On Cultural Schisms

What happens when interests and skill-sets diverge to the point where conversation ceases to be possible?

A few years ago, I developed an interest in anime and took to listening to quite a high profile anime-related podcast. The host of said podcast (now sadly no longer with us) was not quite old enough to be a first-generation Western anime nerd, but he was older than a lot of the fans who on-boarded during the Crunchyroll or Dragonball Z years.  Having seen the industry related to his sub-culture crash and burn at least once, said podcaster was instinctively sceptical about the stories anime fandom told about itself. As a result, he would often invite first generation anime fans onto his show in an effort to secure their cultural memory.

The funny thing about these older nerds is that they all told the same story: First generation anime fans were, for the most part, active members of science fiction fandom who got annoyed about having to fight for space at conventions. After years of being stuck in small, shitty, windowless rooms at the back of convention centres, anime fans started having their own conversations, producing their own zines, and having their own conventions. Fast forward three decades and there is almost no overlap between the two fandoms. A similar story is told by first-generation media fans who mostly started out in SFF fandom before starting their own zines, having their own conventions, and building their own online spaces. Both forms of fandom may have started out in the backrooms of SFF conventions but they now have their own discrete sub-cultures with their own values, their own canonical works, and their own models of participation.

Thus, a single more-or-less cohesive sub-culture was split into three distinct sub-cultures.

Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift tells a similar story about the early days of table-top roleplaying. D&D was created by people who were active members of the 1970s war-game and board-game scenes and early adopters of Dungeons & Dragons came almost exclusively from those overlapping sub-cultures. As Peterson suggests, a lot of early RPG-related discourse was animated by a sense of culture clash between the people who wanted to treat D&D like just another war-game and the people who saw the potential to turn it into something radically new. By the 1990s, the cultural differences between war-gaming and role-playing were so pronounced that war-gaming publications had ceased talking about RPGs and RPG publications had started talking more about films and comics. You were unlikely to find a war-game review in an issue of White Wolf magazine but you would almost certainly find references to underground bands and cinema.

I wrote about this process of cultural procession a few months ago and imagined sub-cultures as pieces of driftwood carried around the world by oceanic currents resulting in said pieces of driftwood being colonised by different kinds of flora and fauna. Back in the 1970s, RPGs were floating off the coast of war-gaming and the people engaging with RPGs reflected that proximity. Then, as the economic and cultural currents started pulling RPGs in another direction, the people interested in war-games leapt overboard while people with an interest in books, film, and music started to clamber on.

I’m returning to this idea as I am starting to suspect that RPGs might be entering another period of cultural schism.

Not all schisms are as storied or drawn-out as the one that separated role-players from war-gamers. For example, back in the 1980s, the British RPG scene was dominated by the output of a company called Games Workshop. Founded in the mid-1970s, Games Workshop had been in the business of making wooden paraphernalia for conventional board-games until someone hit on the idea of importing an American game called Dungeons & Dragons. This move proved to be so successful that a small carpentry business soon found itself not only importing games from America but also publishing magazines and eventually publishing their own games. At one point, Games Workshop were so intimately bound to roleplaying that there were talks about Games Workshop becoming a part of TSR and when TSR did get a UK presence it was staffed with people from Games Workshop.

For UK gamers at the time, Games Workshop was synonymous with RPGs and the company grew and grew until it had shops all over the country. At which point, the original founders cashed in their shares and management decided to re-focus their business on the figurines and games that still bear their name. At this point they not only stopped publishing or selling RPGs in their shops, they also ceased mentioning them in their magazine. Fast-forward a couple of decades and Warhammer is its own sub-culture with its own shops, its own magazine, its own websites, and its own media. To this day, if you mention Games Workshop to any UK-based role-player over the age of 50 then chances are that you’ll see them pull a face as many gamers still harbour real resentment over the brutality of the schism.

A less traumatic point of schism took place in the 1990s when an RPG publisher called Wizards of the Coast were approached by the creator of a board-game called RoboRally. At the time, WOTC considered RoboRally too expensive to produce and so they asked the game’s designer Richard Garfield about developing a game that was easier to carry and cheaper to get into. Garfield went away and designed Magic: The Gathering.

Magic ran through RPG culture like a dose of salts: At the time, I was a member of a gaming club that met every week and when I went abroad for the summer, I returned to find the club split right down the middle as half the club continued to play RPGs while the other half used the club’s space to meet up and play Magic. For a while, collectible card games and RPGs existed side-by-side as RPG publishers saw the money that WOTC were raking in and decided to burn all their money in an oil bin try and publish their own card games. Few of those games caught on and even those that did never came close to the level of success and cultural longevity enjoyed by Magic. To their eternal credit, WOTC never gave up publishing RPGs, even when they secured the US rights to the Pokemon card game and got bought up by the toy and board-game manufacturer Hasbro. However, while you could not write a history of collectible card games without devoting a few chapters to the history of RPGs, it is interesting to note that Magic: The Gathering is now very much its own thing with its own magazines, its own conventions, its own media and its own suite of online spaces and auction sites that wound up being central to the birth of cryptocurrency.

Today, you could be an active member of anime or media fandom without even being aware of the existence of SFF as either a publishing category or a sub-culture. You could also be an active member of the Warhammer and Magic: The Gathering sub-cultures without being aware of roleplaying games.  New sub-cultures are born all the time and each of them arises from a moment of cultural schism.

If I had to describe the topology of contemporary RPG culture I would say that it is comprised of three more-or-less overlapping scenes:

On one side of RPG-space, you have the cultural descendants of the games created around the Forge and Storygame forums. Overwhelmingly self-published, these games tend to be short, self-contained, and use non-traditional social structures at the gaming table. Given the relative ease of publication and the spirit of experimentation that comes from those non-traditional social structures, non-traditional RPGs have started to break with the range of genre tropes that have historically been associated with RPGs resulting not only in the emergence of a thriving queer RPG scene but also settings and genre blends that are effectively unknown outside of that corner of the internet.

On the other side of RPG-space, you have Dungeons & Dragons. While D&D has always been the most visible of games, we are now reaching the point where the cultural hegemony of D&D is similar to that enjoyed during its golden age in the early 1980s. It’s not just that D&D is by far and away the most successful and popular RPG, it is almost the only RPG worth mentioning. Nowadays, playing an RPG other than D&D is a bit like playing some odd-ball rule variant like Colonial Diplomacy or a version of chess involving squat-thrusts and gunge tanks.

In between these two cultural poles, you have the traditional RPG scene in which people buy core-books, supplements, and adventures that are played using a social structure in which the role of the GM is qualitatively different to the role of the player. While this type of roleplaying is still popular and still producing new games, it is interesting to note that the biggest titles in this corner of RPG space tend to be re-written and re-packaged versions of older games that are lavishly produced and sold at ever-escalating prices to people who are often motivated primarily by nostalgia for games they used to play when younger.

When I look at D&D, I feel the heat of engagement and discovery as a new generation of gamers flood into the hobby.

When I look at non- traditional games, I feel the heat of creativity, experimentation and the kinds of voices that have not historically been heard in RPG spaces.

When I look at non-D&D traditional RPGs, I feel a sense of comfortable and managed decline.

Contrary to what some might tell you, RPG culture has always been oddly fragmentary by virtue of the fact that your primary point of cultural contact is your weekly gaming group rather than the broader community. This means that it has always been possible for gamers to pursue their own ideas, concoct their own house-rules, and generally disappear off down their own weird rabbit holes.  In truth, the default localism of RPG culture is why it has endured despite the fact that the entire industry seems to tank itself about once every ten to fifteen years. The reason I suspect we might be approaching  a point of schism is that we are reaching the point where gamers are playing games in such radically different ways that you can imagine two people from different corners of RPG-space having virtually nothing in common and nothing to say to each other.

While one could talk about the differences between traditional and non-traditional games and the way that the Forge helped to lay the foundations for a non-traditional sensibility, I think that the real point of schism is not between traditional and non-traditional games but rather between people who use the ‘theatre of the mind’ and those who do not.

Looking back at the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it is interesting to note that many people attribute its failure to the decision to incorporate design elements inspired by MMORPGs including powers that re-charged at the end of each encounter and a general qualitative flattening of the different classes meaning that mages could theoretically dish-out damage like a fighter while fighters could deploy area-effect powers like mages. While D&D was a far more tactical RPG than previous editions and its range of buffs, debuffs, and area-effect powers made it almost impossible to play without grids and figurines, it is important to remember that this growing tactical complexity was completely consistent with the general direction of travel in that corner of RPG-space. Indeed, when D&D4’s sales dipped below those of another RPG, the RPG in question was itself a licensed variant of the hugely complex and tactical third edition of D&D.

Looking back at D&D4, I suspect the reason it failed while D&D5 did not is because it lacked the online infrastructure of the later edition. There had been plans to create an online portal for D&D4 and I suspect that the escalating complexity and need for boards and miniatures were driven by a desire to make online play a major part of the D&D experience. However, with no online infrastructure to ease the adoption of new rules, gamers chose instead to stick with the rules they had and switched their commercial allegiance to Pathfinder.

While D&D4 missed the window for online play, that infrastructure was present at launch for the birth of D&D5. Within a couple of years of launch, somebody wanting to try D&D for the first time could gain access to all rules through online subscription and find people with whom to play online.

This move online is central to the success of D&D5 as RPGs have long struggled with the structural problem of finding an RPG group once you leave full-time education. Moving online meant that even the most isolated of gamers could find a group within hours of discovering the hobby.

Those of us who have been playing for a long time might be tempted to point out that there’s a world of difference between finding a group and finding people to play a session with but it is worth bearing in mind that a lot of the people arriving in the hobby will have passed through MMORPGs where there is a similar kind of difficulty surrounding finding a guild/corporation that is worthy of your time and energy. Those of us who cut our teeth playing with friends might find this a bit weird but I think the model for future RPG groups is less friends and family and more adult education courses and five-a-side football teams. You play with these people every week, but that’s not to say that they’re your friends.

The fact that D&D has drifted away from geek media and towards MMORPGs is also evident from the fact that while it is easy to run a theatre of the mind game using teleconferencing software like Dischord, Skype or Zoom, online RPGs use not only teleconferencing technology but also virtual tabletops.

These allow players to position their characters in a way that completely eliminates interpretative ambiguities. There is no disagreement to be had about where a particular character was standing as the player will have positioned the character themselves and the software tells you exactly where the dragon-breath stops and starts. The software not only tracks movements and positions, it also tracks attack rolls, modifiers, effects, and hit-points. Everything that can theoretically be taken out of the GM’s hands is automated resulting in a game that is far more smooth, fair, and free from ambiguities. In fact, a lot of online GMs use virtual environments to govern all in-game movement so playing an RPG is less like listening as a friend narrates an interactive story and more like playing a session of Baldur’s Gate in which the story and NPCs are acted out by a human player.

While I think that this is an entirely valid way of approaching RPGs, the sessions I have played online with virtual environments left me somewhat missing the ambiguities that emerge from the theatre of the mind. What we refer to as the ‘theatre of the mind’ is effectively a process of asking everyone at the table to picture a scene in their heads and then using a combination of rules and GM/player power-differentials to mediate the differences between the visions. In the context of complex, rule-based play like that baked into later editions of D&D the process of mediation is sometimes fraught because you imagined something differently to the other people at the table and those differences can sometimes result in the death of your character. However, outside of rules-based combat, differences in how people imagine in-game scenes can result in all kinds of spontaneous effects ranging from amusing misunderstandings to situations in which the GM decides to chuck out their interpretation of a scene and lean into some weirdo shit the players dreamt up.

What I find interesting is not so much that virtual environments reduce the room for fruitful misunderstanding, it’s that it’s now possible to learn of D&D, roll up a character, play in a game, and complete an entire campaign without once having to mediate the different ways in which people imagine a scene. That difference and its in-game mediation is one of the major conceptual stumbling blocks of both traditional and non-traditional RPGs and if it’s possible to play RPGs without ever encountering that issue then it is possible to imagine a cultural schism between the people who allow for human mediation of imaginary spaces and those who allow the computer to create an objective one.

I admit that this piece might come across as an old man yelling at the crowds but in truth, I’m more interested than I am worried, disgusted, or turned-off. I just think it’s fascinating that tomorrow’s gamers might have a radically different skillset to those of today and I’ll be interested to see whether radically divergent skillsets and playing styles can be contained within the same cultural spaces.

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