Friday, 4 September 2015

Encumbrance, games, history.

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and ... start ... worrying. Hrm.

So, in my day job -- and particularly during the summer months when school is out -- I spend a lot of time sitting at a computer writing. I'm someone who likes to have noise in the background, so when I'm not listening to a podcast or something, I often have videos on YouTube just sort of playing on one screen while I write on the other, or even just forming a soundtrack. One of the channels I often look at for informative short videos is run by a guy called Matt Easton, an archaeologist by training and a devotee of historical swordfighting or, as it is known, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts).

I find a lot of Matt's videos balanced and reasonable and interesting, but there were one or two that gave me pause initially. In fact, I think I was wrong about this, but I'll explain why in a moment. Here is one video in which Matt talks about the practicality of carrying weapons and armour and how that relates to role-playing games.

(That figure actually appears in my D&D game as the long-suffering Knives, second-most-junior of the party's henchmen.)

Now, I think that in terms of explaining historical uses of things, Matt has the absolute right point that it is much easier to understand why things were or weren't done when you think of them in terms of convenience or hassle. A lot of things that people imagine as being optimal when fighting an enemy on an infinite grid of blue squares are just a huge pain in the butt when you have to think of doing them in everyday life. But I think, or thought, that the implications he drew from that were misguided.

Now I want to point out that I'm not saying "oh, it's fantasy, it doesn't have to be realistic." That is both obviously true and obviously untrue, as thinking about the extreme responses for a second will show. What I am saying is that works of adventure fiction tend to focus on elements of the narrative that produce the requisite mood of thrilling heroics -- which is why pirate movies don't have long scenes in which they fill up the ship with all the water and biscuit they need, Katniss Everdeen never stops to take a whiz and James Bond isn't in a mental institution.

(OK, James Bond is briefly in a mental institution early on in The Man With the Golden Gun, but you know what I mean.)

It's like people who say "well, Bruce Wayne should just give all his money to charity instead of punching clowns." Those people should be sentenced to read issue after issue of a comic about a well-adjusted philanthropist. They'd change their tune sharpish, I suspect.

Or, to put it another way, I interpreted it as a case of missing the forest for the trees -- when what you care about is, say, medieval weapons and armour, there's a temptation to view everything through that lens. You ask yourself "how does this game represent medieval weapons and armour" rather than "what is this game trying to achieve through the use of medieval weapons and armour," ignoring the fact that it's called Dungeons and Dragons and not Hundred Years War Luggage Simulator. I am ... well, like Matt, I have a couple of degrees in archaeology and I've spent years studying the middle ages. I am probably in the top one or two percent of people who care about the medieval period. And I wouldn't play Hundred Years War Luggage Simulator, at least not more than once.

(And Lord knows I do this as much as anybody; I'm not claiming to be special here.)

But, of course, one of the reasons I thought this was that I was thinking in the back of my mind "after all, it's not like people get their ideas about what life was like in historical periods from games, is it?"

And then I looked at the comments sections of Matt's videos. Oh dear.

And then I remembered that I'd been wrestling with almost this exact problem in the classes I teach and on my history blog for years. Just not with D&D specifically. But it's the same thing, really.

Sorry, Matt; my bad. Carry on.

Dear fellow gamers: trying to apply the logic of games to thinking about real history is like wondering why real spies don't sleep with beautiful but deadly assassins and fight sharks or thinking that real-world philanthropists should take to the street to punch bank robbers. Steal from history and put it in games: it is the most fun thing! But just remember which is which. And for heaven's sake don't post about it on YouTube.

(I do actually like the idea of making very heavy armour a long-term investment in that you have to pay for all the mules and squires and stuff, but I don't care enough about implementing it to keep track of the expenditures. Games with abstract wealth ratings handle this not too badly, I feel.)

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