Game as Myth- Ben’s Musings
I return in this soliloquy to my ancient theme: that we need to take RPGs more seriously than we have so far. Games can, though not always, but games can be tools of self-actualization like art, music, poetry, literature and religion. As a matter of fact, the humble little tabletop role-playing game represents the most significant development in the history of myth in perhaps centuries. Furthermore, it is the culmination of long-standing trends in myth that began in the middle ages. And that is a bold statement, I know, yet I’m not the first to say something like it. A lot of White Wolf material from the late 90s talked about the importance of game as story and myth, for example. But saying it out loud can sound pretty out there, even to me, but with thought I find it to be true. Furthermore, the deeper I looked into the matter, the more evidence I found for it.
Author Patrick Rothfuss once said that he loves geeks because they always lay out their first principles. As a geek in good standing, I must lay out my first principles, and I’ll start by defining myth. You’ll find a lot of different definitions of myth out there, but the one I’m using I’ve cobbled together from Joseph Campbell and William Bascom. A myth is a fantastical story told to relate a larger truth about the world.
So are tabletop rpgs myths? Let’s weigh them against that definition.
Are tabletop rpgs fantastical? That’s kind of a gimme. Tabletop RPGs are nothing if not fantastical. There are games where PCs play dragons, vampires, wizards, fighting mice, and professional wrestlers. Games are wretched with fantasy and the supernatural, and even a lot of sci-fi elements today function like fantasy, the excellent Numenera coming to mind as a prime example.
So games are fantastic, but what about the second part of our definition of myth. Do they relate a larger truth about the world?
They very much do. Even outside of what an individual GM and her players might do in a given game, the rules themselves literally enshrine ideas about how a world, and by extension our own, works.
Let us for a moment consider the rules-sets for D&D and CoC. In D&D, characters consistently improve over time. Magic is learned, levels are gained, treasures found, etc. There is a constant upward march to something like demigodhood.
Compare the hulking 20th level D&D brute, with bisceps the size of pickup trucks, who bleeds raw power and pisses unrefined gold, to the poor, unfortunate, sanity-blasted, battle-scarred veteran of a CoC campaign. For the unititiated, CoC’s core statistic, sanity, is engineered to get WORSE over time, inevitably driving your character insane if they are not eaten by some monster beforehand. CoC characters in exploration mode have the life expectancy of a Soviet soldier at the battle of Stalingrad. And this is a feature of the rules, not a flaw. The rules are designed to burn characters to ashes. CoC reflects a grim, bitter, realistic world where the characters, like we humans ourselves, wither until they die. It is this realism which prompts genius rpg writer Ken Hite to describe CoC as a much more heroic game than D&D because of the persistent sacrifice expected of player characters.
These appear to be opposing rule sets. One allows characters to improve over time until they are almost obscenely powerful, the other envisions a gritty, harsh world, bitter as ashes, where each adventure is a stony gray step towards the hearse which awaits its grisly load.
Those who think I am a geek gone mad may see here an opportunity. To claim that tabletop rpg rules speak larger truths about the rules is a bridge to far, a critic might say. Furthermore, the two rules sets contradict each other so obviously, says the critic, I am wrong. In D&D, people improve over time and in CoC, they get worse over time. They can’t both be right. In my mind, this theoretical devil on my shoulder speaks in the voice of noted comedian, Gilbert Godfried. And this contradiction is noted by the devil, who rasps in a voice so sour it could cause a pregnant woman to miscarry that RPGs can’t be myths, because RPG rules sets, which I am arguing do reflect a larger truth about reality, are in contradiction.
Let’s allow that for a second. Let’s say the Devil is right. Let’s say that D&D and CoC’s rules present contradictory views of larger truths. Why is that a problem? It certainly doesn’t mean they can’t be myths. First, consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
According to Scottie, contradiction isn’t a problem, and doesn’t invalidate anything. Consider that Scottie’s observation holds true on a cosmic level. Science and the physical universe are teeming with contradictions. Allow me a small example. The laws of classical physics and the laws of quantum mechanics often find themselves in contradiction, yet both are true, possibly because we live inside a video game but that is neither here nor there. To quickly give an example, planets do not disappear in one location and reappear somewhere else instantaneously, but on the quantum level, such events happen all the time. The laws of physics, depending on their scale, contradict one another but appear to be nonetheless true.
Second, consider myths themselves. Myths contradict one another left right and center, and on every level. In Egyptian myth, for example, the god of the underworld, Osiris, has his body chopped up by his evil brother Seth, whom ancient reports tell us also sounded like Gilbert Godfried, and scattered bits of his corpse all over Egypt. Thing is though, several different temples back in the day all claimed to have his head. This didn’t cause a huge rift in Egyptian faith, the Egyptians just accepted the contradiction, assumed that the priests with the head in the temple nearest to their hut were telling the truth, and that all the other priests were lying dastards, and went on with their farming or conquering Nubia or whatever.
A more familiar example of accepted contradiction in myth would be Genesis. If you’ve never paid close attention to Biblical criticism, you may not know that there are two contradictory creation stories in Genesis, making it deeply curious that anyone could ever argue for a literal interpretation of the Bible but that is neither here nor there as well. The order of creation given in the two different stories, which are contained respectively in Genesis Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, contradict one another. In one version, god creates the animals first then the plants, and in the other version it is the other way around. Not even a hardcore atheist, the kind of woman who would have a hydrogen atom tattooed across the back of her hips, would argue that this contradiction means that Genesis isn’t a myth.
Let us say then that the rules sets for Call of Cthulhu and D&D have distinctly different points of view on the world, but their contradiction does not mean they are not myths.
But I am going to do the devil on my shoulder one better here, and argue that the larger truths reflected by the D&D and CoC rules sets do not contradict each other at all, but rather reflect different truths about the world.
In D&D, the character’s upward arc guaranteed by the experience point system reflects the larger truth that with age, people get better at a lot of stuff. Writing, reading, their jobs and flipping an omelet. If people didn’t improve their skills with age, we’d all still be in diapers and the world would be a much stinkier place.
In CoC, the sanity system and the character’s degradation over time, and the frailness of Cthulhu characters vis a vis their opponents reflects the truth that eventually and inevitably, our bodies betray us and we die, dammit. But it is a long and humiliating stumble towards the grave. Just think about how embarrassing, fatal and simultaneously goofy mammograms and colonoscopies are. Both are necessary to delay the betrayal of our bodies, but also, what ridiculous stuff. I will tell you right now, I have had tubes shoved up some very uncomfortable holes by doctors, and each time it happens, I find myself reflecting on how the experience validates Lovecraft’s view of the universe’s cold indifference.
The rules sets of D&D and CoC are not in fact in contradiction. Instead, they reflect DIFFERENT truths about the world. This in fact is further proof that gaming IS myth. The very rules sets gamers use reflect larger truths about the world.
And if a myth is a fantastic story that tells us something true about the world, then tabletop rpgs are myth generation engines. RPGs exist in the space where literature, theater, and games meet, and these rules sets exist for the purpose of generating different kinds of myths.
But I’m not really saying anything new here. I might have found proof of it, but this is something we’ve all known in our bones for God knows how long. Sitting down and pretending to be an elf might be silly, but it’s also affirming. It can generate a kind of ecstasy.
Now that I have proven my geek bona fides by the lights of Patrick Rothfuss, and we have established that RPGs are themselves myths, I have to lay out the second part of my argument, that RPGs represent an innovation in myths of epochal importance.
Tabletop RPGs are important, because instead of hearing myths around a fire from a storyteller or hearing them from a pulpit on Sunday, gamers are writing their own communal myths to make sense of their lives.
And it is this communal-creative aspect that makes gaming a significant and revolutionary phenomenon. For thousands and thousands of years, myths were subject to control of nation-states. A short example using Egypt again comes immediately to mind. Egyptian religion was pagan, with multitudinous gods like those of Greece and Rome, for the majority of its history. Until one pharaoh, Akhenaten, decided that there was in fact only one god, the sundisk Aten. For the length of his reign, Egyptian religion spun around like it got slapped by Conan. Temples to the one god were built, the capital was moved, and bas-reliefs of the one god bloomed. This new monotheism only lasted as long as the reign of Akhenaten, after which his more famous son Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamen, and switched the religion of Egypt back to that of paganism with its herds of gods.
Here, we see the mythology of Egypt turning in total subservience to the state, because myth and story was seen as so important that it could not be left to the common people. And so it went for much of recorded history, with Romans sicking lions on Christians for a mythology not in line with that of the state, which was followed by Christians burning pagans at the stake for the same crime.
And this is far from a Eurocentric phenomenon. The Prophet Mohammed was forced to leave his hometown of Mecca for preaching that the old gods did not exist.
And so mythology and stories were left in control of the state, until the Protestant Reformation, which essentially opened the gates in Europe with Martin Luther’s very punk rock affirmation that any person can, when guided by the Holy Spirit, make their own interpretation of Scripture.
The words of mythicist Joseph Campbell here seem most apt. This is from his book, Creative Mythology: “In the history of our youthful species, a profound respect for the inherited forms has generally suppressed innovation. Millenniums have rolled by with only minor variations played on themes derived from God-knows-when. Not so, however, in our recent West, where, since the middle of the 12th century, an accelerating disintegration has been undoing the formidable orthodox tradition that came to flower in that century, and with its fall, the released creative powers of a great company of towering individuals have broken forth: so that not one, or even two or three, but a galaxy of mythologies- as many, one might say, as the multitude of its geniuses- must be taken into account in any study of the spectacle of our own titanic age… in the fields of literature, secular philosophy, and the arts, a totally new type of non-theological revelation of great scope, great depth, and infinite variety, has become the actual spiritual guide and structuring force of civilization.”
And what is gaming if not this? A private, communal, rite in which personal experiences are hewn into a story that has meaning, possibly only for the individuals at the gaming table, but meaning nonetheless. Gaming represents the ultimate democratization of myth-creation. Forces once controlled by the state under pain of death are now at the beck and call of anyone with a D6 and Pathfinder Rule-Book.
Now the freedom for a person to more or less tell their own story without the interference of government or religion, depending on your geographic location, is not a new one. But gaming is a radical institution because it allows EVERYONE, not just artists or ivory tower ivy league upper crusts, to engage in myth-creation. Gaming is an institution which teaches people to do what was once the sole prerogative of the priests of Amun-Ra or the emperors of Rome, to make their own meaningful stories.
And so I return to my ancient theme. Gaming is important, and we should take it more seriously, because an institution which does all that is capable of changing the world in profound, fundamental ways.
In summary, tabletop rpgs are myths.
They are myths because they are fantastical, and preach larger truths about the world.
The tabletop rpg is a democratic and revolutionary step in the history of myth, because it puts powers once reserved for kings and priests in the hands of us regular folk.
This means that gaming is significant. It is important. It may be silly, but it is still important. Gaming might be new, but it’s limbs are ancient.
Gaming is important, and we should take it seriously.