Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“No Superlatives or Absolutes”

 The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

Joseph Conrad

I believe games have a great deal to teach us about ourselves and the world around us, beyond simply the escape and enjoyment they provide (though these in and of themselves make them worthy). In times like these, where the world and society seem bent on tearing themselves apart – apparently indifferent to the humanitarian cost – we seek solace, however momentary, in our favorite pastimes. As I try processing all of this, I remind myself of a game-related maxim I’ve tried to bear in mind in my later adult years. I once applied it, along with numerous other guidelines, as editor for West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal and other roleplaying game projects. It has, oddly enough, echoed beyond those years within the Star Wars film canon, though many ignored it as inconvenient. “No Superlatives or Absolutes.”

The concept emerges prominently in the climax of Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith, when Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Anakin Skywalker as he reveals he has fully embraced the Dark Side:

Anakin: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”

Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

I’m sure fans and others have debated this exchange deep into the dirt, but I refer to it here to link my game-editing guidelines from the past to a film franchise that still entertains me...with both demonstrating an idea from games and media we might consider incorporating in our lives and how we experience the world.

Writing for West End’s
Star Wars Roleplaying Game – probably writing for any licensed setting – we took care not to bulldoze existing continuity or limit future creators, especially those working on official media. Sections in the old Star Wars Style Guide noted what continuity elements to avoid; at the time, before the release of the prequels, this meant avoiding anything about the Old Republic, fall of the Jedi, rise of Palpatine, and the Clone Wars. (Though I suppose if we had created such elements it would have been wiped out with the rest of the inconvenient “Expanded Universe” materials anyway after Disney acquired Lucasfilm....) To protect the creative freedom of subsequent writers, we tried very hard to avoid absolutes that might trip up others. No “best of” or “most powerful in the galaxy.” No exclusivity.

West End always believed the Star Wars universe was big enough to contain the core canon as well as the company’s official creations and even individual gaming groups’ exploits. The game maintained that “our adventures happen just off-screen” and it helped give gamers inspiration and “permission” (as if they ever needed it) to play around in their favorite universe far, far away. We didn’t worry too much about the “unofficial” exploits gamers played out around their kitchen tables at home (like the story someone told me about how their band of Ewok characters took over the second Death Star...). But as licensees bound to Lucasfilm for approval of our materials, we worked hard to make sure everything seemed to fit the setting and respect the boundaries for future creators. I’ve lost count of – and forgotten numerous stories about – the times we wrangled with Lucasfilm’s continuity people trying to reconcile our vision of some aspect of the Star Wars universe that would make for a great element in a sourcebook or adventure. Back then, as it no doubt is now, maintaining continuity in what’s been released before and what’s under development remained a monumental and multifaceted challenge.

My days at West End are long past, but years of reflection helped me take away a few lessons (though never quite enough). Avoiding absolutes in my personal life and world view have helped me examine issues with a bit more compassion and understanding, though I’m not always clear-headed enough when I’m personally involved. Few issues are distinctly right or wrong, black or white, this or that. Many depend on a person’s unique life experience, background, changing views, and tastes. We see it in games. Certainly during 40+ years of playing adventure games my own preferences and perspectives have changed; but I also try to appreciate other people’s points of view by remembering not everything I like they must also like...and that I don’t have to like everything they like. Absolutes even in the adventure gaming hobby can lead to caustic debate and entrenched fandoms. In most issues there’s some gray area...one might even consider it a color and intensity spectrum. Absolutes deny the infinite, complex variety in people, perspectives, and issues...and the opportunities and complexities those create.

But I see folks digging in behind absolutes everywhere online – even in public life – erupting from tumultuous news events in clouds of self-important posts from those who simply want to take sides and point accusing fingers at others. Our ancient tribal origins still live in our DNA today, less as a survival instinct and more as an antagonistic social construct. Our side believes this, hence the other side is “my enemy.” We shout “if/then” statements with abandon, claiming if someone else thinks or does this one thing then they’re this particular brand of monster we despise. We revel in absolutes to describe ourselves and define our enemies. Such labels often keep us from empathizing with other perspectives, a necessary step in finding solutions to our conflicts. They also keep us from engaging in civilized, courteous discussion of our differences; we’d rather engage in a shouting match than sit down and talk things out intelligently with any degree of mutual respect. It’s easy to shout, not so easy and far more costly to work finding effective solutions to our problems. Many cases exist where we must speak up and protest – to defend those who can’t, to set the record straight, to call out bad behavior and give transgressors a chance to redeem themselves – in the hope we can improve our world with respect and compassion for all who seek something better.

Humans are far more complex creatures than one can describe with a handful of absolutes or broad definitions. My own abilities, emotions, opinions, and purposes alone constitute a complicated and often conflicted existence: husband, father, writer, gamer, designer, cook, classical music lover, reader, history lover (not to mention various socio-political outlooks I try keeping to myself). And all of those in different ways and to differing degrees than anyone else who might even share some of those descriptors.

I wish more people would pause to take a deep breath, step back, and reflect on how they define the immediate conflict before them in absolutes. Like such extremes in the Star Wars Style Guide, they limit how we might view issues or move forward in the future. Like Anakin and Obi-Wan, they prevent us from recognizing the complexity of an issue and harden us in our extreme positions, preventing civil discussion and any progress in resolving our problems.

At the border, there’s an acceptance that you can be so many things at the same time – which is what we all are anyway.”

Pati Jinich

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