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Geek's Eye View

The Tributary of Mainstream

by Jukka Sarkijarvi
Sep 02,2004


Geek's Eye View

The Tributary of Mainstream

Slowly, meanderingly, the media mainstream flows. Like the great Nile, it brings nourishment to its banks, and tens of thousands make a living off it. From the mainstream, branch the tributaries of subcultures, eroding their own ways in the soft ground of consumerism. Some carve their beds deep, while others are shallow, yet wide. Some stay close to the mainstream, paralleling its course. Others depart away from it, running narrow and trickling to little streams as they reach the hard, forbidding land of No Commercial Opportunities. There are also those that disappear, becoming underground streams, fading from view of all but those who know where to look. As these tributaries flow, they branch into more streams, smaller, yet all fed by the mainstream.

Our attention is focused on one of these tributaries. It branches out from the mainstream at a sharp angle, yet its meandering brings it closer every now and then, to points where only a thin slice of fertile and densely vegetated land separate the two. The roots dig deep, however, and fight the erosion, holding their ground, dividing the streams.

The geek culture has recently been taking steps towards something resembling social acceptance. While the D&D movie tanked, the fantasy epic I dont even need to name went on to win Oscars by the bushel and rake in a neat pile of money as well. People actually know who Tolkien was. Harry Potter has probably more fans at this point than D&D ever had players. Vin Diesel went public with his D&D hobby in Conan OBrien. Sure, while sitting in a dim-lit room and rolling polyhedrons is hardly going to supplant anything for the preferred Friday-night entertainment of the target age group, new players are just a bit easier to find, and nowadays, declarations of playing roleplaying games tend to be met with that much less blank stares. Nobody still gets larpers, though, and miniatures tend to be regarded still as little more than toys. I am still of the opinion that Robin Williams visit to a miniatures store shouldve been publicised more. Oh, well. Give them time.

I speculate that if roleplaying games ever become a mainstream thing, they will, at best, end up occupying a position similar to golf. Regarded as obscure and a bit weird but quite harmless by those not involved, cracked bad jokes about (Heres a good indicator of when something has penetrated into the publics general knowledge: When jokes about it start circulating outside the crowd in the know. Hey, why did the carrion crawler go to Copenhagen? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark! I kill myself.), given its own specialised TV show or two, and regarded with indifference until some aficionado with more money than sense buys a swath of the Amazon rainforest to make himself a private golf course and Greenpeace starts a vehement campaign against it and the entire hobby gets a bad name for a while. Just a good thing we dont need much space.

There would be some obvious good sides to this. An increased number of players would support the industry that much better, lending it a measure of economic stability. The number of full-time game designers would increase. Production values would increase. So would most likely the number of product lines and products. More money in the industry would be a generally good thing.

The precise targets of that money arent necessarily such a good thing, however. As they are wont to, the big would get bigger, and the small would eke out a meagre existence in their shadow. The D20 System would homogenise the hobby to a large degree. Seeing as the public tends to get what it wants, Tolkien-ripoff fantasy, generic soft sci-fi and World of Darkness would thrive, at the cost of more original concepts.

But I am not an economist and have in the past demonstrated a remarkable lack of understanding for the subject, so take the above with a grain of salt.

I do predict, though, that Mattel would come out with a short-lived and spectacularly bad Barbie RPG. License games would be made with big money, with much the same results as every other license game in the history of gaming, i.e. theyd still all flop like fish on dry land, as would the ever more horrible license movies not that they arent already well on the way to reaching previously unattained pinnacles of Bad. The cute Gary Gygax plush dolls would make up for it, though.

As for what would happen to the community... that is a tougher question. Perhaps it would just grow and stay as it is, except bigger. Perhaps not. The problem with hypothetical people is that, unlike their more tangible counterparts, they are very tough to predict. One possibility is that the gaming community will branch into two parts, the casual gamers who own the basic rulebook and play once a month and us the true geeks who have been gaming for so long that we crap polyhedral.

All that said, one can also present a number of reasons why roleplaying games never will attain that status. The first is that for all the popularity of fantasy, the actual concept of roleplaying games not to mention the complicated rules will still be a tough thing for many people to grasp. Even though the recent fantasy boom has made the things we like more acceptable, that still wont entirely remove the stigma of geekdom. We will, I fear, always be the weird ones, those who are too deep into it, to some people.

Anyway, it would be kind of sad if this cool niche hobby became mainstream. Increased production values are not worth the lowest common denominator. The weirdness would be gone, and the DC for freaking the mundanes would go up. In the annals of the next generation of gamers, wed be that lot old grognards sitting at the gaming store, slapping around the young whippersnappers with a boffer sword, telling them how its really done, regaling them with tales of the Lord of the Rings premieres, or the time they destroyed Death Star (in D20).

Okay, so there are worse ways to be remembered.

Predicting the future is, by its very nature, quite iffy. Maybe some of the above will happen. Maybe none of the above will happen. Maybe nothing will happen. We can but wait for the future to come, and see what it holds.

- Jukka Sarkijarvi

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What do you think?

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