Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Antitheoretics

For most of my life, I've tended to be a complete theory junkie.

Theory junkie? What's theory addiction?

It's this idea that you have to do things right and to do things right you have to know about the field. You have to learn the theories. You have to humbly educate yourself about what people have already learned, learn the how to's and the how not to's.

If you're lucky there's an elite theory you can learn, that's better and truer than the commonplace theories people muck about with. So finding the right theory is important. You learn the wrong theory and you'll be using ineffective techniques. The right theory is a royal road to success.

I've recently come to believe that's all bullshit. That there isn't a right way of doing things, there are only different ways of doing things, and theories are optional, and that they have drawbacks as well as advantages; theories tend to blind you to ways of doing things that are not foreseen by the theory, and there *is* no real, true theory that correctly describes reality. Not even science.

So with that recent realization.... I come to look at the Forge. And I think that there are different ways of looking at what's cool with the Forge.

You can look at it as cool because they have built a new theory of RPGs. GNS Theory. The Lumpley Principle. Conflict vs Task Resolution. "Addressing Premise." All that stuff. You can say, "ah, finally, we have theory which ACCURATELY represents what gaming is really about. Now we can learn that theory and use it to design far cooler games than we possibly could have before, with our old inadequate incoherent concepts of what gaming was about!"

According to this understanding, it makes a lot of sense the way the Forge has tended to be run in later years, which is that whenever somebody brand new shows up to talk about things, one of two things happens. Either he presents raw data in terms of gaming experiences, which people use to talk about game rules in terms of the theory they all know, or else he tries to talk theory, and he is thrashed about the head until he gets it all "right." His first 50 posts will be met by "yeah, that's great, but we discussed that three years ago. Please read these sixteen tangentially related threads, in which we proposed and abandoned six sets of terminology. Don't you dare get mixed up and use the earlier rather than later terminology. That is so 2002. Once you get up to speed, we may deign to listen to you. But at that point it's not likely you'll remember anything you had to say." Hey, that's cool, if you're all about the theory. It seems brutal but it is necessary! Our theory which we've discovered and built is the important thing. It's truth, the reality about gaming we have discovered. Ignoring it leads you into sheer folly, into Illusionism or Impossible Things Before Breakfast or Icoherence or Abashed Simunarrativism or whatever the holy fuck. We are building a religion, we are building it bigger! We are straightening the corridors and adding more lanes!

Of course you also get people like Lumpley who is totally into GNS theory but also cares a lot about letting other people in on the act, and he makes his own forum and goes to a heck of a lot of trouble to present this to people in terms of real, lived, gaming experience, and to connect with them where they're at, and he's actually open to feedback from mere mortals and listens to what they say without spamming their asses with forge thread homework. And it doesn't hurt that he's an incredibly fine writer. And people do dig that. And that is cool.

But the snarky way I've described parts of this theory-positive reading of the Forge phenomenon makes it obvious that I'm not entirely thrilled with that way of looking at it.

The second way you can look at what's cool with the Forge is not that it came up with the New Right Theory about how games work, but that it broke through old assumptions about how games could work, by gathering together people who were going their own way. GNS theory is a part of that, not because it is right and the old ways are wrong (though there may be some points on which everyone would agree that that is the case), but because it presented a compelling alternative viewpoint which gave people a new perspective, and with a new perspective they started seeing new things. But it wasn't just the theory that did it -- it was the gloriously positive attitude that the Forge has had for creator-owned/indie RPGs of all stripes. (And that is Ron all the way, baby. I may seem down on Ron's theories and the way he communicates on the Forge sometimes but the value of his just generally pro-indie stance, which goes way beyond this theory or that, is hard to overstate.)

After all, the Forge has always been for and about creator-owned RPGs in general, not just creator-owned RPGs that happen to recognize somebody's pet theory. And some of the really cool early Forge games were made by people who weren't bigtime theory mavens. I don't think of Jared Sorenson as a huge theory ween. Nor James West (of whose art I am a total fanboy). I don't know how deeply Mazza and Holmes had drunk of the theory cup, but Universalis doesn't seem to me to be obviously implementing common Forge theory ideas. They were people out there making cool weird games that they liked, in their own way.

Hell, West created what many consider the ultimate minimalist Narrativist engine, the Pool, while thinking he was creating a Gamist game. The Pool is one of my favorite indie games. And Dan Bayn designed Wu Shu (another of my favorites) in blissful ignorance of GNS theory, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, as I said, I'm a sucker for theory, and I used to be all geeked about Forge theory. And I'm just... I dunno. I just am wondering if it's really that important. It's important in the minds and experience of people who have tied it to their real life gaming experiences (and that's one thing that has made Forge theory as good and helpful as it is -- the insistence on "actual play") -- but what if there are important things to learn about play which would be occluded or obscured by the assumptions inherent in Forgie ideas?

Or what if they just don't happen to be very relevant or helpful to the gaming a particular person or group wants to do?

Or what if the way they are presented doesn't happen to be a way that a particular gamer is able to usefully assimilate?

Or what if GNS theory is in its own way as limited and limiting as the vague conceptions of roleplaying that went before it?

I no longer trust theory the way I used to. I value ignorance and naivete in ways I didn't before. I am suspicious of judgments in ways I wasn't before.

I value the games and game designers of the Forge, and its culture and community, for different reasons than I did before. And some things about it that I valued before, I don't value so much anymore.

And yes, I'm probably exaggerated in these ideas. People who have suddenly realized a wrongheaded way they've been thinking for most of their lives tend to oppose it with unnecessary vehemence and enthusiasm. No doubt I'm there.

Man, I've been wanting to write this post for a while.

2 comments:

Ben said...

Take another look at how new people are treated. Look at who posts what. You'll find that there is enormous overlap between:

1) Those that are not condescending to new people.
2) Those that are interested in game play and publication.
3) Those that try not to use theory jargon overmuch.

yrs--
--Ben

P.S. I used to think of the archive threads as "homework" and bitterly resent them. Now, I don't. Because I realize -- they aren't so much for the new person as they are for the old people. It's not a "we've already talked about this, so shut up" as much as a "remember what you said last time, guys?"

Ed said...

thanks, Ben. I was wildly generalizing there and I'm certainly willing to hear that my generalizations were too unsubtle. Thanks for cluing me in to that.