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Terms? Insults!

Posted by Andrew on

Welcome back, hopefully you enjoyed my previous post about the exciting world of game terminology. If not, I'm not sure why you're here. All this talk of language and labels has a point I'll be getting to, but some groundwork needs to be laid first for my argument to make any sense.

First among that groundwork consists of a warning, one against derisive terminology. Let's take a trip into the way-back machine to 2008. Are you comfortable? Too bad! Enjoy your in-flight movie, it's a documentary about GNS theory. It's a roleplaying game thing, an idea more than a theory. We'll get to common use definitions versus scientific and technical definitions later, but for now I'll refer to GNS as a theory considering the common-use shoe fits.

GNS theory is an idea referencing the way people interact with roleplaying games, and while far from exhaustive or flawless, it provides some nourishment for debate. The basics of it revolve around the three major behavioral tendencies that roleplayers exhibit during a game; gamist, narrative, and simulationist. The gamist interaction tends to make decisions based on straightforward challenges, going for a traditional victory over the environment or gamemaster. Narrative interaction revolves around dramatic tension and character motivations, becoming similar to one form of fiction or another. Simulationist tendencies emerge when actions are taken to model a source or genre of fiction, even if this is a completely unrealistic action movie. More on the word “realism” later. What a sticky word that is.

When Ron Edwards created GNS theory, I don't believe he intended for the word “gamist” to become a pejorative. The behavior he describes is a very real thing, and something just about every roleplayer out there has gone through and enjoyed. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and just about every other zero-to-hero model of roleplaying advancement encourages this greatly. Monsters have clearly defined challenge ratings or experience rewards, the acquisition of improved equipment and special abilities is laid out in detail in the appropriate gamemasters book, a cursory examination shows the structure for this type of play in many roleplaying games. The big problem came out at the year our chronological dislocator has placed us, 2008.

2008 saw the release of Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition, and the ensuing edition war that would consume worlds and leave us all hurting in its wake. Make no mistake, I have a very poor opinion of the edition war and think the damage it caused will take decades to repair. The term “gamist” became a rallying cry of the anti-4e sentiment, and through the evolution of language this definition changed from something akin to the standard level of interaction for more RPGs than I can count to “feels like a game and not a story.” I've read tons of these arguments and every one I've seen uses the word “gamist” in a negative light. By that definition and the way it's used, “gamist” is an insult. When a words definition changes so nothing positive comes from it, the language changes from useful to pejorative to offensive. At that point it must be redeemed or expunged.

For another good example of a term being used like this, just Google the origins and use of “dissociated mechanics.” The screed is not for the faint of heart.

It's very worth noting that Ron Edwards moved from GNS theory into another model appropriately called “The Big Model.” It's much more inclusive and complex, as the best campaigns are.

I leave you today with this call, don't use terminology as insults. It hurts us all, and as small a niche this hobby fills we can't afford that kind of division.

For the record, I'm not on either side. Savage Worlds forever, baby! Mojo out.