I hear the term "gonzo" used in games, a lot. The RPG Pundit, +Kasimir Urbanski, posted something about this a while back, but I actually started this post in December 2014, because I fucking hate how (many) people use this term.
1. Break from strict genre boundaries (i.e., you've got chocolate-lasers in my peanut butter fantasy!) in ways that (a) demonstrate that the line between genres was there and (b) draw into question the value of the distinction(s) between them.
2. Weirdness, zaniness, whimsy--The carnivalesque elements are coming in loud and clear. This weirdness is not just comic, though. It can also be horrific or spectacular. It is a break from the mundane, and one that highlights the joys and dangers of that departure.
3. Let's do something awesome! I mean this in the sense that we want to WIN. We want to win with STYLE. We have a set of rules and game mechanics that allow even a zero-level schlub or 1st level character to do things they should not be able to.
4. There are other trace elements in the game, from other places--e.g. the cultural aesthetics of the 70s and 80s, whether from music or literature or comics or cartoons or whatever.
5. Gonzo means that something unexpected not only CAN happen, but is relatively COMMONPLACE. "Whoa, man, a halfling on a dinosaur with deathray arms..."
"Yep, must be Thursday."
5. Gonzo can contain some degree of adolescent (male) fantasy, and some of that means things like boobs & cheesecake, indiscriminate slaughter, murder-hoboism, and the like. This does not need to be the case, but often is. When it is, some people enjoy it, and it can be fun. Some people don't, and may find it "problematic."
6. Gonzo means different things to different people. The word can be taken as prejorative--indicating that something is silly. This is the thing that pisses me off the most. I don't mind being serious about gaming, and playing serious games. I also refuse to draw a line between "serious" and "gonzo." These are not mutually exclusive terms.
7. It can even be a reference to the absurdist tradition of H. S. Thompson, and beat luminaries like W. S. Burroughs, R. Crumb, the Freak Brothers, and things like that. This is, perhaps, the overlooked element. Breaking with "straight" reality is a political gesture in a limited way. "I refuse to engage with your straight reality. I reject the premise that this game must be played in a particular way. Look! I got a fuckin' laser pistol!" This can also lead projects to projects like 's Narcosa, or 's Red and Pleasant Land, among others. It finds "the normal" wanting, and invents something else.
8. Too much gonzo upsets some people, even people who like gonzo stuff. Sometimes people just need a break from it. Alternately, they can also need a break from grim-darkness. I know that's part of the reason I found the move from Dark Heresy to DCC so refreshing. It was like waking up from a disturbing dream to find out that there's a party going on, and I can smile and laugh again.
9. Gonzo draws from a variety of traditions, aesthetically, and some of those traditions aren't even meant to be silly. For example, GWAR demonstrates that heavy metal, as a genre, can be self-aware that it's pretty damned silly. Slayer, on the other hand, does not demonstrate this self-awareness in its aesthetic. That doesn't mean that it's not also silly. Nor does that mean I don't like them both. Hell, as I've blogged on several occasions, Redd Kross is a great bubblegum band. Bubblegum music is both aesthetically simple and predictable (sometimes even shitty) and absolutely awesomely fun (to me). Another example of silly fun: The Dickies. They also are a really decent band (to me).
10. Just because something is weird, or just because it departs from genre in jarring ways, doesn't necessarily indicate that something is gonzo. DCC RPG can be played deadly seriously. Part of the distinction (to me) is that the outcome matters. Death Frost Doom, for example, has a lot of stuff that could be read as "gonzo," in that it takes a bunch of metal tropes and inserts them prominently into its adventure milieu. The fact that those trope-y, stereotypical elements (brutal metal, zombies, crazy, reclusive dude, etc.) are there, that's not enough to make it gonzo. Because it matters what happens. You can end the world. You probably will. There's not reason why DCC RPG (as many have suggested) cannot support SERIOUSNESS. The issue is that what happens, matters, and has serious in-world implications, even if it is silly or gonzo in some senses.
11. Gonzo is about embracing the chaos. Weird shit will happen. The world doesn't simply exist as you would have it. You will be challenged. Your tastes and experience will be challenged. It may make you uncomfortable, and push you out of your "comfort zone." I often listen to music that I don't necessarily like, but am interested in experiencing, and seeing where it can take me. Some of Zappa's stuff, for example, is hard to listen to. I do it anyway, because I want to feel what my brain does as an result of listening to it. There are so many other examples of music, film, art, and so forth. It doesn't need to make you feel good. You don't have to "like" it. It doesn't have to gratify you. It may make you sad, or grossed-out, or it might alienate you. This is one element of what I consider "gonzo" that often gets overlooked: It can change you by pushing your limits. I don't mean this in any particularly serious way, but I do mean it. Having our expectations challenged is a part of human growth and development.
There. I turned it up to 11 things about gonzo.