Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Douglas Rushkoff on role-playing: one part hurrah to one part facepalm

It's rare that you'll find a writer outside the hobby covering role-playing at all, let alone with any insight. So it was interesting to come across a chapter dealing with just that in cyber-critic Douglas Rushkoff's early 90's book Cyberia (full version available from the Cyberpunk Library here).

Cyberia itself is a wide-eyed hymn to the the emancipatory potential of computing from an observer on the cusp of internet culture, with much musical and pharmaceutical cross-referencing to the Second Summer of Love. 

If this book were a band, it would be The Shamen.

Rushkoff makes connections between various forms of self-actualisation and -exploration, which goes some way to explaining his take on RPG's.
 Having fully accepted ontological relativism as a principle of existence, Ron and his posse of 'gamers' live the way they play, and play as a way of life. It is not just that life is a game, but that gaming is as good a model as any for developing the skills necessary to journey successfully through the experience of reality. It is a constant reminder that the rules are not fixed and those who recognise this fact have the best time.
He goes on to describe a not-untypical session (in a GURPS fantasy setting, in case you're wondering) in detail we shall skip over here, before concluding that role-playing games are
surprisingly engrossing. They share the hypertext, any-door-can-open feeling of the computer net. 
Rushkoff concludes:
Role-playing games are based on the texture and reality of the playing experience. They are the ultimate designer realities and, like VR, the shamanic vision quest or a hacking run, the adventurer moves from point-to-point in a path as non-linear as consciousness itself. The priorities of [fantasy role-playing games] reflect the liberation of gamers from the mechanistic boundaries imposed on them by a society obsessed with taking sides, winning, finishing and evaluating.
This is a high-minded perspective, and you do wonder what Rushkoff would make of a party of munchkins, or the raid and level-up reductionist take on role-playing demonstrated in MMORPG's. But he does get to the heart of the liberating potential inherent (even if not always realised) in the medium of open-ended gaming.

And he actually makes gaming sound pretty cool.

Then it all starts to go a little wrong.

In the second half of the chapter Rushkoff describes the GURPS group's fondness for 'edge games' - translating role-play into real life through assuming new identities and refusing to break character, and activities such as theft and chasing each other around shopping malls on acid. 

Or as we gamers like to call it: acting like bloody idiots.

The gamesmaster Ron in particular comes over as a more than a bit creepy, what with his 'learning how to manipulate others through new forms of hypnosis and experimental cult activities.'

And just when it was all going so well, we get another piece on the dangers of role-playing :-) Still, at least it wasn't a satanic panic this time. 

But then a typical gaming group, where the action stops when the dice are put away, wouldn't have fitted Rushkoff's gonzo cool-hunting brief quite as well as a massively unrepresentative bunch of Luke Reinhold groupies.

It's one thing to compare the storytelling dimension of role-playing to a therapeutic or spiritual process - an analogy I would be comfortable with in theory even if in practice most games rarely achieve such heights. It's quite another to forget the other important things gaming and therapy have in common: ground-rules, safe space and a clear distinction between the space and everyday life.

In short: some really good analysis in here mixed up with some regrettable misrepresentation.

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