Archive for January, 2020

Interlude: some thoughts about dancing, wrestling, and performance

January 9, 2020 4 comments

What are we doing when we’re “gaming”? Like, actually at the table, in session?

To some extent we’re dealing with forward processes – working out puzzles, advancing plots, learning about characters, covering up or uncovering stuff that may have been planned ahead or might be improvised but which will in any event soon become part of the game’s canon. Making progress.

To a larger extent, though, (I think) we’re doing something with a bit more give-and-take. Something where we adopt positions and make moves and expect the other people at the table to respond and/or take the creative initiative themselves, seeing where it ends up. Like a conversation. Or a dance.

(I am terrible at dancing, specifically that most conversational of dances, Argentinian Tango, in which power and initiative pass back and forth between the partners in a continuous flow of exchanges, moves, glances, competitive expressions of hauteur. I am therefore (according to Bourdieu) in the privileged position of being able to talk about it as a problem.)

I think this dance is the essence of play – it’s not reducible to victory conditions or even the tactics taken to reach them, it’s an exploration of the people, the situation, and the moment. I also don’t think it’s necessarily reducible to the elements of agon (struggle) and paidia (joyful diversion) – there’s also a lot of thinking, realizing, finding delicate points of balance and then deliberately wiggling them, provoking, retreating, being powerless, route-finding, and other stuff I can’t think of right now, even as I (re)play through different fields where this activity is applied.

And often we’re doing several sorts of play at the same time, both as active participants and encouraging audience members.

On the latter side, much talk of “spotlights” in RPGs strikes me as annoyingly binary on this point: heckling, commentating, advice-giving, even boredom are all part of the show in a RPG. Pro wrestling has one of the most active entertainment audiences I know of (although they’re still far from the level of engagement of a tabletop roleplayer who doesn’t happen to be speaking right now), and they’re engaged in multiple kinds of play all the time – they play around the boundaries of kayfabe, purporting to believe something that is obviously false and/or being seen to be playing along and/or suspending disbelief and/or looking for an underlying truth (like when wrestlers insist that wrestling is “real” in the sense that it’s actually dangerous, even if it’s not actually fighting). All these kinds of play are what I call boundary play – negotiating the boundary of what’s taken for true, moment by moment, making moves as the play moves. Dancing. They play with the boundary between scripted action and improvisation (in their own cheers/jeers, which are a real form of initiative-seizure) as well as appreciating that boundary play from the wrestlers. They play with whether they receive the action in the terms of its own script (emically) or as critical observers of a drama (etically) or, as ProteusEst told me, on both sides of the related Watsonian/Doylist boundary in Sherlock Holmes fandom, where readers can choose to accept stories as being authored either by Watson (as is claimed in the text) or by Artur Conan Doyle (on the cover). And that discussion led me straight back to wrestling again:
many fans of Professional Wrestling view events from the Doylist perspective. If a wrestler suddenly disappears from TV without a proper storyline explanation, it will often lead to speculation that he/she is on his/her way out of the company and where he/she might turn up next
And this boundary opens up yet another arena for play/dance. Which surprises me, because I’d think that this admission of the business/dramatic reality of wrestling would dissolve the kayfabe, right? But instead, fans get into a totally comfortable sort of doublethink – the sort of thing that thesis/antithesis/synthesis stories are supposed to do the hard work of reconciling. Once you acknowledge that there’s a soap opera going on between matches involving the corporate structure of the wrestling league/stable, then it’s creatively ambiguous whether your Doylist speculation is really Doylist, or if it is itself being scripted by another level of Watson, who narrates the business drama. Where is the audience supposed to be, relative to all this? The answer is, they have a whole dance floor to occupy. The point is not to answer the question definitively but, for audience, wrestlers, promoters, commentators and everyone else, to have fun making moment-by-moment moves around it.

The most conspicuous other place I see this play being played out in public is politics (nope, that runs the risk of derailing this whole discussion. Let’s instead go with) stage magic. A lot’s been written about how stage magic works – I’m going to assume we all know the audience is complicit in being fooled – that to the extent they try to figure out how the magic is done, it’s a sort of idle diversion while they get their dopamine hits from the spectacle of watching stuff spontaneously appear and disappear, like the fort/da game – right? And the first act of every magic trick, where the magician sets up the stakes and establishes that the object they’re holding is perfectly ordinary and gets buy in and permission to make it disappear – this is all well-explored, right?

Fine. So far, the magician simply leads us in the dance (unless we express boredom or refuse to play along). But then usually there comes not a single flourish but a succession of tricks – this is the dance in full swing. The magician dazzles the mark with the first “surprise,” then does a few more-expected moves, maybe eliciting growing bewilderment but also a growing sense on the part of the audience that they know the grammar of the trick language being established. The magician surfs the audience’s attention span and sets up an exchange rate of moves and gasps, so the audience becomes increasingly comfortable with where this show is going. And then (if they’re really great), the magician overpays. They finish with something that’s baffling even in the expectation scheme they’ve established. The audience suddenly finds themselves bent backwards with one leg up and a rose between their teeth and… the magic show ends. They have no further interplay with the magician, they just have to applaud and spend all their tension on each other, advertising the show to their friends.

That works for the magician. It can also work sometimes for writing RPG adventures, when you’re thinking of a shocking denouement for the players’ investigations to lead them toward. But it’s not (I think) a great ending for most of your dances or most of your RPG sessions. Because it demands applause and it depends on the submission of initiative from the people being whisked off their feet, so it turns them (back) into the audience, watching a performer. 

That’s not what I want. I want a conversation with active participants. If it’s going to be unequal then, after all the work of setting up a game session and DMing the environment and challenges, I want my players to seize the initiative and dazzle me. But what I want most – what I remember as the best sessions – is the dance itself and those times when everyone is equally, maximally engaged, leading and following, using the floor. I want ongoing trust and rapport out of my games, a collaborative creative ferment, out of which spring all those products and memories and collective products that the OSR is famous for, but which most of all is the experience of the moment of dancing.

Achieving that reliably? That’s another post.