An essay on monsters in response to Noisms’ essay on war
Dammit, sometimes Noisms writes posts that would require a huge essay for me to respond to them properly. And, y’know, actual thinking. His latest kinda demands a moral response, but I try to avoid boring you guys with my idiosyncratic and probably indefensible moral outlook. So I’m not going to get into how “evil” is not an analytical category but an expression of reaction “in the eye of the beholder.” Or how JB’s comment on the original post shows the gulf of difference in interpretations that even the horrors of war can elicit.
Instead I’m just going to write about why I find monsters useful (even though I use a lot of “human” opponents in my games). for brevity I’ve condensed my ideas into bullet points. They look like statements of dogma but please assume lots of hedging about with “it seems to me that” and “my personal philosophical position is” and “here’s a dodgy contention…”. Also they’re pretentious, but that’s what you get when you provoke thoughts.
What are monsters for?
1. Yes, nothing is worse than humans. Except some other bits of nature, which are also horrific if only we stop to think about them. Being real, people contain all the awfulness we can all collectively imagine, while monsters as individual acts of imagination can at best/worst hope to express some portion of that awfulness.
2. But monsters are still useful because they’re selectively awful. Art is always an act of selection/deletion. The universe acts and means everything all at once, it’s great and terrible and petty and boring and we don’t know what to do with it. But art can tease out some subset of the whole experience so we can have a guided reaction to it – go in one direction rather than being pulled in all directions and going nowhere. As works of art monsters can mean something rather than everything/nothing more narrowly and purely than people can.
3. So monsters are somehow illustrative or evocative – metaphors for aspects of people or situations or events. They express reaction to those events (fear, horror, caution), not the events themselves. That doesn’t mean they have to be didactic or translatable into some manifesto of meaning: goblins can just be goblins, but as goblins they’re also a tight little knot of associations and sensations. Like wine tasting – yes you can pull your sensation of wine apart and identify the soil and climatic conditions and notes of fruit and wood and so on, but you also have a glass of something that tastes of wine.
4. Monsters offer some freedom of association for each player’s imagination, and therefore room for creativity. Games, like books, offer incomplete descriptions, which allows each player to fill in their own details, horrors and meanings. Those meanings might be a kind of payoff for each player, but also the individual act of finding meanings, of knotting up those associations that the game stirs up, is a kind of payoff itself.
5. They are capable of being neutral tokens in a game of risks and challenges, and such tokens are necessary to allow the more abstract elements of the game to flourish. The chess pawn represents a troop or column or platoon or something of infantry, but more importantly in the context of the chess game it represents a specific set of moves: when the pawn is taken it’s not useful to the game to see those men injured – the human cost of war – because in its primary reality as a token, the loss of a pawn is really an opportunity cost in a set of possible moves between players. Blood on the board would detract from the intent of the game, which is primarily architectural. RPGs are hybrids, less pure in intent than chess, but they can contain chess-like elements, which are helped by a certain level of abstraction.
Sometimes people say “you can kill monsters and it’s OK because they’re evil.” This falls into a trap (in thinking, it’s not just that it opens an opportunity for argumentative people) because it conflates 2 things: (a) the abstract token cited above and (b) an idea of necessary or justified violence based on moral judgment (which is a whole other can of worms I am not gonna get into thanks you probably don’t really want to know my inadequate and untested civilian’s ideas about that). Rather, I would prefer to say “here is a game where killing monsters is part of the activity. That may raise some tricky questions if you stop to think about it, but it also allows us a space to put up some easily-understood challenges, of the kind which allow players to express their problem-solving creativity.” Or something similar but less wordy.
6. Maybe monsters are necessary to the figure of the hero, who expresses hope and faith in our ability to “win” – to succeed in the face of difficulties. We often think in terms of exchanges, and very often these are zero-sum exchanges: costs for things won or produced or found.* In this way of thinking, if there are winners there must be losers. So a conspicuous winner must leave a trail of losers/victims in their wake. Monsters are a way of identifying those who should lose.The necessary and correct enemies or obstacles for the hero to overcome, to enact their function as a hero.
As an ideational category monsters are a useful and dangerous tool: propaganda deploys monsters to represent the enemies of the state, which most often means depersonalizing people to permit violence against them. But the monster is also a useful way of imagining, say, cancer or pollution as a problem which it will take intelligent action to overcome. When we call scientists heroes or award them medals (as though they were coming home in triumph from military campaigns or from the potlach-war of Olympic contests), we are figuring their achievements into the hero/monster idiom.