Making the Game Out of the Game

Over on a forum I frequent, somebody copypasted a chunk of Julia Kristeva with the intent of implying, “Look at all this impenetrable trash.” Except of course, it isn’t actually that complicated to anyone with a background with that kind of thing (which doesn’t make you a better person, though a studied, cynical disdain for big words and complicated sentences . . . well, it makes you worse). Basically, the quote talks about how literary texts are imprecise, kind of smeared across a range of meanings. By prodding the reader to think about them, they render a kind of judgement based on his reactions. I was still thinking of my work on Mage: The Ascension with Jesse Heinig (please click the link; he could use your help and it provides further context for this post) and how he was very open to multiple interpretations of the game’s basic concepts, and even how the rules might implement them.

After briefly flirting with using this sort of thing, tabletop RPG design pretty much skewed toward being informal technical works, to the point where some of them explicitly reduce literary ideas to technical elements: tactics and trope-y objects. Too bad. Thinking of Kristeva, we can learn a lot about ourselves through mimesis of the content of a game — that is, when we interpret the rules and concepts of the game in a literary rather than technical way, the choices we make tell us about ourselves. For example, the D&D people talk about as “Old School” doesn’t look much like actual, old D&D when people reproduce it through retroclones. (OSRIC got the link because it’s the AD&D1 clone that is a lot different from AD&D, but a lot like childhood uses of AD&D rules.) The original rules are confusing and incomplete, but some examples really grow from a kind of compulsion to interpret the game so specifically as to exclude contradictory elements in the text. I think this is why nobody uses AD&D1e’s detailed, straightforward system to figure out social reactions and loyalty. The D&D many people recreate from the text doesn’t leave room for it. It’s not part of the core story.

When you hear about retro-D&D, it’s really about the collective reproductions of D&D made by gamers, corralled into a forced consensus. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that in a very real way, this D&D is really a judgement rendered on its re-creators, about their values and sense of identity.

Mage: The Ascension took the idea of mimesis a long way, blurring the line between the raw fiction and its game systems in the process. For example, you can interpret Paradox — the force that determines what breaks the rules of reality — in a number of ways. Fansoften reproduced it in a more specific, technical fashion, coming up with specialized jargon to do so. Now there’s a deep, meta-method about the way Paradox and the world of the game work that can manifest as any of these, but for the purposes of this discussion it would just get recursive, because your character actually goes through the same process of mimesis by reproducing her beliefs — graduating a signifier (a symbol-idea from your character’s odd belief system) to an object (a magic spell) in the game world.

This is getting pretty complicated. Let me pull it back.

Anyway, Mage was intentionally developed to make play not a matter of “following” the rules, but creating them through mimesis, from broad examples in the text. When people do that, as they did with interpretations of Paradox or the ethics of the game world, the result stands as a basis for judgement. It says something about them. Mage: The Ascension is already about this, so the possibilities within that rouse pretty heavy emotions. It’s an unsafe game. You have to say something about yourself to play it, and that might be that (tongue in cheek) fascist rhetoric can trick you, like a student in The Wave. Ouch.

When you read tabletop RPGs as technical texts, you’re less likely to be conscious of this. You don’t want to take responsibility for what you made out of the game, or you becomes just conscious enough of the process to get uncertain, and call it a technical failure. Game designers have responded by writing more technically, with fewer zones of ambiguity, intentional and otherwise. Again, too bad. This kind of mimesis is something RPGs can do that electronic counterparts, board games and card games can’t. Perhaps the best solution is to be frank about this process, and invite gamers to take part, instead of leaving it as a hidden feature or wiping it out.

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