Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Future & The Past of Gaming

Humor has always been a significant part of Dungeons & Dragons. I mean let's face it, some pretty funny shnit occasionally comes up in these "Little Games" (alluding, of course,  to H.G. Wells "Little Wars" in case you didn't catch it) we play. And the first words of prose in the book don't miss a beat in that regard, "In fact one would argue there are as many types of D&D players as there are D&D monsters (after that draw your own conclusions!)".
One of the thing many gamers not privy to the early days of gaming may not realize is that the hobby was fully in swing less than a year after the release of the game. Because even before 1974, the Fantasy Supplement to Chainmail (released in about 1971) had been going strong for some time, and in fact the publisher had been sending Gary Gygax letters from fans all over the country. He speaks of thousands of fans making queries, asking for advice, guidance and the like. By the time the first 1000 White Boxes went out the door there was an avid fantasy gaming culture developing around the minis based game. The very honesty in Mike Carr's foreword about players in the game describing them variously as "fast, slow, clever, foolish, cautious, reckless, generous, greedy, friendly, obnoxious ..." speaks to the very active state of the gaming community.

The reason I mention this here is that often I listen to gamers talk as if we are in the hey day of gaming now, that what has went before is passe', old news, and outdated. I'm afraid not my friend. In fact, the past of gaming is like an ancient advanced civilization right beneath our feet, that we often pass over without realizing what has gone before. Every stripe and color of gamer, every problem and dilemma has likely been experienced before. They often say there is no new thing under the sun--well I don't know about that, but alot more has happened before we got here than we sometimes admit. This is as true of gaming as a lot of other things.

I mean we are talking about gaming after all--not computers. Sure, computers have advanced, technology does that. But something that doesn't advance much is social endeavors. And gaming if anything, is a social endeavor. I'm a teacher, and every year they come up with some new supposedly miracle technique or program or method that is going to close the achievement gap, and catch every child up to where they need to be. It never works--not like they promised. Teaching is an essentially human endeavor and is every bit as much an art as it is a science. The basics haven't changed much since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wrote about them long ago. Well, okay Socrates, didn't actually write about it, but you knew that.

The same is true of roleplaying games. RPGs the way we have them now are basically a new phenomena. And the fact is, after about 40 years it is fairly clear that there is not a whole lot new under the sun in regards to the science of RPGs. But RPGs are like teaching in that they are at least as much about the art as they are the science--and probably more. There have been a few innovations, a few different ways of doing things--diceless, live action, skills vs classes, and a few others. But essentially they are what they are.

Now, this is not a call against innovation in the gaming world--far from it, inasmuch as RPGs are an art form there are an infinite variety of expressions left to discover and experience. But what I'm saying is that just as the art of the past is every bit as powerful and evocative as the art of the present day--just like a Rembrandt, a Gaugin, a Warhol, an Otus, a Ronquillo, and a Lascaux Cave Painting are all powerful and worthy in their own way. We have as much to learn from the past as we do from the present.

[I here take a slight aside. My assertion that gaming is an art form might be controversial, not the least because Gary Gygax himself made it clear that RPGs are not art, they are games. And I completely agree. But I would assert that there is an artistic quality about them much like live improvisational theater is an art form. It is in this sense I say that the collective play that develops out of the interaction between DM and players is a product much like a painting, novel or play is the product of given form of art.]

 And this it is that I would remind one and all that gaming h been alive longer than most of its adherents. Yes, there are still those of us who have yet outlived it--but I can only claim 2 years at best. And that when founders of the hobby, who worked in the field less than half a century ago, say something we would do well to take notice. They have walked the road before us, walked more steps than we. And this is not a science in the sense that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before--no. Would an artist today say he was better than Raphael because he came after and uses more high tech paints? Because he uses techniques that Raphael may not have known of? No. But if he is fortunate others might consider him as great as Raphael and the other masters. And if we are lucky we might one day be considered fortunate to stand shoulder to shoulder with the masters of RPGs.