Week 6 Essay
Kevin Fox

Origins - Daniel Mackay

A lot in this article rubbed me the wrong way. While the introductory pages about the formative history of war games was fascinating, as Mackay bridged the evolution of the RPG to advancing themes in movies, books, and so on, I lost faith in his expressed views.

There can be no dispute that there was a simultaneous surge in fantasy literature, fantasy cinema, and role-playing games, but I feel that the assertion that the RPG was the catalyst for this growth is an oversimplification. Mackay's statements that there was a reciprocal, recursive loop between movies and RPGs asserts that the growth of one caused the growth of the other, and then vice-versa. This completely ignores the possibility that the importance of the theme grew, in a transmedia fashion, and the consequent success of the various implementations of that theme, in literature, cinema, or games of all sorts, served to enhance that theme's success, but without insisting that any one media branch was directly responsible for another.

Mackay's RPG bias is most evident when he comments only in passing that Tolkien served to transmute war games into RPGs, then claims that RPGs deserve the credit for the expansion of fantasy literature in the 25 years following The Hobbit and LotR. Phrase choices such as, "Computer adventure and computer role-playing games ... owe an enormous debt to the table-top role-playing game" while metaphoric, nevertheless imply that RPGs aren't given the attention they deserve.

"The designers of computer adventure games ... have followed the role-playing game's lead in combining all of these game characteristics. The computer serves as a surrogate gamemaster." To me this is a clear example fo Mackay's RPG bias. It is as honest to say that the RPG gamemaster serves as a surrogate reality engine, and the computer in a computer adventure game serves the same role. Mackay places the role of gamemaster on a higher pedestal than it deserves. To clarify, the gamemaster role has an essential value within the construct of the game, but taken in the scope of all game/narrative/reality environments, the gamemaster is not the narrative paragon exemplar, and other systems, be they human or computer, that fulfill the same need within a game shouldn't automatically be seen as simply a "surrogate gamemaster."

"Sure, the land of Oz existed in both the film 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939) and in the series of Oz books, but there was never an attempt to cross-pollinate the two." This ignores the cross-pollination that automatically happens in the head of every person who experiences both media. In their mind these are two windows into the same world. To deny this is to deny the strong ties Mackay stresses again and again between 'static media' such as books and movies, and the consequent RPG campaigns that share the same world. Cross-pollination does not require a corporate directive. It happens in the minds of the fans.

The final pages about LARPGs and gamemasters who selective pick and choose elements of a reality for their own reality also bugged me. Rather, I believe Mackay portrays the situation accurately, but the situation itself bugs me. One of my bad experiences with RPGs was a brief encounter with a large LARPG 'Vampire: The Masquerade' group in San Francisco about six years ago. the group was rife with politics. Beyond the politics within the game characters (never invite a nosferatu to a toreador party. They just don't understand style), there was a lot of strife between players and the storyteller because their own trans-media mind map of the world had to be constantly edited by the storyteller who wanted to create a custom world 'almost, but not entirely, like the "production version".' This kind of editing makes it amazingly hard to keep one's belief suspended.

It's scary that I've been writing and thinking about role-playing for several weeks now and I didn't even consider my time in the SCA. Role-playing in the truest form, where historical accuracy was the sole arbiter of appropriateness, there weren't squabbles about 'this couldn't happen' or 'that's unrealistic' because someone who got their PhD in the matter at hand was usually only a few pavilions away. As such I didn't even think of this as role-playing. Not that I'll extend this reflection farther here, but now that I'm starting to think about it, the SCA is an interesting case study of a non zero-sum environment, where different players have different goals, some endemic to the environment, such as winning the crown tourney and becoming King or Queen for a season, or getting an Award of Arms, and others more globally valued, such as finding love, making crafts, or learning to dance or play an instrument. Now I've got more to think about...

Transmedia Storytelling - Henry Jenkins

Wow I liked this article. I wish it had gone into more depth in to case studies of where transmedia worked particularly well and where it didn't (ala Gladwell's 'Tipping Point'). I wish I had more insight into how marketing decisions are made regarding cross-media works. It seems intuitive to me that a brand steward would worry about diluting the brand by telling stories faster and wider in comic form than happens in the TV show, for example. It's as if they feel that the world they've created has a finite amount of 'story' in it before it's tapped, and that expressing the world in a medium that doesn't pay as well per story is economically disastrous. On the contrary, if the Fray flopped as a comic book, Buffy fans wouldn't have noticed, or at least they wouldn't have let that bad taste carry over in to their Tuesday night viewing. Heck, just look at Angel. Lots of people sadly shake their heads, then eagerly turn Buffy on.

The in-class example of Pokemon shows how different views into the same aspect of the same world can serve to create a more vibrant world than can be achieved in a single medium. I still like listening to the soundtrack to Riven, long after having left the video game representation of that world. Better still are the franchises where the world is the most valuable property, and the stories that happen in it can rise or fall on their own, without damaging that world overly much. Larry Niven's Tales of Known Space share a common world, but tell dozens of different stories. If there's a story that can be expressed better on film, or in a game, or even in music, then more power to it.

The more ways we can look into the box that is that world, the more like our own it seems. We look in to our own world through so many different lenses, that being able to see another single world in more than one of these perspectives makes it seem closer to the level of reality we experience every day.

I only wish things went farther, where there were storylines which could not be fully realized through one medium, but which make sense, making a story of their own, when several different views are experienced together. Though all in the same medium, the View Askew movies do a really good job of this, telling five different stories in five (well, four) distinctly different genres, but not only living in the same universe, but with threads that run through them all. The careful viewer realizes that, in Dogma, Jay and Bob went to Chicago on their quest for John Hughes just a few days after they got their last likeness-rights check in Chasing Amy. These kinds of threads run rampant through the stories, creating a more unified fabric for the devout, while providing plenty for the person seeing the Askewniverse for the first time.

I know this can go farther. Immersive transmedia games like Majestic were daring first steps, but I wonder how much games and worlds can be enhanced when these efforts are made a little less intrusive, but a little more rich.