There’s this story that you hear people tell, of a lost glorious age taken away by those with no right to it, and its last, struggling few defenders. This lost age is a time when there was no challenge to, by which I mean not even the smallest noticeable difference from, a standard hierarchy of power. All difference is challenge, you see, because this person, this storyteller who values this lost age, is so closely identified with their own power that any possible attack on it might be an attack on their very selves. It ends up that the most important job of conservatism is to protect “the private life of power”: the intimate insults, whether in the home or on the nightly news, that stop masters (or those who think of themselves as masters in training) from feeling like masters. “Every great political blast – the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington – is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. [...] That is why our political arguments – not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else – can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.”
This analysis, like the quotes above, comes from Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, a polarizing book for people on both sides of the ideological fence. Lots of folks on the American left believe that the red-meat culture-war side of right-wing politics is just a cover story, a theatrical shell over their real, merely corporatist agenda. Robin proposes not only that the two conservative agendas are really one, but that the people who espouse them are not crazy; instead, they have a large and well-constructed body of philosophy behind them – they just see no problem with its being built on an idea as sick as “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.” This possibility frightens a lot of middle-class progressives, because it means that we will have to fight after all, and fight hard. The liberal middle class hates fighting. We hate the thought that we can’t all just get along if we finally explain the facts well enough.
This anxious aversion to conflict, I have to admit, is probably what has driven a lot of my online research into roleplaying. You’d think that when it comes to games, the stakes would be so low that there wouldn’t be much fighting, and certainly not much anxiety over it. But many people in online RPG-discussion circles seem to have a permanent hate-on for new-style gaming, to the point where some have made that hatred a banner of online identity. It’s confusing, at first blush; I mean, how can people not grasp that they can just go on playing whatever they like? Why react not just so strongly, but so persistently? It doesn’t stop online, either. Many folks in the real world who’ve tried to introduce new games or gaming techniques to traditional roleplayers have been rebuffed with accusations that seem out of all proportion.
My anxiousness has declined a great deal since I’ve realized what’s going on: roleplaying games, to date, have generally embodied a number of power relationships – between players and the fiction, and between players and the GM. For the last forty years, the roleplaying hobby has invested most of its hopes for any feeling of fairness in the loosey-goosiest game ever invented in the role of the game master, or most often the Dungeon Master. The GM/DM has been invested not only with the final say over any matter that comes up for adjudication, but with control over the game’s opposing forces. Players venerate the people who manage this conflict of interest well, while anyone who can’t – while being given precious little systemic support for doing so – has, over the life of the hobby to date, mostly just been shamed.
It’s been traditional for a long time, as well, for the GM to be the social host of the game, as well as to decide who is invited to be part of the game and who’s not. Since one incompatible player can ruin everyone’s fun and a lot of players regard play opportunities as a scarce, valuable commodity, the GM role can be a massive source of social power.
On top of these, there’s the power of the storyteller. In some RPG subcultures, the GM is expected to be the main driver of the narrative. If players want to do anything of great consequence to the plot, they can’t just up and do it – they either need to cooperate deliberately with the GM, or they simply understand that what they’re at the table to actively do is something else (perhaps fighting the monsters that have been placed in the encounter, perhaps just being a bystander to a good story). All fine, and all perhaps necessary when the rules don’t much help all players get a satisfying story simply through their play actions, but all certainly adding to the social power of the GM role. Great storytellers are respected across cultures.
The GM-and-players relationship is not the only power relationship in RPGs. A player who has mastered the rules, or other skills required to play well, successfully enough to get whatever he or she wants out of the game, gets many forms of power, including some social ones. In a collaborative game like a traditional RPG, do you help the other players when they struggle with rules? When, and on what terms? Do you help them with strategy, or do you deride them as dragging the group down? What if you don’t have that mastery and your contributions to the game are getting blocked by people who do – do you then build a relationship with the GM, such that you depend on her to keep that blocking player in check so you can contribute?
These are all power relationships that invite personal identification. How often do we hear GMs identify as such, almost like it’s an ethnicity? How often do they talk about “their players” in a vaguely or explicitly paternal way? And in the end, what identification could be more personal than one’s role in a game full of stuff made up by oneself and one’s friends? Especially a game that’s not essentially different from the game you played for countless hours in your childhood?
So, you have people who for whatever reason are closely, personally identified with their position of power at the gaming table – no matter whether that position is high or low. Non-RPG story games upset these positions. They become a threat.
I am not saying that people who defend traditional RPGs necessarily hold conservative politics in other arenas, although as I’ve said elsewhere, it shouldn’t be forgotten that D&D was born amongst Midwestern armchair generals who didn’t like hippies much. RPGs also quickly found cultural footing in the science fiction and fantasy fandoms, which have their own strong currents of conservatism to this day. But conservatism can also be quite compartmentalized; you might have no beliefs about a natural status order of economic roles, but strong ones about an order of genders, as one example. (Not to forget liberal activists who end up showing off, and defending, their privilege – nor people who identify destructively with a permanent role of outcast or spoiler.)
I’m also not trying in general to make the problems with our conversations about RPGs out to be a bigger or more important problem than they really are. It’s enough, to me, that RPG conservatism poses problems for anyone who wants to work towards a better hobby-wide conversation, find players for new games, or even just search on Google for more information about them. Not even coming up with the new term “story games” can help us with that one forever.
(By the way, all of the above also explains why D&D edition wars will continue, despite almost every edition of D&D currently being back in print.)