September 25, 2000
September 25, 2000
Let me begin with the unabashedly unusual statement that this is the column I never thought that I would write. Not that it covers any sort of vastly perverse or dark topic, but I honestly thought that I could avoid it. I thought so until I received a particular e-mail message regarding my first column (Why Combat?) from Trajce Niceski:
J.S., RPG's sprang up from tactical wargames, so that's why combat is integral to most RPGs. D&D brought in exploration and encountering "enemies". The easiest and most fun way to deal with enemies is to bash 'em with your sword or torch them with a fireball. It's small-force fighting tactics, esp. with fantasy and action/sci-fi.
I did not want to issue forth a mission statement for this column, not out of any good reason but the simple conviction that I could let words speak for themselves. Why waste good time just providing a justification for yourself, when you could instead spend that time discerning the greater truths of the gaming universe? Perhaps I was mistaken, but I still hold to the idea that I could just go on writing these articles without ever explaining myself. On the other hand, reading something like this makes me want to state my purpose, just for the sake of clearing up any confusion.
Many years ago, I found myself describing gaming to someone, a friend of my mother, who was a psychologist. Needless to say, he found the idea quite interesting, and even tried out playing in a game or two. Out of the conversation, albeit I was only told this much later, I discovered an important facet of gaming psychology that would start me down the path that I am on now. I was speaking to him about my current character at the time, an AD&D bard by the name of Alexander. What made it interesting is that the way that I described Alexander is the way that he would have chosen to describe me. This is not to say there are not critical differences between Alexander and myself. I cannot play any musical instruments, nor am I an expert on wine. Hell, I've never hit on anyone in a bar. But there were critical similarities in attitudes and natures, and (here's the important part) things that I would have never had seen. I had a completely different self-image, but my image in the game was my image as it related to others, to a marginal extent.
And here's what's going to really bake your noodle: did I just reflect what was actually there but could not see, or did I turn myself into what I was practicing being? The question is somewhat irrelevant, or not relevant for our discussion right now (thought it may take up some column in the future. I have some fun evidence in both directions). What is important is the way this changed my attitudes. I started looking at character, at all aspects of gaming, from a different perspective, an untutored pseudo-psychological perspective, but a different perspective nevertheless.
The perspective got even more fuel for the fire as I read more philosophy, sociology and psychology. I only have a layman's approach to all of these things - no clinical studies here - but that approach is one that allows me a lot of flexibility. I can just toss in some Marx or Campbell when I feel like it, and I have no definitive standards of a particular course to meet. I have flexibility, and leave the intensive discussions on these topics to those more prepared. The essence of this column is my approaching of the deep underpinnings of games and gaming. The reason why I cited the e-mail at the beginning is that I feel it displays just what my column is about to a tee. Indulge me with a tangent. Aristotle (whoa, big tangent!), in the Physics, describes four kinds of causes: the material (the table is made from wood), the formal (the table is made from a design of what tables look like), the efficient (the table is made by the carpenter) and the final (the table is made so that I do not have to eat off the floor). This is one of those nifty ways to divide up things that philosophers love so much, and you can always use them if you want to earn points at the right sorts of cocktail parties. How is this relevant to our discussion? Well, the author of the e-mail and myself were discussing different sorts of causes. You could also express the material cause; combat is in games because there are rules for it in the book.
In this distinction lies my justification for the mental masturbation that is my column. I am here to discuss a specific sort of cause in gaming. There are many other reasons why these sorts of things are present. There are historical reasons and functional reasons, good reasons and bad reasons. There are reasons why in some games, and reasons why not in others. However, behind all these more practical reasons, there are deep reasons, and sometimes a deep reason, a reason that is a motivator for the other reasons. Is it the most important reason? Well, that is a specious argument as there never is one most important reason, only a reason that is most relevant for one discussion or another. My solemn duty is decoding these deep reasons, which more often than not have something to do with a word that ends in "-ology." Why do I do this? Well, both of my regular readers will notice my mantra that will develop in these columns: "I don't write an advice column." I think that if I say it enough I just might believe it. Why do I not write an advice column? The gaming world does not need another advice column. Frankly, there is much better advice out there on the nuts and bolts of gaming than what I could provide, so what I would say would only be reiteration of folks more skilled than I. But I can provide another perspective to gaming, a more considered perspective that does not estrange itself so far into one discipline or another as to become useless to the uninitiated. So, in brief, it's a pop-sociology of gaming column. It's named The Contract out of a fluke, but let's go with that fluke and say that the idea of a Contract is essential to understanding the perspective I will express. There is no one Contract that must be assimilated and understood for a game to be good, but there is an idea, an idea that there are codes and metaphors running through gaming. Those codes and ideas mean something. Those codes, those unspoken rules, silent mores and quiet messages contained with our peculiar hobby are what I am trying to bring to light. The purpose is illumination, not advice. But I do believe that understanding why something is the way it is can be useful in the practice of the act. Know thyself, as the Delphic Oracle used to say. While I do not presume to truly know, I do have some opinions. And if those opinions help charge up your opinions, then I've done my job. Next week, back to the marrow.