This is probably going to be a series of about 4-5 articles. I’m not going to just doomsay, I’m going to discuss some possible solutions and techniques we might try in order to address some of these concerns and problems. Things that I am doing, am going to be doing, or would do if I had the opportunity. Some of you might have access to resources I don’t and to ideas that I don’t. You can comment below or via FB, or reach me on twitter @grimachu if you want to discuss any of the points I raise in these articles.
I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks lately thanks to the suggestion of my lovely friend Mel. There’s a lot of food for thought out there and what I particularly like about them is how helpful and hopeful they are and how they’re meant to be understood, they’re not too deeply wedged into academic language and insularity. There’s a lot in there that’s worth poking at and much of what I talk about below stems from my thoughts having watched some of these videos.
Thinking about gaming
Games are my obsession and I think they’re important. A good outlet for creativity, a way to explore ideas. They have an advantage over passive fiction in that they involve people, make them think – whether they’re brilliant or not – and in the case of tabletop roleplaying games the sheer open possibility of the games makes them emotionally and creatively satisying in a way that other games cannot – yet – begin to compete with.
I see much of the world through the lens of gaming. I always look for story elements in everything I look at. I frequently wake up with ideas and jot them down and since I started keeping a list of ideas it’s grown out of bounds. When it comes to games I am, in all modesty, ‘The ideas guy’. I have an inherent dislike for the business side of creating games, the marketing, the sales, the accounts but I have studied Communications Theory and I do have an active interest in the sciences and in technology. Two things which have an ever increasingly powerful effect upon society in general and games in particular, which even in our little dice-and-paper corner are often at the cutting edge.
Problems facing RPGs
Tabletop gaming does face problems. I’m not going to say the sky is falling because people have said that before. I don’t think it will ever disappear and the existence of the internet, print on demand and ebooks, I think, guarantees that some sort of ‘rump’ of tabletop gaming will remain in existence in virtual perpetuity. Whether it remains viable as a business is another matter, though it may be able to shift into the niche comics have, an ‘Intellectual Property’ factory for other businesses like computer gaming, film and so forth.
Gaming faces two problems related to time. Firstly, at least in Britain and the United States, people seem to have less and less leisure time. There’s a lot more academic and work pressure (degrees have been devalued and unpaid overtime is expected). The older generations of gamers have families and commitments now, which eats into their time and there a lot more demands upon that amount of leisure time that we do have, many different forms of entertainment vying for our attention.
The second time-related problem is that tabletop gaming takes a lot of time. A very short session can be crammed into a couple of hours – if everything is set up – but a campaign and longer games require massive expenditures of time by a group of people all committing at the same time.
Coming out of that problem of people sharing time to be able to meet up are the practicalities of getting together. Getting six people together at the same time in the same place is difficult, particular if they’re not house-sharing, sharing education or living in urban areas. There aren’t enough gaming clubs and there aren’t enough ways to get people together to play.
Ageing Gaming Populace
The gaming populace is ageing, the 3rd Edition revival was, essentially, the last gasp of the nostalgia, getting ‘back’ the older gamers who had left the hobby. 4th Edition has lost a lot of those and while somewhat successful at bringing in a new generation of gamers hasn’t, apparently, been successful enough. Other games simply don’t reach out in the same way as D&D does and so there’s little else to compare it to. Vampire did, back in the day, but that generation of gamers is also ageing while not quite hitting the nostalgia age bracket yet (it may when the Vamp MMO comes along). Perhaps D6 Star Wars did in its time but D&D is the king and the health of the hobby as a whole can be measured by their success or lack thereof. It’s a Catch 22, lack of new blood negatively affects the future of the hobby but hardly anyone can afford to reach out to new gamers in new ways and risks putting off their core audience if they do.
Tabletop gaming faces a lot of competition from video games, from social gaming, from cinema and home entertainment experiences. Consider that when gaming first came along you were lucky to have Pong. Even the VCR wasn’t widespread and there were less TV channels. Now you’ve got DVDs and Blu-Ray, the endless distractions of the internet, the resurgence of the blockbuster cinema experience, surround-sound, MMOs and console gaming. Lots of things that used to be the remit of gaming – almost uniquely – are now found to one degree or another in so many other forms of media and rather than innovate or concentrate on our strengths we seem to have fallen into a reactive/emulative way of doing things, trying to win back ground that is, essentially, gone.
We’re fighting 21st century competitors with materials that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 19th century. While we’ve lead the way on certain innovations such as ebooks, that hasn’t been appreciated or acknowledged beyond us. While the bar has been lowered to entry for doing business in tabletop gaming the tools that could make us resurgent are often beyond our financial reach. Even D&D doesn’t have the money for effective marketing, nor does Games Workshop and they’re probably the only businesses big enough to even consider it. Where we’ve tried to get into online tools and services it’s largely been a farcical failure. The D&D online play tools are nothing like what was promised and making them a subscription model is, actually, going against the grain of the way other online services are running. We need a radical rethink of how we’re going to reach out to people and we need to find effective ways of providing tools and supporting our games in ways that are affordable and don’t push the entry bar back out of our reach.