Friday, 19 September 2014

Vox Populi

One of the big stories this week, of course, is the referendum on Scottish independence. As someone whose roots go back to Bonnie Scotland in days of yore, I have been following the story with some interest and strange mixed feelings. On the one hand, the idea of Scottish independence is exciting and exhilarating, even if it's something that the No side argued could lead to financial difficulty both for Scotland and the UK. In the end, the argument of the bankers and bean counters who stood to lose money on the prospect of an independent Scotland has prevailed. More's the pity.

On the other, I remember living through the Quebec 1995 referendum, and the whole Scottish adventure gave me weird flashbacks to that other democratic spin of the wheel and the dread I felt that Canada might be torn apart.

Like most things in life worth talking or writing about, it's complicated.

So what's all this got to do with that most democratic of art forms, roleplaying?

Like Scotland, the hobby seems full to bursting with factions that have a particular idea of what the proper way forward is. Some are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have it, fully prepared to declare certain parts of the hobby illegitimate or heretical. Sometimes the divisions are about when you came into the hobby, what games are acceptable, or how much certain groups are allowed to participate or make their mark on the culture at large.

The strange thing is that the deep divisions that occasionally stick their heads up in roleplaying seem to be about orthodoxy -- the idea that there is one particular way to play, one particular kind of player that is most welcome, one particular rule system that is right and others that are certainly wrong. One true way.

I say it's strange because the idea of orthodoxy runs entirely counter to the way roleplaying as a hobby actually functions, which is as a series of very small, democratic, independent units. In my experience, each individual group negotiates the proper rules of conduct and interprets the rules of the games they agree to play according to their personal preferences. If something isn't to their liking, they adjust it to taste, amending their play until the table is happy with the result. If players aren't satisfied, they vote with their feet and find another group that is closer to their preferences. What is anathema to one group (whether that means diceless play or using miniatures and battlemaps depends on the table) is ambrosia to another.

Where groups often run into problems is where things that they haven't talked about -- or maybe haven't talked about recently, as people's tastes change (or their tolerance grows thin) -- cause conflict. The ongoing discussion about what's allowed and what's not allowed is what modern groups call social contract. When there's a problem with social contract, things tend to escalate quickly. Gamers might see some surprising parallels with the smug, dismissive early tone of David Cameron's UK government turning into wheedling and bargaining in the later days of the campaign as the reality and determination of the independence movement began to sink in. The Group might break up over this!

Sure, for the hobby, there are fashions that come and go, and clannish divisions that emerge over a particular game (or edition, or game mechanic). There will always be loud dissent over various issues and gamers willing to shed their last hit point to defend a point of view that seems myopic and even childish. Time makes fools of them all, though. Yesterday's heresy is often over something that's become so common it's taken for granted by later generations of gamers.

In the meantime, a million tiny grassroots democracies continue to negotiate the borders of their tables. Like the Scottish referendum, social contract discussions are messy, loud, passionate affairs. They can strain friendships at times.

But the discussion is everything. The discussion lets us know that democracy and the collective good is alive and well, and everyone gets a vote.

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