Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dungeons and Hyper-reality

I'll bet you were just itching to get back to esoteric nonsense here at the Mug, weren't you? You've started to shift uncomfortably, looking at modules and reports of GenCon, checking down statlines and downloads and think to yourself "When is he going to write another essay that's mostly intellectual masturbation?" Well, my friends, you've come at the right time because here it is: an exploration of roleplaying games (particularly Dungeons and Dragons) and hyper-reality.

Before we launch into the topic, it would help to define our terms. What exactly is hyper-reality? It sounds like an easy enough word to parse, but it can hide a whole bundle of meanings. Here I'm using it in the same sense as Umberto Eco and the semiologists: hyper-reality is a reality that is "more real than real." It's a reality so widely accepted as real (from constant input through media sources of all kinds) that it seems more real than actual reality. It's preferable to reality, better than reality, and overwrites reality itself.

How can D&D be "more real than real?" Well, one of the things that we constantly struggle with here at the Frothing Mug is the collapse of an aesthetic that focuses on simulation of real situations. When someone in one of my games wants to know how much a barrel full of water weighs, I look that up not in a rule book but with a calculator and some estimates on volume. When someone wants to know how long it takes to build a castle, I do research and establish rules. This approach is the least hyper-real that I can get. Sure, no one suddenly has to pee while fighting goblins, but we can assume that bathroom breaks generally take place between the action. The fact that they don't happen as part of the action is the first concession to hyper-reality. My D&D games are better-than-real because you're never suddenly caught unawares by the need to relieve yourself.

In my eyes, that's a very minor detail. I try not to track away from reality very much, keeping the game firmly grounded in things that could happen. Yes, I know magic isn't real, but if it was real. You know, verisimilitude. So what is the real hyper-real game? The game that describes reality not as it is, but as it should be. These games obfuscate reality with better versions. They're comic book realities, or disney animatronics. In these worlds when a strong man misses with a sword, maybe the tiles he smashes into buckle, or he chips a wedge from a pillar with a spray of sparks.

Hyper-reality is a fine goal, if that's what you're looking for. Games that stray from the mundane norms of how the universe actually operates (again, "but with X" and solve for X as: magic, goblins, superscience, whatever) into how the universe would operate if I ran it delve into the realms of the hyper-real.

I find enough hyper-reality presented around me everywhere I turn. I don't need to create more, I could just read a pulpy book or watch a film. Hyper-reality is consuming our perceptions of reality to the point where, when things don't match up with the hyper-real, we feel that they're somehow "false." The hyper-real version was more "real." One of the ways I try to avoid hyper-reality is by capturing those times when reality itself seems false and inserting them into the game. Things like names sounding silly, or a word for something in one language sounds close to a swear in another but the two meanings couldn't be farther apart. Things that actually happen but make us aware that we are not living in a hyper-real world but merely a real one.

How do you deal with hyper-reality in your games? Do you embrace it? Reject it? Dance around it carefully? Inquiring minds, and all that.

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