THE BARBARIAN AESTHETE:
Literature Without Texts;
what kids get out of playing those weird games
Arthur W. Collins
Presented to Always on Friday, ISU Department of English
Spring, 1990; Revised Fall, 1996
[This paper, though dated in some ways now, might be of interest to some of the gamers out there. Always on Friday was a faculty/student series of programs on literary topics held at Indiana State University. When I was working on my Ph.D. at ISU, I was invited to address this topic, largely because of my background in writing for TSR (especially Dragon Magazine). I accepted because I enjoyed the topic -- and also because it was something I could use as Vita fodder.]
Cross-posted to christiangamers
THE BARBARIAN AESTHETE
This paper grew out of a conversation that I had with Mrs. Coralyn Dahl of the ISU English Department late last semester. I was finishing up a manuscript for TSR, Inc., the publishers of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons(tm) game and other hobby materials. Our conversation revolved, to a great extent, about the off-putting image that fantasy games have among the general (read non-gaming) public. Various groups, especially religious groups, see fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons(tm) as part of a satanic sub-culture that tempts young people to experiment with things better left alone. At about the same time, I opened the December issue of Dragon, the hobby magazine published by TSR, and started to read the lead article, which was about mines and metallurgy in fantasy campaigns. It began with a quote from Georgius Agricola's De Re Metallica, a Latin handbook on mining from sixteenth Century Germany, translated by Herbert Hoover. Other equally erudite and out-of-the-way sources were cited.
The surprises one finds in this hobby are amazing. Articles on medieval metallurgy and Anglo-Saxon place names are eagerly read by adolescent boys. Respected members of the community accuse fantasy games of being a cover for satanic rituals, drug abuse, and human sacrifice. Kids write long letters to editors about ethical conundrums encountered in life and in role-playing. Go to a convention, and be prepared to be assaulted by the crassest hucksterism and tackiest costumes right next door to a panel discussion on literature or technology or history right up to academia's standards of scholarly pursuit.
It's obvious that "adventure games," to give them their broadest designation, are many things to many different people. This morning, I'd like to relate, in brief, some of their history. I think this is essential to understanding them. Second, I want to consider what sorts of rewards the players of these games get from their playing. It is my contention that for many players, their gaming experience is essentially a literary experience. That will lead us to my third point (you'll notice that even when preachers don't have a text, they still tend to have three points), which will be a consideration of fantasy in life and in literature.
The granddaddy of all adventure games is Dungeons & Dragons(tm), which was developed among a small group of wargamers in the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, area in the early '70s. However, even in saying so much, we are getting ahead of ourselves. What are "wargames?" The designation usually covers two sub-categories, Strategy & Tactics gaming and Miniatures gaming. In addition, such stylized games as Chess, which have their own constituencies, are in essence games of war and battle, but they need not be considered here. Strategy & Tactics games are board games which recreate actual battles, or enable the players to fight hypothetical scenarios based on historical (or fantastic) modes of warfare. Most of the major campaigns and battles of the American Civil War can be refought, as can every battle, campaign, and theater of WW II. In addition, one can fight in the style of John Paul Jones, Julius Caesar, or Cesare Borgia. One of my favorite games allows one to refight the Wars of the Roses endlessly. Yet another replays 20 years of the Reformation, complete with losing theologians being burnt at the stake.
Miniatures wargaming, on the other hand, uses small metal figures and a large surface (such as a sandtable) to fight battles. Each figurine stands for a larger number of actual men. No board exists, and movement is a complicated affair of measurements in scale. Realism is strived for. All the war colleges of the great powers play these sorts of games in deadly earnest, though now they often do them with computers, too. Most of the hobbyists in Miniatures gaming have played with toy soldiers from the Napoleonic eras, a period of much importance to our culture (as witness the shakos and busbies and cross-belts worn by marching bands).
The gamers of Lake Geneva were Miniatures enthusiasts. In between conducting miniature tank battles of WW II vintage, and (of course) the standard Napoleonics battles, they came up with a new twist. They began to expand their Miniatures rules to allow for medieval and ancient soldiery. One thing led to another, and they began to include legendary and fantastic forces, such as trolls and dragons, in their miniature legions. Eventually, they began singling out figures to stand for individual heroes, Beowulf-style, and then other heroic and anti-heroic character types from a hodgepodge of fantastic literature were added: witches, elves, paladins, sorcerors, and so forth. The penultimate innovation was to associate the player with a particular character. If that character died, the player was out of the game. Finally, the persona invented for the character was made a continuing thing, able to go from adventure to adventure, and retain its identity. They called it Dungeons and Dragons. The year was around 1974 or '75. Rules were printed, and shared with other hobbyists.
It grew slowly for a while, and then exploded in popularity. Copycat games were rushed into publication. The publishers of the Strategy & Tactics board games tried to fathom the popularity of the new "role-playing games" and tinkered with their standard products. New magazines were formed, new publishers went into business, new conventions were held. By the time I became acquainted with the hobby in 1978, things had not yet reached the big business stage, but they were about to. New literary genres were adopted as venues for role-playing games: science fiction, westerns, spy thrillers. And all the time, they were becoming more sophisticated. Just last year, as TSR issued their third, and most comprehensive revision of their flagship product (AD&D, 2nd Edition), another company published a game called Space 1889. This fascinating product has the soldiers of Queen Victoria colonizing a Mars not unlike something Edgar Rice Burroughs would have dreamed up. Rudyard Kipling would have loved it:
Walk wide o' the Widow at Windsor,
For 'alf o' Creation she owns:
We 'ave bought 'er the same with the
sword an' the flame,
An' we've salted it down with our bones.
In addition, there are now games that allow you to host a murder at your own dinner party, computer disks that let you command a wooden sailing ship, computer networks through which you may play in nation-wide games by modem, and play-by-mail games that allow you to subdue barbaric tribes, conquer the galaxy, overthrow empires, and intrigue in Machiavelli's backyard. For games which are essentially adult versions of the Cops 'n' Robbers played by small children in free form, it's amazing.
But what do the players get out of it all? Let us narrow that: we do not have the time to inquire into all the rewards people get from playing games, as such. Let us consider simply the role-playing games, as the most prominent class of adventure games. They are cooperative rather than competitive, so winning is not a big factor. There remain, then, social rewards and mental rewards. The social rewards come from spending time together with friends. They also come from a kind of game-playing which emphasizes communication, problem-solving, play-acting, and cooperation.
It is when we consider the mental rewards that we come closer to understanding the relation between these games and the literary experience. These games provide an opportunity for several kinds of intellectual play. One can amuse oneself and one's friends with the trappings of historical periods. One can play with the motifs of legend and folk tale. One encounters moral dilemmas. One gets to be what J.R.R. Tolkien called a "sub-creator," a maker of worlds. One gets to have vicarious experiences of all sorts through the medium of imaginative play.
And if I were to detail a small list of the mental rewards that literature (of whatever brow's elevation) yields, what might I include? Is not reading intellectual play, in which one can be amused with the trappings of historical periods? One can also play with the motifs of legend and folk tale (and many other conventions of narrative art). One encounters moral dilemmas. If one goes on to writing stories oneself, one gets to be a sub-creator. In any case, the act of reading fiction is one of having vicarious experiences of all sorts: love; hate; power; victimization; empathy; longing; fear; piety; obsession; betrayal; chaos; death; rebirth.
This is why I say that the game player's experience is a literary experience. In fact, if you listen to them talk about their play, you will hear them talk about it in much the same way you and I are used to talking about books which we have read. They recount scenes, tell stories. The role-playing game has evolved into a form of communal narrative art: literature without texts. It's rather like the impromptu musical pieces some artists create; without the score, they can be remembered, but not re-experienced, except in the mind. And it is interesting to me that more and more writing about role-playing games uses the standard vocabulary we use to write about literature: story goals; the necessity of conflict to move the action; fleshing out character; understanding motivations; pacing.
But what about all the weirdness? Oh, it's there, all right, although what seems bizarre to some is not at all strange once you get to know it. However, the common complaint about role-playing games (even when you have successfully defended them against the charge of being vehicles of satanism) is that they are obsessive; or at least, they are played by obsessed people. I think there are two considerations to keep in mind here. The first has to do with the social phenomenon known as "fandom," and the second, with considerations of how literature is used by what C.S. Lewis called "the unliterary."
"Fandom" first appeared among afficionados of science fiction some fifty years ago. People who liked similar stories found that they had other interests in common, and formed friendships. As their numbers grew, they began to associate more formally. They held conventions, published amateur magazines (called "fanzines"), and so on. Their hobby became very important to them, and they took it very seriously. Some of them took it so seriously, in fact, that when someone first pronounced "Fandom is a Way of Life" (abbreviated FIAWOL), it was taken as a serious statement. Eventually, other fans who did not take their fandom so seriously came up with an alternate acronym, FIJAGH ("Fandom is just a goddamned hobby"). In any case, science fiction fandom is a case in point for how enthusiasts of something can be seen as odd, or detached from reality. As the old campfire skit puts it, "some is, some ain't." Most are well-balanced, normal people. You won't find more weird folks per pound among science fiction fans than among American Legionnaires, who have also thrown some wild conventions. In any case, there are now multiple fandoms. There is science fiction fandom; fantasy fandom; Star Trek fandom; and the old wargaming hobbyists. There is also the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members seek to recreate pieces of history. Our judgment on fandom is properly that of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's judgment on the planet Earth: mostly harmless.
Obsession, however, is also a problem in how people approach literature. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis noted that there are different meanings for the word "fantasy." There is psychological delusion, which is not a literary experience, for the deluded person is incapable of making the distinction between fiction and reality. Such people exist, and live out their delusions in various ways. Fantasy can also be "a pleasing imaginative construction entertained incessantly, and to his injury, by the patient, but without the delusion that it is a reality. . . . [he calls] this activity Morbid Castle-building." Again, such people exist. Their ability to maintain normal relations is rather strained. One finds them in many walks of life, pursuing many activities.
Normal Castle-building is what all of us do when we imagine things as a refreshment. It merges into fiction, both reading and writing, at its farther points. But Normal Castle-building can be either Egoistic or Disinterested, according to Lewis. Some people imagine stories, and read stories, only to see themselves as the hero. Others are capable of enjoying stories about someone else. Disinterested Castle-building is the normal mode of literary enjoyment, then, at least at the level of reading fiction (I want no arguments from poets at present). Egoistic Castle-building is a wresting of texts, if you will, a decision to take a literary product and use it for one's own wish-fulfillment. And there are stories (and movies, and TV shows) which are written expressly to appeal to Egoistic Castle-building: soap operas and "true detective" stories come to mind.
One does, in fact, meet role-playing gamers whose imaginative life revolves around something other than Disinterested Castle-building. There are the egoistic gamers, who are merely bores; there is a smaller number of Morbid Castle-builders, who are possibly dangerous; and I suppose there are a few truly deluded folk in the tribe. That's the way of things.
I am much more concerned, however, with normal folks -- especially normal kids -- and the sorts of literary experiences they are having. Having read fantasy literature all my life, from Greek myths to some of the wackier things churned out by modern hacks, I am aware that we are dealing with a vast array of stories: noble and trivial; serious and farcical; profound and profane. We are, after all, dealing with a genre, or set of genres, which includes Beowulf, the Divine Comedy, the Parlement of Foules, the Odyssey, She, Dracula, Animal Farm, Faust, The Lord of the Rings, and A Christmas Carol.
The thing which most concerns me is the derivative nature of many gamers' literary experience. They catch echoes and allusions to some of the greatest stories ever written, but know them only in the popularized form of paperbacks and gamebooks. I wonder if we are really making the old, often unfashionable literature inaccessible to them in favor of "realistic" fiction. An 8th-grade class I once worked with was reading a short novel about a boy their age who had a mentally handicapped sister who embarrassed him and strained his parents' marriage. It was well done. But I see too many of these sorts of books. Most of the 8th-graders I know are capable of a little more sophisticated stuff. Their books, like their clothes, should allow for growth, as Tolkien says in his essay, "On Fairy-Stories." And some of them could be awakened to the power of literature if they were exposed to more varieties of it, in more sympathetic settings. Not that one should allow them to relate to the world of words and ideas solely through their present enthusiasm, whether fantasy games, or sports, or cars, or soap operas: but one should take them where they are, and help them to find more and better where they have not yet thought to look.
Fantasy games, like fantasy literature, are not to everyone's taste. But for some persons, they are the door onto wonder. And it may be true, as I have read, that George Chapman wasn't a very good translator of Homer; be that as it may, Keats spoke for every discoverer of new worlds when he wrote,
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -- and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.