Thursday, July 7, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Chapter 4

So, we're up to chapter four of Shared Fantasy.  This is ostensibly about gaming culture.  However, it ends up being two very different topics oddly welded together.  First is a discussion of M.A.R. Barker and his famous Empire of the Petal Throne.  Second is a discussion of the shared culture that evolves from gaming together for weeks on end.  It ends up pairing the two subjects at the end in a vaguely creepy discussion of the intense group that games with Prof. Barker himself.

Empire of the Petal Throne

As some of you are probably already aware, Empire of the Petal Throne was one of the first settings ever produced for an RPG.  Also well known as Tekumel, the name of the world, it is lavishly detailed.  It is also an interesting artifact of gaming history because Prof. Barker is a professor of South Asian studies, and Tekumel is much more strongly influenced by Asian traditions and mores than traditional Western ones.

I'm not going to repeat all of the information that Fine included.  If you're interested, check out Wikipedia.  He did draw some very interesting parallels between the life of Barker and Tolkein, and how they felt about their respective worlds. 

Also of peculiar note is that Barker apparently invented a crude RPG of his own with his own wargames years before Gygax and Arneson did.  He set it all aside, though, to concentrate on building his academic career.  It was only when he got tenure and had the freedom to come back to the hobby that he discovered D&D.  Frustrated at the exceptionally crude and simplistic cultures built into the default setting, he decided to publish his own (which he had been working on since he was a boy).

Of Tekumel itself, the only bit I want to actually note is that the fundamental conflict seems to be between Law and Chaos.  Good and Evil are seen as ephemeral and highly personal constructs, and heroes are not expected to be "good" in any classic, Western sense.  This becomes more relevant in our third act, below.


"Idioculture" is an interesting term that Fine invented.  The "idio" root here is from the Greek for "own", and is seen more commonly in words like "idiosyncrasy."  It does not mean that Fine thinks that gamers are idiots.

I am very sure that, for the average sociologist, this section is very interesting.  For me, it was terribly tedious and obvious.  Fine presents a few stunning conclusions:  When a group of people gets together on a weekly basis, they develop in-jokes and a shared history.  Events in-game and out-of-game produce war stories that create a unique set of references that feed on themselves.  The style of the game is the synthesis of the styles of each of the gamers.

If you are surprised by any of these conclusions, I must question how many groups you've actually gamed with.

When Worlds Collide

Fine then spends quite a bit of time with one of the groups that games weekly with Prof. Barker in Tekumel.  He is specifically looking at how the culture within the game, so different from the standard Midwestern America the players live in, and the culture that developed between the players influence one another.

Some of the details are not that interesting to experienced gamers.  He discusses how depth is added to the Tekumel setting on a constant basis through an interaction between the players and the referee.  He also talks about the interesting phenomenon of NPCs gradually taking on a "reality" equal to, or in some cases greater than, that of the PCs.  There is also a bit where Barker contrasts the two groups he runs through his world, indicating that one (the one that Fine observes) is much more serious and aggressive, and the other is much more relaxed and uninterested in the finer points of the setting.

There were two things that leaped out at me, though.  The first is a result of the lack of a Good/Evil conflict, as I mentioned above.  If you recall in my Women in Gaming post a couple weeks ago, I included several anecdotes of some severely misogynistic behavior, including rape and mutilation.  It turns out that the players from most of those anecdotes are from this "serious" and "aggressive" Tekumel group.  The players all worship the "chaotic" god of fire, and are opposed by a "lawful" cult of warrior priestesses.  Which may explain some of the violence against the women.  But, the brutality and sexual nature of the violence is still uncalled for.  It seems to be reinforced within the group, though, and encouraged by the referee as "realistic."  (Admittedly, I'm reading between the lines for some of these conclusions.)

The other thing I noticed was a decided cult flavor to the culture.  The players seemed to go beyond mere respect for Prof. Barker and into reverence.  Based on Fine's descriptions, they were obsessive about the game.  But, one of the bits that triggered my warning bells was that they seem to have actually acted out some of the religious rituals.  All of this sounds remarkably similar to a rabbit hole that I, myself, went down when I was in college.  A closed group, a very charismatic GM acting as the leader of the group, and the introduction of certain mock or pseudo-religious elements can make for a dangerous brew.  Or, as Fine himself put it in a footnote, "these dynamics also characterize cultural creation in the cultish Manson family."  I wouldn't want to toss around any serious allegations based on a second-hand thumbnail sketch of the situation.  But, as I said, I heard warning bells.

No comments:

Post a Comment