Friday, January 20, 2006

Mazes & Media

"Art, like games, is a translator of experience. What we have alrady felt or seen in one situation we are suddenly given in a new kind of material. Games, likewise, shift familiar experience into new forms, giving the bleak and the blear side of things sudden luminosity." -- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964

McLuhan was writing ten years before Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, under electric conditions, turned the ages-old, formalized, gentlemanly pursuit of table-top wargaming into Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax was a rules fanatic, as his thousands of pages of charts, tables and diagrams quantifying magic attest, but with or without his strict formality this new medium of role-playing gaming, of collaborative storytelling within a consensual framework, became almost overnight a major means by which nerds came to know themselves and cope with their world. I'd like to say that McLuhan would have approved (did he ever roll a d20, before he died?) but his Olympian insight, taking in all of human thought and experience, was so vast it made approval and disapproval irrelevant. Inasmuch as McLuhan disapproved of anything, his disapproved of the chauvinistic, hubristic, terrified refusal to accept that everything we are is a product of the media in which we live.

I guess McCluhan must also have disapproved of smartasses pretending to speak in his voice in order to score Brain Points -- his cameo in Annie Hall ("You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.") haunts the nightmares of those of us who would drop his name. I'm not even seriously rereading Understanding Media; I'm just picking at it in little bits and pieces while I wait for the my archaic XBox's pathetic drive to grind its way through loading Morrowind saves. Yeah, yeah... I'm off the wagon and back on the 'Wind. What can I say? I'm hungry, angry, lonely and tired.

Plus, I had a bomb dropped on me a couple of weeks ago that had every escapist-fantasy RPG receptor in my brain locked open and screaming for the junk. Buddy of mine, cleaning out his apartment, shows up at my door one night with a company-truckload of all his old D&D (Advanced D&D, second edition, the China White of gaming) handbooks and source materials. The Manuals, the Handbooks, the Tomes the Compendiums, the boxed sets -- Ruins of Myth Drannor, Ruins of Undermountain, Ruins of Undermountain II, Dragon Mountain, City of Splendors, City of Delights -- Al-Qadim, Ravenloft, a dozen old Dungeon magazines... an evil cargo, a devastating white elephant, an irresistable narcotic. Days and nights spent rediscovering saving throws, material components, character classes and kits. Normal thinking short-circuited: when you're in a living room with friends, having a good time, and your idea of a conversational gambit is "What D&D alignment do you think everybody is? I think you are definitely Chaotic Neutral," you know you've got a problem.

But, man, did the memories come back. From the fumbling and fitful D&D games of childhood (Helix, half-elf wizard, where are your barmaids now?) to those boozy '90s nights in my pal Thor's -- real name; his brother's Odin -- HUB apartment and our "Pirates of the Sword Coast" campaign. Man, did I get worked over in that one. "Games," McLuhan writes, "are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions." I had just come off of twelve (well, maybe eight; things weren't too bad 'til Grade Four) years of miserable school social life, but as much as I needed to release particular tensions I was in no way mentally ready to take on the role of Ramirez Balbuzard, swashbucklng pirate captain. I wasn't (and am not) one of those nerds who discharges their social anxiety by power-tripping at every opportunity; when Ramirez was eventually mutinized, brutalized and literally shat upon, my high-school worldview took it as bullying rather than the logical consequence of my shitty leadership and very un-piratical roleplay. I got depressed and sullen and my role-playing got even worse, until Ramirez was finally mercy-killed. If I could go back, knowing what i know now, i'd show those scurvy dogs -- Mark, Phil, I'm talking to you -- what four fuckin' attacks per round can do.

Mind alive with memories and fantasies of swords, spells and derring-do, with no real immediate possibility of getting back into a D&D campaign, I've turned to Morrowind for a quick fix. It's not enough. In McLuhan's terms, pen-and-paper role-playing games are extremely "cool": even at their most formal and rules-rigid (as in tournament play) they demand a great deal of participation, calling upon every consumer to be also a creator. As open-ended and free (thus, cool) as Morrowind may be in comparison with other role-playing videogames and videogames in general, it is still very "hot": the world is supplied, the contents of that world are supplied, the story is supplied, and players -- solitary players -- move along its many pathways. The freedom to decide whether to pick an evil wizard's pocket, shoot him in the head with a crossbow, zap him with a magical lightning bolt or bribe him off with a sackful of gold is a windowless prison compared with the infinite freedom of tabletop roleplaying; the island of Vvardenfell is a silent, lonely place.

What about online multiplayer roleplaying, you ask? That's a whole other set of issues; let's pick them up in a couple weeks, 'kay? Until then, remember: "Men without art, and men without the popular arts of games, tend toward automatism."

1 comment:

mike w said...

Update your BLOG!

And thanks for the nice voicemail about the Oilers thing, Darren.

I love you.