Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self

Jonathan McCalmont @ 21-07-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


0: Hume

Have you ever looked at an old photograph of yourself or read one of your old letters or emails and marvelled at the differences between the person you are now and the person you were then?  Getting older means falling into the habit of shrieking “what was I thinking?” whenever you stumble across some fragment of a former life.  But let us take this idea a little further: are you actually the same person that you were when you wrote that letter?  When you had that photograph taken?  When you decided to start dating that person who was obviously so ill suited to you?  Are you the same person you were yesterday?  Or five minutes ago?  Or when you started reading this sentence?  The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested that you might very well not be.

David HumeHume was an Empiricist, which meant that he held that one could only trust knowledge gained through direct experience of the world.  As contemporary post-Enlightenment Homo Sapiens, this might seem obvious to us but Hume’s commitment to the primacy of direct experience meant that all other modes of knowledge acquisition, be they reason, inference, assumption or faith were suddenly open to question.  A thoroughly systematic thinker, Hume applied this scepticism to the movement of billiard balls just as easily as he did to our sense of self by pointing out that while we undeniably experience the present, our selves are things that last throughout our lives and so are made up of a near infinite number of separate presents :

“When I enter enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.  When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.  And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity” [A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), p. 252]

According to Hume, we have no direct experience of a concrete and continuous self.  What we think of as our selves tend to be collections of memories and impressions peppered with gaps and affected by all kinds of moods, chemical imbalances and moments of intoxication.  We do not experience our self, instead we construct it through an act of will.  We tie these various elements together into one great bundle and assert “this is me”, whereas in fact, there seems to be no single thing that could be actually called an individual self.  There is no soul.  There is no immortal essence.  There’s just stuff.  In some ways, the self is like a gentleman’s club or a government: the membership changes, the constitution changes, the mood changes, but we still look at the institution as one thing rather than a series of different ones – despite the fact that, for example, the government of David Cameron has very little in common with that of Pitt the Elder. [Though rather more in common than many of us might like… – Ed.]

Philosophers and thinkers are in disagreement as to the exact implications of Hume’s remarks: Some thinkers interpret Hume’s writing not as a model of the self but as a challenge to the idea of a self that must be overcome by clear and rigorous thinking (after all, we do not experience causation either, but this does not mean that we should assume that it does not take place).  Others take the opposing view and embrace Hume’s views, directly leading them to attempt to do away with all talk of the self entirely.  However, the bulk of contemporary philosophical responses to Hume seem to fall between these two extremes, focusing instead upon the process through which the self is formed out of a collection of different things.  After all, Manchester United change their personnel and the system they play, but nobody would doubt that there is such a thing as Manchester United.

1. Consumerism Vs. Authenticity

If Hume is correct that the self is something that we construct, then it is worth taking a moment to think about the process through which we construct ourselves.  Freud, for example, suggested that our sense of self is the result of an almost industrial process of pressure, recalibration and disastrous defenestration as the various components of our personalities battle for supremacy while we struggle to integrate painful or traumatic memories into the way we think about ourselves.  Sartre thought that we were radically free from anything approaching a fundamental essence and that we defined ourselves entirely through our actions.  These are both fascinating ideas, but the idea I want to address today is one that enjoys both a good deal of currency and a large degree of opposition, namely the idea that we define ourselves through the things we acquire – an idea referred to dismissively as Consumerism.

Consumerism is very much like Treason.  As the writer and Elizabethan courtier John Harington so cuttingly put it :

“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”

Consumerism is invariably presented as a bad thing.  What’s the reason?  For if it is a good thing, none call it Consumerism.  When the excellent Larry Nolen convinces us to start buying up the lesser known works of Jorge Luis Borges, we do not call it anything as vulgar as Consumerism… we call it “expanding our horizons”.  When the increasingly non-excellent Quentin Tarantino convinces us to start buying obscure DVDs of Australian exploitation cinema, we call it “being turned on to something cool”.  Many people (not least myself) rail against these Consumerist tendencies.  If Capitalism is an oppressive system, then surely there is no greater act of submission than choosing to express one’s individuality through conforming to that system?  In his brilliant essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” (1997), Thomas Frank delivers a merciless indictment of the ways in which the individualistic counter-culture of the 1950s has been co-opted by people looking to sell you stuff :

“Consumerism is no longer about “conformity” but about “difference.” Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock `n’ roll rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the 60s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of endless difference is today the genius at the heart of American capitalism, an eternal fleeing from “sameness” that satiates our thirst for the New with such achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven.”

However, re-reading this passage by Frank, I am still unsure as to what the exact problem is.  Why should asserting our individuality through purchasing decisions be any less valid than asserting our individuality by choosing to wear berets and listen to free jazz?  In both cases, we are acting as good Humeans and Sartreans by defining ourselves using the tools available to us.  What are the alternatives?

bookshelvesOne of the problems with our sense of self is its abstractness.  Like nailing jelly to the walls or herding cats, our selves slip through our fingers, remaining frustratingly illusive and protean.  Just because you have a firm grasp of who you are at one moment doesn’t mean that you will not later discover yourself doing something strange, or having to re-assess your identity in the wake of some tragic event.  Consumerism is a process of making that which is abstract into something concrete, something that you can touch.  You may not have a firm grasp of who you really are, but you know for damn sure that you have an entirely respectable collection of science fiction novels!

This idea of defining ourselves through the stuff we have is one that has proved remarkably robust in gaming circles.  Many computer and table-top RPGs adopt Consumerism almost as a default setting, but they also approach it from an array of fascinating directions, suggesting that, when there are many different ways of asserting ourselves through the stuff we buy and the stuff we consume, that perhaps Consumerism is something more than an act of pathetic supplication to the blood-thirsty gods of the market.

2.  RPGs as Models of Self-Definition

A.N. Whitehead famously said that philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, a similar comment could be made about the history of roleplaying games being nothing but a series of footnotes to Dungeons & Dragons.  Indeed, though RPGs now take myriad forms, all of them have their roots in the ideas pioneered by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they decided to create a wargame scaled for individual characters with a Fantasy theme.  RPGs work by creating a shared imaginary space.  Players then interact with this space through the medium of characters which, more often than not, they create for themselves.

Since Gygax and Arneson pioneered this process of arbitrated projection into imaginary space, endless variations on the process of character creation have appeared for both table-top RPGs and computerised ones.  Each of these different systems sheds a different light upon the ways in which we carefully construct our sense of self and project it into society and the world.  In this section I shall consider a few of the different approaches taken by game-designers to the question of self-definition.

2.11 The Original Fallout Games

Sleeve for FalloutTo this day, Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998) remain the greatest computerised flourishing of the design principles underlying traditional table-top RPGs.

Upon loading up the game, you are asked to create a character by assigning points to a list of physical and mental characteristics.  The more points you put into strength, the more stuff you can carry, the more damage you do when hitting people, and the higher your initial physical skills.

When I say that the original Fallout games are the greatest flourishing of computerised table-top RPG design principles it is because Fallout built on foundations laid by a number of classic RPGs.  Indeed, at the beginning of the game, your character’s interactions with the world are dominated by their physical and mental characteristics.  If your character is physically strong then, in all likelihood, you will hit things a lot in order to get by.  If your character is dexterous, then you will probably spend your time shooting at things.  If your character is charismatic, then he will probably try to bullshit his way through life.

The importance of these characteristics echoed the importance of the bonuses granted you by good stats in D&D.  In D&D, if you rolled up an intelligent character, you played a mage; playing a weak fighter would have been suicide.  However, as Fallout progresses, the focus moves away from raw talent and power and towards a knowledge economy, as greater resources and a more open, sandbox style of play mean that you have to make strategic decisions based not upon how strong you are, but what your character knows. Are you good at science?  Can you sneak?  Do you know how to pick locks?  This shift of emphasis reflects games like Call of Cthulhu, in which physical and mental characteristics take a back-seat to your character’s skill at fast-talking or doing research.

Fallout is a game in which characters are defined in very concrete terms: you’re smart, you can pick locks, you can kill people with plasma weapons.  But the game’s shift in emphasis from raw potential to acquired skill is largely driven by material possessions.  For example, Fallout 2 starts with your character being a member of a religious community.  Armed only with spears and knives, your early hours of play depend upon your capacity to handle yourself physically with those kinds of weapons.  But as the game progresses and the world opens out, you start to gain access to more and more forms of weaponry.  This means that you are forever having to ask yourself two questions about who your character is :

  1. Do I build up what I am good at now or do I invest my skill points in weapons I will only get towards the end of the game? Daggers or plasma rifles?  This tension was wonderfully parodied in the recent reboot of the franchise by encouraging the players to sink points into plasma weapons only to withhold them until the last hour or so of the game.
  2. What do I carry with me? Fallout only allows your character to carry so much stuff meaning that you are forever having to decide between the stuff that is useful to your character and the stuff that you can re-sell once you get back to town.

Combine these two aspects of Fallout’s gameplay and you have a game in which character decisions are invariably about what stuff you buy, what stuff you can afford and whether you have space for all the stuff you want to carry around with you.  This means that even when games provide you with objective criteria for defining your in-game avatar, it’s still about the stuff you own and the stuff you buy.  Consumerism is not the enemy of self-actualisation and authenticity, it is a mode of self-expression.

2.12 JRPGs and World of Warcraft

Compared to the likes of Fallout, Oblivion and Baldur’s Gate, Japanese RPGs offer a much smaller degree of character customisation.  Indeed, the Final Fantasy games generally provide you with no more control over your character’s nature than the option to change his or her name upon first encountering them.  This is partly because the game-play of JRPGs tends to focus less upon the heroic individual than upon the fate of a group of adventurers working together.  So, even though one cannot customise individual characters, one can customise the make-up of the group and the blend of powers available to them.

Screenshot from World Of WarcraftObviously, groups also play a large role in games like Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age: Origins but the degree of customisation and control over the primary characters in those games tends to mean that the secondary characters are never anything more than ‘support’ to the main protagonist.  Because we have built these protagonists from the ground up, they retain our attention and our affection in a way that simply isn’t the case with characters met in a tavern (though I must admit that the sexually voracious bisexual Elven assassin from Dragon Age: Origins proves the exception that makes the rule).  Conversely, the fact that JRPGs do not allow us to express ourselves creatively through the process of character creation means that the focus remains on the group as a whole,  even though the narratives of many JRPGs continue to stress the Messianic importance of the main protagonist we begin the game with.

World of Warcraft (2004) and other MMORPGs are ostensibly much closer in their focus to Western CRPGs than Japanese ones.  We play the game by creating one character, we play that character throughout our time with the game, and we spend the game making decisions that shape the evolution of that character.  For example, do we invest our Mage’s build points in speed or power?  Ice-based magic or fire-based magic?

However, what is fascinating about MMORPGs is that if you try to play them as you would a Western CRPG, they quickly become almost unbearably dull.  Try to engage the game as a lone-hero and you’ll find yourself running away a lot or simply grinding through an endless series of almost identically under-written missions in which you kill things, collect body parts and wander aimlessly from place to place, forever climbing a greasy pole to nowhere.  As I said when I wrote about the Iron Cage of Fantasy, the basic gameplay of World of Warcraft is a work-like grind.  But to look at MMORPGs in this fashion is to miss the point entirely.  They are profoundly social undertakings.

As Penny Arcade have made abundantly clear, it is not the grind but the social ties that ensure that people keep returning to WoW.  These social ties can be to friends you decided to play the game with from the beginning, or to guildmates you acquired once inside the game.  In order to play WoW properly, you must not merely make decisions about how your character engages with the world on an individual level, but also how your character’s skill-set compliments those of your companions.  The true challenge of WoW is not learning to play your character, it is learning to integrate your character into a coherent tactical group, and to manage the relationships that bind that group together.  World of Warcraft is a game in which your in-game self is defined not in isolation but in the context of membership in a community.  Who your character becomes through play is determined largely by who he adventures with.

However, while both JRPGs and MMORPGs emphasise a social and community-focused form of self-definition, it is undeniably the case that the currency that forms these social bonds are ultimately material.  Indeed, both forms of game are beset by the same need for inventory wrangling that plagues pretty much all computer RPGs but these games bring with them the added complexities of how to decide which character gets which object and whether you should hang on to an object simply because one of companions may benefit from it.  How many guilds have fallen out over who gets a particular magical sword, or mysterious glowing amulet?

Computer roleplaying games have tended to stick quite closely to the formula pioneered by the original D&D.  Indeed, the movement from raw capacity to skill and the importance of group dynamics to tactical efficiency is very much a characteristic of D&D’s learning curve.  As the power-level of the group slowly rises and the complexity of the game rises with it, D&D becomes more and more about the effective management of limited resources.  Or, to put it another way, stuff.  However, as the decades have flicked past, tabletop RPGs have started to experiment with some rather more baroque conceptions of self.

2.21 Amber Diceless RPG

Amber Diceless RPG coverBased upon the series of world-walking fantasy novels by the American New Wave author Roger Zelazny, Eric Wucjik’s Amber Diceless RPG (1991) boasts a profoundly idiosyncratic take on the traditional process of character creation.

Firstly, while Amber’s characters are defined by a set of characteristics, these characteristics are purchased through a bidding process wherein the players compete in order to achieve primacy amongst their generation of characters.  This is based upon the novels, in which characters such as Benedict and Gerard are defined by being the most skilled warriors or the most physically powerful of a venomous and fiercely competitive brood of brothers and sisters.  This means that Amber’s characters are defined not only relative to each other (rather than in terms of their absolute capacities) but also through a process of competitive acquisition.

Secondly, Amber’s character creation process focuses largely upon the acquisition of powers and capacities, but it also allows for softer aspects such as personality and skill.  However, it does not actually provide you with any rules through which to express these aspects of your character.  Having spent your build points on characteristics and powers, the GM will then hand you something like a personality questionnaire and  give you free reign to define your character as a person, without any limitations whatsoever.  This means that you could play a raw neophyte or a centuries old veteran with dozens of half-formed and abandoned lives and skill-sets behind them.

Thirdly, the players could — in true Sauron style — invest some of their build points in objects with astonishing powers that could not be lost.  Drop your magic sword into a volcano?  One will turn up resting against a tree around the next corner.  This reflects the fact that, in the novels, the characters have certain defining objects.  Regardless of their adventures, of their many lives, of their changes of identity, the characters would retain an attachment for a certain style of dress, a certain type of weapon or a certain piece of jewellery.

Fourthly, while Amber characters were all created from an identical number of points, it was possible to boost one’s allocation of building points by taking on creative activities such as keeping a journal of one’s character’s thoughts.

Amber’s approach to character creation is fascinating as while it ultimately retains D&D’s commitment to a set of objective metrics through which to measure and evaluate the characters’ interactions with the world, it also relies upon much more fluid criteria for self-definition such as the relationships between peers and differences in how players interpret the world.  This, I suspect, is entirely intentional and it’s very much part of the game’s charm, as while most games based upon established intellectual properties are content with providing one version of each notable character translated into the game’s rules, Amber provides many different ones, each drawing upon different possible interpretations of the events in the novels.  This attitude to the source material remains revolutionary in gaming terms.  In fact, it is so revolutionary that I would argue it is still ahead of its time.

The problem is that while Eric Wucjik was undeniably a superlative game designer, he was also a product of his era.  Amber was created during the 1980s, a time when tabletop RPGs retained a model of play that relied upon the use of a Games Master who served as a combination of divinity and auteur: while RPGs involved the creation of a shared imaginary space, the traditional GM’s imagination was deemed to be more authoritative than anyone else’s at the table.  In a game such as Amber, where players are encouraged to interpret things for themselves, this creates huge problems, as nobody can point to the rulebook or the source material as a way of resolving any disputes that may arise. It does not help matters that Zelazny was an author of the American New Wave, and so tended to create spaces and characters that were frequently surreal, inconsistent, incoherent or generally dream-like.  Indeed, I can remember playing in one Amber game in which I was literally grinding my teeth in frustration, because the GM was operating with completely different visions of powers and places to the ones that I had picked up from reading the novels and game books.

More recent RPGs resolve a lot of these problems of interpretative authority by devolving a degree of authorial power to players and providing a means of conflict resolution whereby interpretations of places, powers and characters might be fixed in the collective imagination.  But such developments in RPG theory were sadly decades away when Wucjik was writing.

Amber is a game that allows players not only to define themselves through the process of creating an avatar with which to engage with the game world, it also stresses the extent to which we are social animals defining ourselves not only relative to each other but also in the context of social worlds that are, ultimately, socially constructed, in much the same way that our selves are.

2.22  Hot War

From the late 1990s onwards, tabletop RPG culture began to undergo the same process of fragmentation and individualisation that has characterised much of 21st Century popular culture.  Just as one can no longer predict someone’s exact tastes and values on the basis of their being “teenagers” or “geeks”, one can no longer safely assume that someone will enjoy or be able to play all forms of roleplaying games simply by virtue of their identifying themselves as a gamer.  As with the rest of popular culture, this fragmentation was fuelled by the emergence of specialised online communities allowing gamers with idiosyncratic tastes to form their own creative communities such as those at The Forge and Story Games.  Suddenly granted a cultural space in which to create their own identities and cultures, these gamers began the long, drawn-out process of re-examining assumptions and design philosophies that had not been questioned since Gygax and Arneson produced the original Dungeons & Dragons.  Malcolm Craig’s Hot War (2008) is the product of this process of re-examination.

Hot War coverHot War is set in a post-apocalyptic London filled with hideous creatures, sinister groups and the imprint of dark magics and/or gonzo science.  The exact nature of the apocalypse is never made clear, nor is the exact nature of the enemy the group is facing.  This is because Hot War is not the kind of game in which the players simply create characters and while the GM controls both the world and the adventures.  Instead, the group as a whole sits down as a unit and creates an entire game; characters, setting details, relationships and adversaries.

Doing away with the image of the GM as auteur, Hot War presents all aspects of the game as something to be created collectively by the group.  The game book provides some ideas as to the nature of the world, and suggests that each of the players embodies a representative of one of the British government’s surviving bureaucracies. But beyond these starting points, everything is up for collective negotiation.  Indeed, Hot War not only allows the players to introduce their own non-player characters and settings, it also allows them to come up with entire scenes for the group to play out collectively.

Considered in philosophical terms, Hot War (and games like it) marks a growing awareness by game designers of the solipsistic nature of table-top roleplaying.  The movement away from a mode of play that stresses the existence of an objective and independent reality anchored in the GM’s imagination, and towards a more fluid setting created and constantly re-negotiated by the group (in light not only of the desires of the characters but also those of the players) is reminiscent of the ideas expressed by Luckmann and Berger in their book The Social Construction of Reality (1966).

3.  The Social Construction of Reality and The Self

Berger and Luckmann were interested in the ways in which humans sculpted the world around them.  They argued that when groups and individuals interact with each other they do so on the basis of mental representations of each others’ values, actions and intents.  We use these mental representations to make predictions about how others will act.  Eventually, over time, these models harden first into habits and then into roles as we come to play the parts that others expect of us.  As time passes, new people join the community and learn the various roles that people have fallen into in the past, they then begin to change their own behaviour in order to ‘fit in’.  This further hardens the habits from simple roles into actual social institutions that can be passed down from generation to generation.  This process of institutionalisation embeds meaning in the fabric of society, thereby constructing a form of social reality.

While Hume may well have been correct to point out that we do not directly perceive the self, can one not also express a similar degree of scepticism as to the existence of a single entity called ‘society’?  If the self is something that we are forced to build and re-build every day of our lives then might the same thing not be said of our society and culture?  Indeed, I would argue that large programmes of public works — be they benign, as with Britain’s NHS, or malign, as with America’s misbegotten Middle-Eastern wars — are attempts by governments and entire peoples to render their abstract notions of identity into something physical that can be pointed at and used as some kind of psychological and cultural landmark.

The history and evolution of roleplaying games teaches us that the search for the self is a process of rendering something that is abstract and elusive into something that is concrete and substantial.  Whether as individuals or societies, we are constantly trying to define ourselves, to scream into the void that we exist.  We do it all the time, and in myriad ways.  We fight a constant battle against a great rising tide of anonymity and forgetfulness.  As a part of this process of self-declaration, we cling on to material objects, which we subsequently leave littered behind us as we discover new people within ourselves.  Whether as individuals or societies, we are defined by our clutter.  When we place our third Amazon order of the week, we might as well be shouting “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

4.  Clutter as Philosophical Currency

When one speaks of a ‘tabletop roleplaying game’ one is in fact talking about two partially overlapping but ultimately quite different classes of entity. On the one hand, RPGs are texts: they are written, they are printed, they are bound, they are sold and they are (mostly) read.  As forms of writing, they sit astride the distinction between fiction and non-fiction by not only describing fictitious world but also the systems that can be used to arbitrate imaginary interactions with said worlds.  On the other hand, RPGs are social activities and are subject to the same primate social dynamics as any other group activity.  This peculiarly Janus-faced nature means that RPGs interact with the concept of the cluttered self in a number of different ways.

As we saw in section 2, the rules that make up roleplaying games serve to embody a wide-array of different theoretical approaches to self-definition.  To play a character is to make strategic decisions, to act in accordance with certain objective physical characteristics, to possess sets of skills and to exist within a protean network of social interactions all at the same time.  However, aside from such theoretical concerns, RPGs also provide individuals with a space in which they can act out different identities and selves.

This process of experimentation is well documented and understood and so I will not bore you by droning on about people creating avatars of different sexes in Second Life.  What interests me is not the 40-something virgin playing a prepubescent catgirl, what interests me is what happens when the shut-in gets bored and moves on.  What happens to Mademoiselle SexyMiuMiu then?  She becomes clutter.

In his work of experimental non-fiction Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (2010), Ander Monson writes about his relationship with RPGs in the wake of the death of E. Gary Gygax:

“About once every three years I am called to rescue or condemn a box of artifacts from my former life […] from their position moldering in the basement or the garage.  This entails evaluating, reliving, simulating, or reconceiving of this past life, this former Monson, or stage thereof, and looking at it closely, reentering that space, and deciding what to do with it, whether I can fit into those clothes or not whether I’d want to.  These old actions are bizarre to the new me, biologically foreign (yet I still contain traces).  I can’t imagine sitting in the basement of a house with a bunch of other teenagers, surrounded by a tripartite Dungeon Master’s screen filled with statistics and probably a picture of a wizard, exploring some imaginary dungeon. […] All these selves — my Atari 2600 self, recently adopted from said garage my teenaged criminal self, my computer-gaming self — they are like characters within the larger campaign of the person, the player, being me, probably (I assume).  The distance, psychologically, biologically, between there and now, between those cells, those synapse configurations and these, is almost too great to comprehend.  Which would give me hope.  That we can grow through obsessions like these suggests a life of disposable stages, something new ahead, a new job, a new place, new levels of dorkiness” [p. 133-134]

Roleplaying games not only embody the cluttered self in an abstract and theoretical way, they also contribute to the clutter that collects around us as we seek to define ourselves through our purchasing decisions and our social networks.  Anyone who has gamed for a sustained period of time will have collected a vast clutter of game books and character sheets: clutter from past attempts at defining ourselves, clutter from former lives.  Slices of former identities  Old selves left to moulder in a ring binder in a basement, or on the server of an abandoned MMORPG.

I am no exception to this rule.  I have piles of old gaming materials and online accounts that occasionally send me reminders to update my credit card details or to download new patches.  I have entire game worlds left abandoned online from times when I was a different person with different interests and different friends.  Look upon my works, ye Mighty and despair!

  • Theophrastus Jacob Hamelin – A Human science officer transformed into a Vulcan.
  • Nazeem the Terrible – A charismatic but sociopathic mage who was part of a company attempting to recapture a Human territory that had fallen foul of Orcs, Undead and Dragons.
  • George Gunnarson – A physically imposing and morally upstanding police officer with a hunger for advancement and a bit of a temper.
  • Commander James Diaz – A Navy software engineer who managed to get himself repeatedly promoted and ennobled by hacking the Navy’s personnel files.  Sadly gunned down by members of the ultra-violent wing of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

Even though my life has moved on and these slices of self are no longer a part of my identity, these characters remain online.  They survive as binary on some server somewhere.  In many ways, this makes them more real than the person I was when I was 3, of which only a few photos remain.

One of the symptoms of the West’s dependence upon Consumerism as a mode of self-expression is the advocacy of consumption through a process of self-denial.  Indeed, while we are encouraged to endlessly ‘treat’ ourselves to snacks and little luxuries, we are immediately castigated and vilified should we become fat or weighted down with gold jewellery or too many designer labels.  To be a good Consumer one must also know when to stop consuming things.  In order to help us tread this hypocritical and paradoxical line a number of TV programmes and websites tell us how to de-clutter our homes.  I myself recently undertook just such a project by deciding to sort through the hundreds of books I had stored in my old bedroom.

BooksMore books
Yet more books

As I cleared through and boxed up the books, games and magazines that clogged every shelf, cupboard and surface I came to realise that these were not merely material objects but part of my self.  Every book was either evidence of a former life (textbooks, games, address books, letters) or the detritus of attempts at self-definition that never actually yielded proper selves (books on forensics and paleoanthropology, RPGs that were purchased but never played or read).  To sift through the clutter that one has accumulated throughout a life is to sift through the stuff that makes up a life, the stuff that makes us who we are.  Every time we take a load of books to the charity shop, we are closing the door on a person we were… and a person that we might still be.

We live in an age of dizzying complexity.  Since the Renaissance, Humanity has been slowly divested of its protective delusions. We are no longer God’s children. We are no longer the centre of the universe. We are no longer in control of our emotions. We are no longer born into a social class that limits our world and tells us what we can and cannot do. [I think that’s still open to debate, old chap… 😉 – Ed.] We no longer live under dynastic monarchies that claim unbroken lines of governance all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  We are fleeting things, adrift in an ever-changing and frequently unsympathetic world.  We cling to what certainties we can.  As Tony Judt puts it in The Burden of Responsibility (1998):

“For social and psychological convenience we live with a recognized common version of the trajectory of individual lives — our own and those of our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.  But this lowest common denominator of identity works in large measure because we do not, most of the time, have good reason to interrogate the narrative we have assigned to ourself or to others.  Except at moments of unusual crisis we don’t engage in intrusive experimental questioning of our present relationship to the person we once were; and for most of us such efforts to unpack the nature and meaning of our pasts take up a very small share of our waking hours.  It is easier, and safer, to proceed as those these matters are settled.” [p.3]

Our sense of identity holds together because we choose not to dwell on it too much. We are abstract and fleeting things, and we need to be grounded.  We could not function if we could only ground ourselves through a process of interminable personal crises, and so we renew ourselves through small acts of devotion; devotion to who we think we are, to who we hope to be.

The Greek historian Plutarch recounted that, in order to pay homage to the founder of their city, the citizens of Athens preserved for centuries the ship that had carried him home when he rescued the children of Athens from the labyrinth of Crete.  Over the centuries, the timbers of the ship gradually rotted away only to be replaced by new timbers.  For generation after generation, the restoration of the ship of Theseus continued until the ship that sat in the harbour shared not a single plank or nail or length of sail with the ship that carried Theseus.  Philosophers rightly asked whether this ship was really the same one that carried the founder of Athens and my answer to the question is as follows: What defines the ship of Theseus is not its wood or its rope.  What defines the ship of Theseus is the willingness of people to recognise it as such.  Had the citizens of Athens decided to redesign the ship over the generations then one could rightly argue that it was not the same ship but these small acts of devotion and minute changes in materials retain a sense of enduring identity or at least the illusion thereof.  Games and clutter are acts of devotion and assertions of self.  They are insubstantial and lack spiritual weight because our selves are just as insubstantial and fragile.  When you play a game or buy a book you are reminding yourself and the world of who you are before you are no more.


Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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3 Responses to “Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self”

  1. Giulio Fontana says:

    …interesting, and rich in “food for thought”, even if some connections feel a little outstretched here and there. Thanks Jonathan (and Futurismic)!
    By the way: I think it’s interesting that our own physical bodies are like the ship of Theseus. Cells die all the time, and are replaced by other cells taking over their functions; nonetheless, we perceive our bodies as the part of us that is more “constant” over time. An intriguing (but ultimately not meaningful) coincidence is the fact that our *brain* cells do not participate (as far as I know) to this exchange. That said, I am pretty sure that even if they did, we would not perceive any difference.
    Finally, to any reader of Futurismic who inexplicably doesn’t know about him: Greg Egan’s excellent work is rooted exactly in this type of issues (i.e., identity, self, and who are we talking about when we say “I”).

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Giulio 🙂

    Glad you found some decent food for thought. Om. Nom. Nom.

    I agree about the tenuousness of some of the connections, I was following a train of thought and sometimes it skipped the rails and other times it took inexplicable detours through mountainous terrain before pausing for three hours at a stop in the middle of nowhere before moving on. I’m still feeling my way with this slighlty more personal approach to essay writing.

    You are absolutely right to single out Greg Egan. He’s been brilliant at exploring non-traditional conceptions of the self through fiction. I actually mentioned Egan when I wrote about some of these issues in the context of a review of Ander Monson’s Vanishing point :

  3. WhaleHawk says:

    So good! Thank you for sharing and being spot on with questions that drive me and my friend up the wall. Beautifully put and shared appropriately.