The Great Divide
I hate terminology. I really do. Terms are as dangerous as guns, and much easier to get a hold of. Terms kill as well, but do so by thought obliteration, by limiting a possibility to a narrow one. All words are terms. Using a word to describe something can fail utterly because not every word is able to take in the true meaning of a situation. One of the worst places for this sort of thing is in the gaming world.
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Monomyth
I hate terminology. I really do. Terms are as dangerous as guns, and much easier to get a hold of. Terms kill as well, but do so by thought obliteration, by limiting a possibility to a narrow one. It is more detestable because it is so necessary. All words are terms. Using a word to describe something can fail utterly because not every word is able to take in the true meaning of a situation. Being a bon mot-ture is a value that I praise most highly. Anyone can have a big vocabulary, only a few can recognize the difference between fortunate, lucky and serendipitous situations.
One of the worst places for this sort of thing is in the gaming world. What is so bad is not the terminology in games, but the terminology to describe games and gamers. Most of it is either ugly or misleading. I will avoid random citations of terms that I find particularly egregious, but would dearly love to find out the entomology of "munchkin," along with its first recorded use as a derogatory to a certain type of gamer.
One of these sets of terms is my springboard for this article: the Gamist / Simulationist / Narrativist divide. The split is misnamed at best, and only crafted so that there are convenient foxholes for the respective sides to run to when it looks like fighting is going to start. One of the reasons for the divide is Joseph Campbell.
There, I said it, Joseph Campbell. Thank you Miss, now please put down that waffle iron. To be even more contentious, I could argue that Joseph Campbell is the primary reason that the split was created, although I would like to believe that the split would have come about without him. Narrativists, you understand, adore Campbell. Unhealthily so, say the Gamists. Unchallenging so, say the Simulationists. Most ire in the gaming world that is directed towards Campbell comes from Gamists, and most love from their diametrically opposed foes, the Narrativists.
Being an immense fan of Campbell, I want to defend him. Yet, like the death penalty, the second amendment and the scientific critique of Post-Modernism, to support my views I have to stand and be counted with those people I would prefer not to be counted with. So I end up writing essays like this one. The premise of this essay is simple: some (not all. There are quite a few on both sides of the argument that understand him perfectly well.) gamers misunderstand what Joseph Campbell said and wrote. I believe that I understand what Campbell wrote, and I have a belief that what he wrote is good and useful. Therefore, I will attempt to explain it as best as possible.
Or, to look at it like I did in the beginning: the name "Joseph Campbell" has become terminology, ideological shorthand. The people who have used it, in yet another contrivance of words, are called Narrativists to differentiate them from people who don't want to be specifically associated with them. Getting away from the silly convictions takes effort, but it is worth it. Allow me to try and prove how.
No, this is not the beginning of a lecture, so put those pillows away. I will by no means cover all that is Campbell, nor would it be expedient for me to do so. He is not an obtuse thinker, although he is a grandiose and mercurious one, and his ideas are easy to understand, mostly. Let not this article interrupt you from borrowing the basic lecture series from your local library (on videocassette it's narrated by Susan Sarandon, but that's another rant). On the other hand I cannot entirely refrain from explaining some of Campbell's beliefs. Defending them would be precious strange otherwise.
The ideas of Joseph Campbell are important to you as a gamer. Like the mythology that he studied did with humanity, his ideas form a sort of theoretical substrate for gaming, and one that crosses over time and style. They are not singularly important to the exclusion of all other ideas, but they are important.
So, we arrive at the first question: what was Campbell teaching? Out and out the answer is simple, but there are some strong nuances that shall be developed later. Campbell taught how a story works. His primary idea was that all myths - that is to say all good stories of the world told by any culture - were joined by a singular theoretical system, heretofore dubbed the monomyth. The format of the monomyth is the Hero's Journey, a thirteen-step process that all "heroes," mythic and mythologized historical figures of all calibers and natures, go through.
A theory like this one is ridiculously easy to disprove. Simply find a hero who does not match up with all the steps. Without a doubt, Campbell is guilty at fudging on some of the steps. Sometimes the parallels are forced, and the steps excessively regimented. Heroes are sometimes exemplars of part of the Journey and completely miss out on other sections. The problem is there are still an awful lot of similarities in structure and concept between varying mythoi. Conceptual similarities are easier to understand. A symbol holds for many cultures as a symbol, representing similar things. Virgin births or pyramids are a good example of this sort of thing.
Things get more interesting with structural similarities. The Hero's Journey is, at its core, a different way of looking at a plot diagram. You remember such a thing from schooling, right? The little mountain and surrounding territories of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Yet the Hero's Journey considers a thematic level of the story, so it is a decent. Mind you the plot may still rise to a fever pitch, but there must be a descent. It is the core idea of the Journey.
The decent may be singular or multiple, the essence of the story or only an important part of it. The descent may be real or metaphoric. In fact, in some cases the hero does not survive the descent. Frequently, the journey is about going down to find something valuable for the people of the Hero, after which they are changed utterly.
If that were the extent of the structural similarities, it would still be a weak analysis. After all, this is just plot. However, there are plenty more similar points. From the three temptations to the refusal of the call, there are quite a few other structural cohesions. As an aside, the greatest weakness in the concept of the Hero's Journey is that there are few myths that are whole hog similar. But I do not see this as a disproval. The problem returns to one of terminology. After all, we live in a culture that puts high value on multi- as opposed to mono-, and this has led to some people thinking that Campbell was arguing that there was one and only one story that could be told. This was not his purest intention. He was trying to explain the essential unity, not a dogmatic binding. He recognized the many different forms the Journey took, as changed by time and society, but tried to convince people of a basic unity to all of the forms.
This is not to say that Campbell did not have some good reasons for calling it the monomyth. His nomenclature has more to do with something deeper than the practical look that I am beginning with, so I must return to it after discussing the practical side.
In relating the practical side of things, the metaphor of "art school" springs to mind. People go to art schools to become artists. They need artistic talent to get in: you can't get in not knowing how to draw. Okay, that is an oversimplification for the sake of expediency. A sculptor might get in not knowing how to draw, and many art schools have writing programs even for their visual artists. But the point is that you are expected to manifest some of the skills that are being taught. You cannot come from a blank slate. How many great artists have not gone to art school? Quite a few. In fact, the crossing of the cusp of fame for those who did sometimes has less to do with what they learned at art school than whom they got to know. Yet it can refine talents, it can open up new venues and possibilities. While a MFA or some such means little, it does mean that you can stand as a part of all the other people who have one.
I find Campbell's theories to have many of the same qualities. No one needs Campbell to be a good player or Referee. Yet a thorough understanding, more so than an implementation, of his ideas within the context of a game is rarely a detrimental thing. It can be, in the same way that art school can wind up stifling a wildly creative talent. But arguing such a thing as the reason to avoid Campbell is like arguing that nothing at all should be taught, because it just might constrict a possible new idea. We can't all be the wildly creative ones, and even they can use a little grounding from time to time.
Let us assume there is a technique to making a good game. How does one gain this sort of talent, in our world at least? The primary means are experimental, although there is a value in apprenticeship and natural talent. How could you teach someone how to be a good gamer? There should be some theater classes. I would like to see genre readings and discussions. But what else? How do you teach the essence of what goes into a story?
There are two answers, both correct. The first is to take in a lot of stories. Diversity and numbers help any creator with new bits of creation. The second would be Campbell. Knowing Campbell will help you to see the stories that you read as a unity, not just as a junkyard of ideas, and help to see the central ideas that motivate them all. In fact, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the primary Campbell text, reads like an idea mine, with literally thousands of bits of story that relate to one another, all trying to display the unity of story.
Of course, I have cheated somewhat in this explanation. There is a basic assumption that role playing games and myths must somehow relate. You can hear the resentment as the Gamists call out "Not myths, but games! Games and only games!" Thus, the rift is laid bare. Quite simply, to ascribe loyalty to Campbell's views is to think that role playing games must mean something more. Or perhaps more to the point, they cannot just be games. And that idea infuriates some people, because they do not want the messy possibilities to enter into their schema.
They are right, to some degree. Role playing games are simply not myths. How do I justify a connection between the two? Poignantly, Campbell faced much of a similar problem with myth, and the reason why he saw them differently makes all the difference. For whatever the Hero's Journey is worth as a practical idea, it is Campbell's ideas about myth in general that vastly changed the world. He is the founder of the modern school of Comparative Mythology, which existed under much different terms before his day.
Before Campbell, people had not thought much of myth. Myths were the stories of a culture. They served a purpose. The world was created, so who was the creator? How did the creator or creators create? Why was the world created like it was? So, primitive cultures needed these stories to explain the way that things were. Read the introduction to Bullfinch's Mythology if you want to see this in action. Myths were specifically and categorically dead, in the wake of Christianity and Science. Myths were fun stories that could help you learn about dead people. They had nothing to do with stories that people were telling now.
Campbell, armed with a truckload of Freud and Jung, was dead set on disproving this. Myths were alive. They were alive because they were not just stories that acted as proto-science for the uninitiated, but stories of living life, both then and now. Myths and mythic thinking helped to understand life. The gods of the ancient world were not just powers that explained the problems of life, but were ways of understanding life. The gods, as manifested in the tales, represented the inner workings of humanity. The Hero's Journey was not only the story of a mythic Hero, but also the story of life. The challenges faced by Heroes throughout the ages and the pages were just like the challenges faced by people, then and now.
For instance, it is hypothesized that the tales of Cyclopes were started by the discovery of elephant skulls, which look awfully like the skulls of giant humans with one eye. But for the mythmakers of Ancient Greece, the Cyclopes came to represent more. They became the edge, the darker side of humanity, not the wilder side like Centaurs represented, but the more primitive side. They were the Ancient Greek notion of the ignoble savage, living in bountiful anarchy. Sure they do not need to work to survive because they live so simply, but they also pay the price for that lifestyle. That price is complete lawlessness, and all the bad that anarchy can bring: quite a concern for a culture so obsessed with order and politics.
Freud and Jung (but especially Jung) were important in these theories because both showed how mythic the inner workings of humanity were. They were both students of dreams, and, as Campbell puts it, "the myth is the public dream." For nearly every step in the Hero's Journey, Campbell brings out citations from psychoanalytic studies. The point is to link the personal with the mythic. Since humans have remained humans for quite some time, the problems that they face, as humans, have remained the same. Myths work to enlighten that darkness, to help us to see the sorts of contests that go on in our mind, to remind us that we are not the first to face such daunting challenges.
So as role playing games are the stories of humans, myths have everything to do with them. Moreover they are constructed ones, so we are better able to look upon them with an allegorical eye. Now, as a concession to the Gamists, there is no need to look upon them thusly. The life lessons that can come from gaming are sometimes secondary. But the possibility of existence cannot be denied, and a possibility is all that is necessary.
Role playing games are often built upon the bones of myths. People may have told stories of vampires to explain strange illnesses and stranger people; people may have told stories of orcs (read: boogiemen) to effect certain reactions in their children. Over time, those stories took on greater meanings. In our world vampires are closely connected to sex, but that is the way that the stories adapt to fit the meanings that are most valuable for our time.
Likewise, thinking of orcs in games, they have also morphed in meaning to become something useful for who we are now.
Orcs are humanoid, but grotesquely human, typically envisioned as humans merged with boars, complete with tusks and snouts. Considering the tie, they are the piggish portion of humanity, the portion ruled by darker urges. Yet of all the typical humanoids, they are the ones most often found in some sort of mass culture. They have tribal nations, with laws and hierarchies and what not. Almost always they are at war with someone. This ties into a whole other host of metaphors, in which the Orcs get related to other warrior type races such as Kilngons and the like, human in aspect but possessing a wide variety of brutal qualities to their cultures and private lives.
My private theories claim this to do with the experiences of the United States in World War Two and the Cold War. The metaphor existed previously (take a look at early science fiction and you will find a host of warrior races), but the cultural experience put it in the forefront. In World War Two the United States saw its rhetoric of what was good and noble run up against other people's interpretations, and the U.S. did not like what it saw. Both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were warrior cultures, where the prevailing mode of U.S. was something more akin to the warrior ideals of Cincinnatus and Ancient Greek Hoplite militia. Freedom and duty were the watchwords as opposed to war as cultural imperative. Then, when the Cold War started, the same sorts of fears persisted. How could these humans not understand what was good about humanity? How could they act so cruel? The U.S.S.R. was the implacable foe, more interested in warmongering than living in peace.
So the ones who took up the mantle in role playing games were the orcs, the boogies, the human-like creatures who are frightening because of their similarities, in the same sort of way that elves were cherished for theirs. It is a possible explanation for the existence of half-orcs and elves where there are no other halves. Besides, orcs are wonderfully disposable in many games; two steps above total cannon fodder. There are neat parallels between that and the perception of fighting styles of the P.R.C. and the U.S.S.R., which can just overwhelm with numbers when they do not have superiority.
All of this is just a possibility, a particular analysis of mine. I do believe that such an analysis could be extended to most groups and things in role playing games. There is a meaning there, if only a latent one. The realization that led me to start thinking in this direction is the dungeon crawl. After all, what is a dungeon crawl but a version of the Hero's Journey? Why a descent into darkness, why a dragon guarding a horde of gold as the end of it all? The typical battle metaphor could have been different. There were other options. Yet this is the one. It would be irresponsible to ascribe it all to just a feel for the mythological, there was historical precedence at work as well, but even that historical precedent, such as Tolken, was strongly mythologically motivated.
Besides, we now have Wick's Orkworld. The culture is changing, and the reflection upon the myth/gaming complex makes itself shown. The examples I have used are primarily from fantasy, and with good reason because it is the simplest. Fantasy is the oldest. Other genres take their cues from other sources. Some of them even have their own myths that they use. For instance, Gibson could be called the great mythologizer of cyberpunk, with "Burning Chrome" as the essential tale.
Campbell was an immense thinker with an awe-inspiring range. It is one of the difficulties in explaining what he wrote. Campbell would frequently change the nature of his talk depending on the nature of his audience, telling them what he thought that they needed to hear. After all, if myth is just code for life to discuss myth is to discuss life. As much as Campbell was speaking on the monomyth, he was trying to encourage people to live their lives with myth as their guide, to be the Hero of their own story. Campbell drew many disciples. Unfortunately, followers do not always think so clearly. People have written about how important Campbell is in understanding gaming where they really wanted to be writing about how important Campbell is in understanding life. Naturally, this has turned certain people off, and led others to gush unnecessarily.
It is the trouble with big thinkers: they inspire big thoughts. Many Gamists just did not take too kindly to Narrativists trying to tell them how important games were. It is not a far stretch to see how gaming would be the modern ritual. After all, where else can you see reenactments of such mythic tales as the Odyssey on a bi-weekly basis, wherein the participants fully assume the roles of their avatars, likening unto the days of old.
I do not want to hold too closely to such an idea, simply because it is a war in and of itself. My point is to only elaborate the possibility. Myths have many sides, and so do games. Besides, all of this leaves untouched the Simulationist argument. Campbell's greatest value for modern society was to change the way that we looked at myths, and ourselves in turn. I have hoped to do something similar for role playing games. While role playing games are games, sometimes, just sometimes, there is nothing more meaningful than a game.