Monday 12 February 2024

What's the Story? A Problem with Plot

Yesterday, I had the misfortune of attending the cinema to watch Peppa Pig's Cinema Party, consisting of 10 'never before seen' Peppa Pig episodes (question: Do Americans, Australians, etc., know about Peppa Pig?) interspersed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style filler in which real-life children interact with cartoons of Peppa and her friends.

It was dreadful. But it was dreadful in an illustrative way. I have nothing against kids' entertainment, and I actually don't mind Peppa Pig as a general rule (although I hate the militant misandry of its depiction of the buffoonish Daddy Pig). But watching the Cinema Party, it rapidly became clear that the reason why these episodes had never been seen before was that they were rubbish. They didn't have stories. They were just a bunch of stuff that happens. Peppa learns to play tennis and has strawberries and cream afterwards. That's an episode. Peppa goes to a wedding and it rains and they all have fun playing in the mud. That's an episode. And so on. Not so much 'a show about nothing' as 'a show about pleasant events in the life of a four-year-old'. 

But stories aren't - cannot be - just series of pleasant events. Stories need conflict, and children's stories especially have to be characterised by a very basic structure in which something bad or undesirable happens and is ultimately resolved. This is true at even the most basic level; a great example that springs to mind is Emily Gravett's Where's Bear?, a book that can be enjoyed and understood by any 2 year-old. In it (spoiler alert) bear and hare are playing hide-and-seek together. They give it a couple of goes. It's too easy for hare to find bear, so hare has a go at hiding. Bear looks for him and can't find him, and ends up looking in the bed, where he falls asleep. Hare emerges, having become bored, and looks for bear, but now can't find him, and a moment of panic ensues - hare misses his friend and rushes about looking for him. Bear is wakened by the commotion, finds hare, and gives him a hug. The end.

Here we have an elementary lesson in what story is: a set-up, an emergent problem, a pleasing resolution. And it works because of the crucial moment of tension in the second act where the game goes awry. Without that moment of tension, all there is is fluff: two animals playing hide-and-seek with some diverting pictures. What's the point of that?

This I think, more than anything else, is at the root of the reason why I have always found narrative-style play, in which the players go through a pre-ordained 'plot' (however loosely sketched), so unsatisfying. The simple fact of the matter is that telling a good story relies on set of basically artificial devices to work, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that within the context of a good story, it is almost definitionally a straitjacket - it can't survive being exposed to the chaos of free-decisionmaking on the part of the participants. To do so disrupts the narrative structure. What narrativist games always in the end therefore devolve into, in my experience, is coercion or manipulation (railroading and/or quantum ogres) or a feeling that the PCs are merely jumping through a series of essentially consequence-free hoops, a la Peppa Pig learning to play tennis. The former might be tolerable if the DM was an acknowledged master storyteller like Stephen King; the latter never is. Either way, the likelihood of success is remote, and the most common experience is a blancmange of 'meh'. 

66 comments:

  1. Peppa Pig is pretty much a global phenomenon. Massive success here in Brazil.

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    1. Yea, that accursed hog is inescapable and Ive yet to hear an apology. Are you OK Noisms? Should I assume you had a good reason to watch hours of Peppa Pig, or are you losing it or something?

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    2. My wife bought the tickets. Like Daddy Pig, I was forced into it against my will.

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  2. Oh, we know Peppa Pig here in the states. I agree with you about the constant dumping on Daddy Pig. The one with the password to Peppa's treehouse clubhouse being "Daddy's Big Tummy" is the worst for me.

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    1. I've noticed there's a lot of casual misandry with how fathers are portrayed on television in general. Whether it's a cartoon or a sitcom, the father is almost always a fat, embarrassing moron, or some combination thereof.

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    2. Yep - it's one of the main themes of fiction in our age. Fathers are either stupid or evil. If we're lucky, we get depicted as being at least amiably stupid rather than maliciously so.

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    3. To be fair, many (most?) fathers are overweight and often silly. I fall into this category myself these days.

      (we've been watching Peppa for years...both in the States and when living in Paraguay)

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    4. See my comment below. Nobody has any issues with fathers being depicted as being overweight and/or silly. It's that there's a line between being the good humoured butt of jokes and the father figure being portrayed as essentially worthy only of contempt or else existing as a sort of tolerable but basically worthless hanger-on (see e.g. Encanto). This theme is everywhere in kids' entertainment nowadays.

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    5. With regard to story, your objection is (I believe) a mistake of FOCUS. En Canto, for example is a story of a woman's relationship with the women in her family: her sisters, her grandmother. The father is not uncaring, but his competence in this case is neither necessary nor particularly helpful; this is a story about a young woman finding her own way, doing her own exploration, and it's not in the best interest of her story to have ANYONE (mother or father) swoop in and solve her dilemmas for her. The entire story of En Canto is a metaphor, and should be viewed as such...it is not truly magical but the exaggeration of legend, the way a kid is told exaggerated stories of his grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. until they take on mythical proportions.

      In this regard, the more recent Barbie film likewise depicts the father as a bumbling incompetent or "worthless hanger-on," right? Except, again, this is missing the POINT of the story which from the human side is about a mother and daughter rebuilding a strained relationship. They do not NOT LOVE or NOT RESPECT the father/husband...he is simply not integral to the story, and we see only snippets of his character regardless; we do not see the other 95% of his life, because it's not a story about his life, nor about his relationship to the child of the story.

      [on the other hand, the non-human side of the story is about other issues, mainly the absurdity and silliness of male and female behavior and our relationships with and to each other]

      Sometimes the story is not about the guy, man. Just like some stories (for example, the latest Aquaman film) has nothing to do with the ladies. Compare En Canto with Coco, for example.

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  3. I'm not sure conflict or even unpleasantness is really necessary for kids or whether we impose that requirement as adults based on adult tastes. Consider something like The Hungry Caterpillar, which is absolutely brilliant and very popular. The only unpleasantness in it is that at one point the caterpillar has a tummy ache. This passes without any kind of action. But the book still tells a coherent story.

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    1. I think possibly I could have used a better word than 'conflict', but I don't know if one exists. There *is* an arc to the Hunger Caterpillar. He eats lots of bad things and feels sick and then eats a nice fresh green leaf and feels better, and then undergoes his transformation. This is 'conflict', against himself, as it were.

      It is true that there are some kids' books which are just a series of events but they are only really successful for pre-toddlers who are just enjoying the sound of their parent's speech or the colours on the page and can't yet understand an actual story.

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    2. Children are particularly interested in signs of growing up, at no stage are we more sensitive to being one year older or younger than another child. We want to be observed handling adversity and trials by adults, or older children, as witness to our growing and children's stories should reflect that.

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  4. While I certainly agree that conflict creates tension in a story and thereby gives a sense of uncertainty of outcome and enjoyment to the audience, I don't think that a story, in the ordinary sense of narrative, absolutely requires conflict. Such conflict-free narratives are nevertheless boring for somebody like you or me. My impression was that a lot of young kids' shows of the kind you are discussing are more about routines, which the very young seem to enjoy, than about plots with serious conflicts. I also think that pre-ordained plot in RPGs is a separate issue, too often confused with the generic category of "story" (the subject of a long blog post I recently put up), but it always deserves mention when talking about narrative amongst gamers. Did you have specific games in mind?

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    1. I think the good young kids' shows are about routines which nonetheless includes 'conflict', but see my comment above. By 'conflict' I don't mean fighting or struggle necessarily - rather, a sense that there is something, however small, at stake.

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    2. I think that the idea of 'conflict' you are alluding to is the Aristotelian Three Act structure? "On the first act you chase the protagonist up a three, on the second act you throw rocks at him, on the third you get him a ladder and get him back to the ground". Maybe for a quick moment it can by kinda funny to complain that Peppa Pig is blind to Aristotle's Poetics, but on the other hand wouldn't a very important part of the whole exercise of telling stories to children be the idea of introducing the very idea of fiction - and how we relate to it - to them? From allowing them to get the hang of cause-and-effect to discerning that it does not necessarily tells of anything real, etc, etc.

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    3. Exactly right - you put it very well. The point is that even in a story about Peppa Pig learning to play tennis you can have that three act structure: Peppa is taken to the tennis club, Peppa encounters difficulties learning, Peppa gets better somehow. Or maybe it rains and so the lesson gets called off but Peppa learns how to deal with disappointment. I repeat - the sense that there is something at stake, however small.

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  5. Thankfully Bluey seems to have solidly won out over Peppa here in the states.

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    1. Bluey is better but I think it rips off The Simpsons a bit too much, both in terms of the animation style and the character of the Dad/Homer.

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  6. I'm an American, and I'm aware of Peppa Pig. Mostly through memes. I have no idea if actual American children watch it.

    Anyway, it's always amazing that people get this basic concept of storytelling wrong. How do you get a job as a writer without knowing that stories need conflict? That's like a mechanic not knowing "left loosey, righty tighty."

    I suppose it's less well known that good GMs should prep scenarios, not stories. Characters in a story do whatever the author wants. Players in a game probably won't.

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    1. Mark Kermode, a British film critic, sometimes rants about what he calls 'the death of narrative cinema', identifying a modular approach which sees film-making devolve into a series of set-pieces or diverting episodes only very loosely conncted at best by a plot. I think something similar is going on with kids' entertainment. ChatGPT could easily have written Peppa Pig's Cinema Party.

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  7. For the story needs to have a problem half: I think you could carve out a small exception for stories where the emphasis is VERY strongly on the main character. For example if there was a character I really liked and EVERY story about them is something high stakes with big problems, I wouldn't mind reading a short story about them in which they just go through a normal day so that I can better understand what a normal day to that person actually is. Like what does Sherlock Holmes do on his days off? Of course that's very much the exception and I don't want that regularly but it would be nice to have a few stories that break away from the demands of plot and I really wouldn't mind a short story about a character I like a lot just faffing about.

    For the RPG half of your post, exactly what you said was a big part of where the whole Story Games/Forgey stuff came from back in the day. It was basically a reaction to White Wolf and the more railroady 2e modules and pushed to have a more open experience in which the players could drive things a lot more and where there isn't any pre-set plot.

    Of course there's a lot of things to dislike about a lot of modern storygames (or whatever the hell you want to call them) but I don't mind playing them precisely because they're built from the ground-up to be almost impossible to railroad and I'd like to see some more ideas from them in OSR games (minus the aspects that don't fit with OSR games), such as how I really like now knowledge skills works in Apocalypse World-derived games (there are certain specific questions that you can ask the GM and expect a straight answer if you roll high and those vary a bit by class which helped me a lot to have players realize what sort of things they could ask about and make characters feel distinct for example a thief character could always ask the GM "what is the most expensive thing visible in this room?" and the bard could ask "what does this guy I'm talking to want the most right now?").

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    1. Yes, likewise, I have some time for Story Games despite not really loving them. I get why they exist and what they're trying to do.

      On the 'faffing arond' thing, the example that leaps to mind is the NextGen episode Data's Day, which partly does this. But even that has problems to be resolved.

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  8. I wonder about the tension (conflict?) between escapism and drama in fiction? Your point of watching a young pig learn to play tennis lacking any tension and, therefore, interest is well taken, but it may provide an escape for the viewer that may be very satisfying if their lived experience already experiences a heap of conflict. If you read a Conan story there is a ton of conflict, but you know he is going to prevail. You have the drama of high adventure but also the escape of a highly dependably competent hero. This tension is on a gentric sliding scale - horror high conflict, action high escape - I suppose. I have a stressful high stakes job, so high conflict media is just not my cup of tea. Maybe these kind of nothing really happens kid shows are good for kids in the midst of tramadic times? Just a thought.

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    1. It depends what you mean by 'conflict'. There has to be something at stake. Think of a Jane Austen novel. That's not 'high conflict' but there is something at stake in all of them.

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  9. I feel like I should point out that a "buffoonish" Daddy Pig is almost certainly not deliberate misandry, much less a militant version.

    In very simple terms - back in the day, sitcom families tended to have a "Father knows best" attitude. Women were flighty and silly; children were precocious but not yet fully-educated or wise; patriarchs held the majority of the authority, knowledge, and power. Then The Simpsons deliberately subverted that by positing a father who was the least, rather than the most, knowledgeable and authoritative member of the family, and now we live in a world where what used to be the subversion is instead the cookie-cutter standard.

    To put it another way: why attribute to arbitrary malice what can far more simply be understood as a corporate lack of imagination?

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    1. There may be an element of truth in the lack of imagination motif but I think sitcoms have always to a certain extent poked fun at father figures - it goes back before The Simpsons. But it is important to draw a distinction between sitcoms and kids' TV shows and films, where the trend is very noticeable to anybody with young children who is forced to watch all this stuff. It's not that the Dad is the frequent butt of jokes, which is to be expected, but that fathers are basically always depicted as being brutal authoritarians or simpering idiots.

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    2. This conversation about dads in media has been very interesting, too bad it's split among multiple comments. RE: below, I agree with Deranged Nasat who is a wildman and a blessing to any comments section.

      @Confanity:
      Hanlon's Razor (don't attribute to malice what can be explained by carelessness) is no longer applicable in the age of social media-driven cultural warfare. To put it another way: "Once is coincidence, twice is carelessness... three times is enemy action."

      The 'suits' who run the streaming services may be non-ideological corporate types, but the people who write this stuff are a different story.

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  10. Yeah, I'd never call Peppa Pig "militant misandry" nor consider it some dark trend of media to make fathers out to be buffoons or authoritarians. It's simply taking a light-hearted view of the family dynamic.

    Having been a father for some 13 years now, there is a fine line one must walk between being a disciplinarian and a loving, playful dad. We don't always do it right...a LOT of times we do it wrong. But we keep trying, and sometimes it DOES make us look like harsh authoritarians and/or buffoonish clowns.

    This is not an unusual experience. My experience is echoed by many fathers I know. Peppa is an exaggeration on many levels...but, of course, it's television for (small) children who are less versed in subtlety. My children might want to "jump on my fat tummy" and such, but they still love and respect me. When I coach their sports teams (which I still do, on occasion) they hop to and don't goof off.

    Have you viewed (the Australian show) Bluey?

    I've not seen the Peppa film (my kids are now a bit too old for Peppa) but I've seen far worse "kids shows" than that. I rather hate those Troll movies and (even worse) the Sing franchise; that is really obnoxious trash, in my opinion. Peppa, by comparison seems rather wholesome.

    [there was a funny commercial during the Super Bowl that had Peppa; our whole family got a huge laugh at the little porker's expense]

    With regard to narrative-style play: sure that all makes sense. Much more sense than getting overwrought for a cartoon pig!
    ; )

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    1. Nobody is 'overwrought' - it was just an observation.

      The issue isn't that Daddy Pig plays around or has a fat tummy or whatever - it's the fact that his family basically view him with contempt and he can't do anything. Once you've noticed this you can't unnotice it. I always joke with my wife that whenever one of the character's speaks to him, you can capture the mood by just imagining the words 'you fucking idiot' being added at the end of the sentence.

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    2. All right, man. I will have to watch Peppa with a more critical eye.
      ; )

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    3. It's not about individual characters, it's awareness of a wider trend -- the depiction being characteristic of a common attitude expressed through media with great frequency, often with intent -- and it's not about some sort of personal offence, it's an awareness of how damaging said attitude is, itself based in an awareness of how important yet precarious certain aspects of our structured civilization are. Put simply, it's not "there was a father character who was portrayed in such a way and I'm upset by it", which would be ridiculous, it's pattern recognition combined with an understanding of the social and demographic disasters that result from the underlying assumptions and attitudes becoming prevalent (or more so) within the thought processes of the people and organizations that shape public attitudes through media. It's not about getting upset over a tree, it's about finding another tree carrying the rot that's threatening the forest as a whole.

      I believe our culture is so used to individual attempts to gain status and attention through cries of offence over representation that the default assumption is that expressions of discontent such as this are viewed as more of the same. There's also a common perception that some sort of historical imbalance is being addressed, which is, I would claim, quite a grievous misunderstanding of how and why societies operated like they did; it's actually the removal of balancing aspects, transforming a *vaguely-functional, questionable system* into an *openly dysfunctional, questionable system*. Worse, one that views "vaguely functional" as the enemy and is dedicated to undermining it.

      Speaking personally, as someone who wants us to be at 1, 2, or even 3 and dislikes the fact that society has been parked at 0, the constant efforts in our media to take us to -1 or -2 by attacking 0 are wearying. It's also unfortunate that noticing these efforts and pointing them out often gets dismissed by those who don't notice and so think you're just getting worked up over nothing.

      It's not "I will have to watch Peppa with a more critical eye" -- complete with "okay dude, whatever you say" eye wink, it's "Media as an entirety is -- of course, since it's always the case and always has been -- transmitting value systems and assumptions manifesting throughout the culture, shaping our societies. And influential on those doing the transmitting are ideological positions that like to claim they're challenging mighty oppressive trunks of the status quo while actually they're sawing off the relatively thin branches we're all perched on."

      It's like becoming aware of the influence the US military industrial complex has over Hollywood. Once you know it's there, you see its hand and intent and things that would otherwise have been innocuous become distasteful.

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    4. There are plenty of things outside our general awareness that we should pique our concern. THIS, in my opinion, is not one of those things.

      What? You think this is eroding family values? Destroying "male pride?" Misandry? Contributing to the decline of Western Civ?

      Okay. That ain't my experience. I have children, I work with children, I've worked FOR children (in my past career for fifteen years). Children love and respect their fathers. They enjoy Peppa and other media programming that transmits images of buffoonish parents (those Wimpy Kid films are pretty awful). It's not undermining their relationships with their fathers...so long as their father is "fathering." And fathers don't even need to do much in that regard...mainly just being there and showing their kids some love. These films and shows are entertainment, and rank pretty far down the scale of importance to simple parenting.

      It doesn't cost you your dignity to take yourself a bit less seriously. Humility is good for the soul.

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    5. If humility is good for the soul, then you might benefit from understanding that simply because *you* don't perceive a problem or are unaware of the larger picture it doesn't mean that others are not identifying it, nor does it mean that there aren't ill effects. If you're unaware of the demographic and societal ills that are worsened by ideological "messaging" transmitted through media, then claims to having "worked with children" (which I've done also, for what it's worth, and why you focused on that I don't know) mean little. I'm glad you've apparently experienced relatively healthy communities, but your experience is limited. But then if you assume this is about me taking *myself* too seriously -- i.e. that an issue I have is all about me -- then it's little wonder that you base your conclusions on your own comfort levels. Why did you assume the issue was "undermining childrens' relationships with their fathers?" Where was that established? Where was it established that the issue is some sort of self-perception? You are not responding to anything but your own bizarre assumptions.

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    6. What other problem would you be concerned with, if not undermining a children's relationship (or perception) of their fathers? Undermining adults' perception of masculinity?

      As I said: I agree that there are things to be concerned about in this world. I don't see this "trend" in media programming as one of them.

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    7. I’m with JB. - Jason Bradley Thompson

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    8. "What other problem would you be concerned with?" I'm going to assume that your lack of comprehension is being expressed with a curious and not an accusatory tone. To oversimplify, the issue is the continuation of the patriarchal-feminist paradigm that undermines the natural social dynamic of male humans (which are unique among social animals for forming non-kinship cooperative ties) in favour of tournament-model dynamics that encourage exclusion and stratification. Male humans being considered ancillary to society rather than integral - "womanandchildren", etc. -- or being defined by their "usefulness" to the system, so that they can be discarded or minimized if the system gains greater material support from elsewhere (i.e. the state). Almost every social pathology you can name -- violence, drug use, teenage pregnancy, ill-health, educational underachievement -- correlate with what might be called "broken families", and that state has been encouraged to epidemic proportions in some regions -- to the point that it is by far the norm -- by attitudes that relate to male human interaction with the family in terms of something other than integral. The undermining and further weakening of the very social dynamic that sets humans apart from other animals by promoting a value system that defines one's worth to the social system in terms of resource extraction and the need to "earn" it. The casual dismissal or distancing of adult male family members in media is a symptom of the continued emphasis on tournament model dynamics that are antithetical to healthy, functional society (to the point where vaguely functional tournament models like the "traditional" patriarchy only work because they "borrow" from pair-bonding, strongly masculine societies, "harnessing" some of its strengths to stave off their otherwise inevitable collapse).

      If you don't agree, that's fine. But try to understand that some of us have more complex motivations and concerns than "watching the Super Bowl", and it's not about kneejerk reaction to what we see in front of us but a disagreement with the norms of our society. I doubt you can dismiss the desire for positive social change even if you disagree with the nature of that supposed change.

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    9. JB - It might help to actually reflect on the society in which you live. 'Children love and respect their fathers.' Er - except for the ones who don't, and who aren't loved or respected by their fathers. How many millions of kids are being raised with either bad fathers or absent fathers in your country today? And how is that affecting them? Might it be the case that it would be better if the people who make kids' cartoons would have the tiniest ounce of awareness that family breakdown and the decentralisation of the traditional role of the father actually has consequences? Like, maybe it would be nice to have some media stories which depict a good, honourable, competent father who is respected by his family?

      Your comments here are classic bourgeois 'I'm alright, Jack', head in the clouds self-satisfaction. Of course all this isn't a concern for the likes of you and me. But we're not the ones with anything at stake.

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    10. An addendum, if I may: It's not about whether or not you agree; if it's not something that bothers you and not a concern of yours, that's fine. Of course it is. Everyone has different degrees of investment and different concerns. My point isn't that "you must agree". My perspective isn't yours, and vice versa. The issue is, to many of those who *do* care about it, the reason is not that "they're being silly", it's due to their overall perspective on society -- a perspective that often can't be understood within the narrow political dynamic that popular social discourse encourages. There's a whole complex moral and political structure informing those responses, and -- this isn't intended as a personal attack -- you don't understand it because you're not exposed to it. Like most actual worldviews not copy-pasted from the arena of political mainstream, it doesn't get much -- or any -- examination. As such, you don't know how to relate to it.

      I apologise for the somewhat aggressive behaviour in my previous responses. It's simply that there's a big difference between "that's not something that bothers me" and assuming that if it *does* bother someone the reason is either a) that they're being silly, or b) insert popular dismissive assumption based not on *their* understanding but on your own.

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    11. @ Noisms: Peppa Pip's depiction of Daddy Pig...and other media's portrayals of non-competent or non-honorable fathers...has zero to do with whether or not a man is doing his duty as a father (duty being: to be present in their child's life and love that child the best they can). Men do not learn how to be a dad by watching Peppa or video media. If you truly believe that, you're...not very bright.

      Or maybe I'M not very bright (though I'm bright enough not to learn parenting tips from a cartoon or caricature father). Regardless, you won't be changing my mind on that one.

      So then let's look at the part of your premise that makes sense: "What about the children who do NOT love and respect their fathers?" Again, this is not a Peppa Pig issue. This is an issue of parenting. The fact is children DO love their fathers and WANT to respect them and will do many, many things to try...even for fathers who are complete assholes. That's been my experience. And I say this as a guy whose father left his family in an assholish manner, who had many divorced friends growing up, and who worked for the Division of Child Support for my government for fifteen years as a support enforcement officer, dealing with broken homes, establishing paternity orders, creating and enforcing support orders and dealing with families from ALL classes...rich, poor, and middle...that were split. I have never met a child who didn't want to love and respect their father...even children who'd never KNOWN their father, or who knew only that the man was an imprisoned drug addict or...whatever. Kids just don't give a shit if their dad is Homer Simpson or Ward Cleaver.

      And that's grounded in MY experience, not "head in the cloud" theorizing. But perhaps YOU are a child psychologist with thirty years of experience studying the effects of cartoons on children's psyche. Okay...then maybe you know what you're talking about (though it doesn't jibe much with what I've seen).

      From where I'm standing, it looks like you're simply trying to justify a very up-tight position.

      FWIW: I think there ARE plenty of depictions of "competent, honorable" father types still being portrayed in the media...mostly of the heroic type media (the Uncle Ben, Joe West, Thomas Wayne, Jonathan Kent...hell, even Star Wars has competent, honorable "father figures" like Uncle Own and Ben Kenobi). And that type of media, I'd argue is still aimed at youth and adolescents who are trying to figure out their identities. Peppa (and Bluey and shows like that) are...in my estimation...simply trying to depict a child's perception through the eyes of a child.

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    12. "...who had many divorced friends growing up, and who worked for the Division of Child Support for my government for fifteen years as a support enforcement officer, dealing with broken homes, establishing paternity orders, creating and enforcing support orders and dealing with families from ALL classes...rich, poor, and middle...that were split. I have never met a child who didn't want to love and respect their father...even children who'd never KNOWN their father, or who knew only that the man was an imprisoned drug addict or...whatever."

      Then you should be asking yourself, "what is happening or going wrong in our society that this is happening, and what can be done to address the root of these societal pathologies?" And no, no-one is actually claiming that the answer to "what's the problem?" is "Peppa Pig". For what it's worth, I personally think Noisms overstates the case, but I understand *why* he's presumably had enough with what he sees as a common issue. Again, it's not about making mountains out of molehills -- although I fully understand that it can often seem that way -- it's about the molehills being symptomatic of deeper issues. It's those perceived deeper issues that are the sticking point, not the minor manifestations or assumed examples. And yes, not everyone will share a sense of concern for those issues or agree with the diagnosis, but it's frustrating when the response appears to be "everything's fine, let's not turn over any apple carts", when clearly everything is not fine.

      Given the experience you've outlined above, you clearly have an awareness of the often sorry state of family and community in our societies, and the various difficulties that result from these situations. In which case, surely we should be trying to identify the underlying problems and not just try to clean up the mess? How does it help when attempts to probe the root causes are dismissed?

      You might not share this perspective, but *I* would argue that one of the primary roots of the problem is the way in which our societies, operating on the patriarchal-feminist paradigm, root themselves in unquestioned acceptance of tournament model construction of masculine identity as opposed to healthy, pair-bonding human-specific masculinity, leading to -- among many other issues -- the integration of adult males with "the family" becoming precarious, a situation you can't disagree with given the very experience you've outlined, even if you disagree with the proposed explanation for why it's happened. Popular media reinforcing societal norms that strike someone as being corrosive to healthy, functional society is going to provoke complaints about that media.

      It seems to me that your position is an odd one of "I know there's a problem, but there's not actually a problem. We can plug all the leaks, we don't need to ask why the leaks occur in the first place, and getting annoyed over what you see as a primary cause of leaks -- or a visible symptom of that cause -- is silly."

      But then you are/were a government employee. The primary aim of government is not to solve problems but to profit from them...

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    13. To put this as simply as possible: JB, are you saying that at no point over those fifteen years did you ask, "Okay, *why* are there so many broken families and all the attendant problems that come with them?" The answer is "because of the underlying assumptions, value systems, and attitudes prevalent in the culture." The popular media transmits and reinforces the normality of those assumptions, value systems and attitudes. Yes, even cartoon pigs.

      It's that simple. Before we even get into the specifics -- for example, as you're American, you should be aware of how racist governments of the past deliberately encouraged the breakdown of Black families and communities to cripple their potential, by playing on the very attitudes we're discussing here? -- the basics shouldn't be hard to understand.

      Social issues result from maladaptive attitudes and value systems. These are transmitted through popular media as well as through more straightforward forms of education. It doesn't mean those media are deliberately pushing any agenda (though, equally, often they are), it's just an unavoidable part of the process.

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    14. So, okay, no portrayal of anything going on in kids' TV has any effect on reality. Gotcha. So it would be okay for a kids' TV programme to depict all black people, or all women, in a negative light - since it wouldn't affect anything in the real world, right? Or wrong?

      You're projecting 'up-tightness'. The 'stop being uptight about it' gambit is nothing but a way to close off a debate, and is basically impossible to refute. Either it matters how people are depicted in fiction or it doesn't; I think it does. Obviously Daddy Pig is not making or breaking family life in the 21st century, but kids' TV does not have a negligible effect in forming a zeitgeist, and the zeitgeist is noticeably poised against the figure of the traditional father.

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    15. @ Noisms:

      Okay, so you’re willing to die on the hill that This Is A Bad Thing. Got it.

      FWIW: no, I am not trying to cut off conversation by saying you’re trying to justify your up-tightness…that invites a response. At least, I expected one (admittedly something more thoughtful than “No, YOU are projecting.” Your extrapolation (“what if all women or black people etc. were portrayed negatively”) is clearly ridiculous. I’ve already pointed out there are many father figures who are portrayed as competent, non-authoritarian types in film and television media. That a comedy program aimed at children portrays parental figures in a humorous manner is simply a matter of genre.

      But, hey…you are ready to die on this hill. I got it. I will not try to sway your opinion more on the subject.

      @ Deranged:

      Apology accepted. In the future I will try not to bring comments to things that are of no concern to me.

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    16. Why is my point 'clearly ridiculous'? You seem to be conceding the point that negative depictions of particular archetypes or groups can prima facie be bad - and it's just a matter of extent. That's a big concession - so what we're really arguing about is the extent to which fathers are depicted negatively or positively. I'm not really interested in continuing the debate further either, but it might be worth you reflecting on all of this as you go about your daily life. On 'comedy programmes aimed at children' in particular, try comparing how the father and mother are depicted in the shows with which you're familiar. That might reveal something to you. It's not that the father should never be the object of jokes. It's that fatherhood itself is very, very often depicted as being superflous or actively bad. And I'm hardly the only person to have noticed this.

      The problem with the 'up-tightness' comment is that we can all do our cod psychology and read into the other person's comments some ulterior emotional attitude that is infecting their argument and causing them not to think straight. I could just as easily say that the only reason why you think the way you do is because you're a stay-at-home father and you're defensive about it and think that when people bring up the issue of 'traditional fatherhood' it's an attack on you. So we can all play that game of painting our interlocutors as believing what they believe for emotional reasons - but where would that get us? Not anywhere helpful.

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    17. JB — I am firmly in the "things children see in stories don't matter at all" camp, and it's still obvious to me that Noisms is in the right here. It doesn't even have to be about the portrayal of "all" dads, blacks &c., it's enough that it's done at all, since you've demonstrated your repugnance to it. Here, I'll give you a concrete example: one of my favorite books as a small child is called Kids in the Jungle; in this story, the children are bored at home because it's raining and they can't go outdoors to play (it's a pretty old book). The nursery troll, who lives in the curtains, pulls out a paint pot and paints a jungle on the nursery wall, and the kids happily enter this jungle to explore it. At first, the troll is helpful and paints a native village so the kids can sneak into the huts and steal their golden crown — an easy task, since the Kalamangs are all out hunting. But then, the mischievous troll gets bored with the staidness of events and begins painting just a horde of pitch-black Kalamangs, chasing after the kids to get their crown back! The kids shout to the troll for help and he upends his pot of black paint over the entire scene, causing night to fall and the Kalamangs to disappear, so the kids are safe. (Then a bunch of other stuff happens with a tiger &c. which is not germane here, so I'll skip it.) When I was four, I thought this was funny because it was visually clever, and exciting, and I liked it because it was a book I could read myself. I'm quite sure it never entered into my head to look down on black people because of this, or realistically even to relate the figures of the furious natives to any real being at all. And yet, I can't help but suspect that you yourself would not approve of this book being reprinted, read to children, provided in schools &c. because there are values that you think just should not be represented, at all, in books for children. For my part, I confess that despite my stated indifference to the argument concerning the effects on young minds, it would make me tolerably uneasy to see a children's book about the Waffen-SS, even and perhaps especially if it were exciting and clever. So how exactly are you or I materially different from Noisms in this matter?

      Also, and orthogonally, the fact that implanting suggestions in kids' minds via their cartoons doesn't work doesn't get the people who are *trying* off the hook morally, one bit. They still *wanted* to do it, they're just as culpable as if human nature had been susceptible to their manipulations. Compare this to various states' MKUltra-era attempts to brainwash people into ideological compliance; these experiments are not, I think, seen by you more than by anyone else as morally harmless just because they failed. That is, Papa Pig or whatever is a *symbol of evil intent* even if the attempt is as ineffectual in reality as the character himself is in the story. Even if the *work* is harmless, the *people* are not; and they should be seen for what they are, so that they can be recognized and thwarted.

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    18. Again, I disagree with this statement:

      "It's that fatherhood itself is very, very often depicted as being superflous or actively bad. And I'm hardly the only person to have noticed this."

      However, I will assert that regardless of the veracity of this statement (difficult to verify, as I am not an expert in children's programming, I only watch what my children watch), it does not hold a candle to the influence of parents themselves on the education and upbringing of children.

      As for being a stay-at-home father: I have, of course, wrestled with that paradigm flip, but at this point I am content with it (having also tried the "other way" as working father before that). My children still see me as busy and occupied and responsible...but now I am more present and available for my children as well. My wife and I could do it the other way, but we would lose out on some of the economic benefits we enjoy. This is not a "shift in values;" simply a shift in roles. In many ways, we act as "traditionally" as any family from forty years ago (when I was growing up) save that I share most of the cooking and am responsible for getting the kids off to school in the morning.

      @ Deranged: Your answer to the "why" is not correct, except in the broadest sense. In general the reasons are almost always economic and educational. If you want to get into the evils of capitalism, we might want to take the conversation to another blog...say your own.

      But no. It is not Peppa Pig (and its like) that is breaking up families.

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    19. If "popular media transmits and reinforces the normality of ... assumptions, value systems and attitudes," I'd better stop playing an immersive game of bloody violence and greed for power. Time to quit D&D. If passively watching Peppa pig reinforces kids' disdain for dads, violent games must surely corrupt young people, too, desensitizing them and rendering them heartless. The people who make these games are not harmless, either. They must be held accountable. I miss Patricia Pulling now.

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    20. @ Anons:

      There are plenty of cultural stereotypes that have risen and died over the years and these, and in media...such as your "Kids in the Jungle" book..these portrayals can REFLECT the ideas and concepts of the creators and broad society of the time. But especially with regard to children, this influence is minimal compared to the influence of the parental figures in a child's life.

      Would I mind such books being kept in print for future generations? That's a more difficult question. I'm currently reading "Armageddon 2419 A.D." which is (in my estimation) pretty culturally and historically relevant as it is the introduction of "Buck Rogers" (which influenced the creation of Flash Gordon and, hence, Star Wars and all manner of descendants). Written in 1928 "Armageddon 2419" certainly is a product of its time and exhibits a lot of "Yellow Peril" ideas that would not find a positive reception in today's market. Yet I am glad I got my hands on a copy of it.

      A more pertinent example (perhaps) to THIS discussion would be the 1924 silent film "The Thief of Bagdhad" (Douglas Fairbanks). This is a wonderful movie that nonetheless makes use of the stereotypes of the day with evil, scheming Mongols. And yet I own this film and showed it to my son, multiple times (it was one of our favorites to watch), from an age before he could read the subtitles. Now that he is 13, I can see no undue negative influence on his friendships, attitudes, or...indeed...his perceptions of Asian folk even in media representations. There are good people and bad people and heroic people and foolish people of ALL colors and cultures and genders and social classes...and I find this portrayed as such across a wide spectrum of media. Heck, even across different species! Is King Mufasa (of The Lion King) portrayed as a ridiculous buffoon or tyrannical bully?

      To me, this discussion is similar to the thought that violence in media or violence in video games, etc. is the cause of mass shootings in my country (the USA). Or the idea that Rock music or D&D turned kids into Satanists. Or eroded their "family values." Or whatever. Judging from my experience...and those of the people I know who grew up listening to rock music and playing D&D and enjoying violent films, comics, and media...this clearly isn't the case. Video games don't turn people into shooters. Acknowledging queer folk as people doesn't turn kids into queer folk. Listening to heavy metal music doesn't drive people away from church. And cartoons like Peppa Pig does not turn children into disrespectful brats, nor cause the breakup of nuclear families.

      All right, I'm out on this conversation. People who disagree can feel free to pillory me in the comments here.

      @ Noisms: my apologies for taking up so much of the comments thread. Despite our difference of opinion on this particular topic, I shall continue to be a reader of your thoughtful blog.

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    21. Strange. It seems as though half the comment section here is saying "Culture doesn't matter at all." You can't possibly believe that...?

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    22. JB, you are talking yourself into an absurd position here. Nobody is saying Peppa Pig 'breaks up famillies' or turns kids into disrespectful brats.

      What we are saying is that, as HDA intimates, culture matters - the stories we consume matter. If they didn't, to try a differenet tack, then why on Earth would anyone be concerned with young kids watching extreme porn? Why would we be worried about people getting sucked into echo chambers on the internet and becoming radicalised? Why would it matter that little Johnny the shy, autistic kid spends 8 hours a day on incel forums?

      Talk to any school teacher dealing with teenagers and they will tell you: what kids consumer on tiktok, etc., matters. And that confirms what adults have always readily intuited - the books kids read and the things they watch also matter. Not always a great deal in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but enough to make a difference at the margin. And you know it too, which is why I strongly suspect you wouldn't blithely shrug your shoulders if your kid's teacher at school decided to have a lesson devoted to exploring pornhub.

      (Before we go into reductio ad absurdum territory again, no I am not comparing Daddy Pig to pornhub. The point is that we know that in the latter case content matters. Why not the former?)

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    23. The dude live in Seattle, obviously he dont worry about real problems and use to think have the moral ground.

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  11. I do think it's hard to do a canned story but I don't think adventure design with some sort of story in mind is necessarily a bad thing it just needs to be more of a framework that can be fleshed out during play. Designed so there are lots of avenues that interesting events can occur in without any particular occurence (or death) upending the whole thing.

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  12. I have mercifully managed to avoid seeing Peppa Pig, but as a dad I am personally pretty unbothered by images of bad dads in media. I’m curious, though this doesn’t negate your observation, do you think there are better images of dads in Japanese media (manga, anime, etc)? I mean, they tend to be the distant/absent and aloof types, but sometimes they are inspiring & cool, which is definitely better than being a buffoon. - Jason Bradley Thompson

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    1. I'm not really a consumer of manga or anime. There's big variation obviously but the distant/absent thing is just a representation of what most Japanese families experience as normal, I think. The Ghibli films are pretty good. Think of the dad in Totoro, for example: he seems normal. Modern Western media is very strongly characterised by needing the characters to be representative of some kind of identitarian theme. They tend to be stand-ins for whatever their immutable characteristics are, or else for some kind of recognisable stereotype or political position. This results in very bad material and is largely why I've stopped watching anything. In Japanese media characters are allowed to be fully rounded human beings. This is very striking to me.

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  13. BTW — did your kids watch “True in the Rainbow Kingdom”? It’s Netflix kids’ TV, I.e. zero violence or serious conflict, but it has some magnificent world-shaking chaos in it! (Which our heroine always corrects at fhe end of every episode) - Jason Bradley Thompson

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    1. Never heard of it. Might just be a US thing.

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  14. Agree almost completely.
    Mike

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  15. I never heard of Peppa Pig, but I agree with your main point.

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  16. What I've learned from professional storytellers who are really good at their work is that everything in the story must serve the story or it won't work. Everything in the story must serve the purpose or theme of the story. A capable storyteller shapes every part of the story to achieve what he wants the story to accomplish; a certain feeling (elation, sadness, disgust, horror) , the audience to think or ask questions about idea or concept.

    When you have six other people at the table with their own ideas about what the thing you are doing is about, the game designer's intention, the interaction of player choice and the game mechanics not to mention dice; the idea that a game master or designer could construct a game experience that would produce precisely what they are attempting to accomplish through their "story" seems unlikely.

    I think a GM or designer can influence or nudge things in a general direction but the game is going to go where it goes if player choice and dice are involved.

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    1. The referee can do more than nudge, I think. A quite specific scenario or environment can be set up — say, an ironic Vancian planetary romance, or a Wild West wearing a fantasy costume — that will dictate and constrain the action to a fairly great extent. What you can't control, as you say, is how players *react* to the scenario, which of course filmmakers and novelists can't do either. The big distinction is that in most art forms, reaction is wholly passive and the narrative is impervious to it, while in roleplaying, the reaction is participatory and shapes the ultimate narrative (i.e. the thread of events produced at the end of the session); this is a unique characteristic and the RPG's particular selling point.

      Expressed like this, it's hard to understand why anyone would ever try to railroad an RPG session. I'm guessing it's because roleplaying games never really had time to grow into a real form before they were massively surpassed by computer games (and quite likely wouldn't have yet anyway; these things take time), and so people have largely had models for their playing which are *other, passive media*.

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    2. I think the answer to 'why do people railroad' is partly what you say, and partly also because it was what was modelled for a long time (and a large extent still is) in official materials.

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  17. Maybe an interesting perspective on "The significance of plot without conflict" - seems the way stories are structured is different between western and eastern traditions - https://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict

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  18. Maybe an interesting further perspective on "The significance of plot without conflict". Seems that western and eastern philosphy differ on the relevance of conflict. Nice post here - https://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict

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  19. Sorry for the double post, thought the first one didn't go thought...

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