Stranger Things and the difference between virtual and physical RPGs

I have been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and thus far I love the show (for a few reasons I won’t get into here – I will only add that I’ve been successfully able to watch it occasionally rather than clothing myself in athletic gear, and watching the whole thing in one night). One thing about the show got me thinking. There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode in which the young boys are playing a Role Playing Game (Dungeons and Dragons, I believe). I played the same game (RPG) for a little while in grade 7. I stopped playing in part because I noticed even then that the game had become an obsession for me (for whatever reason I think I may tend towards obsessing about things that interest me, rather than being able to moderate my participation and enjoyment). Even so, the obsession I had with playing an RPG in grade 7 was moderated by a few things.

As a kid I had to work hard at feeding my obsession with RPGs because of the basic creaturely constraints of space and time. In Stranger Things we see how the mother of one of the characters operates as a moderating influence. She has an eye on the clock. She intervenes. When they physically disperse, the game stops. They go to their homes (or not). They eat. They go to school. They need to plan to play again. The planning itself takes time for preparation. Physical RPGs involve real-world interaction between individuals who are immersed in a narrative by way of a story teller. The games are themselves tactile, with dice and paper at least, along with your own ‘I don’t want to shower today mom’ grime and smell.

 

There is a vast array of RPGs in New Media and some of them are massive (they are actually called MMORPGs – or for the uninitiated Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games). The online form of these games means the basic creaturely constraints of space and time are negated or absent entirely. Physical community is unnecessary in order for the game to work. Our primal biological and typical way of gathering as a community of human beings for entertainment has been short-circuited by instant access to the internet wherever we are, and at any time. As a teacher at an inner-city high school in London, I could notice how World of Warcraft (for example) was having a detrimental effect on some of my students. The obsession of the game could be indulged almost seamlessly around mealtime, bedtime and home-work (if that happened). My guess is that some of the young people exerted influence on the family dynamics in order to play more, taking supper into their rooms, and spending more and more time closed away from the other members of their family. Admittedly for some of them the game was a relief from certain harsh realities.

I think it is worth thinking about space and time in general as we consider New Media. How can we  engage with New Media in, at least, a benign way if not a positive way? It has been my observation that immersion into such games comes at the expense of looking after your body and letting your mind rest. It has a detrimental impact on all other areas of your life. I think for those people who can play MMORPGs for a little while (say 3 hours once per week) there is much enjoyment to be had. It would be not so different than watching a movie. However, I think that many of these games are intentional about making it difficult to detach and do other things. Without the basic creaturely constraints, our minds are at risk of being altered and artificially stimulated to obsess in a way that does not necessarily involve the other aspects of our lives (physical interaction with other humans, the feeling of warm sunlight on our skin, showering, eating, sleeping…). Something of primal importance for us is being lost, or at least marginalized, namely story-telling and community, not to mention actual physical adventures in the forest on our bikes.

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