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Brain damage

Started by Ron Edwards, February 11, 2006, 06:04:06 PM

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Wow. I keep thinking I should comment, and then I just shake my head and put it aside. After eight pages...there's so much tree-shaking-monkey-screaming on this thread it is incredibly difficult to wade through just for the few useful bits it contains.

I'm not even talking foolish nonsense like iago's that can be simply ignored for what it is, but just basic misreading or failure to comprehend the totality of points being made and then running with a half-assed idea of what's being said ("babbling" as Ron put it).

For example, John's argument that the damage isn't actual damage, but that the system selects for it from pre-existing carriers instead, or that "story impaired" means "enjoys creating story" and other such leaps of logic informing criticisms that have nothing to do with the premises of the argument (or ignore portions to focus on the remaining pieces) -- let alone "Ron's a bigot for claiming a person might be story-impaired due exposure to certain RPG methodologies when their brain is still forming story-concept connections". These sorts of leaps are exactly what both the homosexuality analogy and style-preference responses are based on.

Ironically, to a lesser extent, these postings are displaying something similar to the sort of damage that Ron is talking about regarding understanding story: where pre-conceptions about what a person (or game text, or method of play) MUST be saying or the dialogue progressing (how it MUST work), are seriously screwing up understanding of what is being said or of the subject itself, because folks are desperately trying to fit what's being said into a pre-existing "understanding" of what's being said, without even realizing it.

One might say instead of "being a bigot" (tangentially, an inanely insulting comparison for anyone that has ever actually been the victim of real bigotry), Ron is showing how homosexuals are just fine, and that the conception that homosexual sex or feelings are wrong, and the idea that anyone must be having heterosexual sex in the missionary position with the man on top, because that's just how sex works, is what is screwed up.

In fact, it has shit all to do with "I prefer the traditional method" or "I enjoy fetishism" (or even "I prefer men/women, do not prefer women/men"). It has to do with people approaching the Kama Sutra and being unable to grasp how to "do those things it describes in there" because they're still trying to "be on top" or "be on bottom" or "ejaculate" -- it has to do with homosexual men trying to either find the vagina on their sex partner or needing their partner to "be the woman" because, you know, that's how relationships are supposed to work.

What they themselves prefer to do or like to do or have no interest in doing, and even moreso whether or not that preference/desire is good or bad, isn't even remotely the point.

Whether or not the damage to story-concept Ron discusses occurs to gamers, I have only my own experiences to rely upon, which I have recounted elsewhere (such as on my LJ, where I also talk about all the "your language makes me feel bad, boo-hoo" nonsense) but will repeat here: in teaching creative writing, and serving as a freelance editor, I have found his statement to be true. A good number of those who come in as gamers, or ex-gamers, need to be untrained from gaming habits regarding character in order to write fiction effectively.

I've seen it far too often to discount it, and I've heard similar comments from other writers who are or were also gamers about themselves and their own writing, and the differences between it and writing, and having to untrain themselves from "game think" (I recall one of the regulars here, who was also apparently a known writer in RPG circles, made the same comment some years back. I think it was the same person who is the author of "The Narrativist Mindset" essay, but I may be mistaken), and from others who have taught creative writing and noticed the same problem with their students.

Now, this isn't to say ALL gamers, or that gamers in general, are failures at this task, just that the hobby (in my experience) has had a particular effect upon the intellectual process that goes into understanding the construction and utilization of protagonists in a story.

I don't even know that it is specifically or more strongly the fault of the Storytelling games of the 90's and their brethren (or immediate ancestors), because I've never done a study of what games the folks with the problems play(ed), but I do know it isn't just a matter of selection, from what I have seen, because these specific writing traits don't show up in would-be writers who have never gamed. I don't even know that the traits I have noted are the same things Ron has seen, though I doubt the specifics are important in this case.

I only know that something happens in regards to the ability to produce fiction, identifiable by certain traits found in the way the material is written, that are easily traced back to game-think and that these traits only show up in fiction written by gamers. (And, for the love of the many gods, please note that the desire to produce fiction or not, nor preference or utilization of genre, writing style, etc. are NOT the argument or point.)
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Eric J-D

Hey Raven,

That was well put.  I was trying to say something of this sort in my own post while also trying to shift the language slightly to something that folks might find less loaded than "brain damage."  Personally, I know for a fact that *I* have been habituated to all kinds of ideas about what rpgs *should* be like from long exposure to (until recently) a limited number of games that essentially were constructed along very similar lines, were built on similar assumptions, and used similar models.

Happily, ideas about what "story" is didn't do the more lasting damage that other things did since I had experienced (albeit fitfully) some glimmers of player-authored story creation and had a good grasp of things like Theme and all that.  Of course coming to the Forge helped all that to develop, especially once I experienced systems that were designed to facilitate such a thing. But I digress.

Where I think the more lasting damage was done was around issues like "What is the role of the GM?"  "What are the roles of the players?"  and related issues.  Although I had fitful experiences of "player-authored" story creation, my more typical experience was with a group of very bright guys who all felt that they needed to compete with each other as GM over issues like, "who could produce the coolest plot."  So even though I knew on some level that some other kind of play was possible (and that the production of "story" through play had to do with engaging things like Premise and Theme--a rather difficult thing to do when you as a player have absolutely no "buy-in" to the events since the plot has been pre-planned and any cool Premises or Themes have been delivered to you by someone else rather than emerging from you and from other people in the group), it was very easy to get habituated to the notion that this was what rpgs were like.

The naturalization of these dispositions and behaviors is what someone like Althusser would call "ideology."  But ask anyone you know if they have an "ideology" and they will *likely* (NB--"likely" not "certainly") say "No."  And of course it has to do with the fact that thought they are permeated by ideology, it is largely invisible to them. 

I think the same goes (by and large) for people who play rpgs, at least for those with any measure of exposure to fairly traditional games.  Ask them about whether their group creates a story through play and they will answer, "yes, of course."  Press them to offer details and they are likely to tell you that their GM is a great storyteller and comes up with really intricate and cool plots that their characters then enter into and influence in some measure.  Ask them about what the role of the GM is, and they are likely to tell you that the GM is responsible for developing the adventures and finding ways to get the players' characters' "hooked".  That he or she has the job of playing "the world" and that the players' primary responsibility is to act as their characters would act and so forth.

This isn't some elitist stance that sees all these folks as the poor benighted "hoi poloi."  I was one of them.  It is very likely that you were too.  They don't deserve our condescension or exasperation or anything like that.  I don't think that Ron is engaged in anything like that, despite what I hear in some of the comments from other posters.  I think he is simply trying to describe the reality that he experiences and to convey something of the difficulty that accompanies the recognition that repeated exposure to a rather limited number of roleplaying models has, over the years, built up a thick pachydermatic outer layer of dense tissue around many of us--formed of undigested opinions, well-intended gaming advice, sheer assertion, and unexamined assumptions--that has effectively insulated us from the ability to feel anything "new" with any sensitivity at all.  Our receptors just register it as "oh yeah, there's that sensation again.  It has to be just like all those other sensations I've experienced in the past."

Shedding this skin...sorry, that's the wrong image.  It is more like having to take a knife (at least in my experience) and actually cut away at these built up callouses (sp?), paring yourself down layer by layer in order to actually feel something different.  That's hard work, and probably not something that everyone who plays games wants to do.  Of course you're never really rid of it all, are you?  But the effort is worthwhile, I think, since it gives you a chance of looking at things from a bit of a new vantage point. 

Anyway, thanks for the good thoughts Raven.




Ron has super powers. He can make people's heads explode with the power of his words.

Seriously, man. The entire gaming internet is going fucking nuts over this.

So here's the question: Why is the entire gaming internet afraid of Ron Edwards?

I think it's because you're afraid he's right. That this hobby can fucking hurt people, and hurt them bad. And that the games themselves play a part in that hurting.

It happens.

Deal with it.

John Wick

Quote from: ethan_greer on February 17, 2006, 05:27:14 AM
Ron has super powers. He can make people's heads explode with the power of his words.

Seriously, man. The entire gaming internet is going fucking nuts over this.

So here's the question: Why is the entire gaming internet afraid of Ron Edwards?

I think it's because you're afraid he's right. That this hobby can fucking hurt people, and hurt them bad. And that the games themselves play a part in that hurting.

It happens.

Deal with it.

Let's stop talking vagureries and get right down to specifics.

Specifically, what games cause people "brain damage," and what specific kind of damage does it cause?

I want to know which parts of the brain are damaged and in what way they are damaged. Synapses? Memory? Please be very specific. Please isolate the games with the kinds of tissue trauma they cause.

And don't tell me this is a metaphor, because I've got evidence to the contrary:

"The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say "brain damage," I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*" (Ron Edwards,

Again: I'm asking two very specific questions.

1) What games have caused brain damage, and
2) What kind of brain damage have these games caused?
Carpe Deum,


Quote from: ethan_greer on February 17, 2006, 05:27:14 AM
I think it's because you're afraid he's right. That this hobby can fucking hurt people, and hurt them bad. And that the games themselves play a part in that hurting.

I think the reason people are reacting to it is the following:
1. It's honest in a way a lot of other theory discourse hasn't been ("Saying Vampire is Incoherent isn't saying it's a bad game!"--no, it's saying it's like child abuse and radiation!)
2. It's wonderfully insulting! If you played V:tM you might be story impaired! If you don't get indie games the reason must be that your mind is defective! (Note: I am not sure Ron is saying this flat out but a lot of people sure as heck are. I want to see a list of games like the CD's with Sony's root-kit that should come with Nar-inclined damage lables. I'd make the stickers.).
3. It's embarassing (a lot of people who defend RPG Theory as a whole have had to eat their words about people's objections to it not being projection or it not being covertly denegrating games the theorists don't like).
4. It's unproven--and possibly unproveable. Right now the allegations exist in a cool gray-space where people can write their own experiences into the picture (mine? Seen all of Ron's tell-tales from people who never gamed. Think his 'details' are wonderfully absurd ... like "defending their own consumerism"--White Wolf must have infected most of western civilization).

I really do look forward to some explanation. I'm afraid my standard of proof would need to be high--we are discussing a new, never-before-seen psychological phenomena and that'll take more than some anecdotal evidence from a self-selecting group of biased observers. However, until that discussion happens, this is amazing tinfoil-hat theater.

That's why I think it has spread: it's this incredible drama.

JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
a free, high-quality, universal system at:
Just Released: JAGS Wonderland


John: Don't ask me. The brain damage thing is Ron's deal. When I talked about the hobby hurting people, I wasn't referring to Ron's brain damage thing specifically. Poor word choice on my part gives the impression that I was. Sorry about that. No, I just meant to point out that, while people may want to think that gaming is this wonderful, positive thing, it isn't always. That's all. I've seen real hurting, real pain, real emotional trauma inflicted by gaming. Frankly, I'd be surprised if anyone here hasn't.

Marco: Yeah, I guess you're right: it is about the drama. I forgot about it until you mentioned it, but there's this cyclical drama thing that happens with the Forge. Basically, every so often, Ron says or does something that makes someone's head explode, and it snowballs. Anyone remember the hubris crisis from a while back?


YOU MIGHT BE A GAMER IF... are unable to walk past the latest TSR supplement without leafing through it, even though you know it's going to be bad. have more entertaining "No-****,-there-I-was-in-a-game" stories than you do anecdotes about your family. alternate between referring to your characters in the first and the third person.
... and none of your friends gets confused.'ve ever spent a significant fraction of your life modifying game rules that you didn't like... and, as soon as the system worked to your satisfaction, discarded it. hang out with people you actively dislike because they give good role- play. have a PhD in manipulating point systems to the best effect, even though you failed high school geometry. have been known to drive to far away places where you paid enormous amounts of money for the privelege of sleeping on floors, eating crap, buying little pewter statues of Gandalf, and meeting dozens of psychopathic members of the alternate (or similar) sex who will follow you around for months, merely for the pleasure of playing with gamers you don't know.
...and then signed up en masse with all of you friends to play in games with game masters who you've known since high school. own your own weight in gaming books. have friends or acquaintances who regularly refer to you as "Og." (Or something similar.)
...someone is attempting to explain the floorplan of a building to you and you immediately start thinking in terms of 10X10 squares. know a lot of gaming jokes that used to be funny once.

Some of these are pretty fucked up behaviours, and theres more than a grain of truth to all of them.  RPGing can be said to produce some pretty wierd shit.

And as for the validity of damage per se, I think thats going to depend heavily on personal worldviews.  I for one have no problem at all with the proposition that repeated exposure to a reward system adminstered with absolute authority can impinge on a persons mentality, but the whys and wherefores of this sort of indoctrination - for that is what it is - are probably off topic.

All that said I'm in the camp that sees story not as being relevant to this; I do think it is an overxtension of the preference for story.  I simply don't think we are "story creatures" at all; I see a role for causal ordering both in analysis and in repetition, but I think story as such is a very constructed, artificial device.  Long before I played RPG's, I found story per se quite boring, and I will never read the Harry Potter books because magic school stories are something for which I developed a hatred as a child.  You see, they would never discuss magic, so they were just dumb old school hijinks stories which didn't do anything new.  Thats a particular personal issue that way predates exposure to the likes of D&D, let alone the WoD.

My gaming history at the time was rather like droogs, to save on typing, but I leapt on the WoD it the hopes it would teach me something about story, which I was only beginning to appreciate a need for.  But precisely because the WoD was indeed the same old thing, it didn't teach me anything.  Rather, I think it was itself a response to the demand for more story in RPG, but that this in itself was always a dubious ambition and one based much more on claiming a literary legitimacy for RPG than on what RPG actually did.  To my mind, it is the hyping of story that has done much of the damage, because all that did was produce an Orwellian doublethink in which behaviours that were patently not a real story were necessarily described as such, because that was the "PC", if you will, thing to claim.

I think if story were a really natural property of humans, we would not laud good story tellers, and there would be no people who can't tell jokes.  We would not have to have developed means like the 3-act play to describe and discuss story.  I think story is a learned skill, and that if anything is to blame for story illiteracy today, it is the relentlessly Victorian pattern of story as moral homily or liberal democratic parable that we see endlessly repeated on TV.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Doug Ruff

Wow, what a trainwreck. I keep meaning to walk away, but I'm not strong enough.

There's two separate things going on in this thread, and I think they need to be separated, pronto.

The first is to do with the fact that Ron has said something in public that's hurt a lot of people, they want him to apologise, and he's not going to. I could say a lot about this, but I don't think it's going to help much. (Ron, if you care about what I think about this, you can PM me, but I'm not expecting you to. Frankly, I'd rather you spoke to John Wick, who deserves a response far more than I do.)

The second is to do with the actual content of what's being said. If (and that's a big if, with all the noise going on) I understand this correctly, repeated exposure to "traditional" gaming has the following impact:

- It impairs the capacity to enjoy the sort of "story" gaming that Ron (and a lot of other people) are interested in
- It impairs the capacity to create this type of story during a game
- It impairs the ability to interact socially in a "story" game, but also impairs interaction in "traditional" games
- Attached to this is the clear message that Ron thinks that "story" gaming is better

When detached from this whole "brain damage" nonsense and expressed in terms of learned behaviour and acquired preferences, I think it's clear that the first two statements are obvious (except I don't agree that this is a permanent impairment: preferences can be realigned, techniques can be picked up), the last statement is a value judgement and not worth discussing, and that the third statement is what we've been talking about all the time with the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, Setting Stakes and most of the interesting theory to come out of this site.

So, what the hell are we meant to be discussing here?


'Come and see the violence inherent in the System.'


Quote from: ethan_greer on February 17, 2006, 06:42:30 AM
John: Don't ask me. The brain damage thing is Ron's deal. When I talked about the hobby hurting people, I wasn't referring to Ron's brain damage thing specifically.

You're not the only one having this problem! People are "agreeing with the Ron" about all kinds of things he isn't saying (here). Stuff like liking rules-heavy games, liking V:tM's setting but not the rules, and not getting the brilliance of Burning Wheel are getting upgrades to brain damage. It's a tramapolooza!

The theory, this time out, isn't saying you can have a bad day playing with a bad game--it's saying that people who play with bad games wind up with some form of literal brain damage that exists outside of the emotional hurt of a dysfunctional relationship or even an abusive marriage. It's not emotional trauma, it's some kind of multi-spectrum structural impairment relating to the ability of a person to understand or compose or analyze a narrative compared to a non-damaged individual.

It's ... it's a psychological disorder transmitted by books! I *love* this concept. It's cooler than Call of Cthulhu! It's sort of like Video Drome!

JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
a free, high-quality, universal system at:
Just Released: JAGS Wonderland

John Wick

This is what I've learned from this thread:

1) If you don't "get" Burning Wheel (or Sorcerer, or some other "Forge" game), you are "broken" or "damaged."

This is a hurtful, hurtful idea. "If you don't like a game I like, it's because there's something wrong with you.

And, frankly, I put it right smack dab in the same category as "If you are gay, you are somehow 'damaged.'"

2) Games like L5R cause physical brain damage, preventing the people who play it from appreciating story.
This is the most ironic statement I've ever heard about a game I designed.

If this is true, that means the game I designed was not only a bad game, but I am a bad person for designing it. Not only that, but all those people at the Day of Thunder, the end of the Clan War storyline, who were crying on the Gen Con floor (including myself and Dave Williams) were doing so for a bad story. Because, frankly, they are crippled beyond the point of appreciating a good one.

3) The people at the Forge are so cultish that they can't recognize when they say something that might hurt someone else outside their own community.
Instead of defending the idea, step back and look at it. I mean, really. Step back.

We are throwing around words like "brain damage" and "sexual abuse" and associating them with roleplaying games.

Is that what we really mean? And are we willing to assign these terms to people we know?

This thread has gone a lot further than this website. Annie Rush saw it and she never goes here. And trust me, using words like "sexual abuse" around Annie is probably not very smart. In fact, I'd qualify it as "sub-moronic."

Once again, I consider many people here my friends. I still do. But this choice of language is bad. It's insensitive. And if such a discussion came up at Gen Con, I'd probably walk away. If you were lucky. If you weren't lucky, I'd make you defend it.

Let's think twice before we call people "damaged," again, okay?

And let's think three times before we accuse game designers of making games that are the equivallent of sexual abuse.
Carpe Deum,

Clinton R. Nixon

As the self-appointed editorial ombudsman for the Forge, and someone who has come out strongly in disapproval of the metaphor, I feel qualified to clarify this thread.

Ron's initial argument was this: (1) trying to get the type of story gaming he is interested in from "traditional gaming" results in a rewiring of brain structures (deemed negative in his view) which makes it difficult to use tools which he feels can actually result in this story gaming.

(2) It may have been, but is unclear, that certain traditional gaming, especially that which calls itself "storytelling", results in this rewiring by its very play, no matter what the user was trying to get out of it.

(3) It was not, as far as I can tell, that traditional gaming just re-routes the brain.

Point (2) needs clarification from the original author, Ron, before we can move further in this thread. I see a lot of people agreeing with it, but I'm not certain it was the original premise.

The problems that John Wick and I and others are having with this thread have not been addressed, and I doubt they will. They do result from the transformation of point (1) into point (2). Point (1) is a valid argument that may be able to be examined. Point (2) is, as I see it, an opinion.

Being that this is an individual publisher forum, I have no moderating authority here, but I do ask everyone, based off of my position outside this forum, to be slow in response and to think about the above before continuing to post, at least until we have clarification.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


Quote from: Clinton R. Nixon on February 17, 2006, 03:16:52 PM
As the self-appointed editorial ombudsman for the Forge, and someone who has come out strongly in disapproval of the metaphor
A couple of things:
1. Ron's been very clear: it's not a metaphor. The sexual-abuse analogy was just that--but not the brain damage. The brain damage is literal in the literal sense.
2. The damage described applies to students in a classroom, not just to get story out of RPGs. It's, as I said, multi-spectrum.

I expect, eventually, there will be some reentrenchment around the idea that the brain damage was just a way of talking about an emotionally bad experience and that people will kind of give up on the story-damaged guys in the classroom and keep this related to bad experiences with RPGs and how people don't get 'em so they must be broken. We haven't quite gotten to that stage yet, though.

JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
a free, high-quality, universal system at:
Just Released: JAGS Wonderland

Ron Edwards


I had a long talk with John Wick on the phone yesterday evening, and this post is the result.

I have no idea how many people are going to believe this ...

The intense reactive, outraged response to the three posts in my thread was a complete surprise to me. I mean, total.

"Ron knew he'd get this reaction, he did it for shock value." "He must have known." Guys? I spread my hands - I had no idea. Between bigotry, hatred, arrogance, and who-knows-what, the range of interpretations is way beyond anything I imagined possible.

Because of that, I'm reconsidering the whole thing, a lot. "You should listen to them," is one thing I'm hearing over and over, and John is the guy who gave me the best advice about it. Well, OK - I will. It won't happen if I keep hammering out responses on an individual basis, so I have to close up the thread and take a while to think it over. One thing I'll have to deal with is that many people have flatly stated, "You're right, I'm an example," as opposed to many people being flatly opposed to the content.

I do owe some people some answers to direct questions, although in some cases, I don't really see the point. But I'll try anyway. A "straight answers" thread will probably be good idea, just to kind of finish up some dialogue. But aside from that, more importantly, I'll decide whether there's any constructive purpose to continuing the topic at all, with a new version or start or whatever; I'm not sure about that and have to think it over.

One response I'm anticipating is, "Well, if you didn't ancticipate or plan these reactions, then you were naive, even stupid." I accept that as valid and won't try to refute it. But you can't have it both ways; either I was provocative out of malice or attention-seeking or whatever, or I was naive-to-stupid. For now, I'm going to take that time off for a while, and come to some reflective decisions about that myself.

Best, Ron