Monday, January 18, 2010

The Continuing Battle Between Creativity and Conformity in Our Society: Observations and Links

(This is in part an answer to Endymion's post in Up on a Tree Stump #4™ (below) and my continued commentary upon the matter.)

RPG Examples abound--and I  limited the contrasting part of my essay to 3E+.  It is also true that a new consumer market was created with the advent of computerized gaming; just as a new consumer market was created with the advent of RPG; and with the spread of Sc-Fi/Fantasy, with a big boost from JRR Tolkien's trilogy to help with the latter.

The coincidence is that all three of these markets just about occurred at once or very close in time to each other.  Fantasy-Fiction>RPG>Computerized versioning of both.  This has lead to different understandings of "what" out of these three are cross-adaptable markets and how to wean these "whats" into existing or merging ones.  But that is matter for another essay I am currently outlining.

What Endymion said...  >...wonder if the reason players today are perhaps reluctant to indulge in free play of the sort you recall is because the presence of technology itself has contributed to a regimented life that discourages initiative< ... is true.  Of course we have the challenge of built in competition at one of its highest levels in the history of American education and business, and so technology is being manipulated to cut avenues for it, time is being squashed due to societal demands, and children are being routed towards goal-driven futures at an extremely fast pace as everyone seems to a lesser of greater extent to be keeping up with the JONES.  Starting with the introductory link in the Boyd/Spolin post I am further summarizing the already known antithesis of play and creativity.  Also note that this embodies in part an over emphasis on competition (now, IMO, a cultural syndrome) as was negatively commented upon by Neva Boyd almost a century ago:

'At the time, public recreation programs in the main stressed formal sports, calisthenics, and competitive activity, which Neva Boyd found to be constricting and sterile.  She believed that the essence of such activity should be social development rather than mere physical exercise.  Consequently in her play programs she stressed the use of games and activities in which the leader and participants engaged both psychologically and physically, which resulted in improved social relationships.  She believed such activities should be valued for their intrinsic good, not for external rewards.  Applying this to her teaching, she noted:
                "The greed for power, the hatred and dishonesty which have become associated with competitive games are not an inherent part of them but have found their why in them through a false sense of values [emphasis mine].  Prizes separate people, pit them against each other, discourage the less able and set the more able apart."
    Miss Boyd believed in goodness and that the love of goodness must be cultivated.  “Social living,” she said, “cannot be maintained on the basis of destructive ideologies – domination, hate, prejudice, greed and dishonesty.  A society cannot hold together without a good way of life for all….Virtues are dynamic products and cannot be taken over fully developed without being continuously developed.'”

The aforementioned, when coupled with many other salient facts as I've previously noted, notes challenges within our society to the very notion that play is important to begin with.  That is why I posted Boyd's theory, then, in posting order, that codified theory in practice as contrasted between two historical versions of D&D, and then Brown's applications which incorporate free-form play in practice in the realm of design.  Within the comparisons derived from OD&D and Brown's POV, we see both stressing open exchange models as paramount and as the very route to abstract expansion, and all of this taking place within a constantly readapting and self-regenerative system.   What we as RP(game) designers are in essence creating are combinations of rules which when transferred from the imaginative play ground of thought to a pencil and paper game, or to other real-time environments, that must be codified to a certain extant to be understood in a base form.  This is what Brown asserts as the "Serious Side."  Beyond that designers run the risk of over-structuring and thus turning the sword back upon the original intent of keeping exploratory paths open in their RPGs.  OD&D/AD&D also asserts this in keeping the rulings open to DMs, in encouraging player/DM inputs and in open and free-form play and creation.

Non-abstract thinking players often see this free form style as hocus pocus.  "I cannot see where the result is derived from." Thus a DM is sometimes viewed as fallible or even unreliable in such games where the reliance is upon absolute rules structure.  Contrast this give-and-take to a playground game where a group of children are playing and adapting as they in turn input to the ongoing real-time design and you may find that there is what I call a missing link somewhere in the transiting stages of growth from child>young-adult>adult.  Also note these links, 1,  2,  3.  We see a growing reliance on the rational mind as compared to the abstract and a diametric shift away from what is wrongly considered "chaotic play" as we grow older and adapt to the rigidity of societal forms; and this leads us back as to why, and which in part we have already noted and answered.  Tim Brown asserts that finite and free-form wholes are not mutually exclusive parts.  He correctly notes them as interdependent due to their use when needed.  Thus when we strip all structure from an RPG we are back to parlor games or the playground.  If we add too much structure we are at the finite board/miniatures game.  OD&D/AD&D creatively bridge finite and free-form concepts, and actually on many levels given the medium, merges them, which is quite a creative achievement if one thinks about it.

A computer game (and thus the contrasting perspective of DM<>Computer as DM, or even by extenuation, RULES as DM) is not often if ever seen as fallible in that regard (even though these are programmed by humans, and thus the overall view is false to assume so, as such fallibility when it exists will not come in the output stage (results from pressing a button or keys, etc) but is still present in the initial data and programming stages, all of which I touch upon in another upcoming essay, "Illusory Ground.").  These are accepted for what they are as they can be no more than what their data allows for.  Thus games which emulate them are what they are and provide a comfortable feeling of sameness and security of understanding.  Computer gaming is in fact similar to shopping methodology:  you can take time, you can PAUSE, you can retrace your steps (SAVE GAME) and you can start over in case of disaster (I LEFT MY WALLET AT HOME), not to mention the inevitable LIST of goodies sought.  During breaks from the computer game, players can plan to overcome its more often static environment which has not changed during that interval (or very little depending on what has been programmed into it, or what has been reduced in the meantime as in online games). Players can numerically figure it all out while retracing their steps many times before then to derive what is for the most part the one correct answer, or even a series of one correct answers.  This in turn corresponds to what is prevalent in our educational systems today (and which is noted in the above links, 1,2,3) and which is stifling creative thinking at that level. Finding correspondences to the above example in OD&D's design and play is difficult, as a DM has the ability to recreate situations on the fly and at a pace far out distancing and out creating what is possible for data dependent computers.  All that must prevail is the willingness on the DM's part to do so and a perceived need to continue working on their creative ranges.

This may have also contributed to an interesting cultural/psychological nuance:  that when consumers of these many computer games find ones that are distasteful they express their distaste more often in terms relating to the named game itself and not often to the company, or to the person(s) who programmed these.  "Ork3 sucks." But when we have a pencil and paper game, or even a board game to a lesser or greater degree, the finger is inevitably pointed at the designer, especially in our niche industry.  What should be important to track at all levels--quality of design and who(m) is manipulating it for consumption--at some point becomes obscured as its dissemination reaches mass market proportions.  I have not found this so in fiction, illustration/art nor with movies, and in these cases there are readily apparent reasons as to why this is not so.  The relevancy of such may lie in the fact that people disposed to mass intake have less demand for satisfactory return on all levels and this too may be a contributory reason for lack of creative need as many people are used to accepting the good alongside the bad and mediocre.  In retrospect, I have always found the American expression, "It wasn't that bad," to be a result of this thinking process; and of course in return to those saying such I always respond:  "I'm sorry..."


Timeshadows said...

It is damn depressing, but true.

scottsz said...

Risk and Reward. Competition is Healthy.

It's everywhere.

I always thought that the real social value of RPG's was that they really promote cooperation, even in the face of specialization.

Aside from competition, all I can say is that the maniacal drive for more 'math and science' is absolutely killing our younger generations - turning them into reptiles with no imagination.

There's a biography of Richard Feynman that describes his frustration with education while working in South American(?). He indicated that he had a roomful of students who could memorize the indices of molecular structures but didn't know that cracking a Certs in a dark room causes a spark.

Sorry for the long comment. My father always said that nature always balanced out extremes, even intelligence: 'the more complex the mind, the greater the need for play', he used to say.

Rob Kuntz said...

@Timeshadows: Yeah, depressing for the kids and the generations to follow.

Rob Kuntz said...

@Scottz: Heh, please feel free to post any length response, that is why this blog exists for such growing interchanges.

Your points are well made. I shall reference Richard Feynman as I have never heard of him. Thanks. Your father is (was?) very wise: we can all learn from that picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue, heh?

As for "...the maniacal drive for more 'math and science' is absolutely killing our younger generations..." I will note an experience from my economics class in college. It was my first class on the first day in the year of the... Ah. It went like this: Professor Pavalick entered the room all smiles and and a perpetual twinkle in his eye. He introduced himself with that same smile and twinkle and said: "You're all here because you are too lazy to go to the library." Most students did not know how to take that, but I just smiled as I had instant respect for him. The next meeting he entered the room and taped a clipping from the WSJ on the board and turning to the class said, "This is from the WSJ [he is looking hard and not smiling at the upper classmen in the back room who are trying to skate through the biz school with a low level economics class]. continuing... "It states that over 50% of all MBAs ARE NOT being hired at the corporate level." [there is now audible shifting in chairs and silent exclamations heard coming from the same section of upper classmen]. He continues. "It seems that MBAs in the majority of cases cannot communicate effectively, written or verbally. As this is necessary for business, corporations are hiring liberal arts majors and teaching them what they need to know at the business level." He then addressed the class as a whole and said, "While attending this college, do not forsake your liberal arts education."

A solid "One" for the abstract thinkers...

Rob Kuntz said...

Read a bit on Richard Feynman, and thought that the name sounded familiar. Goes to show that not all ground can be covered in life. Very engrossing general read of his many accomplishments, though.

scottsz said...

I was lucky enough to have a father that was very Ionian when it came to science. Want bigger tomatoes from the garden? Every year, take the largest tomato you get and pull out the seeds for next year. Need to replenish the soil from the bigger tomatoes? Save the eggshells in the morning, crush them up and put them in when you turn the soil...

He believed in the mechanical and sensible - a kid from postwar Brooklyn. He always believed that things like Legos, Erector Sets, and model kits were part of a kids education.

I was a very lucky kid, in a very lucky time. As regards the post about creativity, I see 'Maker' culture as the last vestige of real America, just like my old man.

He wound up being an integrated circuit designer - perpetually frustrated by younger engineers who had PhD's, but didn't know how a Crystal Radio worked.

Makers give me hope.

Andrew (better known as Drew) said...

Fascinating comments, Rob, and one of the most reasonable attempts I've seen at explaining the Old School/New School split in gaming (far better than just "4e sux"). Once again I find my own theories validated.

For herein lies the true difference between OD&D and more recent forms: it is not precisely a matter of mechanics but of philosophy. I believe that D&D became popular precisely BECAUSE there was freedom to tweak the rules. I give you the many, many articles in early Dragon mags that dealt with varying methods on dealing with a plethora of situations, all of which were prefaced with the implication that, "here's ONE WAY of dealing with the situation." Contrast that with the 3e (implied, I admit) assertion that, "this is how you must do it."

This is why I frequently assert that 3.5e's (my preferred system these days) true usefulness is not in play but in the design process. With it I can construct semi-mathematical models of my designs and test them in a somewhat-statistical way - it is a tool that helps me avoid my tendency to create designs that are alternately either too hard or too easy.

However, before and after such models are constructed and tested, the rules have no usefulness to me. And, of course, during play the rules go out the window altogether, as I refuse to be stifled by them.

You wouldn't believe how many players I've shocked with this approach, especially when I show up to a game without any rulebooks and refuse to reference them during play. However, I feel my philosophy (and yours, it would seem) appears to be further validated in that they always walk away satisfied after the game. Heck, one group even got me a plaque engraved with "World's Greatest DM". (I say that not to brag but as proof that the free-form approach to gaming really works.)

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I have so little to add beyond that this was very thought provoking. It also makes me look at myself and how I approach DM'ing and you're right - play is exactly it. When the game goes well, I feel a joy like little else. When the game goes sour, and it has once or twice due to a conflict because a player wanted a precise ruling rather than a give/take "fudge" - it really killed the joy for me. So much so, I had to ask that person to not come back.

You know, I have to say that you've gained a very curious, interested fan in these sorts of ruminations. I wasn't sure how to take you at first, but wow, you've got some really intensely good things to say.

Anonymous said...

As bubbagump said, "I believe that D&D became popular precisely BECAUSE there was freedom to tweak the rules."

Today, freedom is scary and people are adverse to it probably because of what Neva Boyd stated about today's "false sense of values."

The "antithesis of play and creativity" probably pervades modern culture because we are failing to nurture the formative "transiting stages of growth from child>young-adult>adult" with the value of play & learning as "intrinsic good, not for external rewards".

"This in turn corresponds to what is prevalent in our educational systems today and which is stifling creative thinking." I totally agree because I think our education system is making students perceive "thinking outside the box" as scary because often this would mean expressing 'politically incorrect' ideas. In addition, this [dare I call it "indoctrination"] makes youth perceive "free form style as hocus pocus" and not valid. Instead they seek "a comfortable feeling of sameness," and I think this is not preparing them for the reality of life because it is ever changing.

For progress/improvement in anything-- Gaming, Science, Math, Technology -- it is critical for us to embrace creativity and imagination and aspire for change in our world views; even if it is scary or politically incorrect. I think the key to overcoming a fear of change is to reverse the modern religion of reverence to science (or expand science beyond just the material/superficial world). This is because values should focus intrinsically and not externally (the material/superficial world is so limiting).

The trend in modern education is "stifling creative thinking," limiting new ideas and knowledge.

Knowledge is power and therefore controlling knowledge is power.... for those in control.

Bubbagump says, "However, before and after such models are constructed and tested, the rules have no usefulness to me." -- SO true! We must keep in mind that for the most part rules are an illusion (The Illusion of Rules"-- thanks to LotGD for the link).

Tom said...

The early computer RPG games were a light alternative branch of the game itself, but not a huge part of the RPG in whole. Now the on-line game is the main part and the book format RPG a background alternative. This is my opinion on a part of the matter. "Younger people may be embracing the on-line game format due to the lack of game community in their areas. A lot of good ol hobby shops have closed up and went on-line as well. So the more everything goes online. People tend to follow." Yes there are ON-LINE communities for OD&D/AD&D and other RPG's but what about local ones? Do you think people should start promoting these more? and if this does start to happen again, would it steer the game concept back to what it was?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Delve - I'm reluctant to put a link on the comment that doesn't relate to our host, but if you do a google search on TARGA RPG, you'll find that indeed those groups are forming and trying to do exactly that.

Rob Kuntz said...

@Chgowiz and Delve: Please do post the link as it is pertinent to the discussion. There needs to be more alternate sources for the promulgation of creative interchange, especially at the interpersonal level as it was for myself and others in our many gaming/social spheres 1968 onward. Anything relating to that is welcome and worthy of discussion. Also note that this whole "creative thread" while using RPG as a cornerstone is searching out realms of relatedness while doing so. We are definitely and forever out of the box here. :)

Rob Kuntz said...

@ Scottz: > see 'Maker' culture as the last vestige of real America, just like my old man.<

>Makers give me hope.<

This is so poignant. Let us hope hat we outpace the destroyers.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

TARGA is the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association - it's mission is to keep the flames alive on old games - supporting gamers and those who would run the games. At present, starting out, we're little more than a band of brothers/sisters in our purpose, but with creative energy, who knows where we might go?

I should note that we have started our announcements for our key event - International Traditional Gaming Week to coincide with Gary Con 2. Certainly an excellent time to promote some creative thinking games.

Thank you for the chance to talk about TARGA here.

scottsz said...

Many thanks for the TARGA link and great comments.

Good travels to all good travellers...

Rob Kuntz said...

@Journalizer. First, welcome as an "authoress" to the blog. It's always my pleasure to invite dedicated artists and thinkers to exchange deep-seeded exchanges. :) Your insights and condensations of my inter-woven thoughts are spot-on, of course. There is nothing but agreement in response to your summaries.

Elton said...


Yes, I totally agree with you! I throw all the rules out the window when I GM/DM. It's a thousand times easier to DM that way since you are actually . . . PLAYING the game.

Freeform actually works, and although some friends of mine actually enjoys playing with all the rules, it doesn't really sit well with me. DMing sucks when you constrain yourself by the rules, I think. You aren't giving yourself room for interpretation by your instincts.

Andrew (better known as Drew) said...

Well said, Elton!

Funny story:
A few years ago, when I was still part owner of the LGS, some young whippersnapper was haranguing the guy behind the counter about his D&D character. Since I didn't want my employee wasting his time, I injected myself and took him on.

He continued to brag about how he could "beat" any DM with his superior knowledge of the rules and tactical skills, and strenuously objected when I told him that too many rules are a crutch and tended to wreck games rather than improve them.

He finally reached a fever pitch and I decided to shut him down and get him out of my store - so I bet him $50 that I could DM him through an adventure with no rules, and it would be the best adventure he'd ever played. To my surprise, he actually took me up on it.

And so the next 2 hours passed with me DMing him and his friend through a made-up adventure based on half-remembered mods I'd read years before. No rules, no character sheets, and no dice. Only rock-paper-scissors to determine outcomes.

At the end of the game I had to go to another appointment, but this guy was practically begging to keep playing and find out "what comes next". I had to turn him away.

As he was walking out the door, he turned around and came back, placed his PHB on the counter, and asked me if (since he didn't have $50) I would accept it as payment. I told him to keep it, of course.

A week later he asked if he could join my regular D&D campaign.

Moral(s) of the story: Rules can never be a substitute for imagination. In fact, no game should be about the rules at all. It should be about the people you play with and the experience you share. At most the rules are there to make sure everybody plays fair and to guide you if you get stuck. Anything more is unnecessary.