Saturday 24 September 2016

Inner Worlds, appendix: "Nothing about this hobby is OK"

I can say this is not OK because I developed it and so it's my fault.
So all of the Inner Worlds posts of the last couple weeks have inspired dialogue to some extent. On a Facebook thread discussing the most recent one, a game writer who is better known than me said this:
Be sure to let me know if you find a way to pursue this path of analysis without reaching the conclusion "nothing about this hobby is OK."
This wrong-footed me.

I wondered if it suggested a fatalism, a suggestion that role-playing games would all fall apart if you looked too hard at them, or if the implication was that the logical final result of my thesis (that if you systematise human interactions in certain ways, you risk going to icky places and that risk needs to be addressed, even if you don't actually end up going to those places) would be that I'd inevitably end up reducing everything in my own mind to worthless junk.

Or to summarise, either nothing in the circle of let's pretend games is OK and by not looking you protect yourself from having to deal with that fact; or interrogating these things is overthinking and you'll ruin it for yourself if you do.

The first of these interpretations does at least have some weight.

I mean, look. The genre media we mass-consume often either is slight and infantilised, reducing issues that matter to tropes and punchlines (Stranger Things, modern Doctor Who, an endless succession of Marvel superhero movies) or it's a parade of brutality and nihilism with no framing commentary or redemptive subtext (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, an endless succession of DC superhero movies). It reflects the society we live in, and I don't for a second think that it's a controversial statement to say that our society is a mess. What is perhaps controversial is that I don't think that there's a simple fix, or that it's possible to make a thing that exists in it completely OK with some sort of mend.

Of course everything we consume exists in this context. Of course it's going to reflect or react or both to the context it's in. Hell, even something as elemental as the language a piece of media is made in is going to infect it with ideologies and assumptions.

And games, right, just to bring this crashing right back down to the unspeakably banal, to a middle-class pursuit, play out worlds that cannot exist without ours.

And that's not a big deal! I mean yeah, I do honestly hate Game of Thrones but it's not like I have the right to judge people who like it – there's stuff I like that is just as troublesome, just as messed up. I still like it. Recognising it's got problems doesn't ruin that for me. Criticism is not the enemy of enjoyment.

I'll say that again. Criticism is not the enemy of enjoyment.

The recognition that when you model a world with a game it depends upon the lens through which you see our world is actually liberating. Nothing is entirely OK, nothing, but actually tackling these things head on and thinking about why they're not OK and what I can do to make them OK, that's a way through to coming out the other side.

And you may not need to! Simply understanding why something is the way it is allows for a guiltless enjoyment of it.

You can go, this part is great, this part is a bit sexist, a bit racist, or whatever, and once that's done, that actually frees you from hand-wringing about all the awful stuff that the games scene churns out from time to time because you can actually get on and do something about it, make a better game. Or maybe you can just tackle it.

Reframe it in a context that makes sense.

Approach it with a bit of honesty.

And enjoy it.

Because this is the thing. My line of analysis is there because I enjoy these games, and want to enjoy them. By approaching what makes them difficult, what gets in the way, I can own those problems and face them head on. And maybe make a fair attempt at better games that bring out the best in me.