Allegorical Gaming: Weighing Reason

Image: Plato’s Cave Allegory illustration from Mrs. Shepherd’s Classes. 

Before we delve into what the hell I’ll be yapping about abstractly for the rest of the page*, we need to understand what an allegory is. They’re scarily similar to metaphors, especially with the misuse of the word in the modern world. I read a good article that talks about it, though it’s a bit of a slog for someone not used to thinking in this frame. This is the necessary preliminary work that only the individual can do for themselves to make their work successful. Tap as many resources of thought as you can, but come to your own conclusion that’s built on a foundation of facts and reason. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t make your game an allegory. Just have fun, know that’s okay and what games are ultimately designed for. For the record, this one is more about social structure in relation to frame of mind than gaming itself. Shall we?

Using games to confront real things in a controlled and welcoming environment is a pretty good idea, but what are the challenges to this? There’s a myriad of boons and busts to this, but each subject that can be addressed has a different set of them. This makes navigating the waters of a campaign as an allegory quite difficult. Besides the creative hurtles, like choosing what you’d like to explore and how exactly to deeply convey it, you should first look at your group dynamic.

Every group is different, it doesn’t take someone with an extensive back log of experience to acknowledge and understand that fact. However, know that one, singular truth is only a tiny part of the larger one. How is your group different? In what ways do they work together or against each other? These questions are just as important at the table as they are outside of it, and serve as a basis to the final answer as to whether or not your game can be an allegory. When you decide to make your game an allegory, it’s no longer just about the game. To give you some guidance on what to do with that thought: this type of game brings things from outside inward for dissection and reflection. Therefore, you open the gateways for serious, potentially emotional conversation. It sounds good, and it can be, but it can easily blow up in your face if you have players that you don’t deeply know away from the game table. Not only do you have to be a GM in this situation, but you need to be a colleague, and an open minded one at that.

The goal of this art is to make the players turn inward about something on the exterior. If you, or anyone in your group for that matter, can’t walk up to an allegory with a mind to contemplate the entire picture and potentially have a civil discussion about it, then your game should not be an allegory.

Simple as that. When I say that finite statement is “simple,” I don’t mean that the situation itself isn’t complex, but the parameters that allow you to move forward can be boiled down to make them seem that way. When one questions that statement, they can travel down into the infinite depth of the very question itself. Calling it simple gives you a feeling of gratification, an understanding of some degree of depth to where generalization can be useful; but it’s important to be aware of the fact that it’s anything but simple in reality. When you understand a situation fully, it becomes easy to call  it simple, but when explaining it to other people, one must be thorough. The end game of your campaign is to reflect, within yourselves, about the situations presented.

Image source: Smith College Museum of Art

I called this article, “weighing reason,” for… well, at the risk of sounding more repetitive than I already do, a reason. People have their own ways of pursuing truth through reason, which in this sense means thinking rather than a cause, though it’s abundantly clear that some methods are better than others. In order to keep peace among a group of people, you need to be aware of other people’s way of reasoning, an individual’s way of reasoning, before you present a question. What does that mean? We know that people don’t like to be challenged. One could ask the question, “Why is the sky blue?” The question is simple, direct, and neutral. You could ask that same question in a different way. Do you know why the sky is blue? See the difference? The former is a neutral inquiry, whereas the second question designated a specific target. That makes it my lack of knowledge against knowledge that I assume you have. It seems silly, as the question is the same, but take tone of voice into consideration. The way you ask that question is in many cases infinitely more important than the words themselves, or at least on an interpersonal level. Pair that awareness with an actually challenging question and it opens the flood gate of deductive reasoning. It seems trivial to be bringing all this up, but zooming in to understand individual parts of the dynamic is what helps you manipulate the damn contraption to work. Unfortunately for us gamers, people are the most complicated contraptions that we have a need to manipulate in the context of RPGs.

In the case of an allegorical RPG campaign, that manipulation is taking the form of making someone pose a question to themselves. This should be done through events in the story, character interactions, the layout of the environment itself, fictional political strife, etc. It’s a hard thing to achieve, and you can fail. Look at what parts of the situation could lead to failure and try to find a way to manipulate that as well. Starting to sound kind of creepy and personally intrusive, isn’t it? Now, I bestow upon you the thought to save yourself from this benign manipulation changing into a way for you to insert your own opinions; which may or may not be objectively wrong due to a lack of understanding of the parts, I might add.

A GM has the power to sneakily interject things that they believe into the experiences of others. It’s their responsibility and duty to not wield that belief like a weapon, but to hand it off like a good book. That way the individual can come to their own conclusion about the stance based on the information within to better themselves and, hopefully, the world around them.

This all seemingly has nothing to do with gaming. However, when we consider the impact of the questions that can rise out of the resolutions within a fictional calamity, we see that there’s more than what’s on the surface. Taking all of what I just proposed and putting it under the most powerful microscope you can find is, by far, the most important part making your allegorical campaign succeed. Is this all? Of course not, I’d be a complete fool to think so. Human beings learn best when presented with information paired with the ability to dismantle it into small parts, helping us make a better judgement of the whole. Virtuous behavior is equally as important, as having more than your own experience it build off makes for a strong foundation. Just remember not to take everything everyone says as truth without question.

* Here’s the disclaimer: I have no formal education in philosophy, social science, political science, or psychology. Or anything, really, besides automotive technology and whatever I retained from my horrendous journey through the American public school system. Everything you have just read is a product of my own deductive reasoning and personal experience, and very well may be wrong. *

I’d like everyone who reads this post to comment with an honest question about this piece. Not because I want to prove you wrong, not because I have some insatiable thirst for argument, but because I want to be better both as a game master and an individual. Hopefully, you’re with me and you do too. I expect to be met with a founded, fact and experience based challenge. The only way to become better is to make mistakes! Learning how to talk about views you disagree with, without letting your emotion override reason, is the most important skill that is the most uncommon. Hone it like the blade you’re going to go kill that troll that represents ignorance with.

Thank you so much for reading and Stay Metal \m/

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