Recursion 3: How seriously should we take fiction and playing?

1

Recursion is presented as a fusion of genres (pulp) fiction, which codes it as 'mere entertainment,' but the story takes as its starting point social concerns around cognitive dementia, which is an actual crisis that will only become more disruptive in NA and Europe over the next couple of decades. RPGs also are presented as belonging to genres, which helps encode them as nothing more than entertainment. At the same time, these stories often include discussion of extremely important social events and stances. Should play be (sometimes) more than entertainment? What is your experience with RPGs played for entertainment, or playing seriously?

Comments

  • 0

    I can't really speak much about gaming, but I think that fiction, especially speculative fiction, works best when it tackles a contemporary problem in some coded way, ie not head-on explicit but indirectly so it encourages readers to engage with the issue without taking up stereotype positions. Sure, this can be overdone into a kind of heavy-handed morality play, but done well it can be very effective.

  • 1

    I think good fiction needs to be about something, to elevate it above a simple sequence of events: it needs to say something about people, or contemporary issues, or something like that.

    However, it's easy to lose sight of that in RPGs. It's very easy to just engage uncritically with the situation as presented in the game. For example, did anyone see the recent discussions about "decolonising D&D"? The default D&D narrative of going to the wilderness, killing the native inhabitants, and stealing their stuff is rather similar to colonisation by force, as it played out in the real world.

    A lot of games that came out of The Forge were about some theme, such as Dogs in the Vineyard being about justice vs mercy vs law. It's less heavy-handed now, but I think it's been absorbed into many games. For instance, games like The Watch and Bluebeard's Bride are all about feminism and patriarchy, and have powerful things to say about them. (I had a long discussion after Bluebeard's Bride about how my playing of the Bride standing up to a powerful man was something that the women in the group would never do in that situation.) Other games can still say interesting things about real issues, but require some thought from people when setting it up.

  • 1

    Going back to the book, was it about dementia? Dementia was the motivation for one character, but I don't think the game was really about that. It was more about how our memories define us, and how our different memories of the "same" events can change how we regard the world and each other.

  • 0

    @NeilNjae said:
    Going back to the book, was it about dementia? Dementia was the motivation for one character, but I don't think the game was really about that. It was more about how our memories define us, and how our different memories of the "same" events can change how we regard the world and each other.

    I agree - dementia was very much a side issue and it wasn't clear to me how the chair could ever have been repurposed as a therapeutic device. I chatted with a friend who has read other books by Crouch (but not yet Recursion) and he reckoned that there is a theme in his writing about using big contemporary issues as a kind of clickbait tool. In this case I would say that dementia was not so much the clickbait as the idea of a post-truth society. Though I don't think Crouch had the same thing in mind with this as the current media presentation of truth / authority and so on.

    It's interesting reading the 3* reviews on Amazon, where common criticisms are that people could not connect well with the characters, and that the ending was too contrived.

  • 2
    edited October 3

    The social concerns in the book were there, but treated lightly. The big theme was abuse of science and technology, and how to close Pandora's box once opened. There are definitely parallels with nuclear weapons, and the question of a "good" use of the technology - and the political/military push for it to be used more selfishly. That's where the theme shone most strongly.

    Gaming can be a fun disposable diversion, or taken seriously. Game writing is somewhat different for me - there needs to be a sense of play (otherwise I'd never finish anything), and a sense of polishing, an emerging theme.

    Though for things I've written the themes are always in the background rather than the foreground, often by analogy, but they're there in my head. For instance, to drink my own wine.

    • Starfall is about imperialism (in the same way as War of the Worlds was), paranoia, and a criticism of the myth of the Blitz spirit.
    • Age of Arthur is about the sheer folly of absolute monarchy and belief in prophecy.
    • Logres is about racism and power politics without ideals.
    • Liminal is about multiculturalism, belonging, hierarchies and inequality.

    Possibly these themes are only obvious to me. None of them are completely in your face, but they're important to me.

  • 3

    What's Mythic Babylon about?

    I don't always do big themes, but when I run a campaign my core beliefs (mainly about how all people, deep down, are worthwhile and similar, and even bad guys are salvageable, and good guys flawed) so my NPCs are often very real, and tragi-comic. And I love the common person. My favourite NPCs all had pretty common roots.

    As for big issues, I certainly don't shy away from them. I like when game worlds reflect the real world. I don't think racism should be excised from RPGS - I think it should be exposed and teased out and its consequences explored. Perhaps that's just white privilege that let's me do that, but that's what I like. I love it when players go to foreign places and find that things do not fit their sterotypes at all. And when players can see the consequences of their actions.

    So yeah, I think RPGs should usually be more than just entertainment. But sometimes, 'just entertainment' is all one really needs.

  • 1
    edited October 5
    @Apocryphal there are three themes that speak to me in particular in Mythic Babylon, and I think we brought out to explore.

    (1) Culture. It's role and meaning in life, and how different cultures clash and complement each other (eg: city and nomadic).
    (2) Rulership (in the setting, specifically kingship). What makes a ruler legitimate? What limits their power and what are their responsibilities? What about conquest?
    (3) The interplay between everyday life and myth. Does myth lie wherever we explore the unknown?

    Of course, your list may well be different! I'd be interested to explore that.
  • 0
    > @Apocryphal said:
    > So yeah, I think RPGs should usually be more than just entertainment. But sometimes, 'just entertainment' is all one really needs.

    Well put - it reminds me of a friend from years ago whose kids were into highly detailed reality games (Sim City and the like) whereas he chose pure simple escapist ones like platform shoot-em-ups. His reason? He felt he did enough struggling with inadequate resources in real life so why would he want a game that replicated the frustration of it?!
  • 0
    edited October 5

    I think we should take fiction and playing very seriously - they are how we construct our world, and shape what decisions are possible within it. I think they can be a force for well-being, but I find that entertainment is starting to really impede and obstruct my relations with people around me, particularly as more and more of our social world is reduced to game of winning and losing. Conversations about important and complex troubles go to anger and destruction almost immediately. I think that might be because we consume entertainment built around such negative emotions and acts.

    I agree that escapist entertainment is enough for a lot of things, and not inherently bad, but I think that its ubiquity is now problematic. Look at the response to small angry planet. Our entertainment culture, and our art, is really monothematic, presenting the same problem and failed solution over and over again, like whatever is sold to an addict without concern fro the damage it causes.

  • 2

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I think we should take fiction and playing very seriously - they are how we construct our world, and shape what decisions are possible within it. … Our entertainment culture, and our art, is really monothematic, presenting the same problem and failed solution over and over again, like whatever is sold to an addict without concern fro the damage it causes.

    Apropos of nothing, has the club read Brave New World?

  • 1

    @dr_mitch said:
    @Apocryphal there are three themes that speak to me in particular in Mythic Babylon, and I think we brought out to explore.

    (1) Culture. It's role and meaning in life, and how different cultures clash and complement each other (eg: city and nomadic).
    (2) Rulership (in the setting, specifically kingship). What makes a ruler legitimate? What limits their power and what are their responsibilities? What about conquest?
    (3) The interplay between everyday life and myth. Does myth lie wherever we explore the unknown?

    Of course, your list may well be different! I'd be interested to explore that.

    I suppose it really is different. These are definitely all themes that can be pulled from the book, but they aren't all things that were noodling around in my head at the time of writing. I can see #2 being something that noodles in your head - it seems quite central to a lot of the work you've done, particularly the historic England works.

    For me, I'd say that (1) Culture and the clash of cultures was a theme, and not just in this book, but has been a running theme through most of my unpublished settings and scenarios, too.

    A second theme for me would be that the real world can be is every bit as fantastical as a fantasy world, and that it's potential for inspiration has really only barely been tapped by the RPG community. And similar to this - history is as good (if not better) a resource as fiction.

    And lastly, another theme that's always in play for me when I run games - everyone is remarkable in their own way. I don't separate heroes from ordinary people. To me, heroes are ordinary people who rise to the occasion. I think this comes through in the book, too - probably in subtle ways, rather than a specific design element.


    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I find that entertainment is starting to really impede and obstruct my relations with people around me, particularly as more and more of our social world is reduced to game of winning and losing. Conversations about important and complex troubles go to anger and destruction almost immediately. I think that might be because we consume entertainment built around such negative emotions and acts.

    I was going to unpack this a little, but I think I had an experience of this over the weekend when I disagreed with one of my wife's friends about a few things and he started to get really hot under the collar. But is this really a trend? Is it really about winning and losing?

    I agree that escapist entertainment is enough for a lot of things, and not inherently bad, but I think that its ubiquity is now problematic.

    I'll buy that.

    Look at the response to small angry planet. Our entertainment culture, and our art, is really monothematic, presenting the same problem and failed solution over and over again, like whatever is sold to an addict without concern fro the damage it causes.

    Can you unpack this more? What's the connection between the response to Small Angry Planet and escapism?

    I feel there's way too much re-hashing of older works these days (recursion?) myself.


    @NeilNjae We've never done Brave New World.

  • 2

    @Apocryphal said:
    @NeilNjae We've never done Brave New World.

    Well, it was kind of a response to @BarnerCobblewood 's comment about entertainment being the modern opium of the masses; I was making an allusion to the soma of Brave New World.

    But, it's a good and classic book, so perhaps we should read it?

  • 0
    > @NeilNjae said:
    > @Apocryphal said:
    > @NeilNjae We've never done Brave New World.
    > But, [Brave New World is] a good and classic book, so perhaps we should read it?

    I've been meaning to reread it all this year - it must be several decades since I read it - so I'd definitely be in favour
  • 1

    I remember really liking Brave New World, but it must be twenty years or so since I've read it.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I find that entertainment is starting to really impede and obstruct my relations with people around me, particularly as more and more of our social world is reduced to game of winning and losing. Conversations about important and complex troubles go to anger and destruction almost immediately. I think that might be because we consume entertainment built around such negative emotions and acts.

    I was going to unpack this a little, but I think I had an experience of this over the weekend when I disagreed with one of my wife's friends about a few things and he started to get really hot under the collar. But is this really a trend? Is it really about winning and losing?

    No our social world is not, or for our common good shouldn't be, about winning and losing, but it is treated as such by the media class, who see the road to profiting from e.g lifelong learning as being providers of 'edutainment.' Political debates as being about winning. There are more possibilities.

    @Apocryphal said:

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    Look at the response to small angry planet. Our entertainment culture, and our art, is really monothematic, presenting the same problem and failed solution over and over again, like whatever is sold to an addict without concern fro the damage it causes.

    Can you unpack this more? What's the connection between the response to Small Angry Planet and escapism?

    Well I thought our discussion here was more about the causes and opportunities for violent conflict in the work than say the complexity of role-playing wide-spread benefit. But the book had a tight focus as well, so perhaps that is normal. Nevertheless, imaginary violent conflict is an escape from the complex problems facing us, problems which require co-operation among people regardless of their enmities and friendships. Blaming the past is not helpful.

    The continual tight focus on a few characters, and preachy goodness, is what I am getting really tired of. To illustrate, here are two comments I've chosen from Goodreads, taken out of context to make a point:

    The popular culture discourse in SF and elsewhere is being poisoned by idiot man-children of various stripes, so the impulse to embrace this as a response is understandable and something I get, but this is so unchallenging as a piece of art I can't help but feel it does more harm than good in the long run.

    I understand and am very sympathetic to what is being said here, but I think it ignores the fact that people of all stripes have influenced and produced these cultural outcomes with past decisions. I think that if change is to be found it will come about by a very great number of individuals changing their actions, and that will occur because there is a change in their imaginations of themselves that changes what they do. Without re-imagining, a tight focus on ourselves will not fix problems due to our lack of seeing the big picture, but I think stories where we imagine ourselves differently might help. Really good fiction does this, even though it is about what is not true. Genre stories do not often do that, and when they do they are more than genre.

    It feels real, and it touches my heart.
    So did it heal my pained MilSF heart, my PTSD Fantasy mind?
    Maybe not entirely, but it is certainly a very excellent palliative and perhaps with a few more gems like this, I might just be able to rejoin the service once again. :)

    A pretty clear statement that the purpose of escapism is to enable engaging in more conflict - the military-business version of care. Why help someone, unless they can work for me and mine? A lot of the comments about this book were that it was therapeutic so that people could either tune out from their situation ("good crying") or, like this person, go fight the baddies again. We've been continuously fighting the baddies for a century, maybe we should recognise it is bad for us, and have a few more stories about the challenges and dynamics of becoming some as yet unimagined way of being.

    Anyway, not very coherent, but I don't have any more time today to work on this. LeGuin wrote an essay far better than what I can say "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction." It's in the LoA's volume Always Coming Home Author's Expanded Edition.

  • 1

    I don't put themes in my games. My players find them there.

Sign In or Register to comment.