Games, Ironic Distance, and Journaling

There are two broad types of games, games of chance (roulette) and games of skill (chess) though most games (poker, basketball, board games, etc) lie somewhere on a spectrum between them. Something I find interesting is the implicit nature we have, whether as spectators or participants to narrativize a game.

I have given several talks over the past decade about tabletop role=playing games as a collaborative storytelling tool, but in reading a bunch of noir fiction this year, as well as a history of Binny Binion, the bloodsoaked arch-crook who popularized texas hold ’em poker, I came to the realization that all games are collectively narrativized–from the olympics to the world series to individual boxing matches and baseball games to stories about runs of good luck and bad in the casino. Some combination of uncertainty (chance, weather, setting) and identifiable humanity (a test of wills, risk-taking, mastery of skill, strategy or tactics) prompts us to construct complete stories with heroes, villains and a moral, provided by both the rules of the game and the societal values transmitted to us (really more of an ambient societal pressure we labor under, a la the atmosphere) every day.

That said, there are levels of ironic distance we all prefer between ourselves and the narratives we consume (and construct)–nobody wants to be seen as fully invested in the stories of professional wrestling, just as people roll their eyes at fans who experience undue emotional turmoil over the outcome of a football game.

This is true, of course, across all narrative experiences, not just games. How many apologize for the books they enjoy, or read things they don’t to appear appropriately serious, aloof or culturally aware? I promise I am making a point.

The two forms of narrative construction where ironic distance absolutely devastates the result is in role-playing games, where players cannot fully become the characters they have envisioned, instead becoming archetypes (and thus mythical, composed of essences rather than history/humanity) or comedians (many role-playing groups inevitably turn into the casts of Arrested Development or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). This is fine, of course, but table-top role playing games are opportunities for exploration of the human (or transhuman/demihuman) experience and as such for the development of compassion, empathy and imagination about the lives of others. Irony destroys this opportunity in games, as it does in life.

The second form of narrative construction especially allergic to irony is that of the journal. Journaling (in this formulation writing direct, immediate autobiography with no audience) cannot occur in the presence of ironic distance–it is the negation of ironic distance. Which makes journaling, like role-playing, very, very difficult for people who cannot empathize with themselves, or understand or even experience their own emotions.

Like most American men, who labor under toxic masculinity’s dictates to never open up their inner lives, or even experience an inner life. Like most American women, who are hounded at every turn by the accusation that they are imperfect and that any sort of truly solitary, truly personal self-care that does not involve consumption is a selfish and unworthy enterprise. Like most Americans born after 1970, for whom ironic distance has been the only defense mechanism for staying sane against the cognitive dissonance produced by the difference between observed reality and the cultural programming received since birth. I write solely of Americans here because that is who I am most familiar with, though Roland Barthes suggested in Myth Today that irony is the necessary relationship between those who perceive the manufactured nature of “mainstream” reality and those who consume it uncritically./the reality itself. I have a lengthy discursion in me about normalcy and the approaches thereto that I have given while stoned enough times that I can probably turn it into a decent piece of writing.

I’m not knocking ironic distance, irony has long been my escutcheon. I think it is a tremendously useful critical tool and often a tool that produces excellent art, humor and literature–but it’s a cultural tool, not a way of life. Due to the difficulties of unlearning the always-on nature of irony/cynicism that I have possessed since childhood, I am unskilled/unpracticed at both creating the truly human fiction possible within a tabletop role-playing game and at creating the truly human non-fiction possible within journaling.

The solution? Thousand Year Old Vampire, by Tim Hutchings. A role-playing game for one that serves as a journal for a fictional character. Epistolary autofiction. I discovered the game through the beautifully told and illustrated work of Tim Denee.

Essentially the player narrates the thousand year lifespan of a vampire through journal entries, and I plan to do so publicly–to write a fictional character journaling for itself for no audience, in public. I won’t bog down an inbox with these so I plan to post them to my blog without sending them to tinyletter. I plan to send out something worth reading via email every 5 to 10 days (and they will RARELY be this long, swearsies) and hopefully post Thousand Year Old Vampire journal entries (and other, smaller stuff) every couple of days.

I found writing this to be of value, I hope you find reading it similarly valuable.