The Media is the Method (and the Message)

Originally published on Gaming as Women by Mo, August 21, 2013

I like my games long duration, high context, and personally intense. I like to be gut-punched by my interaction with them, explore difficult subjects, experience catharsis and earn my emotional hangovers. I like complex, nuanced and difficult characters, stories and worlds.

And here’s the problem with that: in the last number of years, my gaming group has reorganized it’s priorities – and for good reason! Marriage, kids, careers, diversified hobbies, travelling: we have a lot of things going on in our lives. That’s awesome, but it can also make it hard to carve out a slice of time to be together, even in small groups. It’s even harder to find a slice where everyone is fully awake, and has the kind of focus and energy it takes to make a game that ambitious.

Also, as the availability of my meatspace gamers wanes, the community of awesome folks I discuss games with online (such as my GaW compatriots) has grown, largely because it’s easier to find time to interact asynchronously through social media. As that social community grows, so does my opportunity to game with them in Skype or Hangouts. This is also great, but has it’s own challenges. New folks working together really have to work to earn the right to be ambitious, and that can be especially hard because while technology is great, it’s not as socially facilitative as playing across the table, or down the couch.

So how to cope with this? There’s a million ways I’m sure, but I wanted to talk about one shortcut that my homegame peeps use to get on the same page and in the same headspace quicker: media emulation.

We all already use shortcuts when we game. Rituals are a form of shortcut to emotional preparation. Splatbooks are shortcuts to allowable fictional input, or for norming in character behaviour. Genre emulation (Swashbuckling, Sword and Sandal, High Fantasy) shortcuts us to fictional colour and theme. Media emulation – by which I mean roleplaying via emulation of a particular media (other than just roleplaying) – is a way to shortcut emotional tone, focus and pacing.

One of the most obvious media emulation styles would be cinematic. Many of our broader games use this. When we play in cinematic style, there is an obvious emphasis on visual description. We include descriptions of big vista shots, we sometimes talk about how the camera pans, who the camera follows or where it is focusing to point out what’s important in the scene or the story. We might describe the filter used or lighting on the opening “shot” of a scene to signal an emotional change in tone. We might describe an action moment going into slow motion to draw attention and excitement into a moment of play. In cinematic style, there is also sometimes an expectation that the scenes move at a cinematic pace: meaning that they serve the telling of the story in a cinematic way (appropriate to the genre).

If you want it to really be effective as a shortcut, it’s important to know what genre of cinematic media you’re aiming to emulate. Emulating a Michael Bay movie will mean different things (fast edits, special effects, technicolour, characterization and plot serve the action) than emulating Bergman’s oeuvre (slow transitions, high contrast, monochromatic, setting, music and cinemetography serve the exploration of the theme through observations of the characters) – and neither will be accessible to all players. But the benefit here is that people – especially we as geeks and gamers because of our investment into such things – are generally much better at pointing to media as the kind of experience we want to have rather than having long, drawn out, expectation setting conversations where we it would take time, energy and difficulty to identify and articulate things we want and need in play.

In many games, we emulate graphic novels. Here again is a strong emphasis on visual description and the arc of telling a story package. However graphic novels have many different conventions that cinema does not (as often) employ. Images are isolated and pointed, transitional visuals are absent. The idea of action is important, but the detail of it is not so much. The “gutter” can collapse or expand to indicate the transition of emotional or physical states, 0r transitions in time. The media emulation of graphic novels are particularly well suited to roleplaying as a modular process: you can “pick up” or “put down” the act of emulation as needed to emphasize certain moments, bring kairotic (critical moment in time to character development) emphasis to a character, to overlay an emotional state, or to cut through action or activity that is not important to the players at the table.

For example, in one graphic novel style game we played we used emulation to frame, focus, and skip. In framing, we’d set up the tone, colour and situation of a scene. Once we would get in, play would be more general RPG. Not every action would be described in the graphic novel style. When it was important, we would cut back to emulation – describing panel by panel to focus on an important moment to in play. Eventually we’d return to general play, and when we’d come up against some part of the story that was undesirable to us – like the details of combat . The panels and gutters would allow us to skip over what we didn’t want to play without losing what we did want – the intrinsic affect and effect of strife. Of course, mileage will vary on what’s important to group to group: the bottom line is that the media emulation can be used to draw out things you do like and cut out things you don”t like.

In a one-on-one game, my husband and I have been emulating a serial novella in the genre of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper romance. There we have a lot of description of settings, we describe body language and tone of voice. We have explicit narration of the character’s (especially the focus character’s) internal state. Interpersonal scenes have more attention and combat, while flashy and appropriately awesome in genre style, serves the development of the character – descriptions of combat have less emphasis on the physiology of the fight and more on the impact to emotion, relationship and status. The series is expressly a bildungsroman in the form of a roman-fleuve (we’re lit geeks) meaning that it aims to episodically tell the story of a single protagonist’s life from childhood to full development (in this case, old age – so the novellas have years of gaps between them and focus on specific eras of the character’s life and development.

We’ve also played games as comic books, as anime, as TV sitcom, as TV drama series. We’ve designed and played bits and pieces and whole games based on Reality TV, on playlists, on volumes of poetry. In as much as I usually use media emulation to simplify and shortcut, I also use it to enhance and intensify when I have learned the right to be ambitious. I’d love to try out other media genres too, like radio serials and even photography collections. Where there’s a media, there’s a method to expand, diversify, and shortcut your play. I’d love to hear if and how others do this!