Sunday, September 13, 2009

Talkin' Theory Like I'm Posting at The Forge

Reading too much lately, and with more than a little academic theory on the brain, I found myself trying to apply what I'm studying to RPGs again. The first time that happened, I found myself trying to apply Yrjo Engeström's theories of mediated activity to the activity of RPGs, with the interaction between gamer and game world being mediated by the GM, the rules set, the context of the gaming group and gaming culture as communities, and the division of labor in the gaming activity between DM and players all mediating the gaming experience. Thus the structure of the whole gaming experience -- in which players, GM and the imagined world are shaped by the entire context of the gaming experience. But other than the general concept, I figured the whole exercise really accomplished nothing, and I didn't have any useful questions that the model answered, so I decided nothing more needed to be done with it. Maybe now that it's printed here, people will get on the Forge and debate it along the GNS model.

Figure 1. FRPG as a Mediated Activity.
. GM
. / \
. Player ----- Game World
. / | \
. ---------
. Rules Comm. Div.of Labor

My latest intrusion of social science theory into my gaming mind has been in the context of reading Pierre Bourdieu's theories of different types of capital. In many ways, Bourdieu's capital theories are a response to Marx, who (in a gross over-simplification) basically says that the dominant classes use capital and its production to control society, using other socioeconomic classes as pawns in a class struggle that maintains their status and power.

Bourdieu (in another gross over-simplification) argues that material capital is important producing and maintaining the social order, inequities included. But that material capital and its production are only part of that. Instead, he argues that thanks to control of capital and its production, the dominant class is able to create capital that has no direct monetary value in the form of cultural knowledge, titles, educational qualifications, ways of dress, ways of speech, physical bearing, etc. that set the true dominant classes apart from others and allow them to pass on their power to others by promoting and concealing these forms of capital as objective standards of qualifications for gaining power. This capital is unevenly distributed across different groups and socioeconomic classes, creating inequity in opportunity and access to power while helping to support the conditions that allow the status quo to continue with minimal need for change.

(Please forgive the bad synopsis of several books worth of theory, but I'm judiciously editing to get to an actual point. Promise.)

That said, it occured to me that most classic RPGs are about outsiders who break social rules in order to gain money and items of power. They are outside the social order (with minimal cultural capital), but gather a lot of money and items (material capital). Some characters may have religious titles (clerics, paladins, druids), education (magic-user types), or noble titles (high-level characters with strongholds), but overall they lack the connections, manner, professions -- the social capital -- to gain lasting power. Those that have cultural capital have it differentially distributed, and those that don't shouldn't have easy access to certain resources.

That seems to imply certain struggles within the party, and certain options for different kinds of reward systems that could be given in the game. I'm not calling for a different rule system, but a different mind set. How much do PCs value connections, education, titles, and the like in game as opposed to gold and magic items (not much)? But how much would they if they found that they were stymied no matter how much money they had by those who had better social and cultural resources?