Are we making entertainment?

On Attacks of Opportunity, Tony Dowler asks what your most dangerous thought about the hobby is. Paul Czege responds (these are my words) that roleplaying games have a great potential for bringing about social change; they are a radical form of art that can change people's perception of the world around them, and affect their actions. I quote:
Imagine the social and economic impact of a truly fun roleplaying game that infects players with an ability to resist powerful advertising messages and more consistently make purchasing decisions they feel good about in retrospect. Or one that exposes the extent to which our educational system works in service to corporate america and the economy and not in the interests of the individual.
He is partly right, I think - roleplaying games do have a great potential for changing our perception of the world around us. But do they also have a great potential of bringing about social change - that is, can they ever reach a big enough audience to do so? Have we already found the right techniques to make people think and see and reconsider their previous opinions? Does roleplaying have advantages over traditionally authored narratives, in this respect, and if so, what are these advantages? These questions must be asked. I will certainly return to them in later posts.

For now, though, I want to pose a question to every game designer out there.
Are you making entertainment?
This is a crucial question. You can either make entertainment, or make something of social importance, but you cannot do both. This is not to say that socially important art cannot be fun or entertaining - what I am saying is rather that if you want to actually achieve something socially relevant, if you want to make art with a message or a meaning, if you want to bring insights to people or have them develop their own, you must akcnowledge that to yourself and make it your most important design goal.

Your game should be entertaining, certainly, or almost nobody will try it out. (I'm thinking of my own Vampires - an interesting manifesto, perhaps, but not even I would play it.) But you must recognise that changing people will always lower the pure entertainment value of your game. Changing is uncomfortable. Thinking outside the box, re-evaluating your values, experiencing that something is wrong with your current behaviour - all of that is uncomfortable and will make the game less 'entertaining'.

So what is your goal? Is it entertainment, fun and having a good time? Or are your goals more lofty than that?

They don't have to be the same for every game, of course. Monsters we Slay is pure entertainment; Shades is low risk social engineering, supposed to be fun all the time; Stalin's Story, my Ronnies entry, will - if I decide to go through with it - be high risk socio-political hands-on experience. It should be fun, yes... but you should also accept that it can go quite horribly wrong and might teach you most about power if it does.

One more thing. This post has an implication, and it is this: the question to ask an aspiring designer is not necessarily "what will make your game more fun than other games"? Nor is the best advice you can give him advice on making the game more fun. It might be, but it need not.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Paul Czege. I find RPGs to be one of the most radical "artforms" available because it puts control of meaning almost entirely in the hands of the participants, puts them in direct contact with the Other, and then makes them declare meaning from that vantage in a social context.

    Whether or not that has mass market appeal, well. I'm still working that one out.

  2. "Changing is uncomfortable. Thinking outside the box, re-evaluating your values, experiencing that something is wrong with your current behaviour - all of that is uncomfortable and will make the game less 'entertaining'."

    I'm not sure I agree. Delivery of memes via roleplaying is so scary because it happens under your conscious radar. One meme of My Life with Master is how the controlling individual in a dysfunctional relationship provokes emotions (Intimacy) and uses their own emotions (Desperation) to manage the other. But I don't think the player of the minion who also happens to be in a problematic real life relationship makes a choice between thinking, re-evaluating his or her own behaviors, working to change, or instead consciously avoiding change, so much as he/she just realizes "damn, I'm being played" the next time the controlling one uses Desperation on him/her in real life. It's not like literature, where you have to identify and transcribe the lessons onto your own mental patterns. You internalize the lesson differently if it's delivered by a roleplaying game. Analogously, it's the difference between snorting cocaine and freebasing it.

  3. Hey Victor,

    You certainly found a hot button issue here. It's been argued for as long as there have been aesthetics.

    I'm sorry that we have to disagree.

    "You can either make entertainment, or make something of social importance, but you cannot do both."

    While I could establish that nothing can be so mutually exclusive, I respect that you are speaking of designer's / author's / artist's highest goal in their work.

    Even then, I must disagree. Works like Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, The Jungle, and Moby Dick, these works were not only social change on paper, but were made to be entertaining as well. It should be obvious that role-playing games could be as well.

    First of all, I have to say that I believe it would be impossible to create a touching form of entertainment without reaching a social message; it's unavoidable. I go further to suggest that you can actually successfully have a dual goal; that when you reach that famous, ultimate point where you must choose between goals you have a third option, a much harder option, you can find something that does both.

    Well, I'm not saying you or I can personally, but I believe it is manifestly possible, the true apex of the art. YMMV

    Fang Langford

  4. Entertainment is exactly socially important. Always has been (Greek theatre or Sumerian public sex ritual are early examples). Anyone who tells you otherwise just can't do their art well enough.


  5. Entertainment is exactly socially important.

    Yes, but the difference between a game/work that entertains & one that moves is radical. I can watch Reality TV shows until the cows come home, but likely it will little change how I look at my place in the world, how I treat my friends (how I oversee my dependents etc). It completely could, and may for some people but it is not situated in our social context to push you in that direction.

    But then watch anything by Michael Moore. Whether you agree or disagree with his and his collaborators' viewpoints they make you take a stand. They implicate you/me/us in the work they are making. We are not comfortably settled back into our place in the world where we were before we experienced the text. We may choose to forget, but we've been asked to look more closely at it.

    In fact, the socially important part of much of entertainment is to distract people from their social context. Art like what all Paul is talking about is the kind that takes away the blinders.

    That is what we're doing. No doubt.

    ps As a matter of fact, there is at least one Reality TV show that was intended to "push", the one set in an English manor house (ie upstairs downstairs). It was quite similar to the prisoner/guard role playing exercises that people use to point out the abusive aspects of human dynamics in an uneven power situation.

  6. Emily, it's actually called Manor House.

    And if none of you have watched it, do so! It is one of the most awesome things every to air on television. They go insane.

  7. A month ago my wife got tickets to an amazing show. A writer and a performer got together and created a show that they perform weekly in the basement of their home. The room seats 12. Guests have champagne and cookies in their living room before the performance. This mico-theatre experience is amazing intimate, enjoyable, and qualitatively different from a traditional venue.

    It's also very close to what most of us do every week (OK, bi-weekly for some).

    PS Manor House is also awesome! :)

  8. Interesting, Emily. I agree with what you're saying, but I'd broaden it.

    I watch reality TV (rarely). I watch Michael Moore (rarely). Both make me take a stand (i.e. "This is stupid and highlights humanity's blemishes absurdly.").

    I also watch pro football. It entertains me. It also makes me think about how I, say, operate in my job as a team member, or deal with losses, or plan strategies. Often, it also teaches me how not to behave (as in, not like an overpaid jerk).

    In short, I see much more of that radical difference you're talking about coming from the willingness of the viewer to THINK rather than the entertainment itself.

    I have little idea if I'm right about that, and less idea how this relates to Victor & Paul's thoughts. But, it's how my brain reacted to your post ... thinking on it still.

  9. I'll keep my contribution down to this: when talking about entertainment/art/whatever I find it good to keep in mind that it all pushes. Every bit of it.

    The question is what is it pushing, and at whom. Survivor is pushing every bit as much as Bowling for Columbine, they're just pushing different angels at different people for different reasons.

    Games push too. Oh yes they do. Every motherfucking one of them. The question is just a matter of what they push.

  10. Matt, you're right of course. If you're already awake, everything can point you in that direction. And if not, then the reverse.

    But, as Brand said, art does push & point in directions. It is a conversation between the viewed & the viewer. However, the half of the convo by much art is lulling, aligning the viewer deeper into their current social context. Art can also wake you up, breaking your old & giving you a new context. We can do that. Recognizing this about the form is a great realization.

    I'm again reminded of the Words & Pictures revolution of comics. Graphic novels are whole 'nother animal. That change is, what?, 10-15 years old, and still being explored. Think about what's in store with rpg.

    Oh, and if that is the way we are thinking now, we had sure better start looking to the new wave (10+ years ago?) of the (aussie & nordic) larp scene(s). They've been using sharp psychological techniques for a long time now. We have a lot to learn.

  11. Hm. I think the difference between Michael Moore's works and a typical televisions show isn't their effect -- it is the direction of their intended effect. (I also believe in differences of quality.)

    A great many works emphasize the status quo. Indeed, there have been good arguments that Aristotilean catharsis is exactly there to reassure the populace and reinforce social norms. They set up a problem but then resolve it neatly, giving a sense of closure to not think further about the issue. It's not that the work is empty of content, but that the content is reinforcing of norms. A work that favors the status quo leaves the viewer comfortable and satisfied at the end, with a sense that all has worked out right.

    Someone like Brecht would say that a radical work has to leave the viewer uncomfortable at the end. The problems brought up haven't been neatly resolved, and thus it works less well as entertainment. Thus, it doesn't work as entertainment.

    That said, I don't agree with that view. I think that you can have radical works that make use of dramatic closure. In effect, they masquerade and function as status quo works -- but by their shifts and hangings they still convey issues.

    Also, works which reinforce can work to reinforce existing positive values -- even counter-cultural ones if posed to a counter-cultural audience. I think my thoughts on Celebration are included here. By being selective in which norms you reinforce, you can help effect change.

  12. What y'all are talking about (specifically Manor House, but also generally) is making me think of Artaud's Theater of Cruelty and the general Surrealist crusade to break down the line between performance and audience, artifice and everyday life, in the arts. Which caused riots in its day, and was a direct antecedent of the Paris Commune.

    Are we really ready, willing, and able to make that kind of statements in our play? Should we be?

  13. Mark W,

    I'd be less interested in Artaud and more interesed in Boal and the Theatre of the Opressed.

    RPGing as literacy? What a concept.

    Being revolutionary and wanting to push lines and explore dangerous teritory does not mean that one has to be physically dangerous, nor be truely revolutionary. It just means you have to be willing to look at the power dynamics behind what is happening.

  14. John Kim,

    Celebration can, indeed do it. But, I would argue (as I did before) that it only does it when combined with reflection. Celebration without reflection merely reinforces.

  15. Very good points, people. I think I was wrong in my post in three important ways.

    1. I failed to recognise that games can wear masks. For instance, they can pose as pure entertainment, while their potential for changing people lies hidden underneath, performing its work subterraneously. This is what Paul and John emphasise.

    Indeed, this happens all the time. The computer game Civilization poses as pure entertainment (and may have been meant as such), but serves to reinforce a militaristic, competitive political ideology, as well as a pro-science attitude. The board game Monopoly serves as a reinforcement of capitalist thinking. Roleplaying games ar no different, but may be more powerful (since the imaginatie content is so much richer).

    2. I failed to make a clear distincition between 'change' and 'entertainment'. Bradley is right when he says that each work pushes, but the question is where it pushes whom to. Games that I put into the "pure entertainment" category do indeed push people towards something - towards the dominant ideology of our time and culture: entertainment.

    3. Perhaps most damagingly, I equivocated two distinct uses of the word 'entertainment'. On the one hand, you can use it to speak about anything that is 'fun' or 'not boring'; Dostojevski is entertainment, in this sense. On the other hand, it denotes what I called (one paragraph above) the dominant ideology of our time and culture: namely, that life is all about entertaining yourself / being entertained, going from one Erlebnis to the next. I am using the German word Erlebnis here because there is no good English translation - 'experience' doesn't do the job, because that has a connotation of learning. It is a more empty version of experience, cut away from things like 'learning' and 'wisdom', but closely linked to 'entertainment'.

    I'll have to write about that, drawing on what I learned in a course I followed recently.

    Anyway, there is nothing wrong with games that are entertaining, in the sense that they are fun. But there is a lot wrong with the attitude to roleplaying games that believes the only relevant question is "Did you have a good time?".


  16. Brand, even if you only want to heal and teach, my point is that even that small, confined challenge to power will create its own opposition and inevitably draw you into conflict with power.

    The Theater of the Oppressed is only the Theater of Cruelty turned inside out. Listen to the moans of the conservative gamers... isn't one of the perennial ones that Story Now play is "ruining players" and teaching them to "expect too much"?

  17. Hey all!

    Victor Gijsbers [with parenthetical emphasis by me] said:

    You can either make entertainment (‘Erlebnis’...a more empty version of ‘experience,’ cut away from things like 'learning' and 'wisdom', but closely linked to 'entertainment'), or make something of social importance (each work pushes, but the question is where it pushes whom to), but you cannot do both.

    When I think about this, it seems to say, “You can make empty role-playing games or you can make ‘not empty’ ones.” Oversimplification loses the important point. The article indirectly makes a call to create role-playing games that ‘push’ towards something more than reinforcing the status quo, something causing reflective self-awareness. Which I very much agree with.

    But it brings up that old demon I suffer from, looking for gaming everywhere; wasn't that third-grade teacher, Jane Elliott's blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise in discrimination (in The Angry Eye: with Jane Elliott) possibly recognizable as a role-playing game? (Or at least a degenerate one?) It moves you, right? (Now just to cloak it as entertainment.)

    Still thinking, thanks for the spark of inspiration!

    Fang Langford

  18. "But do they also have a great potential of bringing about social change - that is, can they ever reach a big enough audience to do so?"

    Splitting hairs here: a game can spark social change by causing an individual to react to it, because people, not games, bring about social change.

    Since people bring about social change, you only ever need to reach one person with your game. That's all the audience you need to change the world.

    Statistically, however, the larger your actual audience, the greater chance your work will reach that single individual (and if large enough, others like them).

  19. Mark W,

    Every time I read about something like Sago I just want to finish work on STRIKE!.

    Is that going to matter to anyone at all outside my friends group? Probably not. Might it bring me into conflict with power structures anyway? Probably. I think you're right about both.

    But then I have to add: Bring it On.

    I'm already in conflict, I'm now just using a hobby to declare meaning and direction to my personal conflict. And if that starts and ends with overturning the heirarchical power-fuck structure of traditional GM-abuse play, then at least that's something.

    However, I'm now in danger of dragging Victor's thread off into my own ranting marxist land, so I'll stop there.

  20. The board game Monopoly serves as a reinforcement of capitalist thinking.

    It also destroys families.

    There's a story by Phillip K. Dick that has a similar theme. Mind you: spoilers.
    A couple of researchers are checking toys that are being imported from an enemy space colony.
    All of the toys are considered dangerous and are banned. Except for one. It's a monopoly-like game. They mark it as safe for publishing.
    After work, the scientist takes it home and plays it with his kids. He loses. The kids love it.
    "I can't possibly have lost? I bought all the stock on the market!"
    "But dad, the rules say you should sell all your stock."


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