Thursday, 21 July 2016

Pokemon Go Home (Part Two)

Just in case you didn't already read the first part, that was a rant about how loud, judgemental, and awful nerd culture has become lately. You don't need to read it to understand this bit, but there was some fairly awesome swearing in it, if you like that kind of thing, and a message I wish more people were willing to hear. TLDR: Other people are allowed to like things that aren't for you. Let them.

So, what can roleplaying gamers learn from the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go?

1. Games Can Have Audiences of All Ages

One of the most irritating elements of the public backlash against Pokemon Go was the willingness of people to shit all over adults for doing something that was perceived as childish, which of course all nerd culture already is. I'm okay when I go to a big-budget blockbuster about people in long underwear punching each other in the face, but Pokemon? I SAY THEE NAY.

Instead, think about it like this: Pokemon is something that's been around long enough that it's got an incredibly important place in a lot of people's lives, including children who play the card game and watch the cartoons and play with the toys now, and the adults who did the same thing in the 90s. It may make a lot of people feel old, but the first generation that grew up with Pokemon is old enough now to have university debt and kids of their own. Pokemon has a place in their hearts that is equivalent to Star Wars for kids of the 70s. Think about that. A lot of people were talking six months ago about how powerful an experience it was to take their children to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Adults who grew up with Pokemon are now getting to have much the same experience with their children, the delight of a shared passion.

Board gamers have known about this for a long time. Board games have long been considered a "family friendly" form, something to bring busy adults and their kids together around the kitchen table and share some quality time. Once upon a time, board games were on the way out, but they've come back like gangbusters in the last decade. What makes board games "family friendly" in a way that roleplaying games are not? Possibly because they're relatively simple, in terms of rules, compared to most widely-available roleplaying games (even if board games often demand a grasp of strategy to do well, which RPGs often do not). Possibly because roleplaying games are something that is still not widely understood and accepted, despite the presence of online roleplaying games like World of Warcraft that bring the concept -- if not the substance -- to the masses.

I think there's also something that's more complicated about adults sharing playtime with children. Not that it's something they shouldn't be doing, but that playing a game of imagination with children may be uncomfortable for some adults. When they're with their kids, they're a Parent, and maybe it's hard for them to get comfortable using silly voices and being, well, childish with their kids. Adult roleplayers treat their games with adult friends as a stress release, a time they can let down their hair and forget their responsibilities for a few hours a week (or month). Adults are entitled to their private fun time, too. Maybe mixing the two is harder than you'd think.

There are RPGs aimed at children and family play, certainly, but I don't think any of them have quite made the splash of, say, Settlers of Catan. We need to work on this.

2. Games Are Social... REALLY Social

This is a no-brainer, really, because roleplaying games are all about social spaces and shared interactions with other people. But our hobby is, by its nature, clannish -- we tend to play in small groups with their own customs and obsessions and pleasures. What games look like at my table are not what they look like at many others' tables, and that is fine and dandy with me. You do what works for your players and what gives you the most pleasure for the time invested.

Despite the best efforts of the larger community to create social spaces where gamers come together, and here I'm thinking of convention play (or organized play at local stores, or through roleplaying networks), I think there is always a little friction when roleplayers from different tables come together. You have to re-negotiate again all the little agreements we make when we sit down with our regular group, from cocked dice to funny voices to which rules you use and which are mothballed.

I have had mostly good experiences at conventions put on by the local game club here at the university, despite a big age difference between myself and many of the players. I've not gone to one of the "big cons" like Gen Con, but I imagine the experience is similar (only gigantic in scale). You're still just gathering in small groups, though. The big social occasions that really build the bridges all seem to happen at the pub afterwards, when people are sharing war stories over a few pints.

We can do better creating those shared social spaces where disparate gamers can come together, even if we're never going to have the sheer delight of spontaneously walking into a group of D&D players in a public park and getting into a game right there.

3. Games Can Change (And Even Invade) Public Spaces

This is something that LARPers have known for a long time, although in my experience World of Darkness LARP players tend to be somewhat careful about where they have public gatherings. That only makes sense, because getting to good roleplaying often means being in a private enough place to be heard and be comfortable interacting in character (and possibly using game mechanics in public). There's also the danger of having your in-game actions be misinterpreted by a spectator, and possibly running afoul of the police. Nobody needs that.

A few years ago, I was involved with writing an Augmented Reality game, and I was fascinated by the way that games in this medium use public spaces as game spaces. Our modest game was nothing like Pokemon Go, but it's essentially the same idea -- you transform the real world with a narrative, and give the players the exhilarating experience of exploring and expanding that narrative by moving around in real space. This is super cool.

I think the closest thing there is to this idea in the gaming world are "shared world" settings like Living Forgotten Realms where players' locations in the real world are connected with a location in the fiction. The games are still taking place at the table, though.

Tabletop roleplayers have been reluctant to cross streams with LARPers, but I think there is a lot that the two communities could teach each other. I know of people who have roleplayed around the camp fire on vacation, and LARPers who have played games in a pub or a coffee shop in character. I think my kind of games are always going to be best played around a kitchen table, but exploring different game spaces would definitely take play in different directions.

What would a High Trust, High Drama game look like in an actual theatrical space, with props, costumes, and a designated area where players were "in character" and out? Maybe a lot like the kinds of LARP games that Lizzie Stark and Emily Care Boss play and write.

4. Technology Is Changing Gaming In Unexpected Ways

The hobby has been very slow to embrace new technologies at the game table, probably because there has always been a limited amount of cash available to develop software. Sure, there are dice roller apps, online character (and setting) generators, music programs that let you create very specific game ambience, and even gaming platforms that let players on opposite sides of the country (or the world) sit at the same virtual "table". But the actual effect of technological changes at the game table has been minimal, in my experience. The biggest change for me has been carrying around my books as PDFs on an iPad, rather than a stack of hardbacks.

I was working on a Game Chef game that was going to leverage cell phone texting as a game medium when family tragedy intervened, this spring. I will finish that game at some point, and share it here, but it astonishes me that minimal use so far has been made at the game table of the ubiquitous smartphone. Most gamers see them as a nuisance and a distraction, but that's only so if smartphones are not made useful as part of the game. What could we do with them, the way Pokemon Go has leveraged them into a powerful, transformative game platform? How do tabletop games change when we start thinking about a technology like that as an integral part of the game experience?

I think it was Ray Kurzweil who wrote that the technologies that most change our lives find a way to enter our lives invisibly. They become part of the fabric of our day to day activities, and we don't think about them much. Smartphones definitely qualify; Grant Morrison recently wrote that he thought of them as an evolutionary step forward, a technological aid to facilitate something like telepathic communication. I think that's probably exaggeration, but he was right that they can be a powerful aid to communicating person-to-person.

How will we use them? How will we change the world -- and gaming -- with them?

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