Filling Empty Cups

That people ‘just don’t listen’ is a peril of conversation both online and off. It is worse when the person in question is seeking advice but won’t take it. Much can be said about the conditions and causes of faults in listeners, but does that accomplish all that we want? The target audience isn’t listening. A better approach might be to also address some of the reasons why people may have stopped listening in the first place.

An oft-repeated pearl of wisdom is that of the empty cup. In order to truly learn, one must be able to open one’s mind to new information. The student is often blamed for not learning because their ‘cup is full.’ There is, sadly, often a lot of evidence to support that response but the burdens of fruitful communication do not lie solely on one side of the conversation. Sometimes the cup is empty, and there is nothing to fill it.

YouTube vlogger and philospher, Sameoldji, has been running an excellent short-series on his YouTube Channel about three general categories of RPG advice which have become a problem in their own right. The three he speaks of are, in no specific order, Talk to the Players, Play the Right Game, and Don’t be a Dick. They have, he claims, become so generic and without content that they are useless.

If there were a survey of the advice given out most often, it could believably reveal that what gamers, game designers, bloggers, vloggers, and forum members offer as advice falls into some version of those three categories – The Holy Trinity of RPGs – as Sameoldji calls it. Almost like a mantra whose adherents have lost all sense of meaning, these three koans are cast before us again and again, filling the silence and yet saying nothing.

The Holy Trinity (+ Apocryphal Matters)

  • Talk with the Players
    • (Choose the Right People)
  • Play the right game for you
    • (Play it the best way for you)
  • Do not be a Dick
    • (Encourage others)

Talk to the Players

In a hobby based on the ability to communicate ideas verbally, it ought to surprise us to recognize that one of our most common sources of discord in a group is a lack of communication. Further, that the advice given in response is a bland placebo of ‘talk to the players‘ should likewise be surprising. Where is the medicine for what ails us in that?

The formula:

There is a problem +  This is the problem + It comes from not talking to the players

= Talk to the players

What’s missing?

What’s missing is information about what to talk about specifically, and how to do it.

If there is a communication breakdown, and obviously there is if the advice is to communicate, the solution is not to tell people to communicate, it is is to advise them on the specifics of that communication and ways to handle it effectively and/or politely.

Play the Right Game

In a hobby replete with thousands of amazing choices, it can be astonishing how few games people either want to try, or can get others to try with them. What is available for sale in local game stores can often shape perceptions of what is out there to be played. Even those discovering just how immense the number of games really is still have to be able to get and play those games before there can be any effect on their gaming lives. Add to this that the number of games can confuse the more important matter of types and styles of game, and we have a potent recipe for dissatisfaction.

It is frustrating therefore that the typical response to a gamer who is unhappy with the game(s) their group plays can be casually dismissed with the seemingly useful advice, find the right game. What does that accomplish when the cry for help itself indicates that the gamer has no idea what to look for, or even that there are solutions out there to be found?

The formula

There is a problem + This is the problem + It comes from playing the wrong game

= Play the Right Game

This one is, as Sameoldji notes, harder to spot as its nature can be more easily disguised by the content.  For example, a gamer might say, “I love Rock God: the Metalling but the headbanging mechanic and the guitar duel rules are giving me trouble. I was hoping the group would be describing their shredding guitar licks, and how they were whipping the pit into a frenzy, but they just want to roll the dice to see how well they did. What can I do?”

A good portion of casual readers of that comment might reply with ‘talk to the players,’ but what if the player is not experiencing a breakdown in communication? What if what is happening is that they are discovering that the game is not a good fit for their preferences, and the system is influencing play in their group in a way that increases distance between each member’s individual gaming interests?

Some readers of the comment might, for reasons of their own, catch on to this possibility. Some will use the opportunity to dump on the game in the question and/or praise a different game. That is a thinly disguised way of saying “you are playing the wrong game” which is a prime example of this category of advice: Play the Right Game. It is also of no particular use to the person with the problem.

What they could make better use of is guidance through the process of identifying what they do and do not like about the games they have been playing, why those things appeal or do not appeal, and get them started on learning how to identify what they want in other games. It sounds like a lot, but often it can be just demonstrating that you can understand what they are feeling, and offering some terms or concepts to show them that there are games out there that will satisfy. Help them see the types of trees which make the forest, rather then getting lost in the intricacies of the leaves on the same tree. If you introduce them to the process of asking the right questions, they will be able to find their own answers. Better yet, they will be able to pass that favor on to another gamer later.

It really isn’t a lot, but that should not be mistaken for easy. We all have blind spots. The game approach that sets your teeth on edge might be just what they need. This again is why helping them learn to ask the right questions has merit. It helps you avoid problem number three…

Don’t Be a Dick

Imagine a child running and laughing, having a great time, caught up in the moment. The happy parents are watching. It is an idyllic scene. Imagine then that the child trips over something and falls, stunning themselves for a second as the breath is knocked out of them.

What do the parents say?

No, they do not say, ‘don’t be a dick.’

(At least in my imagination they don’t, and this is my hypothetical scenario, so let’s just go with that, okay? None of us wants to be dicks right now, right?)

In many cases, so many it is practically a stereotype, they say, “Be careful!”

Excellent advice…

The advice to not be a dick, perhaps still known more popularly as Wheaton’s Law, applies to and is applied to so many situations in gaming advice-giving, it is hard to encompass it all. I am not going to try.

What I do want to suggest, in light of the previous two categories, is that this is the one we have the most possibility of control over, yet confoundingly, we simultaneously seem to have the least. We cannot always recognize what a person’s problem really is. We cannot always know how to give them meaningful help in solving it. We can, however, choose how we interact with people and with what intentions. How we communicate is, after all, a choice…isn’t it?

A comment or blog begun in a negative place has enough steps involved in it to at least give a moment to pause and consider the response. At a certain point, a line is crossed from pure reaction to a choice of action. At some point, we need to click save, or publish, or upload…  At some point, we choose to be a dick. Offline, it is harder, and in the DMZ of comments and Social Media that choice of action is distilled down to clicking send, something very easy to do in the grip of outrage or disdain.

The formula:

There is a problem + This is the problem + It comes from being a dick

= Don’t Be a Dick

How this category of response fits in with the other two is that it too fails to offer anything meaningful to the report of dickish behavior being a problem. It, like the hypothetical parents above, close the door on the empty barn of the situation. Too little, too late, and as Sameoldji emphasizes so well in the video series, it is too obvious a response. People generally know when they are engaging with their group the wrong way. What can trip people up is not knowing how to get out of that situation gracefully and productively, and how to prevent or reduce the instances of it happening again.

Apocryphal Matters

Another YouTuber I value highly, Nolinquisitor, contributed the idea that in order for any of this to make sense, the conditions of successful gaming must be recognized. Wisdom suggests that to truly be happy and problem free as a gamer, one needs to understand three basic fundamentals. We must:

  • Choose the Right People to game with
  • Play your game the Best Way for you
  • Encourage others

If, after all, you are gaming with people with whom you are compatible, and for whom the chosen game and approach is compatible, and you are supportive and appreciative of each other, your gaming (and friendships) will be awesome.

This is, as I see it, a description of the basics which we need to ensure are in place before we start a game. If we can identify that these are or are not in place, we know whether we should start play or not. The temptation to game for the sake of gaming can be strong, but if we recognize that something is missing, it becomes possible to address it before it becomes a problem.

The problem is, if you are already in a bad situation and you do not know how to get out, when you seek help, you have to wade through talk to the players, play the right game, and don’t be a dick to even get close to that outcome. Misery from gaming problems and the uselessness of vapid advice does not help a person attain it.

If the bulk of the ‘help’ out there is now a part of the problem, then something needs to be done, and knowing what ‘good’ is is only a part of the solution.

Solutions?

Is there an answer to the call to action he proposes? I think there is, but I do not think it is enough of a revelation to be satisfying, or even that appealing. I think there is a reason why the typical advice has boiled down into platitudes and mantras. I think it makes people feel better to offer them than to get down in the mud, roll up your sleeves, and risk failure in the attempt to solve the problems of strangers.

A fantastic roleplayer that I am fortunate to game with on hangouts on the weekend, Tim Other, suggested in the comments on Sameoldji’s videos that another contributing factor might be a lack of real experience with gaming. While a part of the problem might in fact be the ‘curse of knowledge‘ preventing advice-givers from responding appropriately, there is a greater chance, as Tim states, that those seeking advice end up connecting with people who play few if any relevant games, and have to speculate in order to form a response. Motives vary, but the effect is similar. The problems end up being pushed so far into the theoretical to even have a basis for discussion that the results have no real content to offer, or worse, to act upon.

Thoughts

I believe the answer can be found in understanding the question. There is no drama or earth-shaking wisdom here. Quite simply, we need to put the content back into the advice and be honest when we cannot. You knew the answer all along. All three of these problems are connected to how we choose to communicate. Choosing to step away from platitudes and embrace real discussion of what our actual experiences with that problem are can help. Being willing to be honest when our suggestions are purely hypothetical does no harm, and has a chance to be of help.

The solutions are simple, but hard work. When talking to the players, we should actually say something of worth. When suggesting that system matters and a change of system is in order, we should come armed with pertinent suggestions unmotivated by personal bias, and be willing for them to simply be a signpost on another’s journey. When interacting with such a fickle thing as the preferences of people, we must remember to listen first, understand second, and reply – if necessary – third… without being a dick.

Sameoldji’s repeated question throughout the series is a telling one:

“Can we go beyond this?”

It is a good question~

The Holy Trinity Series:

Speak your piece~

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