Edit: I have since written a counter-point to this article, which is entitled The Game’s the Thing.
This past weekend at the Orccon convention, I moderated a three-round tournament of King of Tokyo. For the most part, it was great fun, but I did have to deal with a minor conflict with one of the players who was eliminated during the first round and who would not advance. The dispute arose over his and my differing interpretations of what constitutes “second place,” since the game’s printed rules do not provide for this. Ultimately, the matter was resolved with civility and grace, but not before spoiling the entire mood of what had been a fun and nonsensical tourney. Also not before the player in question had presented me with the so-called “official” tournament rules for King of Tokyo, as found via Google search and published by some rather unofficial, unsanctioned, non-governing, non-authoritative entity who is not the game’s creator.
The whole incident got me thinking along the lines of “official” rules and, more generally speaking, “canon” or “official” versions of things. This is a problem in our society. By “society” I mean the United States in general, and Geekdom in particular. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of our Greco-Roman, legalistic heritage, but we have a fixation on the idea that things can be “official,” or “correct.” Even “true” might be the best word choice. The point is that things in real life are all too often not “true,” nor are they “false,” nor anything so binary, nor can they ever be, and the fixation on the illusory notion that they could be or are leads only to dissatisfaction and conflict.
Perhaps no game illustrates this point in U.S. society better than football—both the misnamed American form (gridiron football) and the more correctly named form we strangely call “soccer” (fútbol). The length of a professional soccer match is 90 minutes, interrupted by a 15-minute half-time, and very rarely by extenuating circumstances, such as player injury and the like. Therefore, it takes, unsurprisingly, about 120 minutes (two hours) to finish a game of soccer, and this is the most popular sport throughout most of the world outside the United States. By contrast, here in the U.S., we have “football,” a game whose clock runs for only 60 minutes, but which takes upwards of 210 minutes (three-and-a-half hours) to actually finish. This is a direct result of the repeated stoppages for all manner of technicalities, all of which can be summed up in one phrase: “official rules.” In short, soccer is a game that emphasizes “play,” and is enjoyed by most of the world, while gridiron football is a game that emphasizes “officiality,” and is enjoyed mainly here in the U.S.
Now then: game lovers are free to enjoy whatever games they want, no matter how long or how regimented, but the point here is to illustrate that in the favored game of most of the world, the majority of the time and energy is spent on playing the game, whereas in the favored game of the United States, the majority of the time and energy is spent on conflict resolution. This is symptomatic of our fixation with “official rules.”
This fixation—and the associated conflict—is even more pronounced in Geekdom. Never has a comic book character been adapted to television or cinema; never has a film been re-edited; never has a sci-fi/fantasy universe been interpreted (or reinterpreted) without brutal and scathing commentary from the geek community. All the more prolific and vitriolic are these criticisms thanks to the ease and anonymity of the internet, and nearly all stem from some variant of the same basic complaint: the new release isn’t “correct.” It violates canon. It disregards source material. It changes the perceived essence of the thing. And so on. Dissatisfaction and arguments ensue.
Again: geeks are free to enjoy or passionately hate whatever content and characters they wish, based on the merits (or lack thereof) of said content and characters. But it’s illogical to base these opinions on some belief that anything has an unchanging essence. All characters change over time. Superman couldn’t always fly. Batman wasn’t always so pissed off. Hulk wasn’t always green. All stories and settings evolve and mutate. James Bond playing Baccarat simply isn’t as relevant to audiences as Texas Hold’em. Even the creators of these characters and stories can attest that the publicly recognized versions of their creations are not necessarily their “true” or even “final” iterations. At the time of his death, J.R.R. Tolkien was rewriting the entire history of his Middle Earth setting, because he still wasn’t satisfied with The Lord of the Rings.
There is no setting. There is no character. These are simply constructs of a given moment.
To bring it back to the issue of gaming: these, too are temporal constructs. Football (whichever version you like) wasn’t always played this way, isn’t always played this way, and won’t forever be played this way. A given set of rules only has meaning in the time and place where people agree that it does. As to the conflict over the “official” rules of King of Tokyo, the problem here was that the rules were not agreed upon or declared ahead of time, so the dispute arose for legitimate reasons. But there is no empirical reality where the rules this player was presenting were any more or less “official” than the ruling I made as the GM. Games are played all the time under all manner of rules variations. There is no one set of practices that truly defines “the game” as such. There is no game. There is only what we agree to do.
As a last bit of philosophical waxing, I’ll point out that all of this relates to the traditionally eastern views on the nature of being. It’s what Buddhists mean when they say “everything is an illusion” or “there is no you.” Everything is impermanent, and any definition or identification we can try to give a thing is wholly dependent on the context of fleeting time and space. This includes us as “individuals.” There is no “you”—at least not one that is static, unchanging, and permanent. Every cell in your body and every thought in your mind is undergoing constant change. As a matter of convenience, we do tend to identify a set of conditions that seem semi-permanent in our perception: the version of “you” that is visible and measurable in the present, but this is not an essential, unchanging thing. To be honest, if we even think of ourselves as fixed beings or as “things” that can be so neatly quantified and clearly distinguished from “other things,” then we are doing ourselves a serious disservice and denying ourselves the full breadth of experience available in this life. And so it is with stories, characters, and games.
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