Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Time To Roll Initiative...

My name is Grassroots Gamemaster. I work as a professional game designer. I have worked as a lone freelancer, with small teams I put together and managed, and on the staff of larger developers.

I call myself Grassroots Gamemaster for three reasons.

First, I need anonymity. I am here to speak candidly about this field, game development, and so need to protect myself. I am here to write honestly. I won’t speak in a diatribe tone, but I also wish to say that what follows won’t exactly be a rant. To call it a rant would be kind. I am here to eviscerate the mutant thing that has become game design. If a rant is a hand grenade then I am here to deliver a fucking thermonuclear explosion.

Yet no one shatters the foundations of anything in written form by screaming at the reader. The power to smash it to its very core, to drag the abomination kicking and screaming into the light of day, where it can whither and die – and also then let us heal from its harms – is something I intend to earn through good writing and a reasoned, passionate tone.

Next, the name elicits my roots – the heart I followed that brought me into game design. It invokes a spirit of gaming that I find sadly gone today. In my own life, yes, but also I think in our industry.

But before I get into those reasons, the remaining one is literal: I was a gamemaster in a small town. I was a grassroots gamemaster.

Think back to the 1980s (if you can). It is a day when gaming was rich and alive; on the fringes. I would dream up, write down and moderate – i.e. gamemaster – gaming adventures for all my friends. Our board games, wargames and roleplaying games were a springboard to tinkering and modding in all sorts of ways that let us follow our imaginations and dreams. I would devise homebrew rules and game systems and scenarios. We also had a lot of crazy adventures outdoors as well – insane live-action escapades that, today, would go by the tepidly dry, but comfortable and pigeon-holeable term “alternate reality” games. (I never tried our escapades in the city – when I moved there – because I was afraid of getting a SWAT team called after me.) Hey, it was a small town out in the wilderness.

There’s a difference between being a gamemaster in a small town and a city. I’ve done both. In my small town when I was young, before the Internet, there are so few hardcore gamers that you were forced to get along with those you could find. You were all each other had. In a big city, there are so many people with similar interests – no matter how obscure – you can afford to excise others out of your life and just focus on those few with the same narrow views as yours. It has the effect of reinforcing the eclectic – sometimes to the point of weirdness. There’s a monoculture to it – a retreat into self-insulating cliques, where gaming culture is not only creative but also a reinforcement of your fears and prejudices. It becomes sad, and is probably why many who were not gamers then looked down on these isolated souls with distaste.

But in my small town, my friends came from all walks of life. Their parents were professionals, moved here from all over – teachers, managers, engineers, et cetera. There was government, tourism and natural resources to manage, and so on. Their children, my friends and I, were the only ones into this new thing called gaming. Fantasy, sci-fi, military and spy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Recon, Twilight 2000 and Top Secret. Wargames like Squad Leader, from Avalon Hill and SPI. Tabletop miniatures like Striker and Warhammer. And, yes, Commodore 64 and video arcade games. We were the only ones who played, so we took pains to seek each other out; and then we had to get along, despite our differences, so we could game. We were different. Different backgrounds, different views. One of our gamers was the captain of the high school basketball team, popular right in the school mainstream (my sister would go ga-ga when he came over for a game session). Another, a joker. A few of us teachers’ sons. We came from all walks. Yes, we were nerdish, but not overly. I recall us being more “normal” than the stereotypical nerds of popular culture. What held us together was the glue of gaming – the love of the magic of it. And the one who took up the torch to make the adventures, to spin the worlds and devise the structures that made those worlds run, more often than not was me.

But now I find I have come to a place in my life where I ask hard questions about games and game design. I don’t like the answers that come back. I wonder where games fit into the larger human story. I look at the tremendous fun and adventure of those days way back when (which, really, I continued right on up through the 1990s), and they seem long gone. My gaming heart taken with them. What’s left? Gaming as an industry. As a way to make money. But dead. Dead inside.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. A friend of mine, a veteran designer working with a large company, reflected with me on games. What they have become. “Junk food for the mind” is how he so aptly put it. How did I arrive here? How did we arrive here?

I call myself Grassroots Gamemaster because that is the part of me that holds game design as a vocation. Today, in the outer worldgame design is treated exclusively as a profession. That is partly why it is so empty and hollow.

When I play a game – yes, a major first person shooter, for instance – there are vast questions that I find myself wanting to ask about the design and designers. Who are these people? Why did they design this? What does it mean? What is the thinking behind this design? What was there reasoning? Who wrote this? What is the feeling behind it? The industry looks back at me with a mute opacity. Something caused by that view that design is a profession not a vocation. That games are chiefly of a feat of technology and not of human imagination.

You know the difference between a vocation and a profession? One is done for the love of it; the other for money. That made by the other may be damn good, but no matter how good it looks, no matter how expertly executed, no matter how many external criteria are met, to the person with a beating heart and insight there is something dull, something dead in it. The former may have pennies (if that) for a budget, may result in 8-bit pixels or pencil sketches instead of elaborate 3D graphics, but there is something far more alive in it than everything a multi-million dollar mediocrity could ever hope to deliver.

A grassroots gamemaster designs games because he loves them. He doesn’t need the fancy technology because the reward comes from the look in the eyes of the players; the excitement in their voices. (If he can use his talent and experience to make good electronic games, so much the better – but that is not a primary motivator.) He plays them with his friends – in the same place, the same room – as a way to spin an adventure in the here and now; a spontaneous unplanned adventure that emerges out of the dialogue, the relationship, of the creator to the players. The game, indeed, serves as a catalyst to foster a larger relationship – one that goes beyond the mere confine of games. His passion for what he does is infectious. He just needs some room and a little time to weave this magic, and his friends are sure to join. He is a poet. He hasn’t forgotten what makes the best things tick.


Sam Kalman said...

You have a very interesting background and views about the practices in the industry today. I myself was never that good at leading game master sessions of Shadowrun. But your description of how gaming brought together a small and diverse group is really a thing of beauty. I'm looking forward to hearing more of what you have to day. What I'm interested in right now is how to evolve a game's design to ensure it is a profound and entertaining experience without deviating from the original vision.

La Pit Master said...

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