Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Passive & Active Entertainment

Every so often I hear the argument on the internet justifying the high prices for games – usually roleplaying games, but also board and miniatures games – that they offer far more entertainment in dollars per hour of enjoyment than a few brief hours at the movies. Thus a $50 roleplaying game with all its creative potential for years of play is far more worthwhile than a similar dollar-value of movies, usually about one movie with a handful of attendees, the size of the average gaming group. I don’t follow these discussions much; from my point of view as a consumer I value my money on my own terms and I evaluate each potential game purchase on its own merits. But I find the comparison between the price of games and movies and the amount of enjoyment they provide one of those apples-and-oranges issues. Although it seems like a valid point for a discussion, we’re really talking about two very different kinds of entertainment: passive and active. In one participants remain relatively passive, sitting back and enjoying someone else’s vividly creative efforts. In the other the participants themselves – working within an already established framework, like a game – actively take part in creating their own entertainment.

Take Star Wars as an example. When it released last December I paid $13.50 to enjoy Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For two hours I rode a great roller coaster with action, special effects, gorgeous visuals, and numerous satisfying nods to my nostalgic fan love for Star Wars. I enjoyed it on DVD, too, when that released. Although my excitement for it endures a little longer than the actual film, the actual experience lasts only two hours. But when I get home and want to channel my excitement into games – let’s say the X-wing miniatures game, Armada, or even a Star Wars D6 roleplaying game session – I have some work to do. Granted, my financial investment in those gaming materials is far greater than the $13.50 I paid for a movie ticket; but I have to prepare a scenario (mustering forces by point values or devising a roleplaying game situation), clear off the play area (the cluttered dining room table or the basement wargaming table), and assemble some friends. Yes, for my financial investment I can play these games repeatedly over the years providing countless hours of satisfying entertainment. But few people (gamers, primarily) are willing to invest that kind of money, time, and effort in an active pursuit. Most would rather sit back and have someone tell them a story in a book, movie, comic book, or television show.

Passivity is the path of least resistance; it’s the one humans usually take when given the choice. For instance, most folks would rather eat a meal someone else cooked, preferably at a restaurant with service (so nobody has to do the dishes...), rather than cook a homemade meal from scratch in their own kitchen. That’s not to say activity isn’t a valid option. Sometimes we “choose” it out of necessity, like when we don’t have the money to eat out. Occasionally we choose because we enjoy it; being active is a means to channel our passions, particularly for gaming. Consider how much time we, as humans invested in the gaming hobby, spend engaging in passive and active entertainment overall. Assuming we’re even able to gather with friends once or twice a week for a few hours’ of gaming, we’re still spending an inordinate proportion of our time with passive entertainment: television shows, novels, comics, movies, and the infinite distractions of the internet, many of which feed our geeky gamer interests.

Passive forms of entertainment seem more appealing because someone else did all the hard work and invested in all the innovation and quality The consumer, while not entirely passive, enjoys the end result with little effort on their part. A handful of people create a particular piece of passive entertainment media; they undertake much of the investment of time, money, and effort to create something passively consumed by a huge audience. They’re taking the actively creative role, maybe because it’s their profession, maybe because it’s their calling. A movie, novel, comic book, or television show is a complete work, ready for people to enjoy right out of the box...no work for the consumer. Games, however, require a bit of effort to enjoy: gathering friends, familiarizing one’s self with the rules, sometimes preparing the components (painting minis, creating terrain), creating characters, and devising scenarios. Adventure games require varying degrees of active participation and imagination, something many people in today’s society don’t want to invest. Some haven’t used much of their imagination since their childhood “let’s pretend” days, or if they do, prefer to indulge it in “what if” scenarios related to the complexities of adult life issues.

The passive/active entertainment issue highlights the adventure gaming hobby’s niche market nature when compared with more mainstream passive leisure pursuits like the movie industry. Movies and television shows have massive budgets, use ubiquitous distribution networks, rake in huge revenues from advertising and merchandising, and acknowledge outstanding productions through popular, well-watched awards shows. In comparison games have tiny budgets (though some games invest a great deal of money in high production values), have outdated, limited distribution models, make enough money to barely pay a staff (if any) and fund the next project, and enjoy a handful of self-congratulatory award ceremonies that desperately aspire to the importance of their film and television counterparts.

Why aren’t adventure games as popular as movies and television given the monetary investment and the hours of potential enjoyment over a lifetime? Both share similarities, primarily roots in the ancient art of storytelling. Board games have just as ancient a history and, in the pre-electronic age, served a greater role (along with play in general) as a commonly enjoyed form of entertainment. Yet gaming still faces some obstacles gaining popularity in the public consciousness. Gaming in its present forms is a relatively recent pursuit, emerging into the mainstream only in the 1960s (wargaming), 1970s (roleplaying), and 1990s (modern Euro board games). They’re plagued with a geek stigma – despite a generalized social acceptance of geek culture – with roleplaying games recovering from a cultural stain perpetuated by the religious moral majority. Some find the investment of time and imaginative engagement required for play intimidating.

I don’t mean to disparage passive entertainment – books, music, and comic books are similar pursuits and no less important in our culture – or those who primarily enjoy them. “Passive” and “active” are simply two descriptive terms broadly characterizing two different degrees of engagement in entertainment lacking any connotations of “bad” or “good.” The adventure gaming hobby just can’t compete with the industries that bring us blockbuster movies, New York Times-bestselling novels, and other mainstream media. Most people prefer passive entertainment; gamers certainly indulge in a good deal of it. But I believe gamers have an exceptional need for and gain extraordinary satisfaction from engaging in an active hobby, one that, yes, requires extra work, substantial purchases, a vivid imagination, and time to bring everyone around the gaming table. The positive experiences we all share at that gaming table are well worth the effort.


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