Thursday, 31 March 2022

RPGs as Sense Making

One of the worst aspects of modern life - and a tendency which I very often find myself displaying to my own immsense chagrin - is the way in which the ubiquity of information gives rise to epistemic arrogance. We are such immense know-alls. We drown ourselves in podcasts, op-ed pieces, tweets and blog posts, and convince ourselves that this gives us any sort of expertise in how the world "really is". What's worse is that (as we all probably know somewhere in our psyches), so much of this material - indeed, almost all of it - is produced by pseuds like ourselves; journalists who just happen to be really good at gathering bits and pieces of information like magpies and then spinning them into narratives that conveniently confirm perfectly the biases of the reader. 

This is driving us all mad (again, as I think all of us know); it makes us angry, fragmented, polarised and insufferably sure about how brilliantly correct our opinions are. Worse, though, it means we actually understand the underlying reality even less. 

It's always difficult to discuss Iain McGilchrist, because his work defies easy summary and is so straightforwardly misrepresented. This interview, though, is a good primer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U99dQrZdVTg. One of the many important themes in McGilchrist's work is that reality is really only rendered knowable through attending to context and contingency, in the widest scope: any "thing" exists within the context of literally everything else, and therefore one can only really know it by seeing it in its relationship to all other things. One does not understand anything by extricating it from context - one understands through context. 

This means that understanding is not an act of superficial reasoning or abstract study, but rather has to be embodied, intuited, concrete. One does not really get at the underlying reality by thinking about it explicitly. One gets at it through intuition born of experience. And by emphasising the former (abstract reason) and dismissing the latter (tacit knowledge), we actually understand the world much less. 

This is why I think the humanities are so important: they situate knowledge within something (a book, a poem, a piece of music, a work of art) that can only be experienced, being embodied, and which can only be understood tacitly, being opaque to rational explanation. It is through our experience of the arts that we really come to know what this business of being a human being is really all about. It expresses truths not through logic but by making us inhabit them, and thus helps us to truly see something like the whole.

RPGs are not an exception to this. Reading and playing them literally helps us to understand the world, in the truest sense, better. And this in turn means that those of us who are engaged in the hobby, as with all hobbies, are engaged in a pursuit of "sense making" that is much more significant - and useful - than a million Sam Harris podcasts or Substack newsletters (and which is all the more profound for the fact that it is entirely implicit and unintentional). 

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

[I am running a Kickstarter throughout April. You can read more about it, and back it, here.]

15 comments:

  1. Ill respectfully disagree on RPG playing leading to a better understanding of the world we love in, oftentimes based on RAW, setting assumptions, and echochambering of friends around common values i think at BEST it ALLOWS for one to learn about the world (if only specifically), and at worst it represents a false image that tends to stick in the mind after the game is over and done.

    Always good food for thought tho, here's hoping for wild success for the Blue Wizard

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    1. What is RAW? In my world, it is Robert Anton Wilson... who seems *extremely* relevant to this topic, but your RAW appears to mean something different.

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    2. RAW = rules as written

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    3. @dansumption, I suspect he'd find that hilarious.

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  2. In the prophetic words of Kurt Cobain, “I feel stupid and contagious.” I shared with a friend in a completely different hobby and we feel that you have nailed something that we have been wrestling with lately. Thanks.

    SJB

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  3. I find that there is extreme utility to expanding my worldview by engaging in RPG’s. I find that from a humble GM’s chair, one can be presented with an amazing array of clues how others perceive the world. I don’t invent puzzles with set solutions. I present players with hurdles and they decide how to tackle them.

    I get to hear back how they perceive the world I’m describing. One may key in on how the witness is dressed, another might want to investigate the blinking light throwing shadows on the basement walls, and another may be looking for a connection to the warlock they confronted three sessions prior. Maybe I hadn’t considered the clothing before or tied the warlock in to my fascination with witch finders. But, the players can open doors in my own thoughts and I find the most thrilling creativity is often inside those spaces.

    I get that from being a player as well. I like to contribute when my character would take the spotlight. But my favorite times are when I’m listening to how the other players perceive our situation. Their questions color the world I’m imagining. When the rogue asks if there’s a wardrobe in which to hide or the dwarf tries to reckon how thick the arch stones may be, I am suddenly shown additional details that weren’t in my personal imagery.

    That’s something worth remembering when the dice are tucked away and the handbooks are stowed. You don’t know what’s at the front of others’ minds until you listen. It almost always changes you to find out.

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    1. Yes, definitely. Like reading a work of fiction, it's an exercise in perspective-broadening. Looking at the world through somebody else's eyes.

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  4. I'm certain that this sense-making through RPGs can and does happen, though I'm not sure how often it does. Appears to me that a lot (the majority?) of RPG play just churns through tropes and entrenches existing beliefs.

    Meanwhile, 3 months and almost one volume in to The Matter With Things. Slow going, but worth it. Can't wait for the second volume though, which I think is where the meat is.

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    1. I think it is always going on in the background, implicitly?

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    2. I guess so, perhaps microdosing sense ;)

      I meant to say that I, err, sense that the first book of The Matter With Things is largely rehashing/revisiting stuff from The Master and His Emissary (probably? I've actually no idea, but it seems to be on very similar topics). Which is why I'm so excited for the second book.

      Also, I spotted Time Loops by Eric Wargo on my shelves today, and it struck me as something you might be interested in... I kind of lump it in with McGilchrist inasmuch as it's a kind of iconoclastic science book, though it's a lot more woo than McGilchrist (I think the book's publisher mainly specialises in books on magic, that type of thing) and Wargo gets far more carried away poking fun at scientism.

      My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2941436557

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  5. I've been reading a book titled _Make to Know_ by Lorne Buchman. It is an exploration of art, architecture, design and creation in general. The thesis is that artists don't really know what they are creating until they engage in the process of creating it. Through that creation the come to understand themselves and the world more fully and more clearly.

    Your post also reminds me of Heidegger's _Being and Time_

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  6. Stumbling across your recommendation of McGilchrist has led to me some wonderful interviews over the past two days.

    A question: I understand A Matter of Things starts with the ideas from The Master and His Emissary. From your perspective, is it worth/helpful to read The Master and His Emissary before reading A Matter of Things? Or can one jump right into A Matter of Things?

    (There's a lot of reading here!)

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    1. See Dan's comments below. I haven't really got to The Matter of Things properly yet (it's on the shelf) but I would recommend reading The Master and His Emissary to anyone. It's one of the most important books I've ever read, without a shadow of a doubt.

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  7. I'm reading The Matter With Things and haven't read The Master and His Emissary, and seems to me that it probably wouldn't be worth doing so - the first few hundred pages (it's a long book!) of TMWT are what I imagine is a restatement of TMAHE, but incorporating more recent evidence. I'd imagine that TMAHE must add something over and above the left-right brain stuff in TMWT, but I couldn't say what it would be and I'm almost certain it would only add minimally to the more recent book.

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