) There may be honourable exceptions. But I suspect the general trend will be in this direction. 

And that will, I think, in turn lead to a perpetuation of that style of play among the watchers. I don't think anybody could dispute the proposition that online porn has changed the way lots of people have sex. Sex is nowadays frequently performed, obliquely or explicitly, with reference to pornography. The same thing, it seems to me, will happen with any sort of activity that is widely watched. People will want to - God help them - emulate the kinds of things Will Wheaton and his ilk get up to on their liveplays. It will happen inevitably. It can't be stopped.

I could, King Canute-like, rage against the dying of the light and try to put some more "old school" liveplays up there on youtube myself, but I increasingly think that the best course of action for a neo-luddite like me is just to try my best not to know anything about that world, insofar as it's possible to do so, and do the diametric opposite: play in a physical space with actual people, roll dice, and write stuff on notebooks in pencil - and hope that I can find enough like-minded people to keep the flames of civilisation going... 

47 comments:

  1. It's been a concern of mine for a long time... not about RPGs but any sort of creative activity that is increasingly consigned to 'experts'.
    Prior to TVs and movies people used toy theaters to put on famous plays at home, they could buy sheet music to play/sing with their family, drawing was a common skill used in letters and journals... it took time and effort to go see the professionals do these things.
    Fewer and fewer people I know put on plays or play music at home... I don't blame porn and I don't think people have stopped having sex in deference to it (or have they?), but the ready availability to watch someone do a thing at a level beyond what you are probably capable of does seem to put a damper on wanting to attempt it yourself at an amateur level.

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    1. I think in some relationships porn does get in the way of sex, yes. I've heard that anecdotally. But yeah, I also worry about that. Honing oneself is becoming very unfashionable.

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  2. I wouldn't even know where to start on where all these things (both the 'Let's Play' for videogames and those 'RPG show') are wrong. All I can say is that it has left me with a very bitter taste with newcomers and their impossible expectations of what tabletop is.

    Like expecting real sex to be like porn.

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    1. Yes, wanting your games to be like the scripted high budget WotC efforts puts you on a hiding to nothing I think.

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    2. The issue, I'd say, is that these new players (some a mere 5-8 years younger than me) are young adults who are still young, fresh and impressionable enough to get all manners of weird expectations of what tabletop vs these scripted shows are like. Of course a portion of this purely come down to basically a problem which existed way before all these shows, which is to say expectations and personal preferences versus the style of a GM or group.

      The problem it create, at least in my limited experience (compared to this blogosphere, being only 26 and thus not that experienced as a GM compared to many people posting comments on these blogs) is that I see the younger people who get into tabletop BECAUSE of these shows and get all sort of wrong ideas which go beyond expectation of style and tone: they don't understand how unglamorous and messy tabletop can get especially if you're playing D&D 3E onward.

      These shows, from what little I've seen, don't spend much time with the mess that an actual game is especially the more inexperienced a group is. You don't see people fumble around not knowing what to do, you don't seem DM sweat bullets going 'oh fuck what do I do this never hapenned' nor do you see players and DM alike lose 30 minutes to two hours searching for a rule or arguing a ruling.

      There's a reason I made a sex vs porn analogy.

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    3. Oh and don't forget the part where we aren't attractive, charismatic and marketable young and pretty faux-nerds. Anyone expecting a game table to be full of funny and attractive people is in for a shock when they spend five hours inside a cramped appartment with neckbeards eating cheetos.

      Now personally I like it this way and wouldn't want it any other way (plus I am gaining weight, so...) but I can see why this 'culture shock' may occur for some unprepared newcomers.

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    4. I do think there is something of an issue there. If nerd-dom has any virtue it is that at least it provides a place for ugly, socially inept and physically awkward people to socialize. I'd like to see that celebrated.

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    5. Sadly we've been pushed aside for a more marketable audience.

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  3. Weren't the people that first played dnd just emulating things from Conan stories and other pulps though? It seems the only that's different is the content.

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    1. Interesting point. I think there's a difference between emulating a genre and emulating actual play?

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    2. Probably, but I'm not sure it matters if the people doing it are having a good time.

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    3. Absolutely silly thing to say. Why don't they shoot up on heroin then? There's better and worse ways of having a good time.

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    4. Yeah you're right they should probably die because they play D&D different than you. How dare they.

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    5. And this is where all D&D conversations end up: I disagree with you, therefore you are hell-bent on destroying my fun.

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  4. Dude...wasn't the first "reality" television show (MTV's "The Real World," if I remember correctly) the first death knell of our post-modern civilization?

    The optimist in me would say: reality TV has never gone away, but the quality of actual television (production, writing, acting) has actually INCREASED over the years, pushed perhaps by the need of networks to draw eyes away from the living train wrecks that are The Jersey Shore, The Kardashians, The Real Housewives, etc. In similar way, might it be possible that the quality of ACTUAL role-playing (i.e. the experience of play) might improve as a counter-response to scripted YouTube role-playing?

    Of course, I don't tend towards optimism. Despite the existence of actual quality dramas, millions of viewers are still drawn every week to watch Teen Mother or The Bachelor or whatever. And ignoring them and their shows is like ignoring the great (and growing) divide in this country (the USA).

    Hell, I don't know. All I know is that I'm not and never have been much of a voyeur. Yes, in the past I've watched both porn and Survivor (much to my chagrin), but never in huge amounts and these days I avoid both. Life is too short to waste time watching folks act like jackasses. I've already got plenty of jackassery in my own life.

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    1. I couldn't agree more with that last paragraph.

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  5. I almost see the birth of streaming as theatre tradition finding a way into the internet world. It has all the excitement that comes from watching real humans do real things in real time, not knowing what happens next - but it also has that specific podcast-era intimacy and connection that comes from listening to interesting people and maybe living vicariously through them. There's an awful lot going on in streaming's popularity which has more to do with format and "humans enjoying other humans live" than anything to do with the game.

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    1. But does enjoying other humans live get in the way of enjoying your life?

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  6. I've personally been enjoying Critical Role (the one with all the voice actors). Matt's DM style is not to my personal tastes, but they're all professional actors and pretty disciplined about staying in-character and keeping the momentum of scenes going. I liken it to radio plays, which are an age-old medium at this point.

    But regular people playing D&D? Dear god, I almost become comatose.

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    1. The awful thing about APs I've listened to on podcasts is that the people involved always spend the opening 20-30 minutes shooting the breeze, laughing at their own jokes, catching up, etc., before actually getting round to playing. It's toe-curlingly awful.

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  7. There was a point GK Chesterton made, that decadence consists in paying someone to get up on a stage and do the fun thing for you. This is not the exact quote but it's close: "Men in a state of decadence employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a professional to rule them." Also: "To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence." It's a state of timidity.

    That said, God save us from Wil Wheaton.

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    1. Interesting. I think that is almost the point of cleavage between a traditional conservative like Chesterton and a modern day libertarian-style "conservative" like, say, Murray Rothbard. For the traditional conservative self-help is a virtue. For the free marketeer, paying others to do things to make the most of comparative advantage is a social good.

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  8. Is watching others play D&D different (in a way that matters) from reading people's actual-play reports?

    I rather enjoy reading play reports, because they show me the variety of what other people are doing at the table, give me ideas for things I might want to do or avoid (and advice for HOW to do them or avoid them), and help me vicariously participate in the hobby at times when I CAN'T actually be playing myself.

    It's not something I do instead of playing, it's something I do in addition to playing. Ideas I've gotten from reading other people's play reports have (I think) made me a better judge. A couple of the online games where I've joined in as a player, I did so specifically because I'd read play reports that made it sound like something I'd enjoy. Is there a reason to think that watching streaming games would have a different effect on its viewers?

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    1. Aside from the fact that watching an entire session takes more time (assuming the play report isn't really a transcript but more like a summary) and that play report more likely include explanations of stuff, the difference is similar to watching porn and reading about a sexual encounter (albeit written faithfully). Or like the difference between watching a reality show and reading a blog post about a person's day.

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    2. I would put the distinction as being one akin to that between reading a book and watching TV. We know those different activities have different effects on our brains and behaviour.

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    3. Those are valid points. I suppose since I don't watch gaming streams myself, I'm reluctant to venture an opinion about what effect it's having on the viewer. Certainly some possible outcomes are troubling, though not all of them.

      What I particularly wonder is how often people watch gaming streams as a replacement for participating in other gaming activities, and how often they watch gaming streams as a replacement for watching other kinds of television. One of those possibilities is much more concerning for the future of gaming than the other. (The other, I guess, is concerning for the future of television.)

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  9. I once tried to watch some of these things so I could learn how to play an RPG. In my experience, they're all horribly useless for this purpose.

    Thursdays in Thracia, however, works because it condenses a session report into a short thing that explains decisions made while GMing a game. (http://badwrong.fun/thursdays-in-thracia-part-1/)

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  10. I think you are dead on about the 'watching' aspect, but I'd throw a plea in on behalf of podcasts. I devote some hours everyday to sitting at my drawing table and whether it's actual work or penciling out a dungeon it's nice to have what amounts to a radio show to listen to.

    Actually directing your eyes to a video of five people sitting around a table and rolling dice for hours at a stretch, even if they are professional comedians, that I cannot really understand.

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    1. I don't really listen to podcasts anymore since ditching my smartphone, but having podcasts to listen to is the one aspect of not having a smartphone that I do occasionally miss.

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  11. You are the expert on this kind of thing, but possibly time to break out Veblen rather than Spengler? The flâneur may be a hopeful embodiment of a spectacular consumerism and thus of civilization itself. That said, I did almost vomit in my mouth watching WW anc Co. rolling up characters in that Green Ronin game.

    SJB

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    1. No culture which celebrates Will Wheaton can survive for long. That is the truth which I cling to.

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  12. == play D&D or have sex or drink whisky. I'm shit at rugby but I enjoy watching it. I can actually do all of the others.

    Let's examine this. I take on trust that you are shit at rugby because rugby above all requires mental toughness. I will give you the benefit of the doubt on D&D as I have not had the pleasure of watching you. Sex is something sacred to our species and as a matter of aesthetics is should be examined seriously.

    You, noisms, engaging in sex conjure the image of a frigid, timid being, awkward, puzzled, alarmed at female protuberances usually hidden from view, gasping at your own involuntary rhythmic antics, censuring your intemperate urges towards spontaneous beatings and intrusions. A monster from your manual no woman wants inside her you have become a weasel-sneaky male feminist.

    Stretching credibility beyond manly bounds you claim you drink whisky. Go fuck yourself.

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    1. Definitely a highlight of the comments section here is seeing this sort of effort and imagining what sort of odd creature Kent must be in real life.

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    2. Samantha, I think he might have both personal and mental health problems, which is why I try not to be too hard on him. Basically, it's like Frodo and Gollum - he is presumably a lost cause, but "Now that I see him, I do pity him."

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  13. Samantha, if you saw me walking down the street you would hasten to the nearest fortified dwelling.

    noisms, point your finger at me again and see what happens to it.

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    1. Go outside and get some exercise. Make some friends you can have a beer with, and maybe they'll introduce to some girls. Don't waste any more time trying to impress people online.

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    2. You are married to a Japanese reptile, right? I'll bet you use photos of your kids in sessions of Call of Cthulhu.

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    3. Is that supposed to get a rise out of me? This comment paints a pretty bleak picture of your mental health.

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    4. I don't understand the point of engaging with a troll, particularly by mirroring insults with insults. Just a thought.

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    5. As a gamer you yourself are by definition insane to some degree, but you are also a moron, that combination is not the productive kind. You can't write, you have no artistic talent, what exactly do you think you are doing with this blog. Vanity has made you sick?

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    6. Anonymous: I am genuinely concerned about Kent's mental health and I am being absolutely serious. He needs to get outside more, stop trying to get attention from people online, and try to be a productive member of society.

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    7. If that is the case, why do you entertain his comments? Would it not be better to ban him entirely since he has demonstrated his inability to engage in a way even remotely resembling human interaction?

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    8. "...it seems to me that the urge to satisfy the audience must become overwhelming, and that this urge, if pursued, can't help but lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Instead of being about the game, the practice will end up being about making sure that the content is entertaining. That will inevitably, I think, lead to narrativist-style Dragonlance-ism and pre-plotted campaigns: the idea that the game will speak for itself and let story emerge organically will be seen as too much of a risk of becoming boring or not making sense."

      I think this started before live-play videos were a thing. The sin of Critical Role (and others of its ilk) is that they perpetuate this interpretation of the game, giving it a legitimacy through the support of the publisher.

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    9. Ozymandius: Blogger doesn't really let you ban people entirely, but also I do feel quite sorry for him.

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    10. It doesn't but you don't have to indulge his insanity. I'm not saying you shouldn't feel concerned for him; if you're so inclined, you should try to help him as much as you can. I'm questioning the action of allowing his comments through when they're clearly hateful. Doing so sends a message to your readers, that you will tolerate even the worst ideas humanity has to offer as opposed to putting them down.

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