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Dangerous Games


A new year always involves a bit of philosophy-- a look at the past and a view towards the future. In the midst of continuing our multi-part series on game design and working in the industry, a few timely issues appeared to preempt it. One was controversial: a company receiving hate email about the evils of roleplaying games and Marilyn Manson. Yes, I know, as if those two are associated-- heck, if Marilyn were to endorse RPGs, it'd probably quadruple our market instantly [see footnote below]. Another was the writeup in the Washington Post on the shrinking board games market. Yet at the same time, Reader's Digest had a piece on how gaming was good for families.

So what can one conclude from this? That conservative americans should game (Reader's Digest), but don't (Washington Post), and therefore games have turned to evil (evil email) to survive? Or simply that only readers of Reader's Digest and Marilyn Manson fans game, and everyone else has stopped? That would make for interesting convention sessions, no doubt, when those two groups meet.

In all these cases, and within the rpg industry itself, there's much talk about making gaming palatable for the masses. Of showing that games are nice, safe things that the entirely family can enjoy. I feel this is the wrong approach.

Roleplaying games are dangerous. They encourage thought. And thought is proven to be dangerous. We like it that way-- quite frankly, I'd hate it if gaming were reduced to something that had great mass appeal, was safe, and passed all standards of correctness.

People confuse risk and safety. Nothing is safe. And part of the appeal of some activities is that they involve unknowns and have risk. Do extreme sports, you have to accept that you might get hurt. Engage in intellectual conversation, and you are likely to get into an argument with someone when your views differ. If you knew the outcome (for either of these scenarios) before going into it, the entire effort would be pointless.

A good family evening gaming is a great and worthy goal. But instead of equating it with 'watching TV', let's come out and admit to higher standards. It's more like spending the evening discussing a good book, or watching the Cirque du Soleil. Gaming is provoking, and requires genuine thought. It's not elitist, but let's not damn ourselves by saying it's everyone's cup of tea.

There's an old saying, by catering to everyone you appeal to none. What we want to do is appeal to more people, but not necessarily everyone. We want to find proto-gamer and convince them that this unexplored field of gaming is something they should try. Once they try it, they're hooked.

Okay, all well and good, but can you make a marketing strategy out of this? Well, yes. The key is to give up the idea of making a game that everyone will be able to like, and instead make a game that everyone can be able to play. Reduce the barrier to learning and getting started with the game. Wipe out the "all must read a 300 page book" and "GM must toil for hours" requirements. Replace it instead with something that is not in gamer-ese, but still carries the core of gamedom.

Which is to say, create something completely different from modern RPGs. And make it have the same spirit and the same joy in gameplay that an RPG has. Lower overhead, but full experience.

And keep it unsafe-- that's part of the appeal of gaming. It's powerful stuff we're playing with. The imagination is a fearsome thing when unleashed.

Until next time,

Footnote: from Shawn Metcalf, the following: "From his (its?) autobiography, fessing up to his history as a gamer: "If every cigarette you smoke takes seven minutes off your life, every game of Dungeons and Dragons you play delays you losing your virginity by seven days." Not exactly a ringing endorsement." Thanks, Shawn, and so much for getting Manson's approval!

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