In that sense, you suggest that gaming, in fact, pops up everywhere. There’s a lot of stigmatism around the idea that you might sit at home alone playing a computer game—or blogging—or that you might go out to an internet café and play a game with your friends, as if there’s something socially wrong with you; but if you go down to the pub for a game of pool, that’s the height of sociability. That’s the right kind of gaming. So only specific types of games are stigmatized, and only specific types of play have been rewarded.
—BLDGBLOG interview with Jim Rossignol
So. It’s fairly well-reported that every culture has its approved mind-altering substances and its disapproved ones. Anywhere you are, there’ll be at least alcohol, and quite possibly a plethora of local flora (and sometimes fauna) capable of putting one quite out of one’s senses. And some of them are OK, and some of them are not, depending what culture you’re in.
But this is the case with games, too, isn’t it? It’s kind of a many-axis thing, just like mind alteration: though alcohol is, broadly speaking, acceptable in American culture, it depends on the context; similarly, poker is broadly an acceptable game, but it can be viewed as a bit morally suspect, too. Scrabble, though, is always acceptable.
Where do video games fall into this? That’s a question dealt with in the BLDGBLOG post very well. So I will try instead to write about an even nerdier family of games, RPGs. The short version, I guess, is that they’re largely socially unacceptable, though you’d be hard-pressed to say alcohol:marijuana::poker:D&D, not least because colons are hard to pronounce as such. I think that we’ve largely gotten over the Chick-Tract* attitude that D&D will cause you to commit suicide and worship Satan all at the same time, but there’s still a lot of stigma there. It’s associated, at least, with a lack of social skill.
Yet RPGs can, in the ideal case, be a lot like extended collaborative improv. Acting and improv are not so negatively viewed, so what’s the deal? I think a lot of things go into this. First, Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies. So, we’re usually not in the aforementioned ideal case, but rather engaging in less-than-interesting improv, with strained dialogue and confused action and motivation. Proper acting gets around this through editors, directors and rehearsal, though proper improv doesn’t, and is, frankly, more hit-and-miss. But I think that there’s another thing involved that strikes me as more interesting: RPGs lack an audience; they are wholly participatory.** Our culture strongly prefers audience-based art. Things that are too participatory are viewed with some suspicion, both in terms of artistic merit and legal standing.*** Dance that you go to watch from seats in a theater is art, dance that you do on a Friday night isn’t.
What I can’t figure out is why, while most games are unobserved (seriously, who watches a Scrabble game?), they don’t suffer stigma from this fact, and RPGs do. Certainly the main demographic that plays them is intensely nerdy, and nerds are still fundamentally stigmatized. (More on nerds and computers at a later date, if I remember.) My best guess is that it has something to do with the quality of an RPG as a performance, as opposed to Scrabble, combined with the lack of audience. It’s as though it’s viewed like singing into your hairbrush: a guilty pleasure at best, lacking an audience not because the activity doesn’t call for one, but because no one wants to watch.
* Jack Chick is a crazy evangelical. I won’t link to him. Find “Dark Dungeons” yourself.
** Though, to be fair, I’ve come across some cases where people have been audience to an RPG, usually nominally playing, but not really being involved. It doesn’t work. Most of the fun is in participation.
*** The connection to this link might not be totally obvious, but I think that fan-works are generally viewed as more participatory, or at least possessing a smaller and more involved audience. Regardless, it’s an interesting article.