Silly questions and 'realism'

In his book Mimesis as Make-believe, Kendall Walton speaks about 'silly questions' concerning fictionality. Here are some examples:

  • In Othello, Othello is not a very literary character and certainly not one of the greatest poets of all time. Yet he speaks in exquisite verse that only a genius could think up on the fly. Should we conclude that, after all, Othello is a brilliant poet?
  • In Leonardo's Last supper, all people sit on the same side of the table. What strange arrangement is this? What reason could Jesus' disciples have for sitting like this? Does it make sense to ask these questions?
  • In too many WWII movies to even begin mentioning, the german soldiers speak English. Are we to believe that Germans during the war spoke English regularly?
These are silly questions, says Walton, because they emphasise something that the author of the work does not want to emphasise. Othello speaks in brilliant verse not because Shakespeare wants to say something about Othello's skill as a poet, but because he wants to delight the spectators with brilliant verse. Leonarda has the disciples all sit at one side of the table because that we we can see all of their faces. The German soldiers in the movie speak English because that makes the movie easier to understand for an English-speaking audience. It doesn't really make sense to wonder whether it is true or false in the fictional world that all the disciples sit at the same side of the table: this is a detail we should not dwell upon. If we do dwell upon it, we are playing the wrong game of make-believe with the work.

There was a discussion on Mandragon (in Dutch) (starting from the first post of benjamin) about whether or not it made sense if characters in a roleplaying game suddenly become better in skills they haven't used during the adventure. Many systems give you points that you can freely spend to increase your skills, putting no restiction on which skills are allowed to go up. Dungeons and Dragons is a clear example, and so is The Shadow of Yesterday. But how is it that your character becomes better at etiquette after spending a week in a dungeon killing goblins? Isn't that 'unrealistic'?

Here's my answer: in these games, those questions are silly questions in exactly the same way that questions about the poetic skills of Othello are silly with respect to Shakespeare's play. The causality of 'getting better' is de-emphasised in these games: they simply want progression, and this is an easy and fun way to implement it. You are not supposed to ask questions about how this progression takes place, because that means dwelling upon something the game tells you not to dwell upon. Criticising these games for being unrealistic is not simply a matter of clashing creative agenda's, is it a matter of not understanding how these games ought to be played.

Makes sense?


  1. Word. I think that it's one of those wierd things that arises from RPGs being such a different form of entertainment - there's a balance to strike between the narrative (i.e. in the line of literature and film) elements and the elements that are unique to roleplaying.

    For example, I think that there is something to be said for, if your design goals include internal consistency for things like skill progression, then that's something that you do need to pay attention to and can be fairly criticized for. A big problem, I think, is that many role-players tend to take the expectations of "your favorite game" and extend that to all games. Which is what you said - it's not understanding how other games are supposed to be played.

    Solutions? Hopefully, clearer and more focused rules-sets that thoughtfully set out the goals for that game and how to acheive those goals. But is that enough?

  2. And people naturally want games that do everything. It's a lesson of maturity to realise that one aspect is important now, and another aspect can be ignored, when we want to consider that second aspect in other situations. So yeah, being clear on what the goals of the game are and are not, and what should and should not be included in how the game is supposed to be played is helpful, but I don't believe that it will ever completely overcome people's desire to have everything they want all in one. Particulary for a game that does something that has traditionally been done very badly and does it well. People will play it and then want that in future play as well as stuff other games do well. And a pony!

  3. My objection to this analysis is that it completely disregards the desires of the actual players. If the players want those details to be important, then they should be. Now maybe the answer is "play another game"...but if the players like the game otherwise, then you can hardly blame them for drifting it in this direction.


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