Through Bars: Study Hall & the Fragility of Opportunity

Every weekend, the institution where I teach holds a study hall in the activities building, where prisoners can gather to work on homework and receive assistance from fellow inmates or outside tutors. My introduction to volunteering in the prison came through attending study hall sessions, where I was able to put my rusty Spanish skills to work helping a man with homework from the introductory Spanish class taught by a fellow prisoner.

Now that I teach a class myself, the study hall period is a time for me to meet with my students and give them more individual support on assignments; this week, their first paper for the class is due, so I went in over the weekend to help those who were struggling with their essays.

The limitations of teaching in a prison environment mean that I cannot hold office hours as instructors at most universities do. Instead, I meet with my students in a large room full of tables, chairs, and other men studying all manner of topics – everything from oceanography to calculus to law to philosophy. It’s a bit chaotic, but the opportunity to discuss with a handful of students their thesis statements and the hypothetical ethical dilemma they had to come up with for their paper was valuable. Through individual feedback and group discussion, they were able to move toward stronger thesis statements, clearer understandings of the ethical frameworks I had asked them to learn, and a better grasp of how to apply, compare, and contrast those frameworks with their own ethical systems.

Another, unexpected, benefit of study hall was the chance to be a little less formal. Since my primary pedagogical training comes from working as a peer tutor in a writing center, I prefer for this sort of interaction to be comfortable, egalitarian, supportive, and informal. In addition to discussing the paper, we also talked about math, video games, music, and the process of personal growth. Though I try for our class meetings to have a balance between lecture and discussion, since I do spend a some of the class standing in front of the room and writing on a whiteboard, an uneven power dynamic builds – through the use of space, if nothing else. Of course, maintaining some degree of authority is necessary to keep a class moving forward, but I valued this opportunity to sit at a small table with some of my students and just talk.

One thing I have noticed in the nearly half a year that I’ve spent volunteering in the prison is how starved many of the men are for conversation. I’ve encountered many individuals who have fascinating stories and perspectives; unlike many conversations I have on the outside, the men inside bring an intensity and focus to even casual discussions that I have rarely seen. The opportunity to openly voice opinions and explore complex ideas seems to be a rare one in prison life, and for the most part, the men I have worked with value those chances that do come their way very highly. This was most apparent in the mixed-enrollment class I took in the spring; almost half of the students in that course came from the university where I study. All of the students from outside were female, though the instructor was male.

Every class period I would participate in and observe conversations between incarcerated men and free young women. The men were respectful, polite, and very interested. The sort of polite disinterest that so often permeates conversations between classmates elsewhere was almost nonexistent. When someone spoke, whether to a conversation partner, a small group, or in a full-class discussion, everyone else involved listened carefully and responded thoughtfully. It was refreshingly positive and affirming.

This description might sound idealist. I am very aware that not all conversations in prison proceed in this manner; having observed some interactions between prisoners and guards, or between prisoners and other prisoners, I can say that those conversations carry an entirely different tone and weight.

But honestly, I think that’s exactly the point. Most interactions within prison are fundamentally about power – who has it, who doesn’t, and how it can be manipulated from both sides of that divide. Prisoners tease each other, wheedle favors from guards and each other, and watch everyone, both prisoner and guard, with a wary eye. Even relatively positive prisoner/guard interactions carry that undertone of fundamental power disparity, and interactions between prisoners occur within an atmosphere of surveillance.

In a classroom, such concerns seem to be shifted to the back burner. The focus there is on taking advantage of the opportunity to learn, an opportunity these prisoners seem to value much more highly than their free counterparts in university systems around the country. Like the student who is the first in their family to attend college, these incarcerated students view their education as something precious. They carry a burden of desire and need that privileged college students simply don’t.

All of this has helped shift my own perspective on education. I have always felt that education was important and valuable, that it represented an opportunity for betterment and growth on intellectual, emotional, and economic levels. But because my parents told me from a young age that I would be going to college, it was also an opportunity that I have taken for granted. Returning to college after a hiatus spent struggling to learn how to cope with mental illness had changed my perspective; because I spent years convinced I would never be able to return, I was enthusiastic and eager when I did. I also treated it like something I could lose, because for me it was something I had lost. I don’t think most students, particularly ones who are white and middle- or upper-class, really grasp that. Like me, they take educational opportunities for granted.

Incarcerated students don’t. They understand that attending class is a privilege they can easily lose – through infractions, through transfers to other institutions, through scheduling conflicts or paperwork mixups…through many avenues of change inside the prison, both within and beyond their control. To them, education is something precious, not just because of its potential for change and self-improvement, but because of its fragility, and the tenacity with which they grip it while they have it is something I admire and will always remember.


Hannibal Lecter Hour Part 1: The Man Himself

I have an unhealthy fascination with serial killers. I know this, I know it’s a bizarre thing to find fascinating, but a lot of my academic interests involve the excavation of taboo subjects (sex, sexuality, mental illness, crime & punishment, death & bereavement, etc) so I guess it’s not that weird for me. But ever since that first meeting with Nancy Drew I’ve loved whodunits and crime novels, and eventually I grew out of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and discovered Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwell and a host of other books. Crime novels were one of the few things my mother and I could share when I was growing up, and a large part of my love of the Scarpetta novels and the Stephanie Plum series is from reading them after my mom finished them. All of this is just context, lead-in for the meat of the matter, which is a trend that a friend of mine suggested I explore on here after a FB post that got a lot more responses than I expected.

That trend is tied to the depiction of serial killers and psychopaths in popular media, and in my mind it links to Hannibal Lecter as the iconic urbane neat-freak murderer with serious culinary skill. This first occurred to me when watching the new series Hannibal, and has kind of stuck with me. I’ve termed it the pathologization of masculine neatness and because of his starring role in the trope, Lecter gets his name in the series title.

When we first meet Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Clarice walks past a gauntlet of hooting and hollering men to reach him. He’s standing in the center of a neat, spotless cell, eerily silent and smiling; in contrast to his fellow inmates, his uniform appears not only clean but pressed. He greets her politely. The other men in the nearby cells represent what we expect of imprisoned men – a descent not just into madness, but into primitive behavior. They treat Clarice like an object; it’s offensive and off-putting, but it’s not strange. Hannibal, however, treats her like a person. In a place meant to degrade the human animal and draw him closer to his basest nature, to wear him down, he retains a certain attention to detail that exemplifies rationality.

Perhaps this is what makes him so frightening. The sort of horrors that Buffalo Bill is committing, that we are told through hints and suggestions Hannibal himself has committed, are deeply disturbing…monstrous. To distance ourselves from this problem, to avoid asking if we or someone we know could be capable of such terrible things, we say that someone has to be crazy to do them. When we call them crazy, we also push them farther away from being human; we make these criminals into alien beings and we tell ourselves that their supposed evil must be clearly visible because they are, after all, inhuman monsters.

But what makes Hannibal, and those like him, so terrifying, is that they don’t appear “crazy.” They don’t fit neatly into the little boxes we make for them, where they display comfortingly familiar pathologies – throwing feces (animalistic); masturbating in public (primitive); blurring and violation of gender lines (because trans*ness is coded as insanity far too often). No, Hannibal’s neatness and his demeanor mark him as rational. And the only thing more terrifying than a monster who brutally kills people is a rational human being who brutally kills people.

Some of this comes also from contradictions – Hannibal is treated with far more care and precautions than the more obviously disturbed prisoners…yet he displays no outward signs of a deranged mind. The contradiction here keys a sense of dissonance and makes us uncomfortable. What have the guards seen that we have not? What do they know that we do not? In addition to the dissonance of the rational monster, this lack of knowledge taps into our fear of the unknown, giving us a rational yet unpredictable beast that appears all too human, all too much like us, at least on the surface.

Next time on the Hannibal Lecter Hour: we analyze the star of his own serial killer soap opera, Dexter.


Tower Troubles: The Author Authority Myth

This whole tabula rasa  issue (discussed in this post) is also very closely connected to what I like to term “the myth of author authority,” or the tendency in scholarly literature to pretend that the author doesn’t exist and therefore whatever is on the page exists somehow devoid of any bias or personal experience possessed by the person writing it. It is the idea that by linguistic tricks we can pretend there is no human author, only words of unvarnished truth magically placed on a page.

These efforts tap into a sort of modern Jungian archetype, that of the Objective Researcher or Objective Observer, who can cross the world to live among savages, record their strange behaviors, and return to civilization to publish a book which renders primitive ceremonies intelligible to educated white folk, all without allowing himself (yes, traditionally the Objective Observer is male, for a variety of reasons) to stain any of this observation, recording, or interpretation with any but the clearest of eyes and mind.

It should come as no surprise that this myth rests firmly on a colonialist foundation. That foundation is largely white and primarily male, because it is power that allows us to believe these things about ourselves. White male academics, rich by the standards of much of the world, could get away with this approach to knowledge because they held the power to interpret phenomena. Their experiences alone could go unquestioned, because they set the standard by which experience was judged. In doing so, they consistently created an exoticized Other in their travelogues, ethnographies, and studies.

Yes, I claim that they created this Other. By uncritically filtering their observations through their own beliefs and expectations, what they produced bore as much resemblance to the lived reality of the people they studied as historical fiction does to real events. All of us, no matter how careful, ultimately have to acknowledge that our understanding of the world is imperfect because it is always subject to interpretation in a process framed by our prior experiences. That process of interpretation feels completely natural and reasonable when we are surrounded by people whose experiences are similar to our own – people of the same race, gender, class, language, and culture, a position inhabited by many academic researchers.

Does this mean that all academic research is useless or worthless? No, far from it. What it means is that there is a troubling history of appropriation and colonization in academia, one that those who conduct or use academic research need to be aware of, especially in the Humanities disciplines. The sort of work we do is fundamentally subjective in a way that the hard sciences are not. Which is not to suggest that the hard sciences are immune to this sort of problem – phrenology being a prime example of (pseudo)science being used to justify terrible beliefs and practices because it was filtered through human bias – but rather to acknowledge that the work of interpretation in humanities disciplines like anthropology, sociology, history, communication studies and cultural studies is different from other types of research. Our data frequently involves words and stories, and it is our task to look for unifying themes; to interpret sometimes very divergent data.

One of our primary responsibilities in this task is to place our own biases and experiences under the microscope at the same time that we analyze other people’s experiences. This does several things -
-it decreases the power distance, because in doing so we acknowledge that there is nothing inherently superior or different about our own experience that means it should go unquestioned;
-it also demonstrates a willingness to “show our work” so that others have a clearer view of how we reached our conclusions;
-it forces us to perform vulnerability in a way that draws us closer to our so-called research subjects by subjecting our experiences to the same scrutiny we give theirs;
-it helps us surface potential bias or conflicts of interest;
-it allows others to see where our conclusions might be influenced by our experiences;
-and it gives us practice in the ongoing project of understanding ourselves. After all, how can we expect to be able to explain others’ experiences if we can’t even adequately explain our own?

Ultimately, by treating white (frequently male, frequently middle- or upper-class) educated experience as a sort of default category with a unique access to objective reality, academics have perpetuated a lie. By refusing to question our own experiences, we have perpetrated the illusion that the experiences of people who don’t fit into these narrow categories are somehow other, lesser, deviant, deficient, alien, primitive, even subhuman. When people who are not part of this small elite group read that research, what they encounter is a systematic devaluing of their experiences, their thoughts, their reality. They see people like them dissected, subject to a penetrating gaze, over and over and over again; and what do we dissect except dead things, objects?

There are researchers who are pushing back against this myth, however, particularly as the academy grudgingly expands to include more persons of color and people of “developing” or “underdeveloped” countries. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in particular, in her book Decolonizing Methodologies, lays out some fantastic suggestions for ways to conduct research without falling into this trap.

One of the things that makes pushing back against this difficult is fear. Fear that by rendering yourself vulnerable in this way, you also render your status as an academic and a researcher vulnerable. You risk being laughed at, or dismissed, or treated as a silly postmodernist, or not getting published. Defying the conventions of a genre can be challenging. But ultimately, working toward a more honest, more accessible, more just academy is to everyone’s benefit. I want to be an academic because I want to have a positive impact on the world. I can’t do that through a career based on the sleight-of-hand that underpins this myth of author authority.


Gamer’s Corner: Morally Repugnant Acts

This past spring, I worked on a research project investigating tabletop roleplaying games. Since it was a preliminary project, the end result of it was a question that I hope will fuel future research endeavors for me (potentially to be featured on this blog!): How do players (in or out of character personae) regulate and negotiate moral and ethical behavior at the table? I mainly bring this up because of some experiences I had in recent sessions of the Exalted game in which I am currently playing. 

Exalted is a particularly interesting game in regard to this question. For one thing, it lacks the formal alignment system of D&D and its direct derivatives. For another, the system that sort of fills a similar role, is much more dynamic and complex. Instead of a location determined by your placement along a bivariate system (Law/Chos, Good/Evil), each character has four Virtues (Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, and Valor), each rated from one to five. Virtues are rolled on two occasions – to reinforce your ability to perform aligned actions (for example, rolling Conviction to resist torture, or Valor to avoid running from a fight against a superior opponent), and to limit your ability to perform contrary actions. In order to execute a bound, helpless prisoner, for instance, you must fail a Compassion check. To do something that contravenes your motivations or violates an intimacy, you have to fail a Conviction check. To give in to an addiction or temptation, you have to fail a Temperance check. And to run from a fight (any fight), you have to fail a Valor check. 

Moreover, the core conceit of Exalted is that you were an ordinary person until you suddenly became the recipient of godlike powers. Unfortunately, the godlike powers were tainted by the Primordials (not Titans we swear) that the first Exalted overthrew. And because these powers (referred to as exaltations) get handed off to new people each time their wielders die, receiving an exaltation can give you some serious flashbacks. By the end of the First Age, the Exalts had started going mad; many of them were egomaniacs, doing crazy things with their power and often abusing it. So all that glorious power comes with some serious baggage – you’re likely to have some seriously messed up voices in your head, which can even take control of you if you possess certain flaws. 

In the game I mentioned above, I play a Night Caste Solar – a thief. This one’s a little more Indiana Jones dungeon-delver with some education than your average pickpocket or roofwalker, but her power comes from a long line of thieves, assassins, secret police, and spies. In our second session, we inadvertently ended up freeing a collection of slaves and setting them up in a village of their own. Two sessions ago, we visited the village only to find that pirates were trying to extort tribute. We wound up fighting the pirates; we captured a couple of the crew, but their leader, unfortunately, escaped. 

When none of the other characters stepped forward to question our captives, I took it on myself to interrogate them. Neither would answer my questions with any useful information, so my character ended up torturing them by cutting off pieces of them to get them to talk. Of course, because torture isn’t nearly as effective as certain people would like you to believe, while they did talk, very little of it was useful, and my character wound up killing them. And then, because the whole thing was thoroughly disgusting, vomiting and hiding in a tree with her familiar for a few days. 

As I relate this, I can’t help but notice the dissociation that occurred as I typed up this account; in the previous paragraph, I switch from the first person (I took it on myself; my questions) to the more distant third (my character ended up torturing them). The actions of my character occur at my direction, so they are ultimately my actions; in this case, however, both I and, by extension, my character, felt so disgusted by those actions that even in this sort of account I feel the need to distance myself from what my character “did.” 

The other characters were also shaken by these events, but none of them made any effort to intervene. When my character informed them that she was done dealing with prisoners and they were in charge of the next ones, none of them argued. The only flak I caught was from one player who (questionably in or out of character) observed that I hadn’t gained any new information from the torture; all I had was dubious confirmation of information we mostly already possessed. 

By contrast, last session saw a duel between another player’s character and an NPC seeking revenge for his dead wife. Because this antagonist survived the encounter (barely), he was bound and kept on our ship as we traveled until he regained consciousness – at which point the PC he had attacked told him to “Give my regards to your wife,” shot him, and threw him overboard, all while he was still bound and helpless. The other two characters present protested his choice to execute a helpless prisoner; they exhibited far more evidence of upset at this situation than at the torture. 

I’m still thinking through the implications of this (was it that people were more energetic in the second session? does it have to do with the fact that I was trying to accomplish something beneficial? did the gender of the perpetrating players play a role?) but it does raise interesting questions. How do we, as players, make sense of situations where we portray evil behavior? What factors play into the way we do so? How do we respond to the morally ambiguous behavior of other players’ characters? Why do we let some activities go and start in-character arguments over others? How do we incorporate these reactions into the characterization of our character-personae? If one of the major attractants of role-playing games is to get to indulge in behavior that is, in the real world, usually met with legal or social rebuke, why do we become so upset when we do finally indulge?


Through Bars: Ethics Discussions

So the last two weeks in my public speaking & debate class has been our unit on ethics. I included an ethics unit for a couple of reasons – because my previous speaking classes have done so; because I thought the DOC would be more inclined to approve a course proposal for a debate class if it included such a unit; but mostly because I understand that teaching people to monitor, control, and improve not just their ability to speak publicly, but their ability to persuade others of things is a potentially problematic area of instruction when you talk about people who have been convicted of crimes.

I don’t know what the majority of my students are in prison for. For most of them, I don’t even know if this is their first time through the system or if they’re repeat offenders. I know one student is in for life, that a different student comes from a profoundly troublesome and abusive childhood, and that at least one student has a history of some form of substance abuse. What I do know is that being charming and persuasive can create a lot of opportunities to cause other people harm – we need look no farther than our own political system and the long history of abusive entertainers for evidence of this.

I also know that one of the major concerns (at least, on paper) of corrections systems has to do with the regulation not just of prisoners’ behavior, but also of their cognition. The very concept of the panopticon (those towers in prisons that guards sit in to watch prisoners) is rooted in a desire for prisoners to internalize the watchful gaze of society in order to drive them toward self-regulation. The original design for these towers called for a system where guards could watch prisoners at any time while going unobserved themselves – thus, prisoners would never know for sure whether they were being watched, and would begin to act as though they were being watched at all times, modifying their behavior accordingly. The same concept is at work behind the use of traffic cameras in Portland, Oregon; because there are so few cameras, they are rotated between multiple intersections so that drivers cannot be sure whether they will be caught.

The problem with this approach (now streamlined through electronic surveillance) is that it depends on an external imposition into internal processes. It doesn’t change the way a person thinks, not on a deep level at least, and its success depends heavily on the willingness to resort to other forms of punishment, which ultimately depend on the threat of force. Being observed may affect behavior of which we are ashamed, and it may affect behavior for which we have been punished in the past, but it doesn’t change an individual’s analysis of “good” and “bad” behavior, only “punishable” and “unpunishable” behavior.

A particular goal of mine in this unit was to respect the agency of my students. That meant never calling them bad people (directly or by implication), never suggesting that they lacked a moral or ethical code, and never being condescending to them. My approach was to acknowledge that everyone already had a personal ethical code, consciously or unconsciously, and to use the readings I assigned to familiarize them with a variety of systems, and the vocabulary used to describe those systems, of evaluating behavior. Their assignment for this unit was a reflection paper, in which they have to select an ethical paradigm they consider different from their own, apply both it and their own paradigm to a hypothetical situation, and analyze the differences and similarities. The idea, which I explained to them (because I believe that as an instructor I should have a good reason to assign work and that I should be willing and able to explain my reasoning to those I ask to complete an assignment), is for them to test their ethical codes.

We talked about establishing a series of questions to ask ourselves to determine the rightness and necessity of specific behaviors, which I described by discussing some ways I have applied this approach to my own behavior. In partners or in small groups, they discussed the ethics of hypothetical communication situations I provided. Several of them struggled to apply unfamiliar ways of thinking when I asked them to evaluate situations based on specific paradigms, but they all worked at the problems, and were generally willing to admit when they had difficulties and to try and consider why it was difficult for them.

As I was making the rounds between groups to listen in and occasionally offer advice (I’m starting to get used to reflecting questions back for students who are afraid to be wrong), I heard one student tell his groupmates, “I’ve never really sat and thought about this kind of thing before.” And that’s what I was looking for – not just to get them to be thinking, but to give them space and tools for them to think through complex situations, without being judged. The fact that they all seemed willing, even eager, to wrestle with these questions means that I’m very much looking forward to reading their essays when they turn them in.


Through Bars: Volunteer Training and the Truth

To teach the public speaking/debate class in the prison, I have to be a trained volunteer. Well, technically, I had to be a volunteer to take the dual enrollment (university students and prisoners) class I took in the spring, but to be an instructor I had to level up as a volunteer. A level two volunteer in this system is called a sponsor, which means you get a white sticker on your badge with an “S” on it and can work with prisoners without adult supervision. Since I signed on to teach a class by myself, I had to take the training to Be An Adult.

Training volunteers makes sense – most organizations train their volunteers. And working inside a closed system like a prison, which has lots of very particular rules, logically requires some training in navigating those rules. But some of the training I went through sat ill with me.

For starters, employees of the prison consistently refer to prisoners as “offenders.” Terminology is important with any sort of group of humans, and the ability to name a group is a key determinant of power. It’s why marginalized groups, like African-Americans and LGBTQ persons will sometimes reclaim slurs and deny those who are not group members the right to use these slurs without social consequences. It’s about the power of naming more than it is about the inherent properties of one word or another. So, in this blog as well as elsewhere, I usually refer to incarcerated individuals as “prisoners” or occasionally “inmates.” Most of those I’ve interacted with use and prefer “prisoner” when it becomes necessary to differentiate them from those who are not incarcerated. For a period of time in prison literature and parlance, “inmate” was popular because it emphasized the institutionalized nature of their status and brought up images of treatment. Most prisoners I’ve spoken with dislike “inmate” because of its more sterile connotations – it disconnects from the lived reality in a way they feel “prisoner” doesn’t.

But “offender” has a much different set of connotations. Rather than attention on their current status, it focuses on previous actions. I can understand why a Department of Corrections (DOC) would prefer this; for one thing, it serves as a barrier to connections developing between employees and prisoners. To them, this is desirable because they live in constant fear of manipulation on the part of prisoners. But the side effect of this approach is an increase in the level of dehumanization inflicted on prisoners, something that’s already a major problem in US carceral practices.

Prisoner manipulation is such a huge concern for the DOC that it occupies a huge chunk of volunteer training. The dress code is covered, and believe me there’s an entire post on that topic that I’ll get around to at some point, but the bulk of the time is spent on how to identify, resist, and respond to manipulation.

For this to make sense, one has to consider the sort of world that prison represents. It is closed, literally and figuratively walled off from everything. Prisoners have very limited income and even contributions from family or friends are docked 10-20%. Only certain items can be purchased within the prison, and only certain items can be sent in as gifts. Programs can bring in donated materials, but because those materials belong to the program, they have to be returned. The packets for my course, roughly a hundred pages of material photocopied from three different textbooks, belong to the educational program and, like high school textbooks, have to be returned at the end of the class. The photocopy machine in the program’s office within the prison is off-limits to prisoners. Only volunteers from outside (and, presumably, employees) can use it.

Access to resources within prison walls is strictly limited and monitored. The slightest thing can be a big deal – for instance, I brought in a collection of quotations from famous individuals for an in-class assignment. When we were done with the assignment, both times I did this students asked if they could keep the scraps of paper with quotations on them. In a university classroom full of students with millions of such quotations at their fingertips online, or who could buy or check out a book like my roommate’s Quotationary, those scraps of paper would be recycled. Not in prison.

So in training, they warn us that prisoners will try to gain advantages however they can. We are warned to be constantly vigilant for behaviors like helpfulness, eagerness to talk, monopolizing time, offering or requesting favors, discussing personal matters – behavior which outside a prison would likely look like friendly overtures. Behind walls and bars, however, these behaviors are recontextualized and stripped of their innocence. Instead, they are viewed with suspicion and volunteers are taught to reject them in order to maintain an appropriate power dynamic.

In sponsor training, there was a section for new sponsors which covered running a program. Since sponsors often oversee programming that includes other volunteers as well as prisoners, the ability to maintain authority is important. Never having run a classroom before, I had hoped that I would learn something useful.

What I learned was that never, for any reason, should any prisoner be allowed to believe they had any significant control over what went on. Prisoners were not allowed to hold positions or titles within volunteer organizations that ordinarily have such things (mainly religious ones, I believe). Nor were they to be given responsibilities on a regular basis. All decisions were to be made by the sponsor. We were not to engage in debate with prisoners. The truth, we were told, was what we said it was. Our word was law, and it was final.

Useful advice, I suppose, for running any sort of totally one-sided power dynamic. I was left wondering how I was supposed to run an engaging class under that sort of system. All the best classes I’ve ever taken have been characterized by healthy discussion, debate, and even disagreement. Some of what I would be teaching falls under the order of a practical skill set, sure, but ultimately I would be teaching a debate class. Truth couldn’t be “what I said it was” if such a course were to be anything but a mockery. The whole point of debate is to look at issues from multiple sides, to test out arguments and lines of thought – the core conceit of debate is that the world doesn’t have a single right answer.


Gamer’s Corner: Making and Breaking Rules

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I play tabletop RPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this line of thought, and I may go into them in another post, but what’s important here is that I love gaming and I’ve been considering why that is and I finally think I have an answer of sorts. 

The first and perhaps most important thing is that I like order. I organize my bookshelf and my DVDs and the file folders on my computers are ruthlessly sorted and nested and controlled. Some of this is a reaction to the fact of real life’s utter chaos much of the time. Life is messy and while it does have a lot of rules, they can be difficult to figure out. Much of that process is, by necessity, trial and error. Usually a lot of error.

But in tabletop games, there are rules. They are usually fairly consistent (at least in good systems), and they are all spelled out for you. From what skills are necessary to complete which tasks to how success is measured – it’s all laid out and you can sit down and burn an afternoon (or a day or two) to read through the rules and bam! You can create people, or items, or vehicles or whole worlds by putting numbers and words on a page (or, in my case, a spreadsheet, since I make most of my characters in Excel). That is wonderfully, reassuringly consistent. I love it. 

The other side of this comparison is that the rules of the real world are often in many ways immutable. I cannot change my race or my personal history or my situation. Growth in real life is difficult and painful and can be hard to measure. Am I really a better person than I was a year ago, or is that only wishful thinking? Am I better at writing papers that express my thoughts and analysis of the world, or am I only better at tricking professors into thinking I am?

In tabletop games, progress is measurable. It is controllable – certain activities will cause you to gain experience points and with the accumulation of experience you are able to improve the character in the ways that you want. Whether that comes from ticking over a milestone and gaining a level or from banking and spending xp, it’s still deeply satisfying. There’s a certain escapist fantasy that finds its ultimate expression in quantifiable improvement. More than that, even – in earning those improvements by doing difficult things. 

And the other side of the immutability of reality is the permeability of fantasy. Yes, there are rules that you can learn and that make the world a somewhat predictable place. But those rules can be bent. There is a freedom to the fantasy world that is all too often lacking in the real one. Yes, your options may be curtailed because the scope of the world is narrowed by the existence of rules, but the Golden Rule of RPGs, the Rule Zero of every system, is that rules can be broken if it makes the story or the world better. The GM has the power to make that call. The player has the ability to propose actions that might not be allowed under a strict interpretation of the rules, and how fantastic is that? You cannot propose rules changes to the universe, but you can in role-playing. 

No system brings that home quite as well as Exalted. I would not call this my favorite system, but I am growing fond of it. The stunt system, while occasionally time-consuming and frustrating (and already the source of some tension in our group), also gives tacit permission to bend the rules of reality within the scope of the rules. It is written into the world that reality is to some extent mutable, that what is beautiful or perfect or apropos can sometimes be done because it is beautiful or perfect or apropos. 

It’s an intriguing dichotomy – the necessity of rules and the joy of breaking them – and tabletop gaming is really the only place to do so in this way. Video games are strictly bound by their rules by necessity. There have to be some limits to what can be done or rendered because of the technological limitations under which the world operates. But a tabletop game has a real live person who can go with the flow of something awesome. Sometimes this is a drawback, when you get an inexperienced or unskilled GM, but the reassurance of rules and the freedom to bend them is a wonderful thing and I deeply love it.


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