So, I just read this article on ‘Five Destructive Myths Perpetuated by RPGs‘ and it’s a sort of exemplar of a lot of what I consider to be wrong-headed thinking in approaches to game design lately or, if not wrong-headed, things that undermine what’s generally taken to be the primary value of a game – the game part.
Before going into the specific points in the article itself, I think it’s worth taking issue with the title itself. There’s question whether some or all of these are myths are myths (or to what extent), whether they’re actually destructive and certainly whether they’re perpetuated by RPGs.
Like it or not, RPGs are niche without the cultural impact that they may once have had, so any contribution to culture is relatively insignificant. It’s also a contentious issue whether media reflects or directs prevailing ideas anyway.
1. The Great Man Theory of History
While it is probably true – or at least more popular now – to see history in terms of trends rather than actors, there are also pivot points and key figures who are important. The assassin who pulls the trigger, the genius, the right man in the right place at the right time. The Newtons, the Oswalds, the people who act, inspire or have a spark of genius that pre-empts slower development. Why are so many of the historical figures that we revere male and white? Because that’s how history shook down, for a variety of reasons. Race and gender neither devalue nor increase the value or importance of someone’s accomplishments, those have their own value. Game-wise, removing character agency is doom to the playability of a game. Making character efforts and actions unimportant makes the whole game irrelevant. Even if things are imaginary you need to feel that you’re making an impact somehow. The risk when creating a world that rolls on regardless is that NPC actions utterly devalue and undermine the efforts in games. One way to navigate this is to make a world that’s reactive. When characters do something, the world reacts to it. Underground did this very well and several games that take place at a larger scale, like Reign, Birthright and others have touched on this issue. Regardless, stories tend to be character driven and unless a game is sold on being simulationist, realistic, and you agree 100% with this non-individualist interpretation of history, its not going to be a selling point.
2. Social Ties Don’t Matter
Why do RPG characters tend to be unencumbered by social ties? Because it frees them up to travel, adventure, do great deeds, see strange sights and otherwise to be footloose and fancy free. Tying a character down to a specific location, a family, a spouse, a community tends to really limit the options for adventures and play. It can be great in one-off adventures, or where the focus is upon creating a community (colonising a planet, settling a hostile land) but for your standard adventuring set-up of freelance graverobbing, it’s severely limiting. It’s also a huge strain on the Games Master to juggle a lot of nuanced character relationships for up to six different players. Social ties do matter, that’s why a lot of games are improved by minimising or eliminating them – for the characters – and keeping them within the party.
Of course it’s true that explorers aren’t – generally- the first people in an area and that they’re already occupied. That’s really beside the point though. The point is that exploration takes you to new places, new places to your home culture. Things are novel, cultures are new and you don’t know what you’re going to encounter. Explorer cultures also tend to be more dominant or advanced cultures with the power and resources to devote to exploration. Complaining about evil creatures in game worlds with a very different metaphysics to our own is just… silly. In many fantasy worlds objective evil exists and is innate and inherent to creatures that have been created by evil gods. Orcs and trolls are not necessarily analagous to native cultures – they can be genuinely evil and complaining about racism towards non-human races that don’t exist and may be innately and irrecoverably evil is, frankly, ludicrous and rightly treated as such. Exploration also solves one of the biggest issues with fantasy games – temples, caverns and ruins that haven’t yet been explored. However objectionable the conquistadors were, they had virgin (to Europeans) land to raid and thieve from. Exploring a new land is, then, also a great way to provide ‘virgin’ territory for adventurers to explore.
4. Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
There’s plenty of games that model crippling wounds or mental issues, if that’s what you like. There’s also plenty of games tht don’t, making this a non-issue. There’s also evidence that avoiding testing situations or never confronting your ‘triggers’ causes problems to get worse, not better. Problems that aren’t confronted can fester, avoiding issues makes them more concrete. The problem may come from hiding from difficulty, avoiding ‘tough love’, rather than vice versa.
5. Violence is the Only Solution
Violence is not the only solution, but in fictional terms – where it’s safe – it’s exciting and dangerous for our characters. Conflict, excitement, cool weapons, cool moves are the default because that’s what people find exciting in many, many forms of fiction and it has bugger all to do with real life. There’s no evidence for ‘desensitisation’ or that fiction makes violence (or sexism or anything else) more likely.
If you want to make a point in a one-off game, many of these things are more viable, but if you want your game to be enjoyable in the longer term, many of these ideas will be virtual death-blows to the enjoyment of anyone not ideologically wedded to self-flagellation over having a good time with a hobby.