Watching versus playing

A couple of months ago, the Hollywood Reporter published a feature about the popularity of D&D among the current crop of entertainment industry whizzkids. It wasn’t very good, but it did get me thinking.

I was struck by an apparent dichotomy, admittedly from a very small sample, between the testimony of writer-types and actor-types. The writers, producers, showrunners were enthusiastic about the fun they’d had when they were young. They described how influential the process of world-building when playing D&D was on their adult work: the implication was that they’d put away their childish things because they were now playing with a full, grown-up toy set.

The actors, though, gave accounts of how they currently play and enjoy D&D. That so-and-so introduced them to it on the set of such-and-such and it was a blast and they rather regret bullying those awkward geeks back at school. Of course, actors chose a profession where they pretend to be other, even cooler, people for a living so it hardly comes as a surprise that they might enjoy performing for one another as a pastime. It’s like improv at the Actor’s Studio, with dice.


Watching beautiful people play RPGs on Youtube can be entertaining enough, but has far more of a freshman drama class vibe than any sense that one is watching a real game going on. Watching other people really play a game, without commentary for the audience’s benefit, is profoundly boring: in fact, it is completely alienating, and the better the game and more involved the players, the more unbearable it is watch. It’s all going on in the players’ heads, and entirely for their mutual benefit.

As befits something pioneered by unattractive and unathletic people, the games I’m talking about are the very antithesis of sport. For decades, bigwigs in the world’s chess federations – lured by the siren-song of sponsorship and broadcast money – have  been trying to promote chess as a sport. A ‘mindsport’, or similar nonsense. They have largely failed, as they should. The main barrier is not necessarily audience knowledge (although that certainly is a barrier), it is audience participation: can you cheer for forty minutes while the grand master analyses his position? Can you cheer for an hour while a genuinely involved party of D&D players debate their next move, or shout at the DM about a ruling, or try to optimise their character progression across the whole team? Why would an onlooker care about these processes, even if they were transparent? More to the point, should you even try?

No. Games are for players. Stories are for an audience. (Sport does both, chiefly with the collusion of very effective, specialised press relations. Good looking young people doing physically difficult things is reasonably entertaining to watch anyway. Golf as a spectator sport, on the other hand, is completely baffling.)

But aren’t I wrong? Aren’t roleplaying games specifically about creating stories? Doesn’t that make them uniquely suited to spectated play? No. No, and thrice no. The geeks in the basement (an irritating trope which that Hollywood Reporter article happily perpetuated) are indeed creating a story, one which should emerge from the interaction of game mechanics and the players’ imaginations, but they are also deliberately circumscribing the audience for that story to its participants. If you’ve seen The Goonies, you know what I’m talking about: ‘This is our time!’ A space of free agency exclusive to and wholly owned by a self-selected group: that space is the product of the game, indivisble from the stories it tells and the players with whom it tells them.

This is not unique to D&D or any RPG, it is a fundamental feature of play. Possibly the defining feature of play. The genius of games is that they provide mechanisms where the process can be a surprising – properly dramatic – for participants who are necessarily both narrators and spectators. If one of the players goes on to write a novel about the adventures their D&D character had in the game, then they are altering these terms. In fact, they are almost breaching a contract. It is a kind of betrayal. You don’t talk about Fight Club.

Let’s look at the spectated play question another way: would you rather watch an episode of your favourite TV show, or an hour of people bickering in the writers’ room that was filmed when that episode was being planned? It is not a fair question. You can’t do the first without the second having happened, and the second has no useful context without the first. Watching a ‘making-of’ is only interesting when you’re familiar with what was made. Watching a game being played is like watching a ‘making of’ but without the actual episode ever being filmed: the making is what’s made, and it is exclusive to the imaginations of the makers.

As viewers, we don’t get to be in the writers’ room. We shouldn’t want to be; there’s already too much grumbling about too much fan service, or the precious fans being ignored, or just fans being fans generally. Stories in books or on screen are other people’s stories. We consume them because it’s entertaining, and it’s nice to have something to do with our eyes and ears while we eat our dinners. So what if a show or film is made with our special identity-group’s particular entertainment in mind? That doesn’t make it ours, we have no ownership over it; we are merely voyeurs who collude with the voyeured, who are probably well paid. There’s a relationship there, certainly, but one only distantly informed by games: writers ‘play’ with irony (the dramatic kind, where the audience know stuff which characters don’t) or the ever-so-clever subversion of our expectations, and actors ‘play’ their roles.

All that the fandom phenomenon has in common with games is that it panders to exclusivity. It is no coincidence that keen supporters of sports teams are essentially the same as avid participants in pop-culture franchises. People crave identities, labels, even a label which says ‘I despise being labelled’. If nothing else, at least you always have something to talk about when being introduced to strangers: for good measure, wear an appropriately illustrated t-shirt to help break the ice. People also crave prestige. The prestige of an identity is strange and complex thing, being determined by both the widespread acceptance of the label and simultaneously by the restrictions on access to it. The ultimate goal is to be part of the biggest gang, but in the innermost inner-circle of that gang.

Hence the reason behind ‘edition wars’, and their complete stupidity. Enthusiastic gamers can be forgiven for wanting D&D to be popular, but for their games of D&D to be unique. Bingo! The perfect fandom, only what the hell does it leave you with as a basis to proclaim your superiority? Nothing. It is a democracy made pure by absolute inequality. Everything is equally unequal. It is completely irrelevant what version of the game you are playing because you can only ever play your own version of the game, created by you while you play it. If that does not happen, you are not playing. If that cannot happen, it is not a game.

The game is not a discrete mechanism which creates stories, it is a game. It is mechanism and story and players informing one another in a Taoist circle. That circle encloses us, keeps us in the game, and keeps the world out. Nobody should watch us play. Nobody should want to. They should want to play.

Nevertheless, a lot of people who enjoyed D&D when they were young seem to think it helped them to be effective storytellers in the entertainment industry once they’d grown up. I call bullshit, honestly. They want to be on friendly terms with the chic-geek almost-mainstream, and I don’t doubt they had a lot of fun plundering dungeons or toppling empires or rescuing good-looking elves. It didn’t make them better writers: practising a shitload of writing made them better writers. At best, it made them better gamers. (Although, now I’m on this point, that HR article did make a point of quoting the guys in charge of Game of Thrones: given the utter bloody chaos there, I wouldn’t be surprised if dice were involved in deciding the plot.)



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