A lot of my teens were consumed by playing Dungeons & Dragons. And thinking about playing Dungeons & Dragons. And writing dungeons for the friends I played Dungeons & Dragons with, some of them containing dragons. Actually, no. I realised early on I was more comfortable with low-powered games, and devised a variant of Tunnels & Trolls – a rules-lite version of D&D – that appealed to my sense of whimsy and featured a campaign that kicked off with characters looking for a village’s missing goat.
Some of this was a response to gamers at school whose characters regularly beat gods up and hung out with Star Wars characters. The main fun they had seemed to be rolling a fistful of dice and adding the total as they killed crittur after crittur. Not my idea of a good time. I was a fan of Fritz Leiber’s fantasy writing, which has more subtle joys to do with the interaction of its heroes Fafhrd – a barbarian – and The Grey Mouser – a thief at home in cities. There’s wit and sophistication to Leiber’s stories, and the pleasures they offer are richer than those afforded by a character in a game beheading a dragon and pocketing its gold (yes, pocketing – these were the sort of players whose characters had pockets leading to extra-dimensional safes to stash their loot).
All these years later then, and I’m writing the background material for what is intended to be a fantasy MMPORG. Which doesn’t feel like work in some respects, so much as a chance to play with a toybox I’ve not opened for some years. And it’s a lovely experience – certainly for me, and fortunately for the client who is bankrolling this escapade. And what I’m aiming to do is create a setting that allows for exciting play, while creating an atmosphere that is more female-friendly and generally diverse than games of this sort tend to be – this concerns me not least because I’m not sure that I consider slaughtering women to be a form of entertainment, which it seems Grand Theft Auto is fine with as long as those women are supposed to be prostitutes and it’s done through the same kind of veil of genre-based irony that allows Tarantino to spout the ‘n’ word like a ten year old who’s just learned to swear.
These things matter. In a world where women who dress up at conventions are considered fair game for harassment, it’s important that such behaviours are made less likely. And it starts with making the experience you’re offering one that clearly establishes a frame about what’s acceptable. That’s an issue too with another project, where I’m co-developing a science fiction setting that children will engage with.
I’m not a big player of electronic games myself, but I notice when I have played with them that their effects linger. Whenever I’ve played a first person shooter, I treat passers by as possible targets for a while before the effect wears off. If it’s true for me, I’m sure it’s the case for others too. If it happens with regard to the combat aspects of a game, what other elements might I be influenced by after I’ve put down the controller?
Consciousness is malleable. That being so, I want to influence audiences in ways that are healthy…at least in my understanding. Hey, if it’s acceptable for Rupert Murdoch to want to deliver election results that he believes in, I reckon I get a crack at imposing my views on the world, don’t I?
In practice, things are never that simple. One of the beauties of fiction is its tendency to resist dogma. Start writing a character with a viewpoint you don’t like, and sooner or later you’ll find empathy with them. Damn. Likewise, you’ll see downsides to the characters you’re naturally more sympathetic towards. Which is something I first experienced back in those Dungeons & Dragons playing days, come to think – you get to explore a lot more about who you’re travelling with and what you’re up against when the stakes involve a lost goat than when every throw of the dice is liable to result in your character biting the dust and starting another from scratch..