Playing Outside Your Beliefs

edited December 2009 in Story Games
My friends enjoyed Ghost/Echo a couple of weeks ago, so I hunted down Otherkind - from which G/E's mechanics were derived.

I'm reluctant to play Otherkind because its implicit beliefs and assumptions about the universe are so different to mine - particularly the nature of humankind and progress.

The prompt response is - 'well, don't play it then' but as I thought I realised I have no problem with playing a racist conservative from the 1950s in 44 or a Mormon vigilante in Dogs in the Vineyard. Why do I object to playing an elf?

My first thought was that DITV in particular doesn't endorse the beliefs I'm wary of. I may be God's judge, jury and executioner, but I can use this to make a commentary about ultimate power, about the nature of religion, about corruption, etc. Even if the game did endorse this, I could play against type and expose the horror of such assumptions. Otherkind is built on the premise of evil, expansionist humankind and the only characters available are good, tree-hugging fey.

So I'm asking you folks - how do you play outside your beliefs, and what do you think is the difference between games that endorse and games that explore certain beliefs?

Comments

  • It's just a game. I don't think I could even play D&D if I really worried about hacking things about with a sword. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever played a game in which my beliefs as a person where totally represented or endorsed by the game. But that's part of the fun, playing against type, being someone else. Provost Gondry, my fantasy Dogs religious fanatic is really great fun to play, even as an atheist.

    Mind you, I don't like elves either. They're prissy good-looking, shiny-haired, immortals is it any wonder that everyone wants to give them a bloody nose? (This is possibly the result of having played D&D for 30 years).
  • Chris, I came up against the same question when considering a scenario in which players take on the role of former SS soldiers (Nazis) killing Communists in Vietnam.

    There's a difference between gameplay and reality that we're all aware of on at least some level, but we must be doubly aware when handling explosive topics lest we seem to be endorsing them. As Steve says above, we'd be paralyzed as gamers if we took everything we portrayed in a game as reflective of our personal states. No more hack-and-slash, no more religious fanaticism, no more playing science-fiction terrorists. We simply have to rigidly define that line that delineates that imaginary space.
  • Chris, awesome question. I have the most horrible time playing D&D because I find the alignment system gross. Absolute good and absolute evil, and killing is morally acceptable as long as you kill evil. Getting into that mindset is really hard for me. I don't know as if the game endorses this belief system, but it clearly celebrates it.

    Dogs in the Vineyard is a different ball of wax. It's a game set in a period with morality we turn our nose up at now, however it encourages you to challenge. What I find interesting though is that when I've run Dogs in the Vineyard, the players will often go along with the morality of the game and the period and have their characters make decisions that they themselves find questionable.

    The difference to me isn't something I can articulate, but the same players who are like, "Woohoo! I just tortured and beheaded an orc!" in D&D get real uncomfortable and squirmy when in Dogs in the Vineyard they have to make a judgment about whether a misbehaving child will be left with her overly permissive parents or sent to her harsh, authoritarian, and traditional grandparents.
  • Hey Chris,

    Great stories (like The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers, or Memories, by Mike McQuay) and great games (like My Life with Master, and Dogs In the Vineyard) are the writer/designer's view of the human endeavor, and how the world works. You read the story, you play the game, and you're having a conversation with the designer. And coming to the end you put his view through the filter of your own experience, and have a post-game conversation. Is he right, or is he full of shit?

    But if the writer/designer's view is plain, or if you've already had lots of conversations with artists about the wrenching and moral permutations of the Holocaust experience, then you don't need to have this particular conversation. I bet one of these two things is true for you about Otherkind: Vincent's view is plain, or you've already had lots of conversations with art that addresses Otherkind's views.

    Paul
  • The thing is ...

    Well, let me rephrase.

    Here's the thing that I do when I play these games. I put my beliefs on the table. I go into the game saying "this is a game that's going to comment on my beliefs, and it might end up saying that I'm wrong." There's two ways that I do this.

    First, is that I play a character with opposite beliefs of mine, and I play him as strongly and honestly and non-hypocritically as I possibly can. I play the Dog who thinks that forgiveness and a prayer session are going to fix everything, say.

    Second, I play a character that represents my beliefs, and I play him as strongly and honestly and non-hypocritically as I possibly can. I play the Dog who's a liberal reformer, or the Dog who's a sin eater propping up Utopia by breaking the rules. Say.

    In both cases, I accept that play is going to render my character wrong in his beliefs, or right in them, and that I have to be prepared for the consequences of that on my self and my beliefs. I make as sympathetic a character as I can and I toss him into the wringer and see what happens.

    Now, otherkind may not actually do this, on account that otherkind isn't really a done game. Doing this requires trust that the game designer isn't dumb.

    yrs--
    --Ben
  • I had a tough time with Dogs... being a mormon paladin didn't sit well with me at all. But I admire the game, the setting and they system. But I did have a tough time and I'm glad it was a one shot.
  • Wow. I hadn't seen Otherkind as that simple at all. I never saw it as simple as expansionist vs. this-belongs-to-us. Mankind vs. Faerie is and has been a fuckin' war, and thus not simple at all (how many children have those trolls kidnapped from their cribs?). At the time Otherkind is set, the war's already been lost, and the Faerie are just trying to cut their losses.

    Also consider that humans are alive, and thus killing them damages your character in some way.
  • Yeah, I'm with Marshall. Otherkind is just not that simple. Without much tweaking you could replace the fey with Zapatistas, Native Americans, Suffragists, and so on and so forth. Otherkind isn't a game about fighting for "tree-loving hippieness". It's about fighting for what you believe in and the costs of doing so.
  • There's plenty of genre pieces I do whose underlying assumptions I disagree with. I mean, the whole superspy/technothriller genre is based on a fundamentally hyperconservative view of international politics and espionage, which is about as wrong a view as it is possible to have. Yet I will dive into those with gusto.
  • edited December 2009
    Might I hazard a guess here, hoping not to offend too badly?

    You have probably never met or hung out with any Mormon vigilantes, or had to make nice with them as a matter of basic social competence in the contemporary USA (which is where I'm assuming you live). Same thing probably goes for 1950s style racists - their descendants are still around of course, but these days they make subtle and bizarre arguments for building a wall between here and Mexico, rather than (say) just shouting 'nigger' at people in the streets.

    But there are wispy, granola-munching, tree-hugging, post-humanist types everywhere these days. You have probably had to get along with them on an almost daily basis. And a tiny voice has probably whispered in your mind that, in spite of whatever homespun ideology you've come up with according to which they're the lowest of the low, some of them are decent people who can defend their opinions with a spookily high degree of plausibility. This is, of course, quite stressful, and who (apart from the occasional artsy Jeepform type in Scandanavia) would ever want to replicate such stress during gametime?

    I call it the "close to the bone" theory.
  • I rather enjoy games that challenge me. Then again, as a fairly radical "tree-hugging hippie" who doesn't think the word "progress" has the least relationship to history, Otherkind sounds right up my alley. But mostly, I play D&D, because I can only find other players willing to play that. I've heard people say that D&D has no big, moral case it makes. I beg to differ; I think it seems transparent only when you accept it so completely that, for you, it seems self-evident, rather than a moral case. To me, its combination of simplistic, black-and-white judgments and the lesson that you can solve your problems with the simple application of violence make the theme we play out every other week reprehensible. Ironically, for all the Christians who once feared D&D for undermining their religion, my contempt for it comes precisely from how much it celebrates that religion.

    Then again, I rarely feel safe to mention the way I see the world. I live surrounded by views that I find as antithetical to my own as you probably consider 1950s racists or Mormon gunslingers to yours.

    I started designing my game with the goal of sharing a glimpse of the world as I see it: as Paul put it, "having a conversation with the designer." I've spent a lot of time agonizing about where that line falls, between a good conversation, and brow-beating and sermonizing. I've come to this: it really depends on where you make the argument. If you have to come out and say it, I think it falls into brow-beating. On the other hand, if you present rules that create a certain emergent experience, you've made an argument. You've presented a small model of how you think the world works, and you've asked people to play it out, to see your point. You might disagree, but you've at least taken the time to listen.
  • I can't think of a single current belief system I wouldn't mind playing.

    Except anything to do with children. You know, child soldiers or...well, you know. I just can't go there.
  • @Jason: *Ouch!* For a second there, I thought you were going to say something about Christian pacifism. I beg you to consider that, just like Stalinism ain't Communism by a long shot, Neoconservatism/Fundamentalism/what-have-you ain't Christianity by a long shot.

    Of course, that's how I am able to sleep at night - by thinking that most belief systems are practiced to much greater moral effect on a personal or human-community level than they are in mass society. And I also think that Fifth World does what I sometimes wish "opinionated" design would do - it imagines what it could be like if we had the world we wanted.
  • edited December 2009
    I ran Otherkind today, and to be honest encountered more trouble getting hang of the rules than the belief system. I didn't try to subvert the game's assumptions but rather run with them - the wildly destructive humans enslaved their own kind, and the quest to free those innocent humans and then turn them on their masters consumed much of the game.

    I think what distinguishes games like Otherkind and Dogs from the 'fundamentally hyperconservative' superspy/technothriller genre and the hack-n-slash of D&D is that the latter assume an ideology rather than pushing one. That changes how you play the game and how you react to what the game has to offer. That may be an arbitrary distinction, but I feel it's the difference between 'I'm doing this because it's logical within the metaphysics of the world' (D&D - killing orcs) and 'I'm doing this because it's the metaphysics of the world' (Otherkind - sabotaging lumber camps).

    I think Paul Czege is on the money when he talks about the artist's view being plain or the conversation being one I've had already. I do find Otherkind's view a bit plain (I won't extrapolate that to Vincent's view) though there is more depth to it than first met my eye. And I've recently had quite a few conversations about environmentalism so I'm probably burnt out from that theme.
    lordgoon wrote:
    Might I hazard a guess here, hoping not to offend too badly?
    [...]
    But there are wispy, granola-munching, tree-hugging, post-humanist types everywhere these days. You have probably had to get along with them on an almost daily basis. And a tiny voice has probably whispered in your mind that, in spite of whatever homespun ideology you've come up with according to which they're the lowest of the low, some of them are decent people who can defend their opinions with a spookily high degree of plausibility. This is, of course, quite stressful, and who (apart from the occasional artsy Jeepform type in Scandanavia) would ever want to replicate such stress during gametime?

    I call it the "close to the bone" theory.

    You did offend, though not too badly. My 'homespun ideology' does not consider environmentalists 'the lowest of the low' - far from it. My problem with Otherkind, at least as I see it, is not with the beliefs it espouses so much as the uncritical nature of those beliefs. I don't feel any opinion is 'defended' in Otherkind - I think certain opinions have been taken as given. Is there room to explore what has been pronounced from on high?

    Thanks for your feedback, everyone.
  • Chris,
    As far as finding viewpoints to defend in Otherkind, I think Marshall put it pretty well - "how many children have those trolls kidnapped from their cribs?" Noting what seems to be a logic-gap in the game (why are Orcs hunters, if killing is forbidden to the Fey? Is killing only forbidden now?), I wouldn't be too glib to say that there's a lot you can do to someone without killing them, and maybe that's what makes the Fey not altogether nice creatures.
    Oh, jeez, now I want to play around with that "now?" question, especially in the context of what the Orcs do, exactly, or perhaps merely what they once did, but are now unable to engage in without self-injury - maybe some kind of "Gaea helps us escape this earth, but forbids us from taking life" kind of scenario?
  • edited December 2009
    Posted By: Zac in Davis@Jason: *Ouch!* For a second there, I thought you were going to say something about Christian pacifism. I beg you to consider that, just like Stalinism ain't Communism by a long shot, Neoconservatism/Fundamentalism/what-have-you ain't Christianity by a long shot.
    <derail>Sure, I've met some really great Christians. I used to call myself a Christian. The folks involved in Unitarian Universalism or Liberation Theology; folks like Bishop Spong or Thomas Berry, we tend to get along. But it sure seems like the people who want to shoot me because I don't worship Jesus outnumber the rest of you by at least 2-to-1, making the exceptions seem so rare I wonder if it even makes sense to mention them most of the time. I hope those Christians who occasionally refer to Christ's teachings make a come-back, because I really like those folks, but right now, they seem like a pretty small fringe group to me.</derail>
    Posted By: Zac in DavisAnd I also think thatFifth Worlddoes what I sometimes wish "opinionated" design would do - it imagines what it could be like if we had the world we wanted.
    Thanks! As I said, I've spent a lot of time agonizing over that line between "having a conversation" and brow-beating. So I feel very glad to hear you say that.
    Posted By: SanglorianYou did offend, though not too badly. My 'homespun ideology' does not consider environmentalists 'the lowest of the low' - far from it. My problem with Otherkind, at least as I see it, is not with the beliefs it espouses so much as the uncritical nature of those beliefs. I don't feel any opinion is 'defended' in Otherkind - I think certain opinions have been taken as given. Is there room to explore what has been pronounced from on high?
    You did just say you feel that you might have recently burned yourself out on environmental topics; I don't think Mark's idea necessarily needs to go to the extremes of "the lowest of the low" to work.

    That said, when I play games that push an agenda counter to my own, I do look for enough space in the game to explore my thoughts on that theme. For instance, in D&D, I've recently played up the fact that all the PC's act like complete psychopaths. I have enough space for that in that game: it works out pretty easily to have the townsfolk react to you with the kind of horror reserved for serial killers and sociopaths. Dogs does almost nothing but provide that kind of space. I've loved it ever since the town I ran, where a father killed his gay son, and I wrote "I love my boy 2d4" on his character sheet. A man kills his son, and he has "I love my boy" on his character sheet. I roll dice for that! Dice!
  • edited December 2009
    Posted By: Zac in DavisAnd I also think thatFifth Worlddoes what I sometimes wish "opinionated" design would do - it imagines what it could be like if we had the world we wanted.
    I absolutely love this term.
  • A question—and feel free to shoot this down and slap me if it goes too far into railroad territory—do you think any game ever lacks an agenda? I think the difference between "opinionated design" and other design seems like the difference between trying to carefully phrase what you want to say, and saying something without realizing it.
  • Well, every game, no matter how scrupulously neutral, has some underlying assumptions, and depending on how broadly you can find political statements in things, I could see someone finding politics in even, say, the GURPS Attributes chapter if they looked hard enough. ("Quantification of relevant attributes of people is possible"?)
  • Posted By: jasonA question—and feel free to shoot this down and slap me if it goes too far into railroad territory—do you think any game everlacksan agenda? I think the difference between "opinionated design" and other design seems like the difference between trying to carefully phrase what you want to say, and saying something without realizing it.
    It depends on what you mean by "agenda", and on who the arbiter is of what a particular game "actually" says.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyWell, every game, no matter how scrupulously neutral, has some underlying assumptions, and depending on how broadly you can find political statements in things, I could see someone finding politics in even, say, the GURPS Attributes chapter if they looked hard enough.
    To find the same thing, one person might have to look very hard, while it seems obvious to someone else. What seems very obvious to you, might seem very obscure to me. Even in your example: to me, as someone who tries to at least write in E-Prime, GURPS Attributes seems like a HUGE philosophical statement. I don't have to look hard for it at all; it sits up and punches me in the face.
  • Jason, please say more about E-Prime and how it relates to GURPS making a huge philosophical statement. A cursory web search reveals that E-Prime is English-language communication that omits the verb "to be" whenever possible; how does this tie in?

    I see the GURPS system presenting a couple of notions, on its face: a) they present things from a "physical reality" perspective (i.e. purist-for-System), and b) any given subject matter in the universe meshes appropriately and seamlessly with all others (actually, if not thematically). Also, I agree: all game designs make a statement, *especially* if you look at Heartbreakers or any game lacking "broadness" (in the sense of the overall field of RPG design) in its design lineage.

    p.s. now I can't stop using E-Prime to express myself ^_^
  • What I find more interesting is what we're doing when we play a game with certain assumptions or points of view. Are we endorsing them? If we aren't, are we somehow lying? I have no idea, I go back and forth all the time.
  • Posted By: Zac in DavisJason, please say more about E-Prime and how it relates to GURPS making a huge philosophical statement. A cursory web search reveals that E-Prime is English-language communication that omits the verb "to be" whenever possible; how does this tie in?
    David Bourland probably made the most radical statement about E-Prime when he said that anytime you use the verb "to be," you lie, even if only a little bit. E-Prime reminds you that nothing in the world really has the kind of static reality that a word like "is" suggests. The apple "is" not really red; the way that the apple, the light, your eye and your brain all relate to each other creates your experience of red-ness, so "The apple is red," doesn't really tell the truth. "The apple seems red," gets closer to it.

    In GURPS, you have attributes. You "are" this, you "are" that. GURPS says, "The world is a certain way. Certain fixed things exist. Things can have inherent qualities." This stands out as a big philosophical statement precisely because I disagree with it. Which has stuck in my mind a lot: statements seem big or not mostly based on whether or not we agree with them. If we agree, then they seem small and hardly worth mentioning. If we disagree, they seem very big.

    You pointed out some other statements GURPS makes—that "physical reality" matters most, and that the same rules govern everything. Widely accepted statements, certainly; so, few people ever saw them as political, religious or philosophical claims. But pull them out like that, and they certainly do seem like it, don't they?
    Posted By: Zac in Davisp.s. now I can't stop using E-Prime to express myself ^_^
    It takes some practice, and after you do it for a while, it'll really start to mess with your brain! I still only write in it, and even then I sometimes don't; I don't have it down nearly well enough to speak in E-Prime. I'd trip over my words and stumble even more than I do now!
    Posted By: JDCorleyWhat I find more interesting is what we're doing when we play a game with certain assumptions or points of view. Are we endorsing them? If we aren't, are we somehow lying? I have no idea, I go back and forth all the time.
    I don't know how lying relates to roleplaying. It seems like a very close relation of the question of how lying relates to theater, or storytelling. Lying usually denotes an intent to deceive, and since actors, storytellers and roleplayers don't expect anyone to confuse the opinions of their characters for their own opinions, it seems to lack an important criterion of "lying."

    Can you really, honestly engage a viewpoint you disagree with, though? Or does your disagreement undercut your portrayal? I don't know. But the problem reminds me of the Existentialist critique of communication. The Existentialists point out all the ways in which true, genuine communication can never really happen. Granted, but I've always reacted to that by asserting that we can try, and even knowing that we'll never get it perfect, we can do pretty well nonetheless, and that in itself seems worthwhile.
  • edited December 2009
    Buddhism is equally critical of communication, although not in the sense that it is fruitless - more in the sense that it is fraught, and that we just need to be mindful of this as we go about our business.
    I think it's possible to engage a viewpoint with which you disagree, at least if you take the tack of finding every single thing you already agree with, and then just holding your breath and doing your best. If you're attempting to portray that viewpoint as yours/your character's, then from an acting perspective, it's been my tack to just say "This is true, this is true, this is true," over and over again. As you might expect, certain things are easier for this than others - I find it much easier to act out Abrahamic rejection of other religions than to act out homophobia, since the latter hits too close to home with a part of my core identity.

    I just started reading a neat book by the son of a business owner; the owner worked for a couple of decades in Communist "Central Europe" (the country is unmentioned). The book discusses the economic transition from Communism to capitalism, and touches on this point of yours, Jason:
    Widely accepted statements, certainly; so, few people ever saw them as political, religious or philosophical claims.
    "In the eyes of [neoliberal] observers, planned socialist economies were artificially manufactured systems that created inefficiencies, which would be corrected once the intervention of the Party state was eliminated and free markets were allowed to emerge." [From Communists to Foreign Capitalists, Bandelj, 2008, p. 2]

    So! Some assumptions here, made by neoliberals, are that a) planned socialist economies produce inefficiencies and b) free markets would emerge in the absence of a planned socialist economy. This is an example of the assumption that one's own views and ideas about the world are an accurate, true portrayal of life and existence, and all other viewpoints and value systems must, naturally, be the product of poor logic or some other major fault.

    From the perspective of workers in Communist Europe, who benefited tremendously from the regime's robust social safety net, to dismantle Communist welfare measures is to ruin their standard of living. To the American venture capitalist, to dismantle such things is to free up capital that can be invested, borrowed, lent, spent, and so on, leading to a return on his investments.

    ANYWAY. Point is - there is no such thing as a system or design that lacks assumptions and value systems implicit at its very core - even if those assumptions are as simple as "This is all we've found that works well enough to meet our needs". For game design in particular, it's easy to detect what we agree with and what we don't (at least, I work like this): when you see mechanics that just don't interest you, or better yet, employ them in actual play, whole reams of possible game texts drop off the radar of your potential enjoyment and appreciation.

    [edited 'cause China's workers' lot improved in urban areas, but not in rural areas, after liberalization of the economy]
  • Posted By: jason Can you really, honestly engage a viewpoint you disagree with, though? Or does your disagreement undercut your portrayal? I don't know.
    I can't, maybe because on some level I worry about having my character's viewpoint mistaken for my own and want to make sure that everyone knows that I personally disagree with what I'm having my character say. Being honest about my own opinions and feelings trumps "honestly" portraying something I don't believe in.

    Which isn't much fun to play if I have to do it all the time, so I mostly just try to stay away from extremist character viewpoints that I vehemently disagree with.
  • Posted By: Accounting for TasteBeing honest about my own opinions and feelings trumps "honestly" portraying something I don't believe in.
    Huh. Personally, I don't worry about expressing my opinions through a character, because I know no one expects my character to believe the same things I do. That actually feels kind of dishonest to me, like speaking through a puppet instead of saying what I mean on my own. Then again, I play most of my games with a steady group, and they know the things I believe and the opinions I hold. Would I feel the same at a con? I don't know—no con game has ever challenged me like that.

    I find it very edifying to try to portray people I disagree with, to try to empathize with them, to try to understand why they think the things they do and what motivates them. What series of events and circumstances might have made me just like that? You have to approach that with honesty and sincerity, though, or you just wind up creating a caricature of the things you dislike. One exercise helps build empathy for people you may not like, perhaps even people you consider enemies—the other does the opposite, making those people even more two-dimensional in your mind.
  • I see your point; these days, though, I need more fun from gaming than I need edification. (I get enough opportunity to empathize with and understand people through work, where I'm actually dealing with them; by the time the weekend rolls around, I don't want or need to delve into serious stuff nearly as much as I need to be entertained.)
  • I can understand that. In the moment, my co-workers just tend to baffle me. I have to go home and think about it to start to understand how someone could think such a thing.
  • edited December 2009
    Posted By: Sanglorian

    I think what distinguishes games like Otherkind and Dogs from the 'fundamentally hyperconservative' superspy/technothriller genre and the hack-n-slash of D&D is that the latterassumean ideology rather than pushing one. That changes how you play the game and how you react to what the game has to offer. That may be an arbitrary distinction

    [...]

    My problem with Otherkind, at least as I see it, is not with the beliefs it espouses so much as the uncritical nature of those beliefs. I don't feel any opinion is 'defended' in Otherkind - I think certain opinions have been taken as given.

    [...]

    Thanks for your feedback, everyone.
    You've no doubt heard the old jokes, cribbed from eighteenth century rhetoric manuals, that go like this:

    I have a social conscience.
    You're a malcontent.
    He's a commie.


    or

    I have a way with the ladies.
    You're a flirt.
    He's a pervert.


    So how about this?

    I defend my opinions rationally.
    You 'assume an ideology'.
    His beliefs are 'of an uncritical nature.'


    There's probably an idea for a whole new game in here somewhere.
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