With Perkins and Mercer as the best-known representatives, gaming as spectator sport is rapidly spreading, especially among newcomers and those who seek to return to the hobby, but do not know how. With Perkin’s ‘Acquisitions Inc show for Pax being far toward one end of this representation and Mercer’s Critical Role heading more toward the other, the impact of these properties has been broad. Thought of generally as Actual Play videos, they occupy something similar but not quite what an AP video is. Actual play videos, for sharing, for instruction, or for both have been offered by roleplaying gamers on YouTube for ages, but the draw is considerably less than for showy properties like the Acquisitions Inc. games or those pushed by Geek and Sundry.
With comments sections full of ringing endorsements about well-known “paid-to-play” role-models being great examples to follow and aspire to, and industry professionals in support of anything which draws attention to the hobby, the general consensus is that we are supposed to be very happy to see these games out there getting millions of views and being used as examples of how to play the game.
Gamers being gamers I am noticing that there are those who cite these games as signs of the end times standing side by side with those who wouldn’t know the end times if the words ‘These are the End Times‘ were writ large in the sky with letters of flame. Me being me, it’s time to use the word spectrum again, I suppose, but instead I think I will sidestep to the word spectacle. The spectrum is obvious, I think.
These shows are not Actual Play videos. They may get called that, but that is wishful and somewhat troublesome thinking. I am not a fan of Actual Play videos. Even my own. For many reasons, partly to do with the challenges of recording groups and partly to do with the group getting the time to gel with the game and each other, AP videos can often be a slog or like being trapped in your car watching a wreck take place in front of you in slow motion. On top of all the other things a GM has to juggle to run a game with unfamiliar players, the presence of cameras can really change how people behave. Add in the notion many have that RPGs are participatory not spectator events, and AP videos have a hard row to hoe. I do like AP videos which focus on breaking down what is going on with the game, and how the GM is running it, but turning an AP video into a show – no matter how good that show might be – has an effect, and it is one that gets missed, forgotten, or bellowed in rage so loudly that no one wants to listen, even when sympathetic.
The effect is this: Instead of highlighting the hobby, the spectacle of a show hides it. This hobby has grown from one game to thousands upon thousands of games. The promotional spectacle of celebrity players with their licensed characters and their celebrity GM in a sponsored game hides what we play and it hides how we play. The hosts may have it in their hearts to promote gaming, but the sponsors have it in mind to sponsor their game. A small wrinkle in that, but perhaps too small to matter at this point, is that we do not tune in to see the game being played, we tune in to be entertained by the performance and the ongoing story. There is nothing else present in a spectacle for us to see. Events like Acquisitions Inc are just that – events. They are audience participation in the vein of going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but they are not a representation of actual play of actual games. They just pretend to be.
On the positive side, these events make gaming look cool and better, make it seem accessible. Naysayers will tout that newcomers will give up because they cannot run games like the ‘pros’ do, but I do not find that argument holds much water. It’s not the expectation of being an instant expert that will dissuade newcomers from gaming enough to get good at it, it’s the sudden discovery of how different the games are from what they were shown on TV. Much like the cool action toys in the commercials of our youth, things just are not as depicted. It is more complicated than it looks, and for many, complicated is a weight too heavy to bear unassisted.
It is in assistance where Mercer shines a little brighter from my perspective in that we see many of the mechanics in play, and he offers GM tutorials in the same format and via the same outlet as his show. In a sense, he is offering a helping hand to carry the weight of getting into a game. It must be remembered, though, that this is a sponsored game, and it comes with a particular perspective – without any other points of view on offer. Given how diverse the hobby really is, and how little of it looks and works like what appears to be the industry heavy weight, this is not a disservice to the sponsor, but it is to the many customers who might not realize that their dislike of that one game does not equate to a dislike of all of them. Not everyone is so lucky as to be able to transition from one game to another or even know that there are other games out there to try. It’s hard to imagine, but a quick pass through gaming forums will demonstrate how pervasive that view can be.
What then can be done? Those who do not know there is something else to learn might not be reached regardless of what we do, and those who do know but do not care will not be moved. Talking heads trying to share their experience via video can ramble on too long and bloggers can tunnel too quickly into an echo-chamber of their own devising. Low-quality webcam captures of hangouts play can seem unlikely to sway anyone to try a fringe game no one has heard of, and a sniggering boys’ club of players might do more to dissuade than persuade… right? What then can be done?
The first thing we can do is remember.
I think one thing we older games forget is the fire our first good game lit in us, and how small obstacles seemed when we were young. Granted, it might be too late for a generation of gamers to get into the hobby the way we did. We might have failed them by not sharing our love of the game, and acquiescing too easily to the blinking lights of that false god, computer roleplaying games. We do not have to wallow in failure. We can rise up, and try again. The current tide is rising, it is rising in our direction, and it can – if we keep our ships in order, raise more than just the self-proclaimed flagship of the hobby. It can raise the gamer, too. It’s not our job to promote specific games. It is not our calling to make sure that 10-year old Jenny learns to love our favorite game from the 80s. It might feel like it, but that is vanity and short-sightedness speaking. Don’t listen.
The second thing we can do is share. The paid voices are not working for us. We have to do that, but we have to know how. Sharing is that way.
Our calling is to recruit players to many different games and to make them all fun. Our calling is to teach the new recruits how to play, how to learn to play, how to discern what they enjoy playing, and encourage them to recruit others despite how shy or lacking in confidence they might feel. Help them help themselves to the same lifetime of awesome gaming we have been blessed by. That might mean starting out by slipping a few alms into the tills of the GM Cults out there by giving their spectacles some views to provide context to what greater wonders you intend to unleash in your charges. That might mean doing more than sticking a starter set in gift-wrapping and hoping the recipient likes what they get. That might mean being someone to confer with and confide in about games, gaming, and our fellow gamers. It might mean being an active proponent of gaming itself, whether in person or on a blog or vlog or forum. In the online world there is power in having many voices and varied opinions. Online is an eternal land of discovery waiting to be found and found again, that shows the many paths which can be followed. Forget editions, forget systems, forget old allegiances. All of that is preference. All of that is personal. The new people you recruit have the right to develop their own preferences. If you are lucky, theirs will include yours, but even if they don’t it won’t matter. They will be gamers like you, and they will never, ever forget the gift you gave them and how you empowered them to share it with people who will be their friends for real and in collective imaginings for the rest of their lives.
None of us will be video gods with a devoted following of cultists.
If we do our part to spread the love of gaming, none of us will need to~
Darken others' doors: