Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Return to Escapism

Because I have a giant ego, I google the title of this blog on a fairly regular basis to see what "word on the street" is. Yesterday, while doing this, I discovered that the podcast Canon Puncture has talked about entries from my blog at least twice. The episodes in question were back in 2009, so it took a bit of digging to find them, but when it comes to ego-stroking there are no time limits.

I really enjoyed hearing people talking about Monsters and Manuals - it's a nice filip. But I have to take issue with some of the comments regarding this old post of mine, from the second of the episodes in question. This won't make much sense to you if you haven't heard the podcast and haven't been reading my blog for a long time, but indulge me: I'll be back to rambling on about monsters and Yoon-Suin tomorrow.

The critique of my position that Judd makes in that episode seems to me to be rather unfair, as it mischaracterises what I was saying, essentially, as follows: "Gaming is purely about escapism, and there's nothing wrong with that, and narrative/story-telling gaming is not escapist and is inferior for some reason that I won't make clear."

He rebuts this by making the following argument: whether you make it implicit or explicit, and even if you think you are indulging in "escapism", by participating in the act of gaming, you are still bringing yourself, your world, your assumptions, and your politics, to the game. It is impossible not to do so. As he puts it, whether you like it or not, "Your game says something about the world", because your opinions, background, and assumptions make their way into the game whatever you might think. You are therefore not, in any real sense, "escaping", and in fact you are best off admitting that and making it explicit.

Now, I should say first of all that I am more than familiar with this sort of analytical approach. Listen; I have a degree in English lit, a Masters in Law, and I'm currently finishing off a PhD in legal philosophy. The kind of argument Judd is advancing is not at all unfamiliar to me. It's basic critical theory.

The point I wanted to make in the initial post is that, irrespective of whether or not I am bringing my self, my world view, my politics and my beliefs to the game, irrespective of whether or not I am "saying something about the world", and irrespective of whether or not that is a good or a bad thing, I don't care. Analysing it is not enjoyable to me. It is a game that I indulge in for fun, because I like imagining weird shit. The way in which I imagine weird shit may be deeply political and may say all kinds of things about the world: I don't care to find out.

For other people it may be fun and enjoyable to analyse their own gaming in that way, and I'm perfectly willing to accept that. Different strokes for different folks, etc. For me, it doesn't work - analysing things is my day job. Gaming is sacrosanct.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that all I'm interested in is imagining killing orcs in dungeons or being "the good guy" versus "the bad guys" (as is implied in the podcast). I'm perfectly capable of playing games with far more nuance than that - and I resent the false dichotomy created in the podcast between subtle narrativist gaming which is "about the world" on the one hand, and braindead escapist heroic fantasy nonsense which is also "about the world" but doesn't admit it to itself on the other. And finally, I have to say that I find the podcasters' insistence that they are not being snobbish a bit rich, given that they explicitly state that their own mode of play is (quote) "best" - without giving any reason why - and portray my position as advocating a stance of sticking ones fingers in ones ears and saying (quote) "la la la la la, I'm an escapist".

I'm happy to entertain the notion that it is impossible to game without "saying something about the world", but in the same way that I will watch a game of cricket without worrying about what that says about the world, because I like watching cricket for its own sake, I don't want overanalysis to get in the way of my imagining of weird shit. Simple as that.

EDIT: I feel compelled, because I'm such a nice guy (as if you can't tell), to insert the disclaimer that generally speaking Canon Puncture is a good, snappy, fun listen, and Judd is a very eloquent and thoughtful speaker in general. This particular episode just made my hackles rise.


  1. Agree, agree, agree. The idea that everything you do in a game, as a player or a gm says something about you and your worldview is something i've believed for quite a while. The corollaries that often get lost in the discussion of this idea are:
    1) It says something about you, but that something may not be a primary facet of your personality, nor even an important one.
    2) Analyzing what it's saying may be interesting occasionally, but it's not always necessary or productive for the game itself.

    Gaming may be therapeutic, but it's not necessarily therapy.

  2. I absolutely agree that I don't want analysis to get in the way of me and my friends getting together to make shit up.


    My apologies if I came across as a blow-hard tool.

  3. Matthew: Yes, exactly. I think people are on a spectrum - there are some (like, I'm guessing, some of the members of that podcast) for whom it's incredibly interesting to analyse what their games say about the world, and others (like me) for whom it is never very interesting to do so, and there's everything in between. So I don't want to get judgemental about it, but it's just not for me.

    Saturday Movie Matinee: You didn't come across that way, really. I should say I like the podcast a lot, and generally speaking I find you a very interesting, eloquent and thoughtful speaker. So please, don't interpret this as an attack on you or the podcast. Just in this specific instance I thought you were giving me short shrift so I just couldn't help responding.

  4. Absolutely.

    The whole point of the show was to inspire exactly this kind of dialog.

    So, thanks for responding.

    Tried to put some thoughts in order on my blog on escapism.

    - Judd

  5. Do we carry things from our lives into our games? Yes, of course, and it's a subject I occasionally get interested--and then not.

    It boggles my mind that people who play fantasy games are so resistant to the word "escapism". Escape from the stress and tedium of everyday life is exactly the point.

    The problem with the crit theory approach is that our gaming doesn't map out neatly into what we put into our games.

    Sometimes yes there is some portage, my own ambivalence to religion comes out in my campaign as the whole religion is mostly absurd social mores schtick ala Vance.

    But more often than not it's something completely else, the weird shit you mention. I love me some Tekumel, but a highly-stratified, tradition-heavy world replete with impalements for minor crimes, slavery, and human sacrifice is almost diametrically the opposite of my real worldview. (As is a big truckload of D&D tropes).

    But so what? It's fun to play around with all this stuff like it is to put on costumes at Hallowen.

  6. The Canon Puncture guys seem nice and very eager, but they are all-too-willing to assume that things mean what they want them to mean for the sake of their podcast rather than saying "Noisms, we like your blog, why don't you come on the show and talk about them with us".

  7. ckutalik: I like the way you put that. I do think role playing is to a large extent adult make-believe. There's no reason to be ashamed to say so.

    Zak: I'd agree with that. Judd, if you're reading this, it might be worth considering letting bloggers know before you podcast about them, and preferably inviting them on the show to discuss what they've written?

  8. If I ever participate or produce a show with that format, I will certainly do that.

    I was just a guest on that one, though but its solid advice.

    - Judd

  9. @Matthew - I think I may steal that last line of your comment as a quote. That's pretty awesome.