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!

  • Hello!

    When I wrote the article about Millennials and Player Entitlement, I was mostly just spitballing, hoping to provoke some thoughtful discussion (like this post).

    I read another thoughtful rebuttal that mentioned that the incorporation of story-game elements, where players have an active hand in the game fiction, isn’t in response to player entitlement, but rather to decrease DM workload, increase player investment, and play a different *type* of game where storytelling was the main focus.

    Those are good points, but I’m rambling. I want to talk about your points.

    I would argue that videogames have always had the capability to be convenient. When they made the first Mario, they could have given you unlimited lives. It’s trivially easy to insert checkpoints into a level. And even in MMOs, the latest trend has been to protect players against the harsh elements of the gameworld and from other players.

    In a lot of old games, the end game content is hidden behind a skill challenge. If you suck at the game, you’ll never beat it and experience all the content the game has to offer.

    Modern games, with their infinite lives and free save/load systems, emphasize convenience, and the opportunity for all players–even casual gamers with little time and little skill–to experience all of the content in the game.

    In modern MMOs you no longer have to run back to your corpse to get your items back, you don’t lose XP when you die, etc. You’re 100% correct when you say that permadeath is vanishing as a game mechanic.

    This has nothing to do with technological limitations. In fact, it was probably harder to program a system for XP loss upon death than to leave XP unchanged when you died. Why then did designers choose to put success and game content on a high shelf, where only dedicated players could access all of it? And why has the trend away from that occurred?

    I think it can be agreed that there are changes across the generations. I think I have very different ideas about justice, responsibility, and equality than my grandparents did. And I think different generations approach games differently, too.

    I don’t believe half of the shit that gets printed about Millenials (mostly sensationalist bullshit) but I believe that there is a revolution occurring in gaming. (There’s a revolution in everything, all the time, but some are more obvious than others.) And while I can’t pinpoint the cause (probably because it has many, blurry sources), I think we should be able to agree that different generations have different ideas of what is fun in a game that has nothing to do with technological limitations.

    You asserted that modern TTRPG players enjoy new school games (games with more built-in expectations of entitlement, with more empowering facets that insulate players from things that destroy or mess up their character, or their character’s story, especially random events) because we are adults, adults are busy, and we have learned how to incorporate innovations in convenience from video games, right? I don’t want to misconstrue your argument before the next paragraph.

    The flaw I see in your argument is that none of those things have anything to do with convenience. If I roll up Regdar the fighter using 3d6-in-order, play Regdar is a lethal, highly-randomized sandbox, and then Regdar dies after 1.5 sessions of play, that’s fine! That doesn’t make the game any more or less convenient for a busy adult to play.

    Compare that to a campaign arc (which sort of began with Dragonlance) where characters have a well-defined story arc that leads to them saving the world, and protects them from permadeath by various conventions. That’s not any more convenient–the pause button of an new-school game works just as well as the pause button of an old-school game.

    If anything, the campaign arc might be *less* convenient than the brutal, random, sandbox game. What happens to the campaign if one of the important PCs isn’t there for a pivotal plot moment?

    In conclusion, I think the recent trends in TTRPGs towards convenience and player entitlement are indicative of attitude shifts, not just the incorporation of video game trends. (Because I agree that these are trends in video games, too. The question is “why?”) I think that the trend in players has been to move away from confrontation and disappointment, and towards communal storytelling and power fantasies. And while “Millennial” is a cheap, sensationalist title, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t notice that the winds are changing.

    P.S. Do you mind if I link to this post, on my post?

  • Matthew

    Hey, thanks for the thoughtful reply! It’s so thoughtful that, as I’m getting ready to commute to work, I don’t have time to compose the reply it deserves. :) I might make my reply its own post, if that’s OK with you. It’s a fascinating discussion.

    In any case, go ahead and link to your post on mine. And thanks for asking!

  • Matthew

    OK, I seriously need to set aside time to reply to your comment. Later today I should have some time.

    I neglected to mention, by the way, that I’ve been following Goblin Punch closely these last couple of weeks. After my hiatus from RPGs in general and D&D in particular, you’ve inspired me numerous times. In short, it hits a sweet spot for me— a pinch of horror, plenty of high fantasy, yet departing from the usual templates. It’s fantastic. My favorite so far has been the Great Rot, incl. its backstory.

  • Thanks! I’m glad you like Goblin Punch. My favorites are “After His Burial And Before His Death” and “A Spell Called Catherine”.

    I’ll happily read whatever response you post, whenever. It’s refreshing to meet people who can discuss TTRPG theory sanely.

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