Monday, August 1, 2022

The Commodification of Fantasy Adventure Games

Commodification Signifies Value

My son recently introduced me to some card games that he learned from friends this summer. He taught me the rules orally on the spot, and then we played; he had learned the rules orally from friends; his friends who taught him had learned the rules orally. There was no game book to study, no examples of play to read. It was just rules transmitted as folklore and a deck of cards. We didn’t need to buy a rulebook to play. (He easily beat me every time.)

Now imagine these two different attempts to recruit young players to fantasy role-playing games.

In one attempt, you pass around colorful, glossy D&D books and tell them you are going to play Dungeons & Dragons, a game played by millions of players over the last fifty years. The new players see and appreciate the fantastic art on every page of the lavish hardback books. They see that you have invested at least a hundred dollars on these books. The art communicates genre expectations to them faster than you can speak. Even though it is so complex that they can’t understand it all at once, they see that rules are codified in a system attempting to accommodate whatever they might meaningfully attempt to do in the game. They trust that the rules are legitimate as they are in print. The character sheets themselves are commercial products with fancy computer-designed layout.

In the other attempt, you hold up a notebook and tell the new players that they are going to play a fantasy role-playing game, something you designed in line with a gamer subculture. As with a card game, there are no books to learn from. This is a game you imagined, with rules you wrote yourself, and you will have to teach them what they need to know. The only codification is the notes you wrote in a notebook and what is in your head. You have no artwork to show them. They rely entirely on your oral description of things in the setting to assemble any genre knowledge that they might apply. You drew a map of the imaginary world by hand, and you show them your amateur design. They know that the peoples of this fantasy world are just things you made up. The rules are apparently your arbitrary fabrication.

In the former situation, your purchase and use of a commercial product inspire trust in the players. They know that they are participating in a large culture associated with a flourishing entertainment company supported by many, many other enthusiasts. The larger the subculture, the less stigmatized it is likely to be. The game cost money and its physical and artistic production required effort, and has been tested by others, so it must be valuable—regardless of the quality of play.

In the latter situation, the players must trust that you, somebody they know personally, made a good game. It cost nothing and looks like nothing, so its value is inherently dubious. It seems weirder and more private. You’re asking the players to make a big investment of time on something that may turn out to be less than fun. There is no commodification to signify that it will work.

I can tell you from experience that kids new to fantasy role-playing games will choose, every single time, to play D&D, with its shiny books, over my scribbled house rules, with my lone testimony that my rules are better.

Even if it wasn’t fancy Dungeons & Dragons books, but some other obscure FRP book publication, new players will choose the published item over an idiosyncratic, personal game every time.

That is the power of commodification of games and fun experiences.

When I played cards with my son, all we needed was just a cheap deck of cards. It was almost free. The only way we could have made the game more expensive would be to gamble over who would win. That would literally add value to our play and raise its status.

Yet I remember my friend Ben and his own fantasy role-playing game. He had own rules, drew his own maps and pictures, and not one single commodified article in his game. We played in it for well over a year and it was one of the freshest games I ever enjoyed as a player.

***

Copyrighted Subculture and Marketed Sociability

When Daniel Dayan wrote a review essay of Gary Fine’s now-classic RPG study Shared Fantasy, appearing in the American Journal of Sociology in 1986, he addressed the matter of commodification of fantasy.

The essay is entitled “Copyrighted Subcultures.” Dayan had a lot of interesting things to say.

The essay as a whole shows that Dayan did not quite understand fantasy RPGs. He was pleased with Fine’s book (the occasion of the essay, a positive review) but complained that wanted to know more from the book about the contents of the role-playing fantasies, which he calls “its modalities.” He recognized that the popularity of fantasy RPGs had something in common with “recent Hollywood productions,” referring to Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, in which “one notices over the last 10 years a consistent reorientation of interest in accordance with the demography of a new film-going public, largely composed of adolescents and young adults,” “made very deliberately with such a public in mind.”

“One wonders,” he adds, “whether the games and films draw from the same sources, or whether the films are transpositions of the themes proposed in the games, that is, translations of the games’ ethos into mass culture.”

I think at the time he wrote that, it was a matter of common sources, but that the history of RPGs since then has made the ethos of the games the source of mass culture. This deserves more study and comment, but not here.

I’m focusing here, instead, on what he has to say at the end of the essay, with boldfaced emphasis added by me:

two last remarks, which have to do with the stereotyping of fantasy worlds, that is, with the fact that the various gaming communities have to rely on predesigned fantasy sets. First, a player must choose from the line of products available in a given fantasy store. The possibility of shopping for one’s fantasy world is particularly interesting and paradoxical. The world of fantasy usually appears as private. Here, not only is it made public by being shared within a given community of players, but it is somehow legitimized by the fact of being displayed. Fantasy thus acquires some currency, a degree of social dignity. It is less an escape or a deviation from social life than a new basis for it.

The second remark concerns more specifically the possibility of commercially acquiring the ingredients of a “subculture.” The sale of fantasy games accentuates a movement that has already affected interpersonal relationships, since for some time these relationships have been mapped in an increasingly complex system of greeting cards, joking cards, or even semihostile cards, covering almost all occasions of everyday life and offering to an ethnographer (under the brand name Hallmark) an extraordinary insight into the models that underlie this mass-produced “etiquette.”

What is particularly noticeable in both cases is the marketing of forms of sociability. If indeed it is a subculture, fantasy role playing displays a striking anthropological originality: its modalities are copyrighted.

With the creation of fantasy RPGs as commodities, players began to participate in a public fantasy that was legitimized by its display in stores and in catalogues. The more commercialized RPGs have become, the more “social dignity” they have acquired, as Dayan put it, shifting from a weird and intensely private hobby of mostly male misfit dreamers to an entertainment industry sold to a broad, eager public with spare cash to spend on fun pastimes.

When games are commodified, the money they cost means that they are valuable socially and trustworthy as recognized sources of enjoyment. The more money involved, the less the stigma is likely to be. If they cost too much money, however, they will lose adherents. It is always a matter of setting the price just right.

At the time he wrote this, Dayan was a visiting faculty member at the University of Southern California. He probably did not realize that one of his colleagues at USC was Prof. J. Eric Holmes, the editor (author) of the first D&D Basic Set, published in 1977. I wonder if he would have seen things differently if he could have talked to Holmes.

***

Consumers or Creators?

Tim Kask was Gary Gygax’s early editor and amanuensis, the first employee hired on at TSR, where he worked from 1975 to 1980. He was instrumental in the production of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In 1981, in issue 5 (page 4) of Adventure Gaming, a journal he edited after leaving TSR, he published an editorial with the alarming title, “Is Imagination Dying?”

He had a problem with commercially produced adventure modules and settings.

During the last couple of months I have begun to notice something that I find vaguely disturbing. If my observations are representative of the hobby as a whole, FRP is losing something. More and more FRPers have never played in any adventure other than a commercially produced one.

He understands that commercially produced modules and settings do save time, but he thinks they have lost their function as mere examples and models that would give incentive to make one’s own, which is what he says he considered their primary purpose to be.

He complains,

Every game store that deals in FRP games is overrun by commercially produced modules. All too many of them are prepared to too great a degree. Too many of them have already set out the goals and determined the rewards before a single adventurer sets foot in them.

He asks,

If we have become a group of consumers where will the creators come from?

FRP has always been an exercise of imagination, creativity, and extemporaneous thought, but I feel that the first two are diminishing. Granted, many who play today might not if there had been no pre-prepared adventures in which to get their feet wet. But how many of them now realize that there is another way to go?

He ends with an exhortation:

I urge every GM to try his hand. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t feel that your effort will compare to a professional one. It doesn’t have to, you’re not a pro. The only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it. Designing your own adventures will provide you with a level of insight into the game that you will never truly experience by merely moderating somebody else’s operation.

***

These days, it seems that everybody wants to sell their house rules, or their home-made modules, even for just a few bucks. The quiet pleasure of home-made adventures for home use inherently keeps a low profile. Partly, I think, it’s just that we have the internet now. Even the laziest adventure writers can publish a pdf without so much as a spell-check. Publishing one’s stuff signifies that one is a creator instead of a consumer. You might enjoy the privilege of seeing your lovingly-designed fantasy game stuff dismissed in one of those blog reviews (sometimes brutally... or praised if you are their friend), even though the reviewer will never actually play what you published. And, who knows? You even might get interviewed in a podcast! And there is also the endless dream of living as a full-time hobbyist (even though game designers often do not get to play). But generally, putting a price tag on a game makes it socially real and legitimate in the ways described above, not just for others but also for ourselves. Only with $$$ does the fantasy of today become more than private. It became a part of mass culture when it cost money, a shared medium of exchange. Somehow, that is disappointing to a dreamer like me, as it was to Kask in 1981, yet one must acknowledge that the hobby would be much, much smaller and lonelier without this system of valuation of fantasy.

The only cure is actually to play, and (again, with Kask) the only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it.

6 comments:

  1. this is a wonderful article! i really appreciate your point that commodification is what lends commercial RPG products their social appeal or value 😊 i'm reminded of what debord said in society of the spectacle, that commodities start asserting their own use-value through their exchange-value instead of having any apparent use-value outside of exchange. in the same way, i have so many friends who say the only way they can get people to care about their stuff is to commercialize it. it's totally not untrue, but it's unfortunate!

    though at the same time, i feel like part of the problem is people who derive enjoyment from producing things modeled off of intellectual property to be used as such (e.g. high production value publications), instead of producing things for their own direct use and enjoyment. it's like a weird delayed commodification where like, of course they're not satisfying to make in themselves, you made something in the form of a product to be sold!

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    1. Marcia, I knew I'd have you at "commodification"! I appreciate your remarks and I agree with you. People do seem to feel a friction between "creating" and "consuming," which entail different kinds of personal status. Several remarks I got about this post referred to a sense of disappointment or feeling leery of how the commercial process works, but it may be that the problem is with those of us who feel that way. I'm still thinking about it.

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  2. "Publishing one’s stuff signifies that one is a creator instead of a consumer."

    I don't understand this sentence, or rather, I believe I fundamentally disagree with and find it's very premise abhorrent.

    Are you, a creator, not still a consumer? Does having a blog that people read place you above the "consumers" who read it?

    Of course not, we're //all// consumers. Unfortunately, there are many 'creators' who do place themselves on that pedestal (not perhaps you - I've never gotten that vibe here), but I have elsewhere. At which point I've moved along and let them to their own devices devoid of my eyes and consumption.

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    1. I think I could have avoided the misunderstanding if I had said "and not *merely* a consumer," but I think it was implied. The perceived gap between game designers and mere players has been a part of the field for a while (see the first quotation from Mentzer here for an example: https://lichvanwinkle.blogspot.com/2020/06/gygax-was-too-creative-to-play-ad-by.html), never mind the (internet) "creator" phenomenon which I linked to in the article.

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    2. If it's a misunderstanding, it's one you seem content to perpetuate: "Then there is the difference in status between consumer and creator, and people would naturally belong to the latter, higher-status group."

      However I do understand, it's the internet, Poe's Law and that there are certainly people who place one class of people over others. I just have a kneejerk pushback reaction.

      It's probably for the best that I couldn't afford to buy and read all the 'zines back in the day, Gygax's attitude would have turned me off from gaming (or atleast from reading his columns, though I wasn't so compartmentalized back then, so I might have taken it as 'bullying from the top", which is what it was). It's certainly turned me off from 'creators' in the last twenty years (when everyone under the sun can platform themselves and they all think it's a great idea).

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    3. To be clear, I never said that creators were better than consumers (just as I never said that the two sets are completely distinct). Acknowledging differences in social status and that people seek high status (which is basic sociology) is not perpetuating a specific social-status discrepancy. I don't have the "kneejerk pushback reaction" you describe for yourself, but I'm resigned to accepting that humans behave in such ways in every society. I'm sure we agree that it's gross to rub social status differences in people's faces, though, but (I'm assuming) we both live in a society that professes egalitarianism, so we would think that.

      Also, I have no problem with creative expression or with publishing. This blog article doesn't say "creation of fantasy products is bad" and it doesn't say "commercialization is bad." Critical analysis is not necessarily criticism, and describing how something works is not necessarily an endorsement.

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