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In Defense of Computer Story-Games

Note: This article was originally published in issue #3 of Interactive Fantasy.

by Ray Winninger

One of the fallacies most often repeated by the designers and aficionados of paper-and-pencil role-playing games is that RPGs live and die on the strength of their characters. According to the pundits, players want to 'role-play'. They want to 'Interact'. They want 'open-ended' games and game systems that give them plenty of choices. They want 'realistic' rules that allow them to develop credible alter egos.

I submit that such concerns are strictly secondary for the vast majority of the paper-and-pencil audience. For those who care to dispute my thesis, I invite you to tour the tables at any large gathering of gamers (as I do at tile Gen Con Game Fair each year) and spend a few moments watching each game in progress. You won't find the 'subtle characterization' that gamers are said to crave. Likewise, you'll find few players taking advantage of all the 'open-endedness' and 'realism' the poor, beleaguered designers have labored so hard to incorporate into their output.

The fact is that the average 'player character' created for use with tile average paper-and-pencil RPG is a cardboard cut-out who is damned fortunate to have two dimensions, much less three. Now, before you clog my various mailboxes with the inevitable anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I'd like to call your attention to all the 'averages' and 'majorities' that litter my remarks. There is certainly a handful of players who go to great lengths to 'bring their characters to life' and to devise adventures that revolve around 'interesting possibilities for interaction.' Many of these players become game designers, which is why as a whole, game designers themselves are the myth's biggest perpetuators.

The average player doesn't exploit the so-called 'strengths' of roleplaying games for two simple reasons: they can't, and they don't want to. The sort of role-play generally regarded as 'expert' (the same sort of experience that most veteran RPG designers are sure their players desire) requires a bizarre combination of skills rarely collected in a single individual: writer, actor, improviser, strategist, game designer, director, historian, sociologist, psychologist and several dozen others more germane to the game at hand. Clearly, the number of people capable of playing such games is quite small-certainly several orders of magnitude smaller than even the existing paper-and-pencil audience. More importantly, the average role-player isn't interested in this sort of experience anyway. Oh, sure, most players find the illusions of 'subtle characterization', 'interesting opportunities for interaction,' and 'openended rules systems' desirable, but only as means to an end, not as ends in and of themselves.

The real factor that keeps the bulk of gainers firmly entrenched in the hobby is simple escapism. Gamers don't care about subtle characterization or open-ended rules-they want an impression, however fleeting, that they are there. It's the 'reality' of the experience that's truly important. Gamers want the brief adrenaline rush (or the intellectual equivalent of all adrenaline rush) that accompanies a jaunt to an altogether more interesting world. Note that the use of Nabokov's mandatory quotation marks around the word 'reality' is particularly appropriate here. Every good referee knows that those things which serve to make a game milieu more 'realistic' are hardly realistic in all absolute sense. Clever use of the absurd is a powerful weapon in the struggle to shore up an illusion of realism. So are the 'open-ended rules systems', 'subtle characterizations' and 'interesting opportunities for interaction' that collectively serve as the game designers' holy grail-to the vast majority of players, these things are nothing more and nothing less than means to an end. None of this should come as any surprise to the observant; after all, escapism is the fuel that propels the film industry, genre fiction, and most of the other popular entertainments of the twentieth century.

Consider White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade-a game that built its reputation upon the unprecedented depth and sophistication of its characters. The Vampire rules describe complex, brooding creatures of the night who are steeped not only in an unusually rich world background, but in mythological and allegorical subtexts as well. Since its debut, I've been particularly interested in observing Vampire games and I've found that most players don't play the game any differently than any other RPG, though almost all of them swear that they do. What's really happening is a clever and effective bait-and-switch. The players absorb enough of the Vampire world background while reading the rules and support products for it to serve as all un-stated backdrop to everything that happens in the game. Although the average Vampire player character isn't any more 'subtly realized' than the average character in almost any other RPG, the players imagine their characters as subtle brooders because the rules present them with such a well-developed illusion of reality that they buy into it before they even participate in it. Although I've never seen a Vampire player attempt to role-play 'angst,' they all imagine their characters as experiencing it just the same, chiefly because the rules build such a vivid portrait of the imaginary reality in their minds.

All of which finally brings me to computer games. Before I go any further I must state a few things 'for the record.' My intention is not to slight paper-and pencil RPGs or their designers. There are many such games and designers that I hold in high esteem (Vampire among them). Likewise, I am not trying to argue that computer story-games (my preferred epithet: most of the world calls them computer role-playing games) are somehow superior to their paper-and-pencil cousins. That said, I must point out that the converse-paper-and-pencil games are automatically superior to their computer cousins-is equally fallacious. Computer games come equipped with their own tool chest of powerful techniques for enhancing the 'realism' of an artificial experience. While paper-and-pencil games can provide you with 'complex interaction' and 'open-ended environments', they also ask you to imagine what the imaginary reality looks like and sounds like. More importantly, they ask you to imagine the adrenaline rush that accompanies an aerial dogfight or the thrilling confusion of a pitched gun battle. Computer story-games, on the other hand, have an inverse set of strengths and weaknesses: they can show you the imaginary milieu and thrust you into a pitched gun battle, but they ask your imagination to supply the 'interaction and 'open-endedness' that complete the escapist milieu. Various techniques allow talented designers in both fields to emphasize the strengths of their chosen media and downplay the weaknesses.

The average computer game aficionado receives the same sort of experience from his chosen diversion as does the average role-player Very soon, the paradigm in computer story-games is going to shift in ways that will bring the two experiences even closer together, as computer game designers abandon the 'branching plot trees' and 'flow charts' that Mr. Goetz examined in the first issue of this magazine (Inter*Action #1). Over the next decade, we are likely to see tremendous cross-pollination between the two industries that will ultimately lead to strange hybrids of the experiences each has to offer. Imagine, for instance, a computer program enabling a human referee to punch up scenery and efficiently handle game rules, or a monstrous 'on-line' RPG that enables thousands of players to assume alter egos in a fictional world and interact in real time. In various corners of the world, some of these things are already happening. In Japan, for instance, a crude on-line milieu known as Habitat is enjoyed by tens of thousands of players who take their roleplaying so seriously that marriages between alter-egos, fictional court systems that handle disputes between personae and 'role-played' elections and legislatures are long-established traditions on the system.

This is both good news and bad news for most of us. The good news, of course, is that a whole crop of interesting and novel 'role-playing' games are on their way. The bad news is that these games are likely to prove more digestible to mass audiences and the more fickle members of the paper-and-pencil audience than their more traditional cousins, perhaps robbing the paper-and-pencil industry of its economic well being. To avoid this fate, the designers of paper-and-pencil experiences must evolve with the technology, look for ways to build bridges out to their computerized cousins, and search harder for new techniques with which to bolster the 'reality' of their imaginary settings.

Copyright ©1995 Ray Winninger

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