A whole bunch of RPG bloggers have recently pointed to this post which compares the obsession with game mechanics in RPGs with the obsession on certain mechanical details in pornography (hereafter referred to as pr0n to escape the spammers). 

I think they are getting way too hung up on the pr0n=D&D thing. The argument is clever, and I like it, but it simply consists of observing that the mechanics of a product can overwhelm the underlying purpose during the drive to market the product. Pr0n is just the most obvious representation of this phenomenon, which I think it’s reasonable to say occurs in many areas of commerce etc. But I think its too simplistic, and over-simplifies the dynamics of modern pr0n and RPGs.

The most obvious way in which this can be seen is the article’s claims about splatbooks. They just don’t serve the role Wax Banks claims. The article ignores the importance players put on the imprimatur of game authors over products, i.e. we buy expansion packs because we trust our game company to develop the ideas which interest us in such a way that they work within the game rules. Good expansion packs are the very opposite of the “splat” which Wax Banks claims. Anyone who has tried designing their own character classes or systems should know that doing so in a balanced way is extremely difficult, and because game designers are often better than us at this we prefer to buy their version than use our own. An obvious example of this is the classic fantasy character of the warrior mage – there is no starting class of this form in AD&D, so if one wants to have such a class one needs to design it oneself or buy a book containing such a design. Chances are, the game designers’ version will be better than your own. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the example of the monk, a triumph of balance in designing a character which threatens to be either really weak or way too powerful.

On this kind of evidence, I would contend that the drive in modern games is not towards mechanics for the sake of it, but towards the use of mechanics to balance simulationism and playability in a game which appeals to people who want to imagine fantasy worlds. Mechanics are important for this, just like body parts and methods are important in good sex. And just as pr0n-o-graphic styles and emphasis change over time – as fashion changes, as relations between the sexes change, and as our relationship with ourselves changes – so role-playing styles change under the influence of the customers, the parallel geek worlds of computers and fandom, the literary and cinematic worlds which influence us. AD&D 3.5 may be much more mechanical than AD&D 2, but it’s better, it gives a better balance of high fantasy and realism, and the characters are more interesting and better balanced. The AD&D 3.5 ranger is a lot of fun, because of rather than despite the rules.

Similarly modern developments in pr0n don’t necessarily always represent the victory of mechanics over feeling. There is not “always a money shot”, which is in fact a reasonably modern innovation in pr0n. Modern mechanics in that film genre at least partially represent the increasing diversity and vibrancy of modern human sex lives, and may actually continue to reflect the fantasies and desires of ordinary people. It’s not as if the study of this genre is exactly unbiassed enough to provide clear answers as to what the viewer “wants”, which makes comparisons with it pretty dangerous unless, like Wax Banks, you’ve watched an awful lot of it. Who is to say that the money shot or gonzo stuff represents a focus on mechanics over fantasy, rather than the predominance of a particular fantasy among the viewers? Maybe the modern focus on mechanics serves to aid the viewers’ fantasies, rather than to overwhelm them in grotty detail? If 80s pr0n is like AD&D 2, then maybe pr0n 3.5 just represents a better way of showing people what they want?

(Interestingly, I tend to think that modern internet pr0n is much nastier and more sexist than earlier stuff, and particularly the predominance of really humiliating nastiness in American internet pr0n is quite disturbing. I recommend anyone who wants to investigate this compare any of the major purveyors of internet stuff from America and Japan. The Japanese stuff – famously sexist – strikes me as much more gentle, and much less degrading (in general) than the American stuff. Wax Banks had some things to say about the American national character and the focus on mechanics which are interesting in light of this comparison)

(But, it’s dangerous to compare internet pr0n with anything. Nobody pays for that stuff (what a shocking idea!). And as with all things, if you want to get your kicks for free you have to compromise, and the compromise with American internet pr0n seems to be that you have to suffer through the misogyny to get your excitement. bitTorrent notwithstanding, one usually pays for role-playing books, so one tends to have some consumer power as regards what goes into them…)

(And in closing, can I just say that Wax Banks’ blog is excellent!)