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The Avatar, the Audience, and the Author

By Steve Darlington

Stories are primal. Everyone knows that. Deep within us, we need to be told stories. Stories to make us feel brave. Stories to make us feel scared. Stories to make us laugh and stories to make us cry. And we get involved in these stories. We cheer the hero and hiss the villain and sob for the victim. A good story can make the reader or listener cry out with fear or joy, or even as a warning, as if the story could be changed, that fourth wall breached and everything put right.

As children — and as adults — we also relive and re-enact our stories, telling them over and over again, with us as the heroes, and sometimes, with things as we would prefer them to be, as they should have been: one less death, or a few more punches to the bad guys, or the tragic couple reunited. The reader re-tells the story to himself and sometimes to others, and in so doing, creates the legend.

And so stories change, like rumours, as we each shape them in our minds. But one thing remains constant - the story, as we heard it. The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on, as the saying goes. As a child, I played at being Luke Skywalker and Batman, but I knew there was no way to change his adventures on the screen. Later, I told my own stories - new tales about old heroes, and old stories about new ones, but that was storytelling. As much as I acted it out, the story was being created - not lived.

Which is what we want, really. We want to get in there. To break that fourth wall, turn back the pages and do it our way. To stop the blade from falling. To lead the hero to the villain, or, dammit, take on his role. We know what we want - we want justice, truth, a happy ending, and although we know that the denial of it is what keeps us hungry, it is only the knowledge that our appetites will be sated that keeps us in our seats. It is the taste of that sweet conclusion that we want more than anything else, and if we could only get into the story.then by God, we would have it. We'd show those bastards what for, solve that mystery, marry that woman, and sort everything out. Part of us knows we wouldn't do this, of course, and would be unsurprised to find ourselves as scared and weak and callous on the other side of the wall as we are in our reality. But another part tells us that this is a story, and when we got there, well, everything would work out. We would be the hero.

But it is all idle dreams. We cannot enter the story. We can be reader, and feel ourselves to be there, or writer and create the drama, but we cannot live it. We cannot feel it. Life is for living, stories are for observing.

Until now.

Oh, interactive, participatory and collaborative storytelling is nothing new. But it took Gygax and Arneson to make them a market niche, a style, and a medium all of their own. Roleplaying is a blend, not just of author and audience, but of author, audience and participant. Roleplaying lets you break that fourth wall and climb into the narrative. To punch that villain, kiss that girl, and make everything all right. And - by some miracle - it combines the best of both worlds: you get the true, visceral feeling of living the experiences, as closely as possible and far more than in any static artform.but at the same time, you are playing a role, you are better than you really are, more heroic, more fictional, more true.

Which is why, of course, that there is so much killing and taking of stuff. Why morality so often falls by the wayside. Why players hate to lose, never flee and whine at any loss. Why it takes such work to find players who will stop "powergaming" and play "narratively", to tell a story rather than to win. To play narratively is to think like an author, to understand the need for suffering and struggle, to create structure and feeling on the journey. To roleplay - to really live the game - is to be your true audience self, bursting through that fourth wall and making everything right.

That's why you kill the bad guy in the first scene. That's why you kill all the orcs. You know how these stories go. Kill them now and you save yourself and everyone so much trouble. Like any audience member, you know who the heroes are and who the villains are, and that the heroes can't die and the villains must lose. Everything else quickly becomes academic, and there is nothing else to do but start handing out justice. The rest of the game is simply artifice to slow that down - puzzles to solve to find the villain, simulations to run through as well as the story, game mechanics to manipulate and test with luck to find the optimal way to do the killing. These are fun, and indeed, worthwhile on their own, but they are also often nothing more than distractions. While the audience drive remains, we want only to defeat evil as quickly as possible and when we become complete avatars, living our lives in the game than we lose any sense of narrative and only wanting want any human being wants, in the real world: to destroy our enemies, taste the sweet reward of conquest and win, win, win.

It is terribly easy (and terribly fashionable) to criticise the avatar drive to "powergame" as being childish and frivolous, but this would be as foolish as mocking any drive to succeed - to win at a game of cards, to succeed at one's job, to master a craft, reach a standard, even to find friends or seek out food we enjoy. It is patently ridiculous to have a game which is designed to permit the players to enter and live in a fictional world and then criticise them for simply acting as if they have. The problem, of course, is that others want to preserve the sense of wise audience, one that knows that heroes are heroic, and of wise author, who knows that suffering is necessary.

For all their faults, Stephen Donaldson's novels are a prefect example of this issue. The plot tells of a hero from our world who falls into a fictional one, and acts appropriately: convinced he is insane, he declines to act the Mythic Hero role the fictional world tries to place on him, and refuses to fight the Villain. For this crime - the crime of being real - many readers loathe the character, considering him a coward or a whiner. As the audience, they know what fictional characters are supposed to do. They're not supposed to be real.

The reality program Survivor understood this too. The game they created gave the real people real goals to work for, and a real, concrete prize, to encourage teamwork, ambition and competition - the last of which led to concepts like nobility and selfishness. Meanwhile the exotic setting exposed the contestant's strengths and weaknesses and provided a world for them to explore, while the game rules provided them social mechanisms to play with. In other words, they did everything they could to turn real people into fictional characters - and they succeeded.

The point is that as roleplayers it is folly to ignore the avatar drive, or indeed the audience drive. The avatar drive wants the character to win - to defeat their enemies and get everything they want, with the absolute minimum of effort. The audience drive wants the good guys to be larger than life, the innocent not to suffer and the villains to be taken down ASAP. It is only the drive of the author that thinks of anything beyond these ideas. To provide an example, the avatar goes into the dungeon to get treasure and power-ups. The audience goes into the dungeon because it is the quickest way to prove the hero's strength and to find the evil magic user and kill him. The author goes into the dungeon because it will provide drama and excitement, revealing his character's nature and entertaining his fellow players.

Again, it is tempting to conclude that the avatar and indeed the audience are lesser drives, because they are more primal and less developed. In fact, the opposite is true: it is precisely because these drives are simpler and more primal that they are vital to a good RPG. And to discard the avatar and the audience is to reduce roleplaying to merely collaborative improvised storytelling - a fine and worthy art form of its own, of course, but not the same thing as an RPG.

It is the combination of the three that makes RPGs so unique, and it is the balancing of the three that makes producing a good time often so difficult. Every player will, at different times in their gaming life and indeed, during the average session, prefer one mode over the other, or tap into one drive before the other. A group where one drive holds sway will not please other players who want to favour the others. And a game which does not cater to all three can easily lose flavour, force, or flair.

The fact is, players like to win, and players like their characters to look cool. A GM, or a player who forgets either of these rules does so at his peril. Unless the players have all agreed to work in a strongly authorial fashion, removing the avatar and audience drive can deprive the game of any real punch. Without the avatar drive, the players can never feel their character's emotions, and thus their sense of involvement will wane, and the game's power to evoke with it. If they do not value their playing piece, they cannot fear its destruction or injury, nor revel in its improved capabilities. Meawhile, games without an audience drive remove the character's desire to win the day and defeat evil, and stories can flounder as the storyteller finds no hooks to motivate his heroes, or indeed, any heroes at all. Without heroes to cheer for and villains to hiss, the players will lose interest in their own creations and the tales they are telling.

Remove the author drive, of course, and the game quickly loses any sense of structure, style and dramatic feel.

Of course, a game lacking in one of these drives or firmly favouring one over the others is by no means a less enjoyable pastime or a less potentially powerful art-form. It is not the point of this essay to suggest anything of the sort. The point, perhaps, is simply to remind us all that despite these increasingly segregationist times, where we choose a style and wear it as a badge, all three drives have merit, and all three have their place in an RPG. It is in their combination that the best games are born, and in the neglect of one that, very often, games collapse.

More importantly, it is in the combination of the three that RPGs are truly a unique art form, unlike any other the world has ever seen. An art form that can tell stories in a completely unprecedented way, evoking emotions and experiences in us that no other medium could ever produce. Again, in these segregationist times, it is often heard that by discarding the avatar, gaming truly reaches its potential and becomes art. But the opposite is true: while gaming can be art in many forms, it is only when it embraces its avatar and audience drives, when it plays upon our need to kill things and take their stuff, and to play unstoppably cool ninjas (albeit tempered with an authorial spirit) do they truly become something entirely unique, breathlessly revolutionary and truly artistic.

Or to put it more crudely: in our pursuit to catch the hearts and minds of our audience, we often look down on those who catch their audience by the balls. But where the balls go, the heart and mind must follow.

Steve Darlington is just this guy, you know?

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