Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Heroic

I was reading +Zak Smith's recent post about game design and was struck by one passage of the text in a weird way. Here's the passage in question (emphasis mine):
Now I know from the internet that there are actually people in the world who look at a module and see a shiny, squarejawed paladin smacking a hunchbacked kobold with a +2 sword forever and think "YES, EXACTLY THAT!" and for them a design which has a "default experience" running up its spine that they can work off of is what they will consider "good". "Why can't we have Mr Default Paladin Smacking Mr Default Orc right there and you can have your crazy expert-GM arty fringe lunacy on top of that?"
This description of cover art (nice Orwell reference,btw) is spot-on for many gaming products, which, truth be told, market themselves by showcasing what is (supposedly) heroic--Ex. A Fighter of some kind, with a Sword, slaying a Beast. Or, perhaps, getting the Woman:

Isn't this romantic, Conan? Also, when did you last bathe? Seriously, dude, you reek.

This guy is inevitably steel-thewed, his weapon is usually overlarge (projecting much?), etc. Alternately, maybe he has really ridiculous armor of some kind.

But Helmets are for Pussies!

Sometimes, especially for fantasy RPGs, the cover features a Party of some kind, with the iconic character types of the game in question.

Like this.

Or this.

The cover art, in essence, projects a fantasy theme of some kind. Though Zak's post is talking more about game design than cover art, he also makes a critical point: Games, however they are designed, are designed for particular audiences, whether or not the author or designer conceives of his or her task as such, and even if that audience is conceived as a "general" audience. All communication involves an audience of some sort, even if that audience is vaguely defined, and, hell, even if that audience is a party of one(self). 

That is, to put this into the terms of my own area of scholarship, The Designer/Publisher (Source) puts out a Game (Message) to an Audience (Intended Audience), achieving some sort of Effect (or not). So, as regards the cover designs for RPGs, what the hell is going on here? Here are some things that Zak's post suggested to me (also borrowing somewhat haphazardly from Joseph Campbell, Karl Jung, and Ernest G. Bormann).

As audiences for RPG cover designs, we process the cover art as ourselves. This means that what we attend to, how we process it, and where that takes us are both socioculturally predetermined in some way and intensely personal. That is, we are who we are, as a result of where you are, when you are, and how, in particular, we come to be ourselves (both to others and to ourselves). We are individuals, certainly, but we don't make up from whole cloth how we are ourselves. We must draw on what's around us in order to express or communicate (or even recognize) "self."

Others may or may not be from the same "place" and will process these things differently (or similarly) as a result of how they are positioned, socioculturally and personally. Some of these people are pretty cool, and like what you like, and some are complete nutjob dickwad assholes. Some are both or neither of these things.

That is, we don't just process this artwork (or other design element) in the moment. We often use it as something that we project onto some future we envision. RPG books are not about looking at the cover and going, "Yeah that's cool." or "That sucks." Sure one can do that, but it's more likely that we are more interested in thinking about what can be done with it, or, more specifically, "What does this cover "say" about what the game is about, for me and the things that are important to me?"
However, we never just let the thing in question (e.g., the cover of an RPG book) simply "be itself." Not only is that not really possible (You can't just shut yourself off), it also is not particularly desirable, as it makes it pretty difficult to interact with others in constructing the collective narratives necessary for making RPGs "work." Ernest G. Bormann explains it this way:  "We are not necessarily persuaded by reason. We are often persuaded by suggestion that ties in with our dreams" (Ernest Bormann and Nancy Bormann, Speech Communication, 171). That is, we don't just process this artwork (or other design element) in the moment. We often use it as something that we project onto some future we envision. RPG books are not about looking at the cover and going, "Yeah that's cool." or "That sucks." Sure one can do that, but it's more likely that we are more interested in thinking about what can be done with it, or, more specifically, "What does this cover "say" about what the game is about, for me and the things that are important to me?"

An RPG cover, then, presents us with mythology, in the purest sense, the essence of what the thing is about. We project onto that thing based on what it shows us, who we are, and what it shows us about what we want. Some things don't push our buttons at all, so we don't care about them. Some things push the wrong buttons, and we instantly react negatively toward them on some level. But the important thing to remember is that, whatever the work in question, we are positioning ourselves with respect to it, or with respect to the people, places, or things we associate with it, all as a part of our viewing the cover of the RPG book.

So, when I look at this:

Hammertime, yo!

I process it differently than might someone else, and very differently from someone who is not interested in the themes and myths and so forth suggested by its iconography. Even when an RPG book doesn't have a stylized cover, other design elements are included. Even if it's just a blank, black cover, that "says" something  to the viewer. "Dude, where's the art?" or "Dude, this shit's so heavy it don't need no art!" or whatever.

One of the things I find so interesting about this dynamic is people's ability (or inability in some cases) to understand that a person's interaction with a game book (or game system) is, in fact, an interaction between self and the object. So, a person who fails (or refuses) to recognize that the fact that he or she thinks something "is awesome" or "sucks," is very much about that person, and not just about the objective thing in question. It is awesome because of you, not just because it, objectively, is awesome.

That said, when we get into a broader discussion of culture and aesthetics, we may, in a collective sense, have some sense of propriety about what is or is not "good," whether it be an artifact like an RPG book, or some object, style, or activity (e.g., the latest fad or fashion), or whatever. Sometimes things are seen, in a broader, collective sense, to suck donkey balls (This is necessary technical terminology, of course). Still, that consensus is built upon those shared themes and values appropriate to and appropriated by that particular community. This is, no doubt, why groups of gamers who value certain kinds of play, rulesets, and aesthetics can look across a divide that lies between them and wonder, "What the fuck is wrong with those people? Seriously, they suck!" And, no, I don't find it easy to get away from that, even knowing that part of that dynamic is me projecting my values onto those activities, objects, and people. I recognize that I'm doing it, but it's incredibly difficult to get any kind of distance between "me and mine" and "them and theirs."

For me, in the end, to be able to enjoy a game, I have to be able to project some part of myself into the matrix of signifiers in and around the game in question. To me, that DCC wizard cover is badass in a very particular way. It hits some buttons for me. Same thing with Frank Zappa. Other people may, at best, be amused by me and the things I think are cool. I think that was Zak's original point about design: There is no objectively well-designed game that doesn't account for particularity of players and play styles. If a game only has one generalized player in mind, then it misses the point that only people who like that kind of thing will like it in particular. The mechanics may work well. It might be systematically developed and presented in sound ways. However, it can still suck for some players or groups, especially if those players or groups are unable to find space in which to project their own fantasies onto the object (e.g., the book cover) or system (e.g., Dungeon Crawl Classics) in question.

Games that make it possible to project those fantasies in mechanically interesting ways, I think, provide much greater opportunities for broader groups to enjoy them. They may not do anything perfectly in a mechanical sense, but they provide enough wiggle room for particular groups of players to make it work, and work well, for them. That's great, because it makes possible to have gaming experiences where the players can make the experience about them, but allow other players to do the same thing for themselves. Hell, the GM has more freedom in this scenario, as well, to incorporate what the other people bring (of themselves) to the gaming table. Everybody is creating this cool thing (or not, because maybe you just want to chill out and watch your crazy friends do their things), and it's fun. What's not to like about that?

As far as the recent discussion of sexism in games, this also is apt. When one sees "blatant" sexism, then perhaps, objectively, there are elements there from which one can make this judgment (see Conan picture above). Submissive female figure, chainmail bikini, and so forth. However, to ignore that part of what one "sees" involves the projection of one's own shit (sociocultural, personal, etc.) onto that set of signifiers is to mistake the relationship between oneself and the object in question. "It" is not the problem. "It" is a condensation symbol for a variety of other meaningful things. Meaningful in many senses, including very, very personal ones. So for someone to call something objectively sexist ignores that such a judgment must be made from a position from which the particular judge is, well, judging. Sexist. To you.

This is not to say that in broader, cultural sense that some things aren't generally accepted as bloody fucking awful. We do, as a people, find thing we can agree to love or to hate. We do it very naturally. We do it in ways, also, that allow us to form in-groups and out-groups, and to make judgments of various sorts about people, things, activities, and so forth that we like or to which we object. It would be a mistake, however,  to assume that this judgment of those people, things, and activities is any more objective, simply because it is broadly accepted as "true" by a particular culture.

That said, I, personally, can and do make value judgments about people, things, and activities, and do it all the time. It's what allows me to have a sense of what is or is not good/bad, ethical/suspect, etc. I cannot, however, imagine that what I do now will look the same to someone 50 or 100 years from now (or before now). Different context means, usually, different judgments. However, I don't like people who treat women like crap. But when I say that, I don't mean that those women must somehow accord with some fantasy I have about their objective level of subjugation by the Patriarchy. I mean how those women are interpellated (i.e., "called to accept a particular social relationship") into a particular model of feminine virtue. What choices do they have (or are they permitted)?

For me, their agency in the situation is the point. I don't object to women's personal decisions about their sexual lives, or whatever, because its not my choice. It's theirs. Nor do I think that an artist drawing a woman in a chainmail bikini is objectively sexist, as some do, because women are not required as a result of that piece of art, to don such a garment or to accept a subservient position (as if those are synonymous, anyway). I don't object to a woman's choice to act submissively or to adopt the so-called "Gorean" lifestyle, as some do, provided it is, in fact a choice. Objectively, then, no problem, provided the woman in question actually has agency in the situation. Subjectively, though, I don't get it, and don't care for it. I think Goreans are fucking creepy. I think men who think about women as objects to be used are assholes. But I recognize my judgment is at work, here, just as much as in the case of the person who values those things. I may have culture on my side, for now at least (Fuck you, Rick Santorum.), but I am making a subjective judgment.

Still, I might be inclined to make statements about such things, to judge those people and those activities as "fucked up" or whatever. But then I wonder why I'm reacting to them, and realize that it's at least as much about me as it is about them, and I can accept that. The real trick is in being able to do both of these things (i.e., subjectively judging or being objectively ambivalent) at the same time, without thinking you're doing one or the other exclusively. So, "That sucks, but have fun with it. Over there. Waaaaay over there." I can do that: Subjectively objective, that's me.