Friday, May 28, 2004

Rolegaming, A Postmodern Pastime

posted by Bruce Baugh

One of my favorite things to do is to put things together in ways that others may not have thought to connect them. (Another of my favorite things is to have someone else do that for me, which is a lot of why this weblog is here, for posters and commenters to show me new things.) It's in that spirit that I want to first take on a bogeyman of a term and then link it to our general topic.

"Postmodernism" can refer with good reason to a bunch of different things. Postmodernism in literature isn't precisely the same thing as postmodernism in architecture, for instance. It's also used as an umbrella term with varying degrees of justification. At a glance, terms like "poststructuralism", "deconstruction", and "social constructionism" may not be readily distinguishable, even when one comes at them with good will. And very often good will is lacking when pundits get going about various postmodernist sins. This is not going to be a detailed primer, however.

At the core of postmodernism is an outlook about the pool of ideas from which creators work. Every creative field goes through three distinct stages - not once, but again and again.

First, there's the general proliferation of new ideas, new tools for working them over, and the whole deal. Very often, new tools open up the field, as photographic equipment has done several times. In other cases, it's just plain someone having fresh insights. The point is that folks are trying a lot of things for the first time (and the second and the third), to see what's possible and rewarding.

Second, there's the stage of characteristically modernist approaches. New ideas keep coming, but more and more of the cutting edge is concerned with the increasing refinement of things. This is where the most rigorously purified work appears: in art, blank canvases; in music, random noise, silence, and totalizing formulas like serial composition (where you can only use a note again after you've used all twelve in an octave once); in literature, the stream of consciousness, removal of plot in favor of epiphany, and so on; in architecture, the glass-walled skyscraper. In every field, the drive is to push some concept as far as it will go, and to free it from attachments to any other. Now, a whole lot of really good work comes out of this. But there comes a point where you've taken something as far as it'll go.

Third, there's the stage of characteristically postmodernist approaches. The postmodernist creator turns away from purification in favor of synthesis, looking back at the pool of possibilities and seeing how they can fit together now. There's a renewed interest in popular as well as scholarly versions of the field, and in its interaction with others. There's also a commonly applied term which I think creates some confusion, and I'm going to suggest an alternative.

The postmodernist revisiting is often described as "ironic", but this isn't entirely helpful, because "irony" is itself another one of those words subject to too many interpretations. I think it's more useful to describe it as aware. The first time around, you do things and they work or they don't, but you're out there experimenting and reflecting and pressing on. When you return to those things later, you have a perspective shaped by what's come in between. You know, this time around, that if you push those ideas too far, they will all hit a wall. You've seen what comes of the apparently great ideas with ghastly consequences, and of the apparently worthless ideas that someone else did wonderful things with. You can come at it with the best of will, but not with ignorance or innocent. You will remember as well as speculate, and there will always be a part of you separate from the old material because of experience.

In time, of course, the pool of ideas is worked over again, and something fresh comes in to shake things up and start the cycle again. The postmodernist stage isn't the last word for a field; things will change and either the field will go through the cycle again, or the field will be subsumed into something not yet thought of and that will go through the cycle.

There are a bunch of ways to think about gaming, but one of them is this: it's a postmodernist engagement with its source material. Gaming is, I think, an innately impure activity, combining narrative and strategy and simulation and a mess of things all in a big bowl. The proportions vary, but if you get too much of any one of them, it stops being a roleplaying game and turns into writing fiction, playing a wargame, or something else. Rolegaming requires keeping it all up in the air somewhere. It also creates a necessary version of the detachment that postmodernism encourages: you play your character, but you remain a player, and even the most immersive player for whom there is nothing but the character during play is the gamer before and afterward. Analysis on multiple levels of engagement follows naturally from the very fact of being a gamer and having a character. You're operating in a critic-like way all the time, whether it's what you emphasize at the moment or not.

What's interesting to me about this is that common gamer preferences match up well with prevailing trends in postmodernism in other fields. Wiseassery and the like in commentary? Yup. Check out any issue of McSweeney's for a lot of that. The drive toward mutant combination and hybridization? Oh yes. Synthesis and syncretism are fundamental to postmodernism. Anachronism in the definition of a setting and in the approach of players to its worldview? Compare Salman Rushdie's portrayal of Mohammed, or any of a great many contemporary-swinging-hipster-types loose in semi-historical fiction. And so on through the roster of common gaming motifs.

Much of this holds even when, sometimes especially when, the gamers in question are also given to denouncing the sins of postmodernism. They're doing it themselves without realizing it, and in some moods the cultural analyst in me takes this as particularly significant - what people choose to do often reflects their individual values, while what they take for granted reflects their community.

Folks who'd like to read up on postmodernism should probably check out Umberto Eco, because he thinks clearly and writes with admirable beauty. Postscript to the Name of the Rose and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods are particularly relevant for laying out the conceptual framework and a whole lot of interesting ways of thinking about prose, and by extension any sort of creative labor.