The Reality Our Games Make
We talk about the games we play, the rules we choose to be subjected to for fun and the art we made together as a cooperative, collaborative concerto, in very weird ways. This only gets stranger when we study and analyse our games, and even more so when we have to tell people about those games; this is not unexpected, as we are not so much as reproducing the artform but creating a secondary artform to share it. Contemplating this problem and the clever ways people get around has taken me into unexpected awesome insights about the potential power of the artform of contemporary roleplaying.
A Reproduction Problem
Because of the cooperative, systematic and collaborative nature of roleplaying games, when you remove the cooperation in the media, remove the collaborators and replace the varied systems that shape the game, you cannot replicate it. Again, obviously, but how you share this without inviting people into a game?
So, in lieu of that, you must rely on secondary storytelling. When you tell your friend about your paladin, when you write an AAR on social media, when you debrief at the end of a session, when you create a book or game based on this shared artform, all of these are not merely, recollection or memory; for it to make sense, to compensate the signal loss, you must engage in secondary storytelling. Even art that is very overlayed with roleplaying games, such as actual play podcasting or life streams, engages in secondary storytelling; all things from editing, production and to Mercerite more GM-as-actor and audience/players-as-reactive-elements uses other artform to handle what is a necessary change of media. For you are not telling a story together and agreeing to make something a game.
So yeah, it becomes this funny thing where we talk about games in ways that are not really how that collaboration happens, but manage to use secondary storytelling to more or less make our point across — assuming both parties already have some shared context.,
So a mix of memory reconstruction, embarrassment and individualisation of a shared experience always acts as a interface compensating variety loss. This space, of the close enough, is home to some amazing creative endeavours that defy easy classification and as I found out, ever surprising.
We think little of it, but if we were to think about the ways we talk about games while playing games we would go “No, wait this is not what is happening, it never happens like this.” We can say things like it being more organic, or less rigid, or other euphemism, but all this is only a faint admission that the social action and communication required is something else. It may be simple things like usual GM advice: “do not say no, but instead say yes, and”, and like when are things this heavily structured? How often do you even say no or yes? Most collaborative narrative negotiations or discourses conflicts are not things that can be reduced to yes or no. And are often so tied with other systems we create at the table, it is really difficult to even pinpoint these situations. But the general point about a more open and permissive atitude (usually) comes across. And so on for concepts like safety tools, session zero, and so on.1
Sometimes this gets into game design, and games are designed more about the secondary storytelling and secondary aesthetics of games than about the primary storytelling of the artform. The example that may be familiar to most, even if far from the most egregious, is the way PbtA games tend to talk about the Conversation. The rigid, Mother-May-I, non-intuitive but also without a logic of its own, “do the thing without saying the thing” is nothing like the “Conversation” that happens in these games and is required for the games to work as art materials and tools. This dissonance is so hard to reconcile that the best way to learn a PbtA game is to play any PbtA game, and the making of games based on how we talk about games rather than how we play games reproduced so often that some PbtA games are unable to teach themselves without assumptions of social knowledge. But it gets the job done well-enough, assuming you're are not of certain neurodiverse brain configurations and/or lack hegemonic knowledge about whatever the game says it is about.
And then there is the way we talk about characters we play and incarnate together. It is often presented as little talks we play to each other, as puppets dancing outside context, but… is it? Let's put a pin on that for now.
When this get into critic and analysis, well…
A Synecdoche for Metaphor
People have been used for this state of affairs for a while and have adapted. Even if one does not reflect on it, the idea that different media requires adaptation and changes has permeated hegemonic culture enough that most people understand that even excellent secondary storytelling is not the primary storytelling2. So, this general understanding that we can never share on the primary storytelling unless we invite people to our games, is far-reaching enough that people often talk about collaborative storytelling not through secondary storytelling medium but through a well-tested figure of speech, a veteran of conveying complex ideas even when context is lacking:
The conceptual metaphor.
Secondary storytelling is super fun, but it is talking about different things, has different concerns about medium and is just not socially constructed in the same way. So, in a world where ontological realism is impossible, where essentialism is the rhizome that sustains evil, and where post neoliberal emerging neofeudal ecofascism3 makes difficult to schedule games so you can just show people what you mean with the primary storytelling, the metaphor is well aware it is a limited tool. It is good enough.
And at this stage of the art, good enough will do.
We have to build our reality with good enough.
Incarnation of Character, pt 1
Surrendering to the good enough, and hoping you are still with me there, let’s go back to our pin about characters.
It is not unusual to see people talk about playing characters as they are putting little plays to their friends, where they don the hat of different dramatis personae. But alas, that does not feel right. There is also the comparison with improv, which also does not seem to mix; even schools of play that draw a lot from that artform, they distinguish between “player improv” and “character improv”; if anyone is putting a show, there is plurality to each portray. There’s something else going on that is not captured by this characterization.
There is something uncanny, close but not quite there about the characters we play together. Because you cannot just internalize/externalize a performance back and forth, that does not work because of the collaborative, cooperative, and game aspects. You need buy-in from each other; you need conflict between what a character can be and how things are interwoven together — in a manner unique to roleplaying games4.
We mock “Examples of Play” that are not like how any play actually goes because of how stiff and wrapped in embarrassment/pretenses of secondary storytelling on other art medium they are; we sense this uncanniness even if we cannot quite place a finger on it. Praised5 examples often make no distinctions between character/player and acknowledge the agency, intent and social actions of either.
When performing and prepping for a related artform such as actual play, there is work in “characterization” that is just not there in games where the sole purpose is primary roleplaying storytelling: there is a lot of extra planning, guidelines, repeating of wording, takes, repeating through character what has been communicated in other means, etc. And this before putting in post-production and elements of pre-production conventional play just does not have — and would suffer from if such was extrapolated to it.
The pinnacle of this dissonance between how we think about characters while performing primary storytelling vs when we perform secondary storytelling/talking about characters has to be the infamous case of an awful player raising the shield of “It is what my character would do”6.It is understood that this is an act of multiple layers of anti-social, from the player and the characters they portray but… why? If we were indeed making little plays for each other, this would be perfect, this is exactly like it should be. And yet. But even as I recoil at reading those seven words, I think how many great roleplaying game moments, when talked through the language we colloquially use for talking about games, they could be described similarly. What’s going on here?
The difference, of course, is in the primary storytelling. The infamous “It is what my character would do” spits in the face of collaborative, cooperative, storytelling. It is stomping into whatever people have been existing at the table, characters and player, cutting through the rules people choose to be subjected to in order to have fun with what is effectively, and external force imposing its ways. When a group makes the collaborative decisions, of characters that they made cooperative through collision with the game, of “I wish I could do that, but this person would not do that”, or even “this would make a better story”, it is happening within that space and using the language of roleplaying rather than trampling upon it.
Okay, but this still makes them sound pretty similar. So I guess it is time for yet another detour, if I am to learn anything from these contemplations.
Recognizing The Real
As I mentioned across multiple articles, I believe that the escape velocity of the modern form of the art of collaborative, cooperative, storytelling games (which we consider tabletop roleplaying games) from the Modern ideas of wargaming and certain boardgames was possible because of a growing recognition of Postmodernity. As such, I believe that it is impossible to grasp the struggles and contradictions within the artform without acknowledging. Even to reject it, it is a useful — nay, essential — lens.
For roleplaying to work, one cannot rely on empiricism, positivism, ontological absolutism and essentialism; where those aspects rule, there is obstruction and the people actually playing the game have to work around them. Roleplaying requires one to see language as social action, knowledge not inherent or individualized but social, a focus on interaction and social practices rather than isolated text, attention to processes while disregarding static entities (structure, calcified systems), acknowledge and adapt to the historical and material context in which it exists — colloquially called “the table”, in a definition that covers all the historical, social and material convergences on the game.
The schools of Postmodern thought that more align with how the primary storytelling actually happens seems to me to be among those that call themselves social constructivists7. And those have plenty of interesting things to say about reality and identity and how such are created.
You know all this stuff is made up, right?
In our material reality, there are no absolute transcendent idealist truths that define ontological, essential things. Your character is not a glimpse into another dimension, game design does not come from the supernal realms, you are not fighting the Demiurgue and fucking Sophia for the platonic Game and Play. Everything that be, be material; nothing else if it exists, is irrelevant to the truth: such as it is, all truth is created socially.
Now, whatever the merits of this elsewhere are, this definitely maps to how the artform of roleplaying games works. Details in a character sheet are nothing until they are socially acknowledged; a detailed backstory is nothing until it is brought to the game; a rule in the rulebook that we have not socially understood and invited to subject ourselves to it is not real nor is true. But one cannot deny the importance of those elements, so what role do they fulfill in this model of social knowledge?
Within this framework, there is the concept of discourses8 or interpretative repertoires. These are hard to define but easy to identity, a cautious definition being “a system of statements which constructs an object“9. Not that helpful, is it? Let’s try an example: the idea of a game system has the “discourse” of “rules system”, which is interpreted as a set of rules that come together as part of interacting with a game; such interpretative repertoires often involve dice shapes and probability, mechanics, etc. There is a particular game that is a whole interpretative repertoire of its own that keeps overshadowing all others. However, another “discourse” of game system is about “rulings not rules”, which focuses on the aspect of building new systems locally, as part of the game process of subjecting oneself to rules. Finally, very confused social constructivists think of game systems discourse of “everything that forms statements which construct a game”, which includes all the interpretative repertoires of the design, the context of the game being played and every player and so on.
Character sheets, playbooks, rules that are invited in, session zero, safety tools, backstories, previous sessions, etc: all these are interpretative repertoires of a given group playing a given roleplaying game.
Why do interpretative repertoires matter?
For starters, which interpretative repertoires are allowed to communicate into the social knowledge is a measure of power; of what is allowed to be possible. This becomes crucial when social knowledge and discursive formations create reality and identity10.
Interpretative repertoires are not meaningless, floating, abstract objects. They all are material anchors, and by defining what is possible to talk about, how our relationships and spaces are run, which behavior is reinforced11. In the colloquial language of roleplaying games, this is what is sometimes called “play culture”.
For all intents and purposes, there is no world beyond interpretative discourses: the material shapes interpretative repertoires, and those limit the material possibilities. This is again, something that maps well with roleplaying.
Incarnation of Character, pt 2
It is going to get (really) weird.
So, all this shit’s made up. But can our characters, our game… be real? Be true? Within this framework maybe, or rather, close enough.
But the thing is, I’m also made up. None of the shit that makes me is real; or rather, it is not inherently real or true. If there is any truth and realness to the construction of the self, that is a social process, wrought in conflict. There is an exercise in agency and power when the interpretative repertoires collide with the social ones, a conflict through which identity is made as real as it can be, how much materiality is even acknowledged12.
I am made true and real every day. I am made real by you, reader, reading me; or something close enough. I am made real as I bring all my interpretive repertoires, go through the social processes of power, wage conflict between repertoires and continue the self. This is what they mean when they say language and repertoires are social action; it makes what worlds are possible.
I see myself, above almost everything, a “scientist”. How much of this self-important repertoire can be maintained if I lose my job? Or if I do not work in academia? Or if I lose access to the thousands of papers behind paywalls essential for updating my repertoires on the social knowledge of science? Every day my repertoires of “disability” wage wars with repertoires that tie it to “productivity“ and “laziness”. How much “blind” and “deaf” mean, what “accommodations” fight with “work culture” and “rudess”, how essential medicine for “disability” must conflict with repertoires of “assumed an addict and criminal” and “xenophobia.” And let’s not even get into the repertoires of my own queerness, in conflict with “sexual assumptions”, while fencing with the repertoires society deploys about “women” and “gender”. And what about the repertoires that are not given power? The repertoires I have from a culture so dead that it has no repertoires to socially mirror, depowered so it fails to coalesce as real? How do you speak of a reality that is only shared by fifteen thousand people?
That’s how I don’t become real, but become close enough. As far as we can get. And do so on and on and on and on.
And this is where we go back to the characters. The game studies field has internalized some weird ideas from psychoanalysis about what people are and do13, which unfortunately have leaked into this artform. Let’s put that aside and stick with the framework we been using so far just avoid another detour about personhood: a person is made from conflicting repertoires creating a self, and with that, we turn to our characters.
They too have their interpretative repertoires. When we act through them, we don’t do it in the manner of little plays; we use their interpretative repertoires — something we do socially every single moment and is not even worth considering for most of the time. So like we reproduce our self, our truth, our reality… we reproduce that for our characters; the same methods we use to make ourselves, they use different tools with to make themselves.
They too can make themselves real and true. Or rather, again, all this stuff is made up, and they too engage in the processes to become real and true. A close enough attempt is made. As much as possible in the material universe we exist in, with the variability of brain configurations possible for us humans.
Sure, it is ephemeral. This dies the moment it is removed from the artform of collaborative, cooperative storytelling and has to be communicated through secondary storytelling — cut from its repertoires and denied the opportunity to make a self through conflict. But something being ephemeral, only able to be real and truth in an action, a scene, a session, a campaign does not make it lesser. And it may be ephemeral, but it is material: the repertoires they come from materiality and reproduce it, and just because something exists in social actions and processes, those too are material; even the “buffer” of these repertoires that is your imagination, your imagination is material. They are embodied in the material, if that is seen as a requirement for truth and realness.
And now for the Antithesis…
Here it is, the part where I always disappoint people. You know what I am going to say: I have no prescriptions for you.
I hope you find something useful for you from this read, and that it makes you think about things and makes you reflect how different you think of this stuff while roleplaying and immersed in the artform vs when you have to process, reframe and communicate it later. It was certainly where I started and where I ended up; I myself am not sure I made much progress in that discovery process.
So even I don’t know if I got something from this. I do, however, found this to be eerily… beautiful. Perhaps even awe-some. Maybe not now, but later when I ponder on this some more.
This helped me process part of the unique beauty of this artform, that something no other can reproduce — and so we must compromise with metaphor or flail with secondary storytelling. In fact, even now I wonder if this ability to wage conflicts of repertoires as we do socially for production of art may not only be unique to roleplaying but also impossible to not do, even by accident.
What would a roleplaying game that does not do “real enough” be? Something purely made from secondary storytelling? But then, how useful is to even apply this framework to it? Surely you would get more value from applying another tool. It would have to take something very constraining, something that had very rigid interpretative repertoires, whose design/GM exerted extreme power over which repertoires were allowed to be and how they would be allowed to be. But even that would not be enough: because it is still a game, and thus defined by the rules we invite in so we can have fun, so those would have to be made either irrelevant or non-negotiable. And context would still shape the language of repertoires so you would need to have a very narrow historical and spatial context, have scripted scenes and constrain the possibilities of movement between scenes, otherwise attempts at interpretative repertoires self-building could occur in the interstitial spaces. And it goes without saying, if a character is made from interpretive repertoires, so if you have to limit those, you have to make the characters and force players to play only those.
Look at the effort it takes to prevent this from blooming and characters from having a fighting chance for the real and truth. That is how much of a fight they put to anything but social self-definition. Are not roleplaying games the cool artform?
Or at the very least, cool enough?
Whoever, if you don't already played a game or used safety tools, or had a session zero, or experienced this type of game mastering, you may just not get what people are talking about. Can you see the problems ahead with this?
In fact, alas, change is pretty much a requirement for a good adaptation, so yeah, you probably gonna have changed a lot between media.
Feel free to replace with any other descriptor of the current nightmare.
And other collaborative, cooperative storytelling traditions of social knowledge formation but handwaving to talk about the only example in hegemonic culture.
Or let’s be honest here, ignored.
Or the Game Master equivalent, “I wrote a novel and want you to add jokes to it”.
Vivien Burr, An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 3, p. 267-267, mar. 1995. ISSN 2155-1162
No, not that type of discourse!
Parker, I. (1992) Discourse Dynamics: Critical Analysis for Social and Individual Psychology, London: Routledge.
Henriques, J., Hollway, W., Urwin, C., Venn, C. and Walkerdine, V. (1984) Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity,
This is the part where you get rid of the abusers and Nazis’ interpretative repertoires.
Kitzinger, C. (1992) ‘The individuated self-concept: a critical analysis of social constructionist writing on individualism’, in G.Breakwell (ed.) Social Psychology of Identity and the SelfConcept, London: Surrey University Press in association with Academic Press.
Sampson, E.E. (1990) ‘Social psychology and social control’, in I.Parker and J.Shotter (eds) Deconstructing Social Psychology, London: Routledge.
Murray, Janet Horowitz, Hamlet on the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York :Free Press, 1997.