This is RPG-ology #45: Learning, for August 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Learning, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
Gamers seem to be readers. At least, there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups. Ask for a list of favorite authors on a gamer forum and it isn’t just that you’ll get hundreds of answers, some of the respondents will give you a hundred or so themselves.
What do we read? It won’t surprise you that fantasy and science fiction authors top the list, along with horror writers. But the list goes in many surprising directions. You’ll find classics from Shakespeare to Sophocles, Milton to Dante to Goethe; mysteries from Christie to Conan-Doyle; espionage and action, high drama and pulp, even romance.
Scratch a bit deeper and you’ll discover that our reading interests extend into non-fiction. We read history, physics, philosophy, theology, biology, sociology, psychology, political science—we’re a veritable liberal arts education in our spare time. We seem to have an appetite to know. Older gamers tend to be well educated. I could introduce you to serious gamers and game designers with graduate degrees in a vast array of subjects. We read everything.
In that sense, perhaps we’re not so unique. People who like to read read whatever is written. My most voracious reader son, Kyler, was reading my law school texts when he was in eighth grade, just for something to read. We don’t all read the same things, and our reading habits (apart from that tendency toward fantasy, science fiction, and horror) aren’t much different from other readers. We read the ordinary things; and as with readers generally, some of us also read the odd things.
What are the odd things people read? Some people actually read the phone book. I’ve never understood that one. More common, and more useful, there are people who read dictionaries. Encyclopedias are also popular among the odd fringe. There are many odd things that people read.
I read the listings in TV Guide™.
O.K., maybe that’s particularly odd. But then, I use the television the way most people use a radio or stereo. It’s on while I work, and provides background sound. Sometimes I look up to see what’s happening, or even get absorbed in it for a few minutes. If I need to concentrate on something, I turn it down, or sometimes switch it to “input.” I don’t really watch it as much as listen to it. It’s my background noise. So each week I try to skim through the television listings, watching for favorite movies and interesting specials. It would be annoying to discover that I missed something I really wanted to see while I was watching something in which I had little interest.
But even from the listings, I am sometimes enlightened.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is how often the same program at different times will have different descriptions, even in the same issue. And the descriptions can make a big difference in my reaction to the programs. I often wonder about who writes these blurbs, because sometimes they are very positive or very negative about the same show.
And that tells me that presentation can be everything. The words I choose to describe something, even the manner in which I deliver them, can make the difference between a drooling winged lizard and a slavering dragon.
And speaking of who writes these things, they must get pretty bored after a while. Have you ever noticed the subtle jokes they insert in some of them? For example, Christine is a “Stephen King horror vehicle.” Snow White: A Tale of Terror is “a grim version of the fairy tale” A League of Their Own is a “Solid hit.” And Weekend at Bernie’s II is a “lifeless sequel.” If those puns bring a smile to your face, consider how wordplay in your presentation can help lighten the mood (when you want it light).
Another thing I’ve noticed from the television listings is how very much I don’t watch. Sure, there’s more airing than I would have time to see, but the amount of broadcast material that doesn’t interest me in the least far outweighs the amount which does. And this is also instructive. I know that somebody watches The Young and the Restless, Malcolm in the Middle, and College Basketball, or they wouldn’t be there. It reminds me that there are a lot of stories and a lot of ideas which could make for great games for the right people, even if they don’t make the best games for me.
But obviously I don’t read the listings to glean these lessons; I just wanted to note that I have gotten ideas and perspectives from something so mundane as these. No, I read the listings in order to see what’s on television, and I mark up my TV Guide™ to remind me what caught my eye. I find there’s a wealth of interesting material.
As the 2000-2001 season drew to a close, my top must-see shows were probably Seven Days (I’m still a sucker for time travel), Farscape (alien insight into human culture is always a keeper), Buffy (I hate what they did to Willow, but the show has kept its sense of humor), and Angel (Buffy part two). I kept up on First Wave, The Invisible Man, and Voyager, and there are a few things I missed the first time through of which I’m trying to pick up all the episodes, like StarGate SG-1, Early Edition, Manimal, and Brimstone. Are you detecting a pattern here? I’m really not that narrow in my viewing, but I’ve seen every Columbo, most of Murder, She Wrote, near all of Law & Order–some shows don’t do as well the seventh time through.
But in fact I also devour a tremendous amount of educational television. I’ve often got the PBS Home College Service programming on when I’m up all night (which for practical purposes I am several nights a week, being much more a stay-up-and-finish person than a get-up-early person). I watch a lot of The Learning Channel, and Classroom or Discovery Science if I’m up with the kids in the morning. I particularly recommend Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, if they’re ever on again: James Burke does a marvelous job of tying together cultural and technological advances so that you begin to understand the world in new ways—like the atomizer that sprays perfume from a bottle, Voltaire’s gas testing spark gun, and the improved pistons of Watt’s steam engine coming together in the internal combustion engine. One season with Burke, and you’ll understand much more about how history fits together than you ever got in history class. I’ve got some other favorites I particularly seek—Ethics in America comes to mind—but you would have to explore to see what most challenges you. There’s no reason to stop learning just because you’re not in school; and if you are in school, there’s no reason not to learn a few things outside your studies. In fact, most of the best essays I ever wrote in school drew on knowledge from unrelated disciplines to address the questions, so knowing something outside your field can only help.
And that breadth of knowledge is one of the keys to great world creation. To build cultures you need to understand sociology and anthropology. To build characters you must grasp psychology. To build nations, politics and economics are vital. Continents require geology and geography. And the mechanics behind it demand at least some basic statistics and math. But this is only the beginning. The broader and deeper your knowledge base, the more complete your world becomes. How does the ecosystem work? What is known about the planetary system? What did you decide about law enforcement? Did you do anything with art or music? Do their scientists understand how the universe works? Wherever you have gaps in your knowledge, there will be gaps in your universe. The more you know, the easier it is to fill those gaps.
I once enjoyed a series of lectures by Dr. J. Edwin Orr, an Irish evangelist who at that time had seventeen earned doctorates. I’ve got one; I’ll be very pleased if life affords me the opportunity to get another. Very few people get that far. But that doesn’t mean you stop learning. The knowledge is out there, in books and on television.
To give new meaning to a simple phrase, help yourself.