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Avatarism and the Myth of the Red Queen

An essay on the philosophy of role-playing games.


I have grown more concerned recently as to the present and the future of role-playing as a hobby, game and intellectual pursuit. Being an intellectual kind of person, and prone to analysis and the drawing of tenuous conclusions; I am interested in role-playing's future in the culture of the next fifteen or twenty years. Lots of the present and future change in the hobby revolves around what I call Avatarism. It has been one of the greatest strengths of this pastime, but has also lead to its decline.

The Cultural Setting

Role-playing games grew up in the pre-video game culture of the mid seventies and blossomed in the pre-home computer days of the early eighties. By the start of the 1990s the hobby was in marked decline, and has remained so since that point, with the exception of a couple of products which have temporarily slowed or reversed the trend.

There is more than a coincidental connection between the decline of role-playing as a hobby and the increase in availability of affordable computer entertainment products. Other commentators have talked at length about the way in which computer games gradually diverted more role-players from the hobby. When such commentators are allied with the role-playing game industry, or else are role-players themselves, they often add the criticism that the exodus demonstrates a loss of imagination on behalf of the game playing public. Someone would rather have a computer present to them a believable and navigable world than to imagine it for themselves; hence players suffer the lack of options that they can carry out in the world (typically limited to movement and the firing of weapons) for the decreased burden of imagination. Or so the argument goes.

Needless to say those commentators who are primarily affiliated to computer games see the process in a different light. Typically the role-playing game is seen as a historical step on the path to modern computer games, in the same way as Pong, or Space Invaders.

This is, of course, complete drivel. On both sides of the argument. Computer games have diverted players from role-playing for precisely the opposite reason. It is not the computer games lack of required imagination that appeals, but its increased ability for players to act as their characters.

Computer games provide a greatly increased avatarism. Many role-players enjoyed, or still enjoy, the hobby because of its sense of avatarism not found in any conventional board or card games. These people find even greater pleasure from computer based adventure games. Those of us who remain committed to the hobby may do so out of nostalgia, ignorance, or because we are not primarily interested in exploring a game through our avatar. For those people for whom the last option is true, the satisfaction found in a conventional role-playing game is somewhat illusional. One of its most persistent claims; that it is a 'loser-free' hobby, is all smoke and mirrors.

What is Avatarism?

An avatar is the bodily form of some insubstantial entity; a concept taken from Hindu mythology. With the recent development in virtual reality the term has taken on a broader meaning. It is the representation of some individual in a world that they do not normally inhabit. In virtual reality an avatar is a set of polygons drawn in the virtual world that other users can see and recognise as being a particular user.

In many games (indeed if you define 'game' in a particular way, in all games), the user acts in the game through one or more tokens. This may be chess pieces, Lara Croft, or player-characters. Often one of these tokens represents the user in some direct one-to-one way. The chess pieces may be a player's army, but Lara Croft or a PC in a role-playing game is the player in some stronger way. We could say that this kind of token is the player's avatar in the world (i.e. in the tomb or in the role-playing campaign).

One of the very strong indicators that a particular token is an avatar by this definition, is the way it is used to affect the rest of the game-world. If a token is the only way that a player can affect the game (as it is in most 'role-playing' computer games and conventional role-playing games), then we can safely call it an avatar. The king in chess is supposed to represent the player in some way, but is only one of sixteen tokens each with the ability to affect the game. The king is not an avatar, we rarely feel an association to it while playing chess in the same way that we might feel associated with a Monopoly token (the only one we have).

I define avatarism as the process of associating oneself as a player very strongly with an avatar. The pathological extreme of role-playing where unstable players have been known to dissociate their personalities in favour of their characters is avatarism gone berserk. At the other end of the spectrum all players would feel a note of sadness if a character they have played for many years dies in the game-world. Avatarism at some level is a natural and positive factor in role-playing games.

Many players get a huge kick out of avatarism. A long standing role-playing companion of mine said that he enjoys role-playing in order to use the skills that he created in his character during the game. This is strong avatarism; the desire to affect the game-world through the abilities of one's character rather than one's own abilities. Some players are more interested in the simulation aspect of role-playing, they ask questions such as: 'what would my character do in this situation?', 'what does a roll of 54 mean in game terms?'. Even these players draw some of their enjoyment of the hobby through avatarism. It is important to remember that it is a universal feature in our games, but one that varies greatly by degree.

So you can now see the substance of my claim that computer games provide more for the player rather than less. There is a much tighter kind of avatarism in a game such as Tomb Raider where the motion of a player's fingers is translated in real time and with instant feedback into the actions of their avatar. Sure it requires less imagination, but even if it required more, it would still facilitate stronger avatarism.

Players for whom their major kick was playing with their character now have a much more successful outlet for this urge than role-playing. Those who remain in the hobby are more likely to do so for nostalgia or social reasons. You might think this is a hugely arrogant assertion, especially if it applied to you, but consider this; if they had no previous experience of role-playing and no close friends who role-played, how many would now wish to take up the hobby? I would imagine very few. All this is not to imply that these folks have no reason to role-play or that they aren't 'real' role-players. Such talk is so much silly nonsense. Nonetheless if your overwhelming reason for role-playing is to enjoy avatarism, there are better ways of doing it; and tens of thousands of people have left the hobby because they have discovered exactly that.

The Myth of the Red Queen

With such a large swathe of the role-playing population summarily harvested in this way. The natural question is to ask what becomes of those who remain.

I have no clear idea about how to continue classification of 'what someone role-plays for' into those folks left behind. Probably it is too complex to ever achieve, although there are other clear factors like enjoyment of simulation, characterisation (role-playing in the narrowest sense), creative writing, social interaction and lateral problem solving.

On the other hand, whatever your outlook, you may be as curious as I was to discover that avatarism is mutually exclusive to one of the most popular claims of role-playing games. The fact that the current paradigm of role-playing is built to support avatarism means that it cannot live up to its own declarations that role-playing games have no winners or losers. This is the myth of the Red Queen, who said "All must have prizes".

Of all the role-playing rule sets that I own, none fails to mention that role-playing is a non-competitive hobby. There are no losers in role-playing games when everyone role-plays together. Think about this a little. The claim is that because each player is participating for the purpose of role-playing, the fact that they succeed in role-playing (which does not depend on the actions of any character in the game), the result of the game is a win for everyone.

The implicit background to this logic is that players do not role-play to enjoy avatarism. Let us agree to an extent and say that a players 'winning status' comes from their success in doing what they play to game to do. A player who role-plays for the sake of role-playing will 'win' if they are allowed to role-play, another who is interested in social interaction will 'win' by virtue of enjoying a session with their friends, and so on.

The player who role-plays to enjoy acting through their avatar will 'win' if those actions succeed. Conversely if an avatar fails to act as desired then the player 'looses'. If you need convincing on this point think about the way role-players rolls dice in a game; often a player will invest their emotional energy in the outcome of the roll - cursing their luck if it fails. This only makes sense when you admit that for the player the roll is a microcosm of the whole game; they win if their avatar succeeds and they loose if it does not.

The Bottom Line

The current paradigm of role-playing games is this:

  • One games-master who is storyteller, puzzle poser and referee all in one.
  • Many players who act in the game world exclusively through their avatar. Players have no other responsibility for story-line, solution to puzzles or game discipline.

This is unsatisfactory because it is a paradigm engineered to provide most players with the maximum enjoyment of avatarism and one player with the maximum enjoyment of the rest of the hobby's facets. Those benefiting from the avatarism may as well go elsewhere (and have done so in their thousands).

Put like this and stripped of any other consideration (like playability, for example), the solution is simple: reduce the avatarism of the many by giving them the benefits of the games-master in increasing quantities.

There are certainly exceptional products beginning to appear that take this to heart. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, for example, is raising much interest in the hobby for its originality. Exceptions aside, the paradigm is firmly stuck where it was thirty years ago.

It is clear to me that the future of role-playing as an independent and vibrant hobby can only be realised by moving gradually further away from the games-master/player, and hence the non-player-character/avatar, dichotomy. The destination should be a world where avatarism is less important than those features that make role-playing unique.

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