Seeing Like A State, Video Games, Neoliberalism, and how DnD influenced Computational Late Capitalism.
1933: Organisational Memory
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Role For A Thought Leadership Check
Yesterday a thought came to me as I was deep in building a spreadsheet for someone and I tweeted the following: “Absolutely struck by an argument that extends seeing like a state and explains why DnD fucked up modernity. But I’m too busy to do anything except scribble some notes”
So with no podcast topic in mind for today, lets try and make a run at this half baked idea with nothing more than 4 bullet points and the 2 replies to the folks who asked me to elaborate further. What follows is basically a splurge with very little research or evidence. If there’s something too it, or if i’m completely wrong remember you can always contact me directly.
I woke up this morning to the hashtag critical role in my feed. Last night the team played DnD onstage in a theatre in front of loads of people. I think it’s safe to say that RPGs are having a moment. The Geek and Sundry D&Diesel episode with Vin Diesel from back in 2015 has over 4 million views, Vin Diesel of course is one of the most well known advocates for DnD, alongside Dame Judi Dench of course who played d&d with him on the set of Chronicles of Riddick. We’ve also reached the point somewhat unbelievably, where former allies, video game nerds punch down on RPG players on youtube and, RPG players on Youtube punch down on tabletop war gamers. Despite all three being intrinsically linked at birth.
I’ve been interested in RPG commentary recently, with reference to the concept of story dwelling i brought up a few weeks ago. In particular how Role playing in the late 70’s followed drama’s deletion of the performer spectator divide to create something that was in fact premodern. Whilst the links between theater and RPGs are interesting. What is fascinating to me the most right now is the role of the systems, or simulation within an RPG.
There’s three books that i’d like to recommend to you if you are interested in where todays half baked ideas arises from:
- The Postmodern Joy of Role-Playing Games: Agency, Ritual and Meaning in the Medium – Studies in Gaming by Schallegger 2018
- Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by Peterson 2012
- Seeing Like a State by Scott 1998.
If you are unfamiliar with the book Seeing like a State. I gave a brief overview of the thesis back in Episode 1933 on Organisational Memory it is about the emergence of modern states and their bureaucratic assumptions. It charts the multi-century long process in which states reorganised the societies they governed, to make them more legible to the apparatus of governance. The word “Legibility” is not a metaphor here. It refers to the actual visual/textual sense of the word as in what is described. This means Trees in rows, square fields, marriage certificates etc. Legibility quells the state’s anxiety that arose from the apparent chaos of the world by making it rational. The abstraction of legibility into governance systems etc happens at the order once the world has been rationalised.
DnD was invented in 1974, and very quickly changed the world. If you don’t believe me, that’s what the book recommendations were for. Anyways, It’s important to remember that during the late 70’s and early 80’s video games sat alongside role playing games. As part of the same scene. In the old early 80’s editions of White Dwarf magazine you’ll find reviews and discussion of video game mechanics sat side by side with RPG articles. Dnd gave videogames the statline. And without that we wouldn’t have hearts, extra lives, inventories, strength etc. All the UX grammars that we understand as fundamental to the videogame experience.
This world changing creativity of course was occurring alongside the rise of neoliberalism and the beginning of planetary scale computation..Stat Lines in RPGs and video games however aren’t literal, in a legibility sense. Stat lines are metaphors or abstractions used to simulate action and agency within the created world of the game. In 1983 Ian livingston wrote “With RPGs ever growing in the general public’s eye, who knows what will be generated next?”
Well, 40 years later we end up in 2020 with a situation where companies like Experian take lots of information about you, simulate their version of reality given that information and give you a credit score as if it were literal. An entry into your statline in the computationally mediated world of late capitalism.
Neoliberalism is about markets. Computation and simulation allowed capitalism fool itself into reducing metaphors to statistical certainly. And as my friend Alex Andrews pointed out to me this morning when I asked him what he thought of today’s idea “quantification is a condition of possibility for neoliberal markets” .
We now act in a world that is suffused with overlapping and competing simulations. How different institutions and companies see you and the world around them (again see the Organisation Memory Episode).
What this half baked idea is trying to convey is that I have a suspicion that without dnd, the world where Facebook builds up complex consumer profiles and stat lines about us, are entirely based on the logic of DND mechanics via video games in the context of world simulation and computational legibility.
This whole podcast is so speculative that i probably need to role for a Thought Leadership Check I think.
I’m probably 7up on a 2D6.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.