Taming of the Geek: Social Contracts for Gaming

I was among the generation of gamers who got a lot of flak from parents about playing D&D. In fact, it was flat-out forbidden – which of course, only limited where I could play, not if. Unlike most of those I have met over the years who had to covertly enjoy roleplaying games, my parents did not intervene in my leisure time for religious reasons. Oddly, this reason made their decision even less comprehensible to me. The recent survey about D&D, all the hoopla over yet another edition of it, the reprint of the first edition, and the accompanying deluge of the cover images, reminded me of my early days in gaming, and got me thinking about how we evolve as players as the decades pass.

I am one year short of 30 years of gaming and looking back over that time, I see that while my interests have largely remained the same – sword and sorcery, pulp action, westerns, horror, and science fiction – my approach to these games has changed drastically. While I have never felt much connection to the word geek, the first phrase that leapt out at me as I sat down to write this was the inner geek and the outer geek had learned to merge.

As a young gamer, a lot of my initial explorations of games had to do with investigating possibilities. Like most beginner GMs, being able to create my own worlds where anarchy could be explored, and where civilizations could fall into decay, or never have existed at all was heady stuff. As a player, being able to choose any course of action and deal with the consequences on my own was another tantalizing draw. You know what I am talking about~

In those early days though, as we all learned how to play and learned what could be done with the rules and settings, I feel that the ratio of character as personal avatar to character as character was skewed very heavily toward the avatar end of the scale. It was pretty much like gaming with method “actors.”

This is me as a dwarven fighter (at 90lbs in army boots). This is me as an ancient sorcerer (who has never kissed a girl). This is me as a suave highwayman (with pimples). This is me as a…

Roleplay in this sort of setting seemed to be more about doing what you could not do in real life. To my eyes, this is the realm of that ‘inner geek.’ Exploring these desires to be taller, a feared warrior, or more alluring, or to have a silver tongue was fun for a while, and it was a natural cross-over from the games of children into the games of teens. This is the sort of gaming fueled by who you want to be, or would rather be.  Over time, however, I began to notice a disconnect between what I wanted to do with RPGs and what we were actually doing with them. If all we were going to do was sit around fantasizing about doing things instead of actually doing them, what would be the point? In past posts I have referred to this derogatorily as ‘wish-fulfillment theatre’ – and I have no real patience for it. Incidentally, this is precisely why my parents banned RPGs all those years ago. They felt the teen years were a time to come to accept the realities of the world, and ironically I suppose, that very thing is a minor element of this post.

As my sense of the games as wish-fulfillment versus the games as a real hobby grew, I had to ask myself, ‘why couldn’t the games become deeper, and more complicated?’ Why couldn’t they be about things we could do, and had done, were becoming experts in, and wanted to use as fodder for engaging roleplay? A hobby isn’t limited to pure diversion – it ought to have a product beyond the simple passing of time. This is the split between the inner geek, and the outer geek; the desire for things to be what they are not, versus the desire to enjoy the use of the imagination.

Of course connected to this split are the realities of life. The outer geek still has to have a job, maintain relationships and eventually ‘grow up.’ The inner geek sees all that as selling out. The inner geek just wants what it cannot have. It is at that point, that I cry foul. One of the principle elements of virtually every RPG is the concept of experience leading to a more developed and capable character. Why is it that raising one’s level of play beyond the simple pursuit of puerile entertainment is not regarded in the same way?

One extension of this is the social contract that some groups must resort to in order to ‘legislate all the fun.’ This has never been my preferred method of organizing a game group. I understand where it comes from, and certainly cannot fault it for its mature approach to the problems which can crop up in any group of people – I just don’t find that it’s necessary if everyone has reconciled the inner and outer geek.

If all the players in a group are on the same playing field, either all trying to live a fantasy life, or all trying to engage in roleplay then I find that there are few problems. Eventually, however, groups grow or come apart as differences develop, become apparent, or are finally expressed. When we were kids this was upsetting, but ultimately no big deal as there were other groups to join and lots of time to join them, but at a certain point differences lead to people leaving gaming. Social contracts seem to be about managing expectations for the group in order to minimize the effect of these differences – agreeing to disagree in other words. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I have to wonder if this aids or interferes with people learning how to game together as adults. What I mean by this is, at its core a social contract serves to identify and promote behavior which will allow the game to flourish and meet the goals of its players, and it strikes me that at the core of adulthood is an ability to control oneself – stepping away from the self-serving passions of youth, and embracing the capacity to work in harmony with others for a mutually satisfactory goal. Do we, as adult gamers, really need to sit down and formally agree to a code of conduct for play in order to “play well with others?”

I fully support clear communication about what the GM’s intent for running a game is, with clear feedback from players about what sort of game they wish to play. Once that has been done… are any further steps really necessary to ensure the game goes off as desired by the group?

What gives me pause for thought, is when differing levels of maturity in gaming come together – such as when a player who is usually a GM gets a rare opportunity to play, and tries to “make the most of it” without recognizing or having the skills to notice the effect that might have on the rest of the group.

Until recently, I had not been in that situation with any regularity for a good 20 years. It used to come up all the time when I had a larger pool of players from which to draw. In those days, my solution was to approach the game with just one addition to what was fast becoming my normal habit of establishing a base line of expectations for the game. That addition was a clearly defined set of inter-character relationships. This was really a process of extending the pre-game communication to include how the characters were supposed to work together in-game to reach the goals of the campaign. Clearly, when faced with the understanding that the characters’ interaction is a fundamental part of any game, and each character’s role in that interaction connects them to specific concepts and characters in the group that are fundamentally required to create the desired environment of the game – it becomes hard to build and run a character designed to (be a dick) bring the whole construct crashing down. It really boils down to, “Do you want to play, or not?”

Rather than deal with the issue (or potential issue) on a personal level between the players, I chose to let the onus of “getting along according to the precepts of the game” fall on the player’s skill as a roleplayer. When I came up with this approach for my games in the early 90’s, I had seen the idea of social contracts between groups floated only a few times, but after considering joining a new Vampire Chronicle as a player, and having been handed one printed out formally on aged paper like a gaming constitution I had little trouble deciding to handle the situation differently. My reaction then was the same as my reaction now. How can I expect adult behavior if I treat everyone like a child by making them “swear to get along” and throwing the contract in their face when they piss someone off? My solution may be harder, and it may require more individual responsibility and effort than a social contract… but perhaps that is my point.

Like my old high school computer teacher used to chant: garbage in, garbage out.


11 Responses to “Taming of the Geek: Social Contracts for Gaming”
  1. Jan says:

    “garbage in, garbage out” Every IT person know this one and it’s great 🙂

    I find it difficult to give you a good answer. I play in a group that had complications on player levels. We usually sorted them out after some discussions, but every know an them they keep popping up in various forms and with different causes. We are grown-up enough to sort those out, but we need to talk between players to do so. So I’m not quite sure whether you are right. We have different gaming styles and all this stuff.

    On the other hand you idea of focusing on the ingame part and starting by having clear character relations nad defining reasons to tie the group together ingame seems a very good thing. You shift focus on the important thing: “We wanna game together. So we need ingame reasons to do so.” And those ingame reasons will surely also reflect the player and his gaming style and thus address the above problems indirectly, which frequently proves to be the better way of solving various problem (not limited to gaming groups). So I think you method might be a working and if so better solution than we have. At least with somewhat experienced gamers I’d be willing to try it out and am confident that it will work. But I’m not sure yet because of the problems my group has.

  2. Ken Vinson says:

    Communication and shared expectations are all you need, imo. If you can agree, in a general sense, on what the players and the GM each want out of a given game and if you can manage to create an environment where players feel comfortable expressing doubts or issues about the game or other players, then you should never need a written contract.

    A written contract is enticing because it purports to make things simpler but I would say it does the opposite because it limits discussion to the topics covered in the contract.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Excellent point ~
      There is nothing more demotivating than any argument that starts with, “Well, you never said that I couldn’t…”

      When we are not focused on the principle or the spirit of an enterprise because we have chosen to focus on the letter of its wording, the spirit is doomed.

  3. anarkeith says:

    One of the challenges of groups is that not all members have equal self-awareness. You’ve identified your own transition from games as wish-fulfillment to games as hobby, but how many adult gamers are still in wish-fulfillment mode? The maturity level of the latter player will become apparent in play when they are denied their wish. How do they handle it? And if they handle it gracelessly, can they change? The group has to weigh these facts. Having a written contract smacks of a certain litigious reality that I, personally, game to escape. Whether or not a group of players needs to discuss play conflicts is a test of the group’s commitment. Good food for thought!

    • Runeslinger says:

      There is an interesting divide, in a broad sense, among pools of gamers, isn’t there? If you listen in on conversations there is the “I just want to X” group who are basically looking to play the same way no matter what game is being suggested, versus the “What is everyone else playing?” group who look to connect with the game and group (even if only on a superficial level).

      I tend to think that everyone can rise to a challenge, but as you point out – not everyone will automatically realize there is one out there. Where contracts get me down is that they seem to assume from the outset that there will be trouble, that players need to be brought into line, and that it is the GM’s responsibility to ride herd on everyone. Who needs that? If we are all gathering together as adults for a social activity, I think the onus needs to be on the individual to work with the group toward the best result. Not doing so pretty much flies in the face of getting together in the first place.

  4. morrisonmp says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I’ve struggled with expressing this same thought for some time. Basically, I’ve reached a point where “no game is actually better than bad game” and it often means that I’m left with no game.

    I think a lot of the rules minutia and “narrative control” stuff that creeps into our games now has a lot to do with trying to manage expectations in poor ways… our games have to “protect us from bad GMs” or “keep player characters balanced” because we can’t offend or upset the table equilibrium.

    It’s been bugging me and you make some great points. I appreciate your association that it’s about maturity. You don’t have to be in your 30’s to be a mature gamer and you can be a power-gamer or a schemer and get along great with a group of “role-players” as long as everyone is willing to work together for the fun of the group. I’m just amazed at how often that doesn’t happen.

    • Runeslinger says:

      That is an amazing thing for me, too. If one player’s fun is coming at the expense of the others – or requires more of them than they are willing to give to just one part of the gaming circle – then the group cannot be sustained. Many, however, as was pointed out above, lack the perspicacity to see beyond their own base enjoyment.

      Like you, I do not feel we need more rules, or contracts to help them see, I think we just need to put the onus where it belongs honestly and openly – in the sense of fair play and friendship. If that can’t be done… no game is definitely better. Wipe the slate clean and start again.

  5. Jeff Teague says:

    I’m surprised at all of the negative comments. Most gaming groups have some type of social contracts, even if it’s not a formal document. Some of the most basic things (e.g., smoking allowed; food/drink; cell phone or other electronics; foul language) need to be established before gaming begins.

    Additionally, gaming styles, attitude towards “Evil” PC & PVP, rule arbitration should be discussed. If these things are established up front, things should go smoother for all around.

    The greatest benefit for having a formal social contract is that everyone knows the ground rules even before playing.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for dropping by and for commenting~

      I think you will find that those who have come out against formal contracts for this are strongly in favour of discussion and vetting new players, but feel that getting along for the enjoyment of everyone ought to be one of those things which people do as a matter of course with or without explicit rules. That is a general life skill, not a gamer skill.

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  1. […] next game is referred to as ‘a social contract.’ As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I don’t think very highly of making formalized, written contracts – even among groups […]

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