Adulthood, video games, and TTRPGs

October 13, 2014 at 10:00 am
filed under Roleplaying

I was afraid this piece called Expectations and Entitlement Among Millenial Roleplayers was going to be, frankly, a shitshow. But it was actually quite reasonable! However, I still have some problems with it.

Full disclosure: I have no idea whether I’m a millenial or not. It depends on whether you put the cutoff at the early ’80s or later. Some people say early ’80s is the cutoff for Gen X. I’ve always felt someplace in between. Let’s say I probably skew milennial.

Let’s set aside the question of stereotypes, though. It’s too easy to rant and it’s not productive.

I should also stipulate that I’m operating under a time limit. My hands, you see, are unforgiving these days.

There’s a nice list of bullet points in the author’s piece:

I think these points describe a real phenomenon. I disagree why they’ve arisen. In a word: it’s because of video games.

More specifically:

I’ll tackle them in reverse.

video games

MMOs and roguelikes are two popular kinds of video games, the former for a decade or so and the latter in the last few years, and they violate a lot of the precepts above. Roguelikes do it as an intentional choice.

They’re only two kinds of video games, though.

Let’s look at a couple of ridiculously popular franchises: Grand Theft Auto and Halo. I’ve played some of both but I am not well-versed in either. It doesn’t matter.

Do either of those games have random, arbitrary death? Permadeath where you must start over? Do they elide the player from major plot events and cutscenes more often than not, or does the game’s events more or less revolve around the player?

Obviously not, right?

Death is a signal in some video games. Some of the Mario games give you lots of lives becuase they expect you to die from trial-and-error. In games like GTA and Halo, you can die. Often these games are checkpoint-based, so that you need a longer string of successes to accomplish your goal. Other times you can save your game whenever.

The vast majority modern games with any sort of discernible stories, characters, or otherwise lengthy progression work like this in some fashion or another. And this at the absolute latest this started in the early ’90s (at the latest!), when saved games became de rigueur.

I don’t think the vast majority of milennials had any purchasing power at this point. This trend was driven by a change in tastes; people wanted a different experience. To put it crudely, people began to enjoy games with perhaps longer progression and with the ability to resume later on.

So far we’ve only accounted for heroism, story, permadeath, and death-as-failure. But everything else on that list is a natural outgrowth of this trend.

One last note: MMOs are an interesting case in that they have randomized loot and relatively spare stories. But you’ll note that they don’t have permadeath. People spend literally hundreds of hours on their characters. So although many of those points don’t directly apply, permadeath is simply unheard-of, full stop. It is the antithesis of MMOs.

Time constraints

As people who play video games age, they have to contend with “real life.” I’m not saying high school or college are unreal. I’m saying the majority of your life happens after. You work 40 hours a week (or more!), 5 days a week (or more!). Human relationships require a time investment. This is not to mention children.

The point is that there are many, many more demands on your time. If you can only play a game 40 minutes at a time instead of 4 hours at a time, suddenly the trade-offs are different.

Now, I am speaking from personal experience here. Maybe I’m projecting. But I’ve seen modern gaming as a gradual progression towards respecting my time. With a glut of choice among games, if a particular game isn’t rewarding, I can play something else.

All of the things on that bullet point up there? With the exception of some MMOs, almost everything on that list is a feature of modern video gaming in some fashion or another. And in terms of MMOs, character death is a speedbump. Permadeath is vanishingly rare.

As an adult, you pay a much larger time premium with TTRPGs. You have to schedule four or so other adults’ time. Often a fortnightly schedule is the best you can do. When you do play, you want to play for longer (hours). See where this is going?

RPGs aren’t competing with books or TV anymore. They’re competing with video games. MMOs scratch almost all of the game-y itches you could expect, and single player RPGs often have well-crafted stories, voice acting, and characters well beyond the skills of the average DM working alone. (It makes sense, right? Dozens if not hundreds of people work to produce a game.) What does that leave?

Well, if you look at a TTRPG as a “curated” RPG, the trade-offs look much better, don’t they? Items with mechancal and narrative properties; tailored, adaptive encounters; and an engaging story — these all play to the strengths of the medium. They’re all avenues for players to feel invested, so they keep coming back and so they feel like their time was well-spent. An MMO or single player RPG has a very tight reward loop but there’s no feedback loop.

Some people still enjoy the old school style. I can see the appeal, especially behind roguelikes or hardcore more in Diablo III. It’s as much about the experience as it is about the game itself; you don’t care about death as much because it was as much about the journey as it was about the XP and loot, let’s say. Roguelikes suggest that this approach appeals to a lot of people, and it does dovetail nicely with the OSR movement (about which I know little, admittedly).

But regardless of their merit, by and large most people haven’t played these kinds of games and their expectations dovetail more with the bullet points above.

Conclusion

I’m almost out of time, so let’s use bullet points.

Is that everything? Well, it’s going to have to be because I’m out of time!

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