Aesthetics of Play: Sports and Spectacles

I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values.  He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle.  Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.

I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.

The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement.  Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats).  This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself.  In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.

Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt.  These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.

To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience.  The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative.  You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases.  In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience.  They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how.  The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.

Adapted from an essay originally published on LiveJournal

May 2021 in Review

In May I uploaded nine new pieces.

Most were vignettes from different periods of my life, from wrangling squirrels in Redwood City to the travails of women in Silicon Valley 7-Elevens to handling children who plead the insanity defense.

I also wrote Remembering A Mysterious Prince Among Dogs, about our dog Finn, who passed away this month.

I resurrected some of my work from my college years in Connecticut: a piece from the Yale Record about a young man who would fit in well in certain Facebook groups these days, and an installment from my tech support column.

I posted a piece about technology transfer in fantasy worlds — I write a lot about dwarves, apparently — and the rules for Necromantic Checkers.

Over on Twitter, I started a thread of resources on nerd culture problems.

Remembering a Mysterious Prince Among Dogs

Our dog Finn passed on this weekend, and I wanted to set down some of the things I remember best of him.

We got Finn on Halloween of 2007 from the Peninsula Humane Society. It’s always been a bit mysterious where he came from. He was, by all appearances, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, which is not a terribly common breed anywhere, and particularly so on the West Coast. He had been picked up as a stray (and had the worms to show for it). How a year-old Toller came to be walking the mean streets of San Mateo was a conundrum. My personal theory is that he was a nobleman of faerie, bound to an animal’s form for some roguish transgression or another.

He must have had some sort of home before he came to us, because he was perplexingly civilized. He took to basic commands very quickly, and came to us double secret housetrained. By this I mean that once, a few weeks after we got him, we went on some errand which ran longer than we thought, so he was locked up in our apartment for much longer than a dog can fairly be expected to hold his business. When we got home, we discovered that he had, completely on his own initiative, gone into the bathroom and pooped in the shower.

He was also an absolute glutton; you could get him to do almost anything for a treat, and we had to be extremely thoughtful about where we left food unattended. I remember one time, when we were still learning about his piratical ways, Jen left a cake on the counter while we went out. When we returned, the cake was just as we left it, except for the spot nearest the edge of the counter, which had been delicately and painstakingly licked clean of frosting.

The thing he absolutely could not be deterred from eating, however — his divine ambrosia — was the mud at the dog park we took him to for his first year with us. We lived in Menlo Park that year, and there was a well-attended dog park within walking distance, so visits there were a frequent occurrence. Finn loved all dogs, and he would play with anybody. There was a regular crowd there that we got to know, them and their dogs. It was probably the neighborhood community I’ve been most involved in to this day. I remember one guy named Jim who stood out because he didn’t actually have a dog, he just loved coming and hanging out with the dogs and the dog owners. I never found out what his story was; he was a strange dude, in an affable way. I like to think he was Finn’s inverse, a dog cursed to dwell in human form. Jim and Finn had a certain simpatico.

But the high point of the visit for Finn was that mud. There was a specific spot, in the lowest part of the park where rainwater gathered and the mud was sodden and clayey, and he would furtively dart in there to take a bite and run away before we could chide him.

It was not great for his digestion, though, that and the aforementioned worms. I remember on many, many nights, at 3 or 4 in the morning, I would wake up, feeling that distinct sensation of being stared at. I would turn to look to the side of the bed, and there in the darkness, the slight sparkle of eyes.

“howr,” he would say, the quietest of growls, “howr.” And I would haul myself out of bed to take him around the corner and let him do his business.

He was tremendously sweet with us, and with other dogs, but all other humans were suspect. He barked his head off at anyone who came anywhere near our front door. We eventually got him to ease off once guests had been duly sniffed and barked at, but it took years. I remember one New Year’s party where one of my friends had managed to get Finn to submit to petting, and he was lying there blissed out with the attention, when suddenly he remembered himself and leapt up to bark at her some more.

There aren’t as many good stories from the years after we got used to him, or he to us, but he was always just an amazingly sweet and kind dog. He would try to be helpful, and figure out what we wanted from him, in a way I’ve never seen another dog do. He was endlessly patient with our boys’ toddlery assaults. And he had the best soft, feathery ears I have petted. I do not think we will see his like again.

Scarecrow VRC

Since Scarecrow VRC is open again, however briefly, I thought it would be a good time to finally get around to writing up the thoughts I had about it when I saw it last November.

Scarecrow VRC is an immersive experience implemented as a world in VRChat; three audience members join a live performer in a virtual space for the performance. All the participants are mute, so all communication is gestural. It was a novel experience for me; I am relatively new to the current efflorescence of immersive theatre, and to VR. I attended along with my wife, who is a social VR developer and thus vastly more experienced in this realm than I am. Discussing the experience with her, and reading Kathryn Yu’s review of the experience at No Proscenium, has me thinking about the importance of audience fluency.

I was, for a lot of the show, confused. I spent a while waiting for exposition that never came. I didn’t understand why we were supposed to be doing the things the performer appeared to be exhorting us to do. At one point, I walked away from the others because I get excited about visually exploring virtual environments, and I got lost. I think I missed out on some play while I was trying to figure out where everyone had gone.

I think this is because I did not have the right frames to anticipate, not what was going to happen, but even what categories of things might happen, and what categories of things I might do. I did not have the right set of emotional responses engaged. The point at which the experience began to cohere for me was the moment when, while running around drawing with a magic wand, I realized, “Oh. This is a Happening!” At that point everything fell into place, and I understood what we were doing, and how I might be able to feel about it.

Happenings were the right frame for me because I was a performance studies nerd back in the day. I imagine someone who’s had more experience than me with immersive theatre or social VR would have referents that are probably closer to the creators’ expectation.

The interpretive challenge, for me, was that Scarecrow is a show where the narrative element of the experience is almost entirely unimportant. There’s some exposition at the beginning about firebirds devouring villagers’ hearts, but honestly it’s unnecessary: the nominal story won’t really help you understand any of the things that happen, and the events of the show won’t really answer any questions you might have about the story. It’s an experience of connection, and perception. And I was totally unprepared for that.

I spent the first half of the show trying to figure it out: who are these characters? What are these items? Why are we doing this? What happens next? And that was almost entirely pointless. There were no answers, and resting in that frame kept me from recognizing that the point of the show is the gestural dialogue between the participants, and the play that that enables, and the moments of connection it fosters.

It was, in that respect, somewhat akin to The Under Presents’ Tempest, which is similarly a show that depends on gestural negotiation and connection. However, in Tempest, the performer is not mute, which allows them to more actively guide the experience, and at least for me helped me shape my expectations correctly earlier in the process.

Dan Cook talks about the necessity in game design to accurately anticipate which pre-existing skills a player may have, so that the game’s challenges are neither inaccessible nor boring. I think that all forms of media that demand their audience do some work to make sense of it face this challenge of equipping the audience with the right tools to interpret the work. In forms whose affordances are well-understood, audiences generally have those tools already, but in new forms, it becomes less of a given that the audience will have the tools to read the work correctly.

Weekly Update 4/3/21

It’s Countdown Day! This week I posted four new pieces:

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis, and hiding spinach in the chocolate cake.

Book Review: Metropolis: Values in Conflict – a curiously non-geographic world.

Book Review: The Art of the Start – Oh yeah. Don’t be evil.

The Problematic Ethnic Stereotypes Are Coming – in a post-Gringotts-discourse world, “goblin” is a less appealing solution than I thought it was in 2012.

Update 3/28/21

My apologies for the impromptu hiatus. Since the last update, I posted twelve new pieces:

You Think Too Much – a cosmology of magic for GURPS.

The Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society – a setting element for GURPS Deadlands.

Dinosaur Mind – I can’t figure all those critters out.

What’s Wrong With This Machine? – the problem is that people hate their computers.

Los Panchos – Life is too short to eat bad Salvadorean food.

Alternate Alchemies – sometimes the quintessential balsamic solution is just the vinegar.

Birthright and the Canonical Adventure – what do we *do* in this game, anyway?

Thoughts on the GSL – I have opinions about copyright and RPGs.

The Awesome Power of Combined Nerdiness

More Birthright – Somewhere out there, someone has run a Birthright/Dark Sun crossover. I bet it was awesome.

Larkin Express Deli – when bottled soda is past its prime, something ain’t right.

Biryani Chapati – A restaurant just broke my heart.

Weekly Update 2/27/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Taqueria el Castillito – I’m a little scared of the lengua.

Uplift in heroic fantasy worlds – I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaint.

The Trouble-Stones of the Pherissai – a world-shard about misfortune and recycling.

Bristol Farms Breakfast Bar – melancholy in my heart, and an inexplicable hunger in my gut.

The Bestiary of Stupid: The Clich – Phylactery? I hardly know he!

Food Review: Tacos El Grullense – Probably the carnitas, though.

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 9 – Finally some action in this dull-ass tale.

Weekly Update 2/20/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Bachelor Cuisine: Kielbasa – swollen and juicy, with a pleasant note of beery bitterness.

The Parable of the Secret Talent – it’s a stupid parable anyway, pass the jug.

Gypsy’s Trattoria – I’ve long wanted a pasta equivalent of the burrito joint.

Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds – The f***ing dog always checks for f***ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!

Henry’s – discretion with the mayonnaise.

Book Review: Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 8 – Opportunity knocks.

Weekly Update 2/13/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Goood Frikin Chicken – the title says it all, really.

The Dwarven Lands – Compulsive building has its uses. And its consequences.

US Chinese Food – Better than Default Chicken, I guess.

I take a certain amount of pleasure in my notes – This namespace isn’t big enough for the two of us.

Burger Joint – full of that elemental heft.

Skelebear – it is weird how children’s media and horror so often run up in close proximity.

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 7 – Everybody loves shopping!