A Defence of Cyclical Discourse

It’s hard for snakes who eat their own tails to get a fair break nowadays…

The Ouroboros is a symbol that is said to date back to ancient Egypt but it also appears — spontaneously it would appear — in a number of other cultures scattered across the globe. Nowadays, we tend to view it as a representation of cannibalistic futility. Of something that tries to consume in order to stay alive only for that thing to wind up consuming itself. However, this is not the only way of interpreting the symbol.

While we tend to view the snake as a thing that consumes, it is important to remember that the snake is eternal and so its consumption must be (at some point) counter-balanced by creation. Carl Jung recognised this when he adopted Ouroboros as one of his archetypes:

The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites.

People tend to reach for Ouroboros whenever they want to stress the absolute futility of discourse and the endless cycles of re-litigation and re-iteration that comprise cultural debate. This is particularly true whenever you think about discourse relating to things like horror or RPGs: What is the point of endlessly rehashing old arguments? You’re never going to convince anyone or anything!

This may be true, but what if cyclical discourse arrising from irreconcilable differences was productive? What if it was itself apart of the creative process? What if the act of creation is born of destruction?

A few days ago, I happened upon an interesting post about Jon Peterson’s book The Elusive Shift. What caught my interested was the fact that Arthur at Refereeing and Reflection had approached the book from a slightly different angle to the one that motivated me when I wrote my review.

What I saw in The Elusive Shift was an attempt to examine the raw materials of RPG discourse and find in those materials a series of changes that might be parsed as historical narrative: Basically, that while RPGs started out as A, they stopped being A and became B. The problem with this project is that while RPGs definitely started out as A, it is almost impossible to designate a single B that RPGs might have collectively become. There is no historical trajectory other than a sense of diasporic drift.

What interested me about Arthur’s post is that he looked past the stuff about historical narratives and came to focus on one of Peterson’s secondary points, namely that RPGs have a terrible sense of cultural memory meaning that each generation of gamers is forced to have the same set of arguments over and over again because nothing is settled, everything is forgotten, and virtually nobody ever thinks to look back and learn from the insights of the past. As Arthur says:

Of course, the danger with such cyclical discussions is that they risk wasting a lot of time reinventing the wheel, with individuals who aren’t aware of how the last spin around the merry-go-round went simply restating ideas which have been old hat. There’s a difference between going in a circle and going in a spiral; in both cases you’re rotating around a central point you never reach, but in the former case once you’ve gone 360 degrees you just end up back where you were, in the latter you’ve moved on a bit. A book like The Elusive Shift not only documents where we have been, but also makes it much more likely that later discussions along these lines will end up moving forwards – in other words, it will help us to continue advancing our spiral, rather than just continuing in a circle.

I feel that Peterson would agree with this understanding of the role that history can play in RPG-related discourse. The idea is that a better knowledge of RPG history would allow future generations of gamers to move more swiftly over well-trodden ground and so devote their energies to new questions rather than the endless rehashing of old debates. The problem for me is that I don’t think that this is how cultural conversation works.

If we were having a discussion about physics then someone could reasonably say that, rather than endlessly debating first principles, people are better off learning the broad strokes of historical debates as a kind of on-ramp for the debates of tomorrow. You go to school, you learn the stuff that people argued about in the past, you complete your degree with a full understanding of past debates and then you go to graduate school in order to participate in the questions of today.

My problem is that while this understanding of internal debate might be appropriate to the hard sciences where there has been  real movement from complete ignorance towards complete understanding, you would be hard pressed to point to anyone in The Elusive Shift and say that they were out and out wrong: Are their views unfashionable? Absolutely! Are they intellectually crude? Yes. Are they articulating a vision of RPGs so profoundly unattractive that I would rather sit in a doctor’s waiting room than play in one of their games? Fuck yeah. But none of this entails that what they were saying was actually wrong.

Peterson is absolutely spot-on when he says that the arguments that commentators were presenting back in the 1970s are the same as the ones the RPG community is having today. In fact, one of the most valuable observations Peterson makes is noting that two ostensibly different debates raging between two different sets of people decades apart and using two different sets of jargon can in fact be expressions of a single disagreement. The issue never went away… it just got rediscovered and reframed by different sets of people.

While one way of understanding this phenomenon is to view cyclical arguments as a waste of time spent going over old ground, another way of looking at the phenomenon is to note that people keep returning to the same debates because those debates cannot be resolved. Indeed, if you say the sky is blue and I say the sky is green then we can resolve the issue by looking out the window but if you say that sweet food is better than savoury then the difference between us is a matter of taste and matters of taste can never be resolved.

Peterson makes frequent reference to one of the first theoretical concepts to emerge from the discussion surrounding RPGs. The concept in question is the so-called Blacow Model according to which there are four basic types of RPG player:

  • Storytellers who enjoy engaging with narratives
  • Ego-Trippers who enjoy amassing power
  • Role-Players who enjoy getting into the heads of their characters
  • Wargamers who enjoy ‘winning’ through mastery of the rules

Thirty years later, the idea that different players might enjoy different things and that these differences might lead to conflict was re-articulated in Robin D. Laws’ book Robin’s Laws of Good Game-Mastering, according to which there are seven types of gamer rather than four:

  • Power-Gamers who enjoy amassing power
  • Butt-Kickers who enjoy letting off steam through violent in-game confrontation
  • Tacticians who enjoy solving tactical puzzles
  • Specialists who enjoy playing a particular type of character
  • Method Actors who enjoy the personal expression that comes from inhabiting a role
  • Casual Gamers who enjoy the social aspects of RPGs rather than the games themselves

While Laws expanded the list of player types, another type of RPG theorist took Blacow’s insight and boiled it down to a threefold model:

  • Dramatists who value how well in-game action creates a satisfying storyline.
  • Gamists who value the creation of fair challenges that players must overcome.
  • Simulationists who value seeing in-game events resolved according to considerations established by the nature of the game world.

One of the primary innovations of the Threefold Model was moving away from the idea that these categories represented broad types of player. Rather than having these categories describe people, the threefold model instead described different styles of group contract. A full contract group would engage all three types of play but you could also imagine groups where the balance of preferences was such that one or even two categories of play essentially disappeared.

The people who participated in the online forum known as The Forge took some of the ideas laid out in the Threefold Model and set about refining them. For example, the Forge did a lot of work on the Threefold Model’s idea of “group contract” and how the character and long-term viability of gaming groups were shaped by more-or-less explicit sets of expectations as to what the players would get out of the time they spent gaming. Games break down because people enter into them with different expectations and one way to prevent these kinds of collapse was for people to make their creative agendas a bit more explicit. From there we move to the idea that not all games have creative agendas that are coherent let alone explicit and from there we move to the idea that one does not speak of types of player, or even group, but rather of games. If we accept that ‘type’ is a thing that resides in rule systems then it follows that good game design should be all about the pursuit of very specific (or at least deliberately harmonious) creative agendas such as:

  • Gamism involves making decisions to satisfy predefined goals in the face of adversity.
  • Narrativism involves exploring character motivations and placing characters in a context where those motives conflict and using that conflict to drive the story.
  • Simulationism is about speculation and exploring cause and effect within a specific context inspired by genre and rooted in certain sets of predefined ideas.

I mention all of these ideas for two reasons:

Firstly, I think they’re quite a neat demonstration of what can be achieved when you allow different groups of people to re-discover and re-hash old ideas on their own terms. The ideas of the Forge and the ideas contained in the original Blacow model are both derived from the same insight, namely that most in-group tensions come from the fact that different people want different things from their RPG experience. Three different groups of gamers working in three different decades took that idea, worked it through, and came up with not only a refined taxonomy but new ideas that emerged from the ways in which that taxonomy had been couched. Were these people revisiting the same ideas over and over again? Yes, and yet the act of re-visiting old ideas with fresh eyes and in different contexts yielded positive results.

Secondly, all of these theoretical models articulate the idea that both RPG culture and the gaming table are sites of conflict arising from fundamental differences in what different people happen to enjoy. These differences are so fundamental that they can never be completely resolved. The best any RPG space can hope for is an environment in which the tensions are managed in a way that yields productive results.

If you want to know how a culture laced with productive tensions might operate then look no further than the arts: There is no correct way to represent the world and no approach to self-expression is inherently more beautiful than another. Step back from the granular day-by-day and month-by-month shifts in the discourse surrounding literature, cinema, photography, or fine art and what you find is that each generation of creatives reacts to the previous by re-examining first principles and finding new forms of self-expression. Sometimes those new forms are re-discoveries of things that have fallen out of favour. Sometimes those new forms are entirely new ideas born of social and technological change. Regardless of which tendency happens to have the high-ground, there will inevitably come a time when new people enter the field, fashions change, and different tendencies become ascendant.

As someone who cut his teeth in the French RPG scene of 1990s, I grew up in a culture where the dominant form of RPGs was a combination of simulationist crunch and narrativist fluff (we talked about telling stories but our games were all about modelling genres) and this background made me not only hostile to the gamist/simulationist alliance that held sway during the ‘70s and ‘80s but also out of step with the steadily-accelerating gamism of mainstream D&D and Pathfinder as well as the hardcore narrativism that can often dominate non-traditional and indie RPG scenes. I am a product of my time, and so is every other gamer.

As a product of the French RPG scene of the 1990s, I shared Peterson’s instinctive distaste for the ideas articulated by people like Lew Pulsipher in the pages of White Dwarf magazine but if you head on over to places like r/RPG you will find people asking to be recommended games in which there is absolutely zero in-character speech and where play is nothing but a series of tactical puzzles to be solved using the intermediary of highly-complex rulesets. I might not share Pulsipher’s vision of RPGs as an offshoot of wargames but those people looking for recommendations would be interested in what he had to say. Pulsipher’s ideas might fall out of fashion but they can never be refuted or over-turned and the same is true for my preferences as well as yours.

Ideally, RPG culture would be a space in which there was an awareness of psycho-social differences and the fact that some people are just not going to enjoy the same kinds of games. I would love to see an end to system wars and the tendency to view tensions arising from creative differences as conflict born of flawed character and inadequate social skills. I would love it if everyone who became aware of RPGs also became aware of all the different forms that RPGs can take, but this is not the world in which we live. As Peterson suggests, the fact that the RPG business is so heavily weighted towards certain types of games makes this all but impossible.

As in all other art forms, debates between sets of aesthetic preferences are part of the creative process. They can never be resolved and nor should we try to resolve them. The point of these discussions is not to prevent them from happening but ensuring that when they do happen they happen in a productive fashion. Given the state of the internet at the moment, I actually think that this is a much bigger challenge than anything akin to preventing people from re-travelling old ground.

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