RPGaDay 2021 #26: Theory

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Theory”. Clearly, given by my previous posts for RPGaDay 2021, I am a big fan of theory.

Of course, that’s something of an occupational hazard. Academically, I’ve pursued a BSc in Psychology (while I went all the way to finishing a thesis, I never completed that degree), obtained a BA in English Language and Culture, focusing on literature, and have an MA (Research Masters MPhil equivalent) in Literary and Cultural Studies, focusing on English-language popular media. I’ve come pre-loaded with analytical tools and theories, and have spent years training to analyze cultural forms, epistemological, ontological and phenomenological aspects of cultural transmission, and just popular culture in an academic context.

As a result, I can’t help but look at the world through this lens. RPGs are no different in that respect. That’s one of the reasons why I so thoroughly enjoy thinking about the systems behind the games, the interactions, and the workings of the hobby. It’s also one of the reasons why I enjoy the mechanics of gameplay so much. If there was a reasonable means to provide for myself by researching this and publishing about it, I’d probably do something like that. The realities of academia are a whole different story, though; let alone the economics of hobbies combined with the pressures of capitalism (don’t get me started on everything that’s wrong with the use of the phrase “doing what you love”).

Something I particularly enjoy about cultural analysis is how culture is like a giant neon sign attached to every tiny aspect of our lives. Small gestures during interaction with others, tiny illustrations in our environment, the types of goods sold in stores—every little bit of our lives is filled with poignant history and allusion. Training in cultural analysis is like being taught to read for the first time, except all your reading is between the lines and in the margins of the page.

Popular culture is my favorite thing to read in this way. A lot of popular culture is speculative in some way: science fiction, fantasy, superhero, alternate timeslines, and all other forms of popular culture all speculate about alternative worlds to some degree. They all start with the phrase “What if…”. What if elves, orcs, and dragons were real? What if five centuries in the future humanity had spread out into a galactic federation? What if the USSR had become dominant after the cold war? What unifies popular culture is imagining things that are not real, but inlike most fiction which roots itself in a real world and invents a story within that, popular culture also invents a world to some degree.

Whatever we invent, though, says more about the world we’re in than the world we’re inventing. Any “What if…” story implies, at its heart, “What if we had something other than what’s here now”. It’s a departure in some manner, whether that’s a “fleeing from” or a “going towards” journey. Analysing stories like that tells us a great deal about our world, the author (depending on whether you’re a postmodernist or not), but also the readers of the text if we know their reactions.

The really fun thing about RPGs in this respect is that they’re so rich with information. The creators of the RPG system write in their world view in the mechanics and their choice of art and setting. The hosts of games expose their ideas and views in the plots they bring in and the characters they portray, and the players tell us about their views by the interacts they have with the world and the characters they create. Every single point of an RPG is a font of information that works together to create new and unexpected stories.

On top of this, as a genre, it’s an intensely reactive genre. A book once written is static. An author might change our views of the book (such as J.K. Rowling’s trans-exclusionary views having radically changed the reception of the Harry Potter novels), but still the book is written. An RPG, however, is more like a palimpsest. Every single session of play rewrites the RPG in the minds of all those involved. House rules might get used, parts of systems get ignored or forgotten, or players choose to tailor the experience to their own needs. Every individual game may shift narratives or viewpoints. RPGs are quite alive in that sense.

It’s a pity that in the interest of self-preservation within the academic world, not much work has been done on this type of hobbyist engagement. It’s pretty much academic suicide to try it. This is the kind of thing, though, that would be fascinating to work on.

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