Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why it Doesn't Matter What Game we Play

I'm an educator, and I am also a mathematician. I happen to be deeply involved in things spiritual as well, both exo and esoteric. As disparate as these disciplines may seem they all share a common feature. Each relies upon a unique frame of reference to achieve their ends. Indeed most fields of study have their own perspectives, histories, and vocabulary that must be understood in order to truly begin to grasp the system as a whole. This is more, however, than simply being able to "speak the lingo". Such a skill, while critical for effective communication within a community, is only the beginning. The true experience of a community and all that it has to offer requires immersion within it. Anthropologists learned this long ago when they started realizing the third party bias evident in ethnographies of primitive tribes. Michael Harner, Wade Davis and other anthropologists inducted into the shamanic traditions of native peoples learned that the inner experience of a culture would always be different than external assessment of it. In other words you truly have to experience something in order to understand it. And true depth of experience takes the form of peak and transcendent moments, which are always shared with the community collectively; even when experienced in relative isolation.

This phenomena is often the reason many fail in trying to explain the inner expereince of a community; and why there will always be outsiders to the community in opposition to the "initiated." The power and extent of a community has much to do with its ability to preserve and share the unique quality of experience the community offers. Wade Davis alludes to this in his book The Serpent & The Rainbow. Where he explains that the spell to create the zombi of Vodoun is more than the sum of it's constituent physical parts. That it requires "belief" or what adherents call "magic". Something Davis himself experienced numerous times on his trip and touched if only vaguely. For an outsider to truly experience this he must leave his world and enter an entirely different one. A different frame of reference where things are not what they once seemed and everything carries loaded supernatural significance. Such experiences are also written about in The writings of Don Juan Matus, and perhaps more applicable to the fantasy gamer by Brian Bates in his masterpieces The Real Middle Earth and The Way of Wyrd.

Game worlds are worlds of shared experience. They are more than simply a genre within which we collectively create. They are not like fiction. Fictional worlds, like Narnia, Shannara, Landover, Illearth, The Dying Earth, and the like are worlds that form a backdrop against which we read stories. They are similar to game worlds in many respects, but lack one essential element. Direct experience. Game Worlds are worlds of direct, collective experience. We do not simply tell stories about or within them. Neither do we just discourse about the fictional "physics", be they scientific or magical, of the world. Histories, and genealogies, myths and conflicts of epic proportion are certainly topics of debate and consideration, but not these alone. Not in Game Worlds. Fictional stories, no matter how engrossing and engaging are always "at a distance".

In drama this separation exists as the "fourth wall". Literally what happens on the stage is separated from us by the wall between the stage world and the audience. But there have been some revolutionary works in breaking this wall in live theater. Shakespeare did it and so did the ancient Greeks. It has proven much more difficult to do with movies and television because the performance is not in person. The passive nature of viewing TV or movies is hard to break down. However it has been attempted with varying degrees of success. In books the task is even harder, in spite of poor attempts such as the choose your own adventure books. This stage or the illusion thereof is much more easily bridged in role playing games.

The frame of reference for a shared game world is the game system in which the game world exists. In other words for say Greyhawk it is AD&D. For Glorantha it was Runequest. For Aihrde, Castles & Crusades. And for your game world whatever system you choose to create your world within. But beyond mere imaginary worlds is the experience of the game itself; across game worlds expressed within the system, and the characters, nonplayer characters and beasts within the shared experience of play. However, one thing holds constant and that is the system under which this social contract or the shared game experience exists.

In my opinion, system hopping or playing numerous systems with little regularity of preference sacrifices something essential to the shared experience of the game world. A group of friends, even casually, that agree upon a certain game are doing something momentous. They are establishing an order to things. This is the way the universe is. They set the bounds and the limits and in a way embrace all the infinite potential their imaginations can summon within these bounds. If you know anything about the mathematics of infinity delineated by George Cantor, these game bounds are much like his idea of bounded infinities. They are a distinct entity within themselves. But they are also infinite in scope and extent.

The game system is what it is. It is bound within a set of rule books, set forth by lists and explications of the rules contained within. But it is more like a structure or a framework. Perhaps one might see it as a toolbox (though this analogy is less than apt). I like to think of it as a physics book for the realm of fantasy. Each system is like a set of physics for the world of fantasy. The fantasy world will obey the laws of physics set forth in the rulebooks, but anything and everything you can build within the realms of creative possibility can be, as long as they are in accord with the fantasy physics of the "rules". And like in our world physics are really no more a tool than mathematics are. They are actually ways of explaining or modelling the world to help us understand and explain it. But, and this is a big but, understanding those laws, or in our case rules, allow you to use them to do incredible things. In this case the aphorism knowledge is power is very true. Knowledge of the rules allow you to create within the system. And you can continue to discover new game physics that are not "in the rules" yet. And just like extending the knowledge of physics or mathematics in our world the new law must be in harmony with all the laws that have come before.

The reason this is different from other forms of media is that the direct experience of this physics is accessible by playing the game. We enter, through the common frame of reference within a given game, a world that is actively experienced. We directly affect the world and are affected by it. Not in a third hand way, like seeing a movie or reading a book. This is not passive participation it is very, very active. We are affected directly in as much as we assume one of the roles within the world. The collective nature of this experience reinforces its reality. And all of this is guided by the physics set out in the game. Though such experiences are true for all role playing games, they can be different based upon the game system chosen.

So choosing a game is more than simply picking a system and playing some games. The game world and its physics must be amenable to all concerned. And if not amenable at the least agreed upon. For it is within this structure we proceed to seek and attain the experience which gaming provides. Long term play in a system is able to achieve something that short stints simply aren't. And that is sustained imagery. A brief one shot within a one time game system is fleeting at best and offers none of the depth that long term play within a system and particularly within a shared game world offers.

Game worlds are in essence living things. And by game worlds I mean again not the actual created world on paper, but the wider experience of the game as provided by a given system. For indeed all worlds created within that system abide by the same universal game laws represented within that system. Groups of players that stay dedicated to a game over a long period of time are building up collective identity within the game. Stories become more interwoven, interdependent. Happenings in game begin to be used as examples long after they were played and their personas of concern have passed away. Vistas, scenes, structures, castles, kingdoms, empires, villains, and heroes gain weight and endurance. The game world takes on "gravitas". It becomes very much a living thing with a life of its own. Regardless of how many worlds, epochs, dimensions and planes of existence are born, exist, change, wane, die, become immortal and pass away, the game world continues to grow and go forward. And we are a very real part of it all.

Collective imagination builds permanence. And this permanence is more intensely experienced over time. The fleeting thought forms of a shortly sustained game are by their transient nature unable to affect us as profoundly because they existed for such a short time. For this we can refer to examples of powerfully established fictional worlds. The magical realm of Oz is currently fixed in the popular psyche. The emerald city is a construct in our collective memory, Tik Tok, the Tin Man, Dorothy, these are all part of the imaginative space of literally millions of people. We have all indirectly interacted with it, and some few have done so more directly. The very commonality and permanence of OZ is achieved by collective sustained effort offered by the various fictions built up around the construct and the many minds that particiapte and sustain it.

Long term gaming imagination builds collective permanence. And that permanence allows for greater affect upon us in the game world and beyond. The imaginative places in the game world literally become real in the context of the game experience. The power of such permanence can affect us beyond just play, but also in our thoughts, our ruminations, our dreams and in a way our reality. We begin to interact with the game world as if it were a real thing with an existence beyond the confines of the game. No I'm not talking about losing yourself Mazes and Monsters style. I'm talking about a "psychological" reality that is shared among friends and others in the collective that deepens reality. My work in education, math and my spiritual endeavors has deepened life for me. My world is not just what you see around me, it is a many layered realm of existence that affects me and others around me in very profound ways.

When I talk to fellow mathematicians about a particular proof we marvel at the beauty of it; the simplicity, which is always a part of mathematical beauty. And we enter this rarified realm of symbols that act and obey in predictable ways but often unknown and unexplored ways. We can manipulate these symbols at our whim and in so doing gain deep insight into the definition of a thing within the system, its relatedness to other parts of the system and it's dynamic interaction with other factors within the system. This "state of mind" that you might call the mathematical zone is shared by mathematicians. These things come to me in my dreams, they haunt my days with unsolved dilemmas, they tempt and tease me with their uniquely impish qualities. John Nash described how it affected him as climbing to the top of a mountain and looking at the peaks in the distance to see new mathematical truths. Only the valleys that showed the way to get there were obscured in mist. Such imagery is not fanciful rhetoric. It is how mathematics exist as an entity outside of ourselves, yet created by us. A realm which we can enter and in which we can play.

Philosophers of mathematics still argue whether we created the discipline or discovered it. Did it exist as a set of laws outside of human experience that we came across and worked out? Or is mathematics just a set of laws we created to describe the physical world around us? The fact is either way mathematicians interact with mathematics like it was an alternate dimension in which strange constructs live, breathe, change and have their being. And that their intractability is at times as much a quality of their own as their bestowed nature.

And the same is true of our fantasy worlds. They too have a life of their own. Robert E. Howard said that when writing some of his books he felt as if the characters within the stories were telling him their tales as they looked over his shoulder. That his books wrote themselves as much as he wrote them. Were Conan or King Kull real beings that were speaking to and affecting Howard? Imparting their stories to him? Or had he so channeled his energy into the characters that they were to his mind as real beings?

Noted paranormal investigator John Keel relates the story of a haunted home in Greenwich, New York wherein a phantom has been seen by numerous people. So many observers have seen the dark figure that the home has made Holzer's register as one of the most haunted houses in America. The apparition can be seen as black silhouetted figure, lurking in corners and furtively slinking from room to room about the house. The being wears a dark wide brimmed hat and a black flowing cape. But investigators became stumped when they realized that these reports only began in the past 20 years. And the only man who had lived in the house since that time had been Walter Gibson. A prolific author, Gibson is most famous for his creation of the dark hero in black, The Shadow. Yes, the bane of villains everywhere, The Shadow wore a black flowing cape, a wide brimmed black hat and would hide in the shadows to then confront and defeat evil in its many forms. Keel opines that perhaps Gibson channeled so much energy into this figure that it literally came to ghostly life and slipped into our world.

Whatever you think about such stories the general idea is no less valid. That repeated visitations in our mental imaginings to familiar and frequented places and figures makes such imaginative experiences more powerful and at least vicariously real. This is why the game we choose really matters. I mean I have no problem with 'trying a game out". Or even with dropping the regular game for a night or two and playing something else. But gamers need a home. Their imaginations need a home. Their dreams need a place to truly fly. And that home is a realm of impossibly infinite wonders and magic and mystery. It is the home of mighty kings, regal empresses, of fell beasts and glitteringly magnificent creatures, of jeweled spires, and deep mist laden forests. Worlds of enchantment and endless possibility. It is the world we all wished would open to our vista one day as we walked home from school. Just around the next corner we would step and there it would be. Two large pillars framing a shimmering gateway. As if the magical appearance alone wasn't enough, we know this has never been here before. And we also know without question that it is here now just for us. A distant vista is visible through the gateway. A panorama of emerald green hills, impossibly blue skies, a spired castle in the distance. The barest hint of a pearl white form weaves through the distant trees. Is it? Yes it is. A glorious unicorn every so often turning it's silvery maned head back in our direction. Seemingly wanting us to follow, to step through the gate, and towards endless adventure.

Part II

When I conceived of presenting this idea it naturally divided into two parts. The first was presented last time and, while rather esoteric basically suggested that it mattered that we played a game as a main game of choice. The purpose for such a choice was that a group of players are able to build that long term gaming "magic" that is only possible with commitment to one game. But I made no bid that the game needed to be of a specific type. Thus the purpose of this entry. It doesn't matter what you choose to play as long as you choose a game to stay committed to over the long haul.

Now, truly it is impossible for many of us to stick with the same players over the long haul. Lucky are those players who still play with the same people they started out with. No, rather most of us change and shift gaming groups over time. And it is not essential that we personally stick with the same game when we shift players. The reason for this is that the individual players have not built up in the psyche the imaginative landscape that you may have with your previous gaming groups.

The one exception to this in my opinion is when you can bring a group together that have spent considerable time with one system. For instance, let's say your old gaming group dissolves for whatever reason. You are left a gaming loner looking for a new group to settle in with. You ask around, put a flier up at the local hobby shop and check gaming meetup sites to try and find some new players to play with. You may or may not make it clear on your flier that you play AD&D or C&C or HM or what have you. Two things are of course the norm. Players will either list all the games they are familiar with and have played or like to play. And on the other hand some people simply advertise they are looking for players for game X. So after a few weeks you start getting calls. If you find that the majority or, heavens bless you, all of your new acquaintances have dedicated most of their gaming life to certain game. I would heartily urge you to follow the dream of the game which you all collectively love.

It can be whatever game you please. But I do recommend you seriously consider sticking with the game you have always played. The reason for this is that magical factor I wrote about in my previous post. The collective power of imagination connected with a game transcends the specific gaming world you or these new players may have played in. They may have all played in a different gaming world, but all within the same system. There is still immense power, and I would argue even more power than that inherent in the gaming world, in the collective gaming reality represented by the system itself. AD&D is so powerful because so many people played and imagined within its bounds. The AD&D reality is a living thing that many people can interact with outside the boundaries of space and time. Smaller games don't have the same power, but they do have that power in lesser measure.

As an important aside 3.5 and 4e broke with the AD&D tradition exactly because the system they created was different from its predecessor. And I would argue somewhat that 0e and 1e/2e was different enough to also change that gaming landscape some. But the contention that a person does not want to shift to another edition is never nostalgia alone. The small part that nostalgia plays in such feelings is usually due to the remembrances rooted in the imaginative landscape of the gaming system and the worlds that system gave birth to in the minds of its many players. To think a gamer can just "move on" shows a gross misunderstanding of the real power in gaming itself. Losing a system is like losing the golden key to their magical kingdom. There is bitter sadness and real loss associated with such a change. And for that reason and many others I suggest that players who share a common love or association with a given system continue in that system when possible.

However, there are those who claim they never "liked" 1e or any other system. Which is fine. Many are finding their imaginative home in 4e or GURPS or Shadowrun or any other number of systems. Which is fine and glorious. For in truth the gaming multiverse is large and only as endless as is our imaginative powers. So many are the gateways to magical kingdoms that you can almost always certainly find the world that is your preferred home. In that way it matters little what game you play. Only that you find your home and play there often, building up its magic and power for yourself and others.

To refer back again to my previous post; there is a point in a community where participants transcend the meta qualities of the system itself. Where the rules have become secondary to the purpose for which they exist. In our workaday world we seldom think about physics unless you are a physicist. We exist within the world as a very real experience. And that experience is immediate and powerful. While in the throes of agony of some awful suffering in this world, or the joys of ecstasy in some glorious triumph we seldom stop to think about this world as if we were examining it from the outside. We are in it, we are living it. such is the experience of a communal participant in some group or other. And such is the power of a game system regardless of its origin. And this experience is unique to those who regularly play the game and enter its realms. The rules have become second nature, as real and immediate a reality as our own world. And of no more conscious consequence than physics is to us on a daily basis.

This magic is worth preserving. However, in the case that your new gaming friends come from a variety of gaming backgrounds, and have different preferences of play from you it is okay to switch systems of choice and dedicate yourself to a new world. The collective power of that world will build as well over time. It may be larger or smaller in extent than the world you are used to but the same dynamics can exist in a new game as it did in the old. It just takes time to build the new reality.

Now some may wonder, if we can build a reality that is in some sense real in the realms of the imagination, can't others go there having never experienced it before? Absolutely. And in this way others can be brought into an existing system with a strong history of imaginative construction and take part in a world built by others. Doing so is admittedly more difficult, but certainly possible. It helps immensely if there are several players that already are committed to and have partaken in the collective creation of the world so that entry to its domain can be facilitated. Otherwise it is like we are looking for a fabled land long lost to man without a map to show us the way. But it is certainly possible to get there. Thus the long term attraction and power of games to those who may have never played them before.

Simply picking up a well established game unlocks certain archetypal patterns and imaginative landscapes built in the creative ether by the game's designer and by others who have dedicated themselves to playing the game. Now, as this theory becomes more clear to you, you may begin to question my sanity and if not my sanity at least my reason. And here is not the time to launch into a full discourse on parapsychological energy dynamics. Suffice it to say that energy is not created or destroyed, and thoughts are expressed or contained as energy. Moreover current thought in information theory speculates whether the organization of energy into thoughts or information can be erased. In other words information is eternal as well. Certainly there are some that say that information is simply a pattern stamped upon energy and can be eroded by time due to entropy. But while neither theory is completely proven the research on quantum spin states and what physicists are calling "spooky action at a distance" in quantum mechanics leads us to at least believe that information is preserved through time and space and is not subject to the laws of entropy. Existence itself seems to have memory.

Shared dream states are another area of research along with several studies in more esoteric regions of parapsychology that also lead us to believe constructed landscapes are at least a part of a shared collective unconscious. More interestingly even and slightly more troubling is the subject of thought forms that were alluded to in my last blog post about The Shadow. Thus is it a short leap to begin to wonder about the collective force of a group imagining a landscape, world and universe that exists a part from, but very much a part of our own world. This can be attained via any number of vehicles, roleplaying games being but one. But this is only possible with concerted effort and dedicated focus over a period of time. The more and longer the investment of time the more powerful the cumulative effect.

Until at some point one can't help but wonder if the theories on the holographic universe aren't closer to the mark than we might imagine and God him/herself is but up there somewhere roleplaying us in his own imagined universe.

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