I should be getting my grade for the course soon. I already received feedback on my study journal, the tone of which suggests that I probably have not failed the course.
The final lecture of the course discussed roleplaying games in society and culture. It’s been a few weeks since then, and my memory is not perfect, so there may be inaccuracies and rambling.
Examples of roleplaying games used outside of pure entertainment context include educational uses, product development, crisis therapy, and, interestingly, product development. Apparently Nokia’s got a patent pending for something that was thought up during a Shadowrun game. There are also roleplay elements in product development when they try to figure out how a given gadget would actually be used by the consumers.
For educational RPGs, we’ve got loads of examples. Especially the Danes have done well in this area. There’s a three-person LARP they use to train social workers, and then there’s “the RPG school”, Østerskov Efterskole, whose headmaster, Malik Hyltoft, was a GoH at Ropecon this year. Nice guy, very good English, ran an RPG session I was later told was seven sorts of awesome. The system at Østerskov Efterskole is very interesting, and apparently works very well for students who underperform in a conventional school setting. There’s an article by Hyltoft himself, describing it in some detail, in Playground Worlds, a book published in conjunction with Knutepunkt 2008. Ransomware, unfortunately, not available for free download. Yet. I’m considering buying a copy myself. There’s an in-depth review on RPG.net.
The slides also describe shortly an American military exercise/LARP in Baghdad, Louisiana, that costs $3,000,000/week and employs 1,200 professional larpers who speak Arabic. The purpose of this is to train American soldiers for counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I can find no online information and the entire sources slide for the lecture is conspicuously blank. A military cover-up? The Wired article on it is here.
Then there’s reading roleplaying games as cultural products and how they explore their themes. Trinity was their parade example (future optimism, narcotics optimism, criticism towards government surveillance, the rise of Africa and China to replace USA as the dominant world power), but games such as Shadowrun (the implications of everyone having Augmented Reality systems on all the time, body modification), Transhuman Space (well, transhumanism), Paranoia (government surveillance, McCarthyism), Blue Rose (“probably impossible to play, but a fascinating read”), and Mage: the Ascension (the negotiable nature of reality) were also discussed. Then there were the LARPs, like Europa, which was set in a refugee centre somewhere in Eastern Europe, after the Nordic countries kicked the shit out of each other. The players were larpers from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and (I think) Russia, with the Russians as the camp guards and staff, and the rest refugees from their homelands. That had just kicked the shit out of each other. Ethnic tensions and hijinks ensued.
There was also a very amusing exploration of the political overtones of World of Warcraft. It’s a profoundly capitalistic utopia, where everyone starts at the same square and with hard work can make it to the top. The success of one person does not require that another one fails, so everyone can succeed. Resources are infinite, and there’s practically no cap to one’s personal development. Of course, the result of this is that begging is condemned.
After that followed the discussion of gender and sexuality in roleplaying games.
Gary Alan Fine, in his study of roleplaying games way back in the 1970’s, noted that in many (most?) gaming groups, members of the all-male party killed and raped female NPCs. Games with female players present were “cleaner”, but also, according to some of the interviewed, “not as fun.”
Here, I would like to note how happy I am that we, as a society and as a hobby, have come far since the 1970’s.
For a long time, RPGs were nearly exclusively a masculine hobby. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the balance shifted, with Vampire: the Masquerade and larping bringing in women in significant numbers.
Apparently, around this time, there was serious debate in Sweden about whether women need handicaps to make the game fair. There was even a LARP where they’d taped hints to the wall of the girls’ bathroom.
It was probably necessary that it happened, so that the hobby could just get over it.
Once it was established that there are actually quite a few of these strange new people who were different inside their pants, and that they wanted to game and it wasn’t okay to treat them like they were dense, they could start treating the topic maturely. This resulted in things like Hamlet, where the PCs were written as gender neutral, to avoid the problem of people playing characters of the opposite sex (turns out that if you have 15 mat and 15 female characters, the first 30 players to sign up will probably not have an equal gender split). Since the relationships of the characters were written in, this inevitably led to homosexual relationships. Then there was Mellan himmel och hav, a Swedish LARP inspired by the novels of Ursula K. LeGuin. I missed which ones, specifically, but I’d assume The Left Hand of Darkness is in there (If you’re not familiar with the work, get it and read it. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, which is a reliable indicator of quality.). They’ve also developed different methods for roleplaying sex in a LARP. There is also a LARP called Gang Rape. It’s not as bad as it soun- well, actually it is, but it’s a mature work, and not in the sense that Jenna Jameson’s filmography is mature. The game was written as a criticism of the Swedish system where it’s practically impossible to get convicted of rape or gang rape. Takes some balls to tackle a subject like that. I haven’t read the entire game nor played it (nor do I actually want to), but trying to provoke thoughtful discussion of taboo topics without resorting to outright trolling is a commendable goal.
Nordic LARP, or some elements of it, have occasionally been described as sex-obsessed. I don’t consider myself to be in a position to really comment on whether it is or isn’t, but I would describe humanity in general as sex-obsessed. At least the larpers seem to be putting a degree of thought into it.
Moving on, we come to the topic of world-building. A core aspect of roleplaying games is the development and exploration of new worlds. What kinds of worlds are possible? What the world should be? What the world should be? What the world actually is? In some of the bigger LARPs and certain online RPGs, you get entire (dys)functional societies. An interesting example here was Hiljaisuuden vangit (“Prisoners of Silence”), a mid-90’s Finnish RPG set in a fascist Finland after the Nazis won WW2. Finland was an ally of Germany back then, so it’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still a dystopia. The game is next to impossible to acquire nowadays, unfortunately. The makers thought there was no longer any demand and dumped their remaining stock into paper recycling. There used to be a Finnish website that lavishly described a setting that may have been inspired by the game, but seems to have followed it into oblivion.
There was discussion of games as escapism, games as propaganda or counterpropaganda, games as a method of exploring themes and concepts, and so forth. More discussion of studying and researching roleplaying games, also outside of the actual game – historical research, for instance. Discussion of the impact of roleplaying games on culture in general. While D&D isn’t the only reason for the current “fantasy boom” in media, as BBC claimed (there’s a certain Oxford English professor who has a lot to answer for, and Harry Potter is not entirely blameless either), things would certainly be different without it. Electronic gaming in general would be very different, and World of Warcraft (11.5 million subscribers, at the moment) could not exist as it currently does. Trying to track the influences of D&D (and other roleplaying games, but let’s face it, to the outside world, it’s mostly D&D) in popular media is very interesting. There are a number of authors, such as China Miéville and Charles Stross, whose work has been influenced by roleplaying games quite a bit. I think Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu isn’t also entirely blameless for the popularisation of Lovecraft. Vampire and modern depictions of vampires are an interesting topic as well, although most of it can be just traced to the source, Anne Rice. Other things… not so much.
Well, I think that just about wraps things up. I’ll still be writing a post or two on the course, but I’ll be discussing something else before that, in case I still have a readership after this.