Tools for Dreaming: Games for the Human Animal

This is kind of a weird chapter, directly inspired by a particular Adam Curtis documentary. If you’re not familiar with his work, I highly recommend checking out basically anything he’s done, though they’re one of those things (like Charlie Brooker’s various -Wipe shows) that the BBC doesn’t bother releasing outside the UK, so you may have to look for them on YouTube or whatever. I think the conclusion of this chapter is kind of weak, and it’s something I need to figure out how to develop better.

Games for the Human Animal

Adam Curtis is a brilliant British documentarian whose work is mainly about, as he puts it, “power and how it works in society.” A lot of his films are about things like the War on Terror and geopolitics, but in The Century of the Self he explores how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and others applied psychoanalysis to foster the consumer culture we have today and reshape modern politics, particularly in the US and UK. That’s some heady stuff. It’s well worth seeking out the documentary for purely educational reasons, but there are also ways in which it’s relevant to role-playing games.

Psychoanalysis has largely been discredited, but it remains important as a sort of transitional form on the way to modern psychiatry, and it gave us some enduring metaphors and turns of phrase. There’s scant evidence for things like the Oedipal Complex, but the notion that childhood experiences shape how a person turns out isn’t exactly controversial today. Moreover, since people know Bernays as “the father of public relations,”[1] Freud’s theories have inspired ideas that are crucial to the formation of modern world. Before Bernays came along, luxury goods were something that rich people bought, and it’s because of his influence that the arts of marketing and PR tapped into humanity’s hidden wants to stimulate desire for products and what those things represent on an emotional level. While it’s silly to paint the requirement of adding an egg to Betty Crocker cake mixes as tapping into woman’s procreative nature, calling for a fresh egg rather than including powdered egg made prepackaged cake mixes not feel quite so much like cheating to American housewives, and saved a failing product line. We don’t have to look at every cigarette as a phallic symbol to be able to think about what products mean to people on an emotional level, and people did indeed continue to build on Bernays’ methods while leaving behind the Freudian baggage.

There’s a disturbing kind of cynicism mixed in there,[2] and my goal with this chapter is as much to call for being responsible as to explain the topic. I can’t complain too strenuously about modern commercialism because it’s what created a society where a luxury good like an RPG book is even a possibility, but I can try to be a more conscious consumer and creator. RPGs aren’t so profitable of an industry that anyone determined to make big bucks with slick marketing should bother, and my concern is first and foremost with practicing the craft of game design to help create interesting experiences. I don’t want to create addicts or anything, but rather to be aware of how what I create can engage people. I do make some games purely with artistry in mind, but at a certain point I’m making these things to share with people. Even without crass commercialism, I think it’s useful to examine how game can engage people on an emotional level.

Human beings have a variety of instincts that are a result of how we evolved as a species. Some are very useful, while others are ill-suited to living in a postindustrial society, especially if your goal is to be compassionate. But to overcome your baser instincts you have to understand what they are, and sometimes you need to find safe ways to indulge them. Not every game appeals to the id, but a lot of the most successful ones do. This can bring out passion that enriches our hobbies, but it can also unleash some real ugliness, as anyone who’s had a 13-year-old boy scream racial slurs at them on Xbox Live can tell you.

Release

There are very few scholarly books on RPGs. One of these is Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine. Fine is a sociologist who has done several studies on subcultures, and in 1983 he published the results of studying RPG players in the Twin Cities. It’s an interesting snapshot of the state of this hobby’s culture in a particular place more than 30 years ago, and the section on how women fit into the picture is one of the most interesting parts of the book, albeit also one of the most depressing. You will not be surprised to hear that those gamers had a hard time dealing with the opposite sex, but some also said that the presence of a female player at the table made them feel restrained, that they weren’t as free to experience the release of having their characters rape and pillage as they pleased.

While not every gamer takes it to that extreme of course, that sort of cathartic release is a factor in most popular games, especially the ones that inspire real passion. Even when players don’t bring sex stuff into it, D&D still offers fantasies of power and freedom that are important factors in its appeal. Cards Against Humanity provides a comedy card game as a “safe” framing device for saying things that would normally be taboo. Grand Theft Auto’s single-player sandbox world is about the purest playground imaginable for the id. While these games provide endless enjoyment to their fans, this phenomenon that helps power them is also what fuels the identity politics and gatekeeping that make the gaming scene decidedly unpleasant for many people. While this is a powerful tool—one of the most powerful a creative person can wield—it’s also a dangerous one that we need to use responsibly and with care.

One example of this phenomenon working in a purely negative fashion is in the reaction to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. I’ve read all four books (to get ideas for a satirical novel involving vampires, which I should really get around to writing someday), and I can tell you from firsthand experience that here are several legitimate reasons to dislike them. They have poor writing, bland characters, and unfortunate lessons about relationships. And yet, there are a lot of crappy novels, and even a lot that are popular. Twilight earns a special ire from geeks because it’s popular with an out group (mainstream women), and because it presents an alternate vision of the vampire, a horror icon that some people feel an irrational ownership over, especially when girls are turning vampires into sparkly, chaste, brooding Edward Cullen. You can dislike Twilight without it being an unthinking, identity-powered hatred, and you can remember that (what with Sturgeon’s Law being a thing) plenty of geeky favorites are mediocre if not outright terrible in terms of their literary quality. Geek culture gives us a lot of things that people are expected to hate, and the difference between informed dislike and ignorant outgroup hatred is night and day.

A lot of geeks are poorly socialized. There’s a reason the “Geek Social Fallacies”[3] are a thing. They’re a list of five aspects of friendship and socializing that geeks often get wrong due to a lack of experience. I know I’ve run afoul of a lot of them, and I’m a better person and a better friend for having come across that article and taken it to heart. It also means that there are a lot of geeks who have less social contact than they’d like, but have trouble dealing with the various impulses and such that come with socializing, so that things can bubble to the surface in a less filtered form.[4]

Tabletop games, despite being an inherently social activity, attract people who have trouble with socializing. They’re structured activities that you enjoy with a group that is small enough to be intimate and private, but just large enough to make the activities more interesting. RPGs in particular invite us to try out being someone else for a little while, and some players will inevitably test the boundaries. A small group like that can wind up heading off into some strange territory, and for my part every time sex has come up in a game session it’s felt like an impulse that someone can’t contain and no one can quite bring themselves to object to.

When I look at the games I’ve worked on, while the quality of the actual games is absolutely a factor, the ability of the premise to latch onto the lizard brain is also important. Maid RPG is still the best-selling RPG I’ve ever worked on. It’s sold thousands of copies, and as small press RPGs go, it still sells well today, long after the initial release in 2008.[5] I’m proud of it in some ways, but deeply ambivalent about it in others. While you can play Maid RPG as innocent comedy (and I normally do), both the material in the book and actual play can veer into sexy weirdness. For some people that’s a total deal-breaker, but for thousands of people it has, at a minimum, failed to be a deterrent. Some people earnestly want a sexytimes RPG to play out their fantasies, some want to play around with the edges of that taboo territory, and some are just willing to have that weird cream-colored book on their shelf. But one way or another, people’s reactions to Maid RPG are seldom subtle. At conventions, some people will see the book and say, “I have to know what this is,” while others start walking faster to get away from a book cover with anime maids.

Desires

So, what are these primal desires? One popular notion of such things is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first published in 1943. As with psychoanalysis, it’s an appealing idea without much empirical evidence supporting it, but potentially inspirational if we remember that it’s a flawed model. The hierarchy is usually depicted as a pyramid, with physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, love/belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization. The lower rungs of the hierarchy are undeniably things we all need, while the higher ones become more difficult to universalize across cultures, plus there’s the issue that it’s unclear where sex belongs. We can recognize the need for physical wellbeing as obviously true and not dependent on culture, but it’s also not something an RPG can provide, and not something people seek to experience vicariously through their luxury goods.

I’m going to attempt to lay out what I see as the major needs of people in postindustrial societies that games can potentially address, either in simulation or directly. This isn’t backed up by scientific research or anything, and might well fall apart if you applied it to another culture, but here goes.

  • Freedom
  • Sex
  • Power
  • Belonging

Freedom” means not being subject to unwanted authority or other encumbrances. In real life people are deeply, necessarily interconnected through communities, but particularly in contemporary American culture we like to pretend otherwise. If you live in a city in a typical postindustrial society, the number of people around you far exceeds what human beings are wired to empathize with,[6] and a lot of people are doing things that immensely benefit you without doing them for you in particular. Most of us have a web of obligations and etiquette around us, and when it feels suffocating we yearn to throw it off, sometimes in a dramatic and transgressive way. Your average D&D party will eventually be beholden to some authority of some sort, but unless you go out of your way to give them backstories and a place in the world, they’re going to be a band of wandering “murderhoboes” with few restrictions placed on them. Plenty of people play their RPG characters as people who have little to no regard for the rules of society, and games often give them the tools to overcome authority.

Sex is fairly self-explanatory I hope. Asexual people do exist, but most human beings have a natural urge to procreate and to seek out the intimacy and pleasure that the act provides. Sexuality can affect countless aspects of life, and thus there are countless potential avenues for touching on it. The most obviously sexual facet of games is in the sexualized depictions of so many characters.[7] There are a handful of RPGs and supplements that are explicitly about sex, but they’re decidedly outside of the mainstream of the hobby. There are people who have the maturity and the particular type of social bonds to role-play sex, but most people, and even more so most geeks, aren’t going to be up for that. Instead, sex usually remains more of a sublimated desire, presented in ways that don’t require getting too much into the icky details. You might have your D&D character hit on a barmaid or visit the local brothel, but most gamers will treat it in a “fade to black” kind of way. A lot of things that people do in the name of sex are less direct than you might think though, and something can have the urgent appeal of sexuality without actually involving a sexual act directly. Quite a few people find appeal in situations of dominance and submission, and while that’s not something I even quite understand myself, there are undoubtedly people who get that out of playing Maid RPG.

Power means different things to different people, whether it’s having control over other people or having the raw ability to do the things that you want to do. D&D is one of many RPGs that presents a power fantasy, letting you pretend to be someone with capabilities far beyond your own. Some gamers like to play out elaborate schemes or being a leader of men in their RPGs, but a lot of RPG power fantasies are much more basic than that, giving players the opportunity to pretend to be someone with raw strength, combat prowess, guile, or outright sorcery that they don’t possess in real life. D&D creates pressure to acquire power by presenting the PCs with both perils and riches, so that there is a natural cycle of seeking greater and greater power. Many people are also attracted to power in others, and RPGs certainly offer the chance to vicariously place oneself near and under those with power.[8] Vampire: The Masquerade is an obvious game to point to in terms of appealing to the desire for power, in basically every form. Mark Rein•Hagen[9] and company intended Vampire to be more of a game about angst and politicking, but they made the Kindred powerful enough that there was an emergent “superheroes with fangs” genre of play, where Celerity and Potence replace fireballs and magic swords.

The need for belonging comes from the fact that we’re social animals. We instinctively want to belong to a group. Games can be a positive force in how they foster friendships, but they can be a negative when they lead to trying to keep others out or enforce conformity within the group. The need for belonging ties into the need for identity, and a lot of geeks have latched onto products they consume as a source of identity.[10] There are certain things that act as signifiers for an identity grouping, and thereby attract people who want to feel like a part of it. It’s why there are so many geeky games that involve Cthulhu or zombies. It’s also why my own Channel A card game attracts anime fans, since its word choices and graphic design contain a lot of signifiers that they recognize as being authentically from their own fandom.[11]

A Hammer Looking for a Nail

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without feeling like I should be sitting in a chair stroking a cat, and I think it’s important to remember that these are powers that we can use for good. While there’s certainly room for critique of D&D, it’s also a fun, creative game that has entertained millions, in part on the strength of its ability to engage these hidden desires. Don’t be crass or cheap, but think about the thrills you can give your audience.


[1] Albeit in part because, you know, he’s good at PR.

[2] Especially when you consider that Bernays used those same techniques to do PR for a coup to depose a democratically elected Guatemalan leader because he was inconvenient for an American fruit company. Also, that’s why we have the term “banana republic.”

[3] http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html

[4] That isn’t to say that there aren’t other groups that let their repressed urges rise to the surface of course. There’s an ugly side to RPG fandom, but it’s never produced anything on the level of a sports riot.

[5] I put it up on DriveThruRPG in January of 2014, and it’s since become a Platinum Bestseller, which puts it in the top 0.52% of DTRPG products. Golden Sky Stories meanwhile, although a better production in basically every way, is currently lagging behind as a Gold Bestseller.

[6] The number of individuals that people (and other primates) are wired to empathize with is called Dunbar’s number, which is believed to be around 100 to 250. Cracked.com has an excellent article by David Wong titled “What is the Monkeysphere?” that explains it in layman’s terms.

[7] Mostly female characters, because so much of the fandom is male. Male characters tend to fit more into power fantasies, and don’t make straight guys uncomfortable the way that truly sexualized male characters do.

[8] And of course Maid RPG plays around with power dynamics quite a bit, in ways that are legitimately interesting.

[9] I did some of the writing for this book on my MacBook Air, so I was able to press Option-8 to get that dot.

[10] That’s hardly unique to geeks of course, especially when we’re living in the world that Edward Bernays and his clients helped create.

[11] The anime titles and pitches that come from people playing Channel A aren’t always plausibly something that could come from an actual anime studio, but they definitely feel like an extension of the players’ anime fandom.

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