Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Criticism, Philosophy and Gaming


Cultural criticism is often described as the process of describing, interpreting and evaluating a culture. It often breaks down the difference between levels of culture and uncovers the political, historical and sociological reasons why certain aspects of a culture are valued more than others.

Philosophy can be described variously, but at its most simple can be understood as a study of the theoretical foundation for a particular school of thought or body of knowledge.

Some time ago, James Maliszewski described the role of the OSR bloggers as the philosophers of the OSR movement. In this light, OSR bloggers are investigating the theoretical basis of old school gaming--what it is and what it is not.

I think that is part of what I have done on this blog, but I also think I have spent a lot of time doing cultural criticism. In particular criticism of the gaming culture. Especially the the table top role playing game community, and much more relevantly the OSR. But when you come right down to it, philosophy and cultural criticism really go hand in hand. In fact, Kant made it clear in his foundation of critical philosophy. Not only did he argue all philosophy is critical philosophy, his whole body of work has come to be called The Critical Philosophy. In a nutshell, Kant believed it is not philosophy's job to come to any ultimate conclusions about life, the universe or everything. In fact, says Kant, philosophy can't really do that. It can only evaluate and judge the accuracy and coherency or a proposition, subject an idea or a thought to critical inquiry and judge its worth in relation to other ideas and thoughts.

Whatever you may think about Kant, criticism, philosophy or critical philosophy, one has to wonder what the real purpose of bloggers are today. In a world where opinions are cheap and everybody has one, or more, what role do bloggers really play? Reviews, criticisms and judgments are had aplenty in the blogging world, and it requires no more than a decent computer and an internet connection to get yours out there. But what the hell good is it? And what's more, why would anyone engage in such a practice?

In fact it brings to mind Shaw's Maxim 36 from the Maxim for Revolutionaries, "He who can does, he who can't teach." As like to say it is easier to write about something than to do that something. Cultural critics are often decried as making their point on the backs of others' work. And this is certainly true to an extent. Critics require something to evaluate, understand, interpret and judge. For some it is visual art, for others movies, for others literature, or fashion. For me its games.

The question is, is what I'm doing really of any use at all. I look around at blogs, circles, feeds, Facebook, Kickstarters today and Lord, it's hard to keep up with it all. Half of the sites that were around in the opening salvos of the OSR aren't even active anymore. A whole new crop of interactive media has opened up, and most of it focused on new content and new games. I can't help but ask myself if I keep doing what I'm doing here because I can't do anything else. Which of course is not totally true. Regardless of the "quality" of my game design, I spend upwards of six hours a week prepping game material for my current campaign and generating new gaming material, some of which I may never even use. When I go to "put it out there" though, I always hesitate. Is it not good enough? Hell, I'm not sure. Most of my work is a lot like the van they loaded up with Dave Arneson's old papers and files. A disorganized avalanche of half scribbled papers and out of order files that may have made perfect sense to Dave, but were nothing but chaos to anyone else.

I mean I certainly could make my work more suitable for commercial consumption, but I don't. Why? Well, honestly, it doesn't interest me. I'm not a production person. I create my stuff for use in my game and, largely, for my own entertainment. At times I dream about owning a gaming and comic book store, a common enough day dream among gamers. But I've done the numbers. Read what it is really like to be a business owner--and I have no desire to do that. I love going into gaming stores, hanging out there, talking with other gamers and collectors. But I do not want to run a small business--even a game shop. It is close to the same thing with creating content. I do not want to go to the trouble to edit, polish, produce and make understandable, not to mention, playable by others my creations. That's a lot of work that isn't about gaming or creating--it is about polishing, editing, and marketing a product. I lose interest in that about as quickly as I do the sports report on the evening news.

So, what do I do? I whip off these little essays at about 30 minutes a pop. I don't have a lot of time during the day, and yet I think about gaming, and speculative culture in general, all the time. And my mind has a natural philosophical bent. This blog has become my outlet for those thoughts. It takes little time, and the thoughts are already there. Writing them out actually helps.

But ... Then there's Mr. Mentzer. As I said last time, there was another part of what Mr. Mentzer taught me. And this part is what is not as easy for me to process. Is what I'm doing actually worthwhile?

I've been struggling with my place in the larger gaming world ... and, my influence in it. Clearly there is less and less taste for what I do, which could be called a cultural critique of the gaming world, and its product and process. Its history and its politics. I do not claim to be the best informed, nor the most erudite and incisive. I am however, a voice. A voice offering not just another review, or news of the latest and greatest, or even new product; but a voice offering a barometer of how one old gamer sees the gaming world--and reflects on its relation to the rest of the world in which gaming, and gamers, find themselves. I also come by this sort of pontificating rather naturally, as well as by training. My first degree is in cultural anthropology, and I ended up there because my natural proclivities predisposed me to be fluent at observing and analyzing social and cultural groups. My second degree is in English Language & Literature, and my two strengths there, besides a love of reading generally, were a talent at rhetoric and penchant for literary criticism. So, though it hard's to know whether the chicken of education or the egg of interest came first, my blog is what it is because of who I am, what interests me and what I do.

But Mr. Mentzer has caused me to pause. The whole idea that he and other game designers (some of whom I truly admire) came together to intentionally be supportive and non-critical, because it is "good for gaming", sort of pours salt in the eye of much of my rantings here. Of course, just because Mr. Mentzer and others are seeking to pursue one path doesn't mean I'm obliged to jump on board, but I do have to ask: is what I am doing useful? Does it serve a purpose beyond the limitations of the length of my nose? Would I be better off biting the bullet and shifting my site to yet another review site? Or a homebrewed content site? A campaign log blog? A gaming news feed? Or even shuttering the doors for good?

Well, considering I've tried all three and none has ever quite stuck--it isn't likely. Yes, even closing the doors--lasted for all of a few months at best. I simply love communicating about gaming far too much. What then is the core of Mr. Mentzer's message in this regard? I've come to the following conclusion. I'm going to keep doing what I do because of what Mr. Mentzer himself is doing. It's odd really, that I should give this much time and thought to a short phrase, that in itself is a form of  cultural criticism. Yes indeed. Mr. Mentzer is offering an insightful critique of the OSR community. What he points out is true--in a certain light. And the very discussion it has engendered is proof enough of the value of such criticism.

And, as my last post alluded to, scrubbing off all the sharp bits that can scratch you is part of what society did to the early days of gaming. Making everything nice and complimentary is nothing but a mutual admiration society and we know what those turn into: dogmatic priesthoods of the status quo. Yes, philosophy and cultural criticism have a very valid place in the human experience. As does asking ourselves what we are about and why. Gaming has always been more to me than just a game. And yes, I understand that it is just a game, but we all know it is more than that. Culturally, gaming shifted the world, and the world would literally not be the place it is today without it. Good, quality criticism is required if we are to act as responsible and aware stewards of the great gift we have all been given. And yes, Mr. Mentzer helped me realize that. Thank you again Prince of Empyrea.

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