(This ties into gaming eventually. Patience.)
When I took creative writing classes in college, I would show up, wide-eyed, with my allegorical science fiction novels full of twisted prose and semicolons, with my modernistic fairy tales about childhood pirates, with my long essays from the end of time. Each time that I got up for critique, I got the same response:
I don't normally
And then a tirade of rather useless critique.
I'm not bitter about the useless critique. College writing classes are full of useless critique. That's pretty much the whole point of college writing classes. And, honestly, I did get a something out of them.
But I am bitter about the sighs and the looks.
I am not a science-fiction fan, nor am I a fantasy fan. My friends who carry such identifiers deride my tastes as too picky, too refined, too effete and intellectual and sometimes downright strange. But I am a fan of good writing, and a lot of it has been done in science fiction and fantasy.
And, because they were undereducated twits, the people in my classes would never read those books. It didn't matter if The Left Hand of Darkness
is one of the greatest pieces of writing about gender in the 20th century, or that Perelandra
is pretty much the Paradisio
of modern writing. They won't read them, because they have the word "alien" in them. Or, even worse, they will read science fiction, preferably the worst that they can find, for the sense of ironic superiority it gives them. Or perhaps they read the science fiction, like that of Margeret Atwood, that has been sheepishly relabelled and filed with the other novels, like men who see "escorts" would never be caught dead with a "whore."
Science fiction, you see, isn't real, and so it doesn't matter. Books should be about real people.
This sucks. It sucks for me, as a writer, but it sucks even worse for them, as people. (I am of the opinion that reading good novels is pretty much the quickest way to moral and personal development.)
There is a whole nother level of this situation, too, which is people who refuse to read novels because at all because they are not real, by which they mean not factual. I have nothing but pity for these people, except when they try to burn books, in which case I have nothing but spite.
I said above that I like good writing, and I should clarify what I mean by good. I am very fond, of course, of complicated grammar and acrobatic style, and that could be called "good" writing, but that isn't what I'm driving at. What I'm driving at is that a good story is a true story.
Now hold on a second! What kind of shyster am I? I just said I liked novels, and yet here I am saying that I only like true stories. Am I just some sort of big fat liar, or maybe a hypocrite? Not really.
In her book The Language of the Night
Ursula le Guin talks about the difference between things that are facts and the things that are true. Stories are not factual. They did not happen. They are total lies. But they are also true, at least the good ones are, because they speak to human nature, human difficulties, our own lives.
"If it were like that," we say to ourselves after reading a good story, "it would go like that." They are false at a factual level, but true at a more important level, one of moral and personal clarity. That's what I like in stories.
Recently Matt Snyder (who I really shouldn't badmouth because he's doing the Polaris
layout) posted in his blog Heads or Tails
an article entitled Lasersharking My Ass
. In this, he claims that he has lost interest in "lasersharked" games with fantasy or science fiction elements, and wants to (quoting Ron Edwards) make games about "People in situations." This, itself, isn't really cause for alarm, but it stirred up a big brouhaha with two posts on the 20x20 Room
and one on anyway
: Swimming with the sharks: Story Now
by Matt himself, Running regular folks games
by Neel Krishnaswami, and this post on anyway.
In his second post, Matt identifies the "regular folks" game with Story Now (by which he means Narrativism). This is important, and wrong.
I know Matt. I like Matt. I know what Matt means by this, and it isn't the same thing as thus twits in my old writing classes. But damned if I didn't seize up a little when I read that, because it is the same old line, and it is equally a lie: A real story is a true story. A "fake" story is a false one. And that just isn't true, and it is just as harmful in RPGs as it is in the fiction.
And, because it is RPGs, and that's my turf, I have the vocabulary to talk about it, and tell you why it is wrong.
Matt is talking about the elements of exploration, particularly all of them but system, which is sort of the odd one out, anyway. He wants games whose exploratory content is totally "real" in all of these respects: character, setting, situation and color. In "swimming with the sharks" he identifies this with the Narrativist Creative Agenda -- his point being that ordinary people will like Narrativism, and the route to this is through ordinary stories.
(I disagree that Narrativism is at all the most attractive CA to ordinary folks, but that's another kettle of fish.)
He's wrong. Exploratory content is not related to creative agenda at all, except with regard to simulationists. Considering otherwise is what Chris has named the "Elven Ear Fallacy--" that adjusting the length of the ears of your elves will help fix your social problems. It won't. And neither will changing the exploratory content of your game make it any easier to support a Narrativist creative agenda.
Could we use more games that are about real things? Sure, and I applaud the efforts of the designers that write them. Are such games more artistically valid, more suited to some CA, or anything like that? No.
It's the same old shit: Real = True. Only things about "real people" matter.
Their getting to us. All those lessons about how worthless imagination is, how worthless fantasy is, they're striking into our heart.
Fantasy isn't worthless. Fantasy is a way of understanding truths that we can't admit to ourselves are true. Fantasy is healthy, it is necessary, and it is right.