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An Amusing Episode, Of Our Lives

Kenneth Burke described literature as “equipment for living”: “A work like Madame Bovary,” he wrote, “is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutis mutandis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude toward it.  Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary.”

My mother once said she felt bad about not giving my siblings and me a religious upbringing–not because she feared for our souls, but because she worried we’d miss out on all the biblical references and allusions woven through Western culture.

Simpsons Anniversary Poster

You needn’t have worried, Mom. There’s my equipment for living, there’s my vast Talmudic dictionary of allusions and parables for apprehending and articulating the world. The first episode of The Simpsons aired twenty years ago today.

(*) Just to reiterate: The worst fate Mom could imagine for her heathen kids was not hellfire and damnation, but not getting all the references. I am my mother’s son.

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Fantasy Vietnam

When in doubt, quote Dylan:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “which side are you on?”

Previously on the deep history of roleplaying games: When David Wesely created Braunstein, his seminal proto-roleplaying game, he was inspired, he said, by three books he’d found in the University of Minnesota library. One was a wargame by 19th-century crackpot Charles Totten. One was a primer on game theory by the Cold War eggheads of the RAND Corporation. And the third was Conflict and Defense, an assault on RANDian game theory by the Quaker peace activist, systems theorist, and mystical poet Kenneth Boulding. A catholic trinity, to say the least.

Like Totten’s Strategos and RAND’s Compleat Strategyst, Conflict and Defense is an odd duck. Written in 1960, it is a heartsick response to Cold War brinksmanship and a critique of RAND-style game theory, but it is written in precisely the same esoteric language of models and matrices the RANDies used. “Just as war is too important to leave to the generals,” Boulding concludes, “so peace is too important to leave to the pacifists.” The book is a forest of diagrams and equations, “indifference curves,” “bare-survival contours,” and “mutual submission equilibriums.” It seems to have been an effort to devise some universal geometry of conflict and peace, and in so doing save the world from nuclear war. Boulding was a prominent economist and a pioneer of general systems theory, but his quest for a unified ecology of knowledge ultimately became a kind of religious mysticism. The information revolution, he argued in the 1970s and 80s, was weaving us all into one planetary superorganism. (Which it is, but serious economists aren’t supposed to come right out and say that.)

I’m not claiming that all or even any of this found its way directly into David Wesely’s Braunstein, though I remain impressed at Wesely’s eclectic tastes, and consider the whole story yet more proof of the indispensable serendipity of open library stacks. But the fact that Braunstein was inspired by a spacey Quaker on the one hand and by the RAND Corporation on the other makes me wonder: which side of the culture war were roleplaying games on? Were the first D&Ders squares or hippies, hawks or doves? This was a hobby invented by young American men, men of draftable age, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of the biggest groups of early gamers were college students and the military. Is it strange that the conflicts of the era are not more reflected in the history of the hobby? Is it strange that the received history of roleplaying games barely mentions Vietnam?

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Old School, New Histories

Two pieces on this site that I’m rather proud of are my essays on the secret history of tabletop roleplaying games: Dungeon Master Zero, on the eccentric Indian fighter, pyramidologist, and Anglo-Israelite who brought refereed wargaming to America, and R&D, on Cold War simulation gaming at RAND. One of the things I’m not proud of is that it’s been two years and I haven’t completed what was to have been a trilogy of posts, not to mention a long-promised article for Jonathan Walton’s journal PUSH. The idea for the trilogy came when I read that David Wesely’s Braunstein, a seminal proto-roleplaying game from 1968, was inspired by three books: Charles Totten’s wargame Strategos, the RAND Corporation’s Compleat Strategyst, and Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense. And it seemed to me that each of those three books could tell us something unexpected and as yet untold about the roots of the roleplaying hobby and maybe something about geek or gaming history more generally.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my third post: two years went by! And in those two years, the whole landscape of information and interest in the history of roleplaying has been transformed. A renaissance in “old school” gaming, that is, gaming that tries to emulate the feel or philosophy of the hobby in the 1970s, has brought with it a new interest in the early history of tabletop rpgs.

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Burger Time Event Horizon

There’s a great article by writer Joshuah Bearman in this month’s last month’s (what do you want from me: I’m a historian) Harper’s about Billy Mitchell and the world’s best Pac-Man players. Mitchell is the subject of the recent documentary King of Kong, and he is a total piece of work, but I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen the movie. While focusing on Pac-Man rather than Donkey Kong, the Harper’s article necessarily covers some of the same ground as the film. But the parts I really like are about the zen of classic arcade games: the difference between Pac-Man’s complex but essentially predictable patterns and the randomized unknowability of Ms Pac-Man (ah, woman); Mitchell’s analytical schematic approach versus the dream-inspired chaos surfing of Abdner Ashman; and (shades of Lucky Wander Boy) the eternal mystery of the “kill screen” and What Lies Beyond.

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