Friday, May 06, 2005

Factual, Real, True

(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 read science-fiction, but...

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.


Blogger John Harper said...

Ben, I agree with the general content of your post 100%. Fantasy and imagination are vital and important. We should never let anyone tell us otherwise.

But I don't think that's what Matt is saying. He's saying, "Hey, there are an awful lot of RPGs out there with magic and cyborgs and stuff, and almost none about everyday ordinary people. Let's make some games about them." Seems like a fine thing to me. And it doesn't imply that fantastic stories are bad or wrong or any of that.

I think we should have both types of games. Any and all kinds of content should be available as game material. The stuff with magic and the stuff without.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keerist is this a long post. But I have to say that people miss the point. Sci-fi/fantasy literature and good games mind you are about the people. It's about human issues, not the science, not the fantasy and not the laser sharks. I too think Mat and everyone else on this, anti-fantasy what have you kick. The magic, the science, the crazy shit. It's all just fucking metaphors and tools. Metaphors to explain very human conditions and tools to explain very human conditions.

I mean come one. Starship Troopers sure as hell isn't about cool stuff. Is 1984? How about Animal Farm or Brave New World or Dante's Fuck Divine Comedy. Fuck is T.S. Eliot's the Wasteland about strange shit? Fuck no. It's about the human condition and human issues.

I mean I'm sorry, but fuck you if you think otherwise (not you Ben cause I obviously agree). Same thing with good RPGs. TROS or TSOY or tMW aren't about the fantasy. They are about the people lving and hating and fucking and killing and dealing with being human beings.

Sure the bad shit is about the stuff. DnD is about the stuff. WoD is about the stuff. Shit most games are about the stuff. They ain't about being a man or growing up during a war or any other important human experience or endevour. But the good ones, like the two I mentioned above, they ain't about the stuff.

But also lets look at why there are a lot of games in the genre. Well cause it is fun. Life isn't fun. Life is hard work filled with real pain and real heart ache as well as real experiences that bring us joy. Why the hell would I want ot explore human issues that way. Too much of that and people will be taking big dives off of bridges.

We choose the genres we choose because they allow us to explore these things at a safe distance. We can hit those notes without getting messy. I can play with the idea of betrayal without having to face the repercussions and it is easier for me to try if it doesn't hit close to home.

I'll be the first to admit that my life has been rather exciting, but fuck me if I want to play a game based on it. Why the hell would I want to relive some of that pain that I had a hard time with in the first place when I can more safely put those demons to rest by playing out the exact same scenario with Bob the Knight of the Tullip or some shit.

Fuck my comment is as long as your fucking post, but I just had to say it. Fuck people who turn their nose down on this shit. Fuck people who feel that it is juvenille. They are just trying to boost their own self image at the expense of others, and if they try that shit with me they better come with their jersey on cause I always come ready to dance.

12:52 PM  
Blogger thickenergy said...

Earlier today I had a conversation covering the topics in your post. To me, the real problem lies in applying genre color without addressing genre theme.

Science-fiction, for example, uses technology as the pivotal element in criticism and questioning of modern society. At least when it's done right.

Most of what passes for sci-fi today fails that test miserably. You have human issues, but the technology plays no critical role. It's just a backdrop to an unrelated story.

I can possibly see a reason for ranting against fantastic setting that does nothing for the thematic elements but dress them in funny clothes. But I can't get behind any arguments against genre done correctly.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Hmm, what I got from Matt's original post, and indeed the first lasersharking thread, was quite the opposite. Frustration that amongst roleplayers, and SF / fantasy fans generally, you can get a "better" game, a "better" story, by putting more stuff in.

It's elf ears all over again.

From a nar gaming point of view, it was a call to say "Hey, we're losing focus here. The powers are getting in the way of the people, and we've ended up making games about the powers. We're losing sight of what makes us give a shit about the people. Wouldn't it be easier to get to the people if the powers weren't in the way?"

I think the answer is "Maybe. Do it."

Supernormal powers can be useful to nar gamers as stressors or allegorical tools (Sorcerer demons as dysfunctional relationships; Capes powers as metaphors for real world power). But once the game stops being about the people, why the frick should we care?

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aye Ben, three things:

1) I just took a creative writing class here at Cornell because I get 4 credits a semester free with my job, one of the perks of the gig and I hear ya. I didn't bother to write fantasy.

The students who did were tolerated by the teacher and while she did her best, it was like she entirely shut down for the story. And the teacher was really doing her best.

Oddly, my first short story was about this very topic and my stress about it without actually being a fantasy story.

2) If you ever want to exchange stories or want someone to read what you write with a critical eye, look me up. Anytime.

3) Rock on.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Matt Snyder said...

Ben, just how stupid do you think I am? If you’re going to accuse me of being wrong, make sure that, you know, you aren’t wrong about it. See also: What John and Pete said.

Let me say that again, ‘cause it’s the most important thing I’ll say in this reply:


Of-fucking-course exploratory content isn’t automatically related to creative agenda. You’re reading things that aren’t there. Bad writing on my part, I guess. But I’m REALLY tired of people not understanding what I’m saying. It's getting really old after just these two weeks. I've tried to clarify repeatedly, to little avail it seems.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version so everyone gets it and there’s no confusion.

“Gee, we sure seem to have a lack of regular folks games. Too bad gamers don’t seem to like ‘em much. I think they’re neat.”

Besides the awful midreading of what I said elsewhere, I've got nothing to disagree with in the trust of your post, of course. Of course! OF COURSE! Indeed, you'll find that my lasersharking campaign and your call here attack the SAME issue from both sides. You're critiquing goons who don't get it from outside "geekdom," and I'm critiquing goons who don't get it from inside "geekdom." We're saying the same thing about stories. (shrug)

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Art is a lie that tells a deeper truth"

Yep. People don't deal with abstractions very well. Love vs. Duty? Isn't duty a form of love? What about self respect? blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

The movie "Gladiator"? "OH. Now I get it!."

Overall folks need things to be put into concrete terms to deal with abstract concepts, and all forms of art do so by alluding to the actual abstractions themselves- or- we address theme in play by having these here cowboys save the town from itself every week.

What Matt and I have been talking about- is simply that a lot of people forget to plug in the deeper truth, the human issues, the actual "stuff" behind the lasers, spaceships, elves and dragons. Which is fine in some cases, but is terrible if that's all people think is out there("Dude! Star Wars, is, like the King of all Science Fiction!").

But hey, we all know Tolkien's whole thing about a world falling from myth was simply a backdrop for those elf ears, right?


1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happens to a fantasy writer who reads only fantasy, though? Cause that's sort of us right now.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

John -- Yeah.

Keith -- Metaphors and Tools. Fuck yeah. Fuck. Fuck. Ass.

Chris -- Yeah.

Pete -- Yeah. Can you see that "no elf ears" is the functional equivalent to "elf ears" in terms of satisfying gameplay?

Judd -- Word.

Matt -- Yeah.

Chris -- Sure.

Vincent -- Depends. See next comment.

I want to draw all of your attentions to a couple of lines from the text. Now, it is a long text, and I understand if you missed some lines. But here they are.

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,


Could we use more games that are about real things? Sure, and I applaud the efforts of the designers that write them.

This is to highlight that my post here is twofold:

1) It is about the visceral and negative reaction that I had to Matt's post, based on my own prior negative experiences which are not what he is doing but are similar.

2) It is about the fact that considering that "real world" content gives or takes away any special meaning (for any value of meaning) is a falsehood.


3:38 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

What happens to a fantasy writer who reads only fantasy, though? Cause that's sort of us right now.

Depends on what they are reading or how they relate to it. See, when you say "fantasy," you have told me nothing about the literary quality of what you're talking about. Is this The Tempest or is it The Wheel of Time?

Writers who read quality writing, and can draw from it an understanding or intuition of what makes quality will be better writers for it.

Writers who read terrible writing, and can draw from it an understanding or intuition of what makes it terrible will also be better writers for it, although perhaps not as dramatically as the first case.

Writers who read quality writing and do not understand what makes it quality, particularly those who mistake some other aspect of the writing for the quality elements, will not be better writers for it, and may be worse writers for it.

Writers who read terrible writing and mistake it for quality writing or simply pick up bad habits from it will be worse writers for it.

Now, if we're looking at the third case, there is a greater risk of mistaking genre elements for the central source of quality, and that's a problem. So I'm all for reading diverse genres.

But also now we are inescapably reaching the point where we need to say "a role-playing book and a novel are very different things," 'cause they are. A role-playing game is a tool for creative work, like a typewriter, a tube of paint, an easel, or a styleguide. A novel is a finished creative work consumed by others.

How does this change our relation, as designers instead of authors, to the games we play, particularly wrt the texts that they are made with?


3:45 AM  
Blogger Matt Snyder said...

Ben, right on. I gotcha, and I'm witcha. I'm reacting to two things.


In his second post, Matt identifies the "regular folks" game with Story Now (by which he means Narrativism). This is important, and wrong.

Ben, are you saying that I said "Story Now" MUST be about Regular People? I NEVER mad any such ridiculous assumption. I was indeed talking about how excited I am for "regular people" games of the Narrativist stripe. None of that excludes, oh, Regular People games of the Gamist stripe, or perhaps Story Now rife with lasers and sharks. All are possible; I never suggested otherwise.


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:

Here, you indicate I'm perpetuating an ignorant falsehood. Specifically your phrase "because it is the same old line" (where it = "what Matt means by this").

Now, one of three things seems possible: I'm reading you wrong, you wrote it poorly, or you're accusing me directly of perpetuating this crap.

If it's a communication breakdown, no worries. If my reading of your accusation is correct, well ... I'm not doing that. I certainly never intended to do so. In that case, it seems you're really reading me wrong.

Therefore, my strong language to clarify the matter for the posterity.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

None of that excludes, oh, Regular People games of the Gamist stripe, or perhaps Story Now rife with lasers and sharks. All are possible; I never suggested otherwise.

Uh. Oops.

Y'know, I just read over those threads again, and you're right.

I suck.

FWIW, I wasn't trying to say that you were perpetuating a falsehood. You were saying something that reminded me of a painful falsehood from my past.

Public apology for that forthcoming.

4:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Right. Your three examples are exactly what happens not just in gaming, creative endeavors, but all the time, for all kinds of things.

A knowing person can tell what the critical elements are, and why something works or doesn't work. An unknowing person doesn't actually know why, but might attribute all kinds of superfluous reasons as the cause of success/failure. ("It was a monday when the team won, therefore, mondays are always successful.")

What makes this hobby notorious for such problems is that many of the mainstream games have been built on those false assumptions, rather than really looking at it ("Of course a game about romance needs encumberance rules...")... and many of these games have been "successful", at least in drawing in many fans and earning a cult following.

Prime example- I picked up a copy of 6th Edition Call of Cthulu, expecting to at least find some really good advice on solid Illusionist play. Nope, it was rather disjointed, and terrible at even describing what Lovecraft stories were about. Yet the game has won innumerable awards and is renowned for being one of the best games out there.

What people don't recognize is that successful play depends more on the group having read the stories to pull from as genre guides and ignoring the rules. So the assumption is that more details and more specific information is the key- when in fact the critical point is pacing and color like the stories...

And this is one of the "best" available. It is very little wonder that if even CoC can't pick out the jewel from the sand, that the issue that Matt is talking about is so easily confused for the elf ears, lasers, robots, and zombies.


8:25 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Matt --

Okay, I'm still wildly confused about something.

In your first post, you are saying, essentially, "hey, here's some explorative content that I'd like to see more of." And that's cool.

In the second post, to 20x20, Narrativism comes into it. Why did you bring up Narrativism? How does it relate, in your mind? That's what threw me for a loop.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Matt Snyder said...

It relates because I'm designing a narrativist game. That's pretty much it.

If I was making a Gamist gmae -- say a sports game or something -- I'd have written "Swimming With Sharks: Step Up Bitch!."


11:19 AM  
Blogger Chad said...

Well said, Ben. Re: your writing classes: I own that t-shirt myself.

If you haven't already, try to track down a copy of Kathryn Hume's Fantasy and Mimesis; she builds on Frye's critical schema from Anatomy of Criticism specifically aimed at fantasy and science fiction works. I had the honor of taking a class from her at Penn State, and it was much worth it.


2:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home