Tuesday, 29 May 2018
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...