Thursday, September 17, 2009

RPG's in the Mainstream

I listen to a lot of gaming podcasts while at work. Sometimes, I run out, and have nothing to listen to, which can sometimes make for a very long day. I don't know if I'd say that I like Fear the Boot, which seems to stand astride the RPG podcasting world like D&D stands astride the RPG world, but I still listen to them. Very often, they aggravate me, but I generally don't bother saying anything because it really doesn't matter. In episode 163, they talk about how or whether RPG's might ever become "mainstream." I don't know if this topic matters any more than the others, but it provides me a good starting point to make some points that I think do have enough relevance to warrant the time to type them out.

Now, I have a hard time keeping everyone's voices straight sometimes while listening, and I listened to the episode several hours ago, so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't even attempt to attribute these points to one or the other of the hosts, much less get the wording quite right. You can listen to the episode itself for such details. However, the discussion raised some of the expected (snobby) points: that RPG's can't go mainstream because people don't want their entertainment to challenge them intellectually (which thankfully, another host repudiated by pointing out the increasing intellectual sophistication of films, TV shows with years-long plot arcs, and video games of both staggering technical complexity, and philosophical depth—like BioShock's treatment of Rand's Objectivism, or Fallout's ethical issues), and that people don't want entertainment to actively engage them. They want something to entertain them, allowing them to remain passive. Since the hosts addressed the first point in the show itself, I'll leave that point lie. The second one speaks very much to something that I've written a great deal about: the importance of participatory folk art.

I reject wholesale the notion that people want passive entertainment. That said, we have no shortage of people trying to sell passive entertainment, precisely because they can sell it. Before you can sit back and passively consume it, they have to make it: whether "it" takes the form of a movie shown at the theater, a DVD, a CD, music on the radio, a book, a symphony, a play, or any other "medium". That makes the art an object, which someone can sell to you.

If you play your own music with friends, who profits? If you tell stories around a campfire, where does that leave Hollywood studios? We have a culture which sees the world as a collection of objects, and looks for art as objects. It values the ephemera left behind from an artistic performance, but rarely values the performance itself. Least of all we value participatory folk art, the art done without any audience whatsoever, save one's fellow performers. Playing music at home, or jamming story.

And yet, in spite of that, we see participatory folk art nonetheless continue, like the stubborn weed that keeps poking its head heroically through the cement, reminding you that no matter how many times you pave it over, living soil lies underneath, life preceded you here, and it will prosper here long after you've gone. Kids invent freestyle rhymes on street corners, old time players get together to jam for no one but each other, and geeks roleplay.

You hear some people say that the tabletop RPG can't out-compete the computer graphics of an online MMORPG. As one of the Fear the Boot hosts in this episode said, we want visual entertainment. And yet, World of Warcraft has by far the biggest audience of any MMORPG, and it also has some of the worst graphics. Why do people play? Pay attention to what they talk about. Transferring to a different server, where a friend plays. The guild they belong to on this other server. The people they play with on a particular server. They don't play for the graphics, they play because in an increasingly isolated world, they want social connection most of all.

I think people yearn for more active, more social pastimes. So why haven't RPG's gone mainstream? Well, have you ever tried playing D&D? My wife compares it to math homework. RPG's emerged from wargames, among geeks, and that meant they emerged with a very complex mathematical system. We need to face the fact: RPG's appeal to a particular set of not-entirely-normal people. I would even go so far as to say that your traditional RPG has a design that appeals most of all to someone somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I think indie RPG's or story games actually could become mainstream. But, having grown historically out of RPG's, we try to sell them to RPG players. And yet, the very people who would most likely pick up an RPG like D&D have self-selected themselves as the very group that would least respond to a story game. If we sell to them, then yes, we'll always seem like a very small niche. Not to put too fine a point on it, but selling a very social game to a group where many have taken a liking to the activity precisely because it caters to an autistic condition, even if very mild, and the rest of us, to a large extent, mimic that behavior even if we don't have any such problems ourselves, doesn't seem like the best idea.

Many people who get to play a lot more story games than I do have reported how they've had a much easier time finding people happy to try these games among the general populace, than they have among RPG players. This does not surprise. Neither does it surprise me that, for one of these "uninitiated," they respond far better to a game like A Penny for My Thoughts or even Polaris than D&D.

RPG's remain a tiny niche hobby because the traditional RPG simply does not appeal to most people. Most people do not consider math homework fun. I do think RPG's could go mainstream, but not the "traditional RPG" we currently have. I think, one day, story games could compete not just with Monopoly, but with TV shows or films. But that won't happen until indie RPG designers begin to understand that even when that happens, they still won't get much more of the regular RPG market than they already have.

I do plan to take the Fifth World to some gaming conventions when I have it ready. In fact, I'll release the new public beta at GASPcon in November. But my big marketing push doesn't rely on reaching out to the RPG fans who will probably always like my game least of all. I plan to take it to ecovillages, intentional communities, permaculture design courses, nature awareness schools, and people like that. I think they'll enjoy it a whole lot more than RPG players.

1 comment:

Jer said...

I admit, I used to think tabletop RPG's would never be accepted en masse by the public (at least in this country). Mostly because, I saw how much the mechanics interfered with the experience. Sadly, I didn't have the imagination to look for ways around that until you & Willem started posting about IAWA, PTA, & story jamming in general.

Thanks for that, btw.