I did not back the Avatar RPG. Not my thing at all, but good luck to them.
I have, however, heard on the grapevine that the creators' latest wheeze is to charge people money ($24 a 'ticket', for 8 hours, I believe) to take part in playtest sessions with "approved GMs".
I get it - Magpie Games run a business, and whatever people want to spend their money on is their own affair. Any anyway, it's just for playtesting - not a permanent business model.
But all the same, my initial reaction to this was still: pass the sick bucket. Something about charging money to take part in what should quintessentially be free - sitting around doing something profoundly uncool with your mates for the simple reason that you enjoy it - sends shivers down my spine; it makes all of the most pessimistic critiques of 'neoliberalism' seem positively breezy by comparison. What do we marketise next? Friendship itself? Pay me $24 and I'll hang out with you for two consecutive Saturday nights, four hours a session?
But it is worth dwelling on the reasons why exactly the idea of 'pay-for-play' makes my skin crawl. It can't be that moneymaking in connection to RPGs is wrong. Clearly, it isn't. If you create something that people enjoy there is absolutely no reason why you should not wish to make it your profession, and, broadly speaking, that is indeed a public good - it is how we get great novels, films, music, poetry, art, sport, after all. Anybody who doubts this should watch a rugby union match played prior to 1995, when it was still an amateur sport, and compare it to a rugby union match played in the year 2021. Professionalisation produces excellence, and that is to be welcomed, and I applaud Magpie Games for their success.
Paying to play, on the other hand, is something else. Ultimately, I think, it is wrong for the same reason that I believe paying for sex is wrong. (It should go without saying that I am not suggesting Magpie Games are somehow "prostituting" themselves - I'm just reasoning by analogy.) What is play, and why do we do it? A biologist would no doubt have a more instrumental answer to those questions, but in the end I give it Michael Oakeshott's definition as something that is enjoyed for no ulterior purpose. It is an activity that "begins and ends in itself". And it is only in play therefore that we are truly really free: it is the only thing that we do that is not designed ultimately to satisfy a material need or meet a material want of some kind, but is done purely for its own sake - because we choose it.
This definition is broader than games specifically, and would include other leisure activities like, I think, hanging out with friends or family, sex (at least sometimes), taking a walk in the countyside, swimming in the sea, reading a book, listening to music, and so on. And it certainly includes RPGs. We play D&D not because we have to, or feel we have to, and not because it is tied to some material desire, but because we choose to do so. The moment we do it in order to make money, we diminish it - we cease to be what Oakeshott called homo ludens, and instead revert to homo laborans, a lesser being, who performs his activities because he has to or believes that to be the case, or has urges or desires that need to be fulfilled; who acts for purposes other than mere choice alone (to pay the bills, pay the mortgage, go on holiday, buy a bigger house/car/TV....).
The other point, of course, is that morality is at least in part a recognition that other human beings have an intrinsic value and are not simply materials to be used for the meeting of needs, wants or desires, and this makes play a fundamentally moral act when done with others. It is something that allows us to recognise our fellow beings as moral agents in their own right - participating for no other reason than out of choice. Paying for sex is wrong in my view because it instrumentalises the participants; it is not done purely out of choice but partly from (real or perceived) necessity or the satisfaction of an urge, and it thus transforms the other into a mere tool for the meeting of a need. It would be melodramatic in the extreme to mention paying to play the Avatar RPG in the same sentence, but at root the problem is the same; it is the transformation of something moral into something that is fundamentally amoral - the fulfilment of a need (the making of money) replacing the choice of doing something purely for its own sake.