Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Casanova, His Times, and Your Game

Balbinus posted this at back on '03. The thread has recently been subject to a bit of necromancy. Still, I think his original post is worth quoting, in total:

I'm presently reading The Story of my Life by Giacomo Casanova.

For those in the back row, Casanova was an Eighteenth century Venetian who was famous for his romantic exploits, thus giving rise to the term casanova.

Anyway, the book is tremendously well written. Extremely witty and erudite. It's also in places very surprising.

Sex per se forms a relatively small part of the book, despite what people might imagine. But social attitudes of the time are well depicted, if sometimes unconsciously. Some of those attitudes relate to sex in ways which are unexpected (this is heading to a gaming point, don't worry).

Casanova speaks on a couple of occasions about homosexuality, usually in the context of an anecdote where some guy has made a pass at him or he is mentioning that someone is gay. Casanova's view seems to be that homosexuality is not a moral issue, that is to say he sees nothing wrong with it. Indeed, he explicitly condemns the practices of countries which make it illegal or which pour scorn upon homosexuals. He sees such bigotry as essentially barbaric.

The only time Casanova has an issue with someone being gay is when a guy hits on him repeatedly and won't take no for an answer. He isn't bothered by the suggestion he might indulge, he knows his tastes don't run that way, he is rather bothered by the fact he is being pestered by someone he perceives as behaving rudely in not accepting defeat gracefully.

If he were fictional a modern reader would imagine that contemporary PC attitudes were being put onto the character. But this is a memoir written by Casanova himself. The surprising fact then is that an Eighteenth century rake was in fact more tolerant of homosexuality than most people today. Not what most would expect I think.

In another part of the book Casanova sleeps with two sisters on consecutive nights. One aged 11 and the other 12. Casanova is plainly no paedophile, he simply draws no great distinction between a girl of 11 and one of 21. Nor does anyone else in the book draw much distinction, including the girl's mother who knows about the affair. Casanova expresses surprise that a girl that young is interested, but once he knows she is there is no issue that she might be too young. The idea seems literally alien, it simply doesn't even arise.

Now, back then of course modern notions of childhood and adolescence simply didn't exist. You were either a child or an adult and as far as Casanova and everyone else was concerned if she was old enough to be interested she was clearly an adult for those purposes.

This is to modern sensibilities incredibly alien. An 11 year old today is seen as clearly being a child. That someone would make no distinction between her and a 21 or 31 year old makes no sense to the modern mind. He would in fact be arrested.

What struck me with this was quite how different his culture was, even in very basic things. There is no concept of the adolescent, most people know that but the practical implications of that fact are rarely so explicitly set out. In some things he is more modern than we are, in others he behaves in ways most people today view as not just morally repugnant but possibly even as a form of mental illness.

This is just 200 years ago and we're dealing with a Westerner.

Most games essentially have cultures which are America Lite, perhaps The West Lite if you prefer. There are cosmetic changes, people are loyal to a king instead of democracy, to many gods rather than just one, but fundamental moral assumptions of the modern day tend to still hold good. You don't sleep with 12 year olds in a fantasy game and homosexuality is rarely if ever mentioned.

Some try to depart from this. But generally most don't even bother.

Which leads to the issue of what we miss out by not even trying to put ourselves in another culture's heads. Heroic Greek rpgs rarely address the topic of Greek homosexuality. Western games usually try not to include racial attitudes of the day (often by the simple expedient of basically dropping all black people from the game). But these cultures aren't a huge stretch. I've summarised major differences in Casanova's attitudes from contemporary ones in one internet post, it's not impossible to put yourself in his head.

My impression is that most gamers like only cosmetic differences, elves aren't really alien, they're just Americans with pointy ears. But surely one of the great possibilities of roleplaying is exploring what it would be like to live in another time, another place. What's the point if when we go there everyone is just like us?

The short answer is, of course, that players can really only handle so much change from what they know. You can build on that slowly, but even then, you're going to lose some people. Even in the best group I ever played with, my college group, some of the players just couldn't get it through their heads that elves were polygamists who considered most of the human customs of marriage bizarre and deviant. The further you deviate from standard, the harder you have to work to reinforce these alterations in your setting, and the more frequently you must remind your players of them.

Still, I always push as far as I feel I can safely go, and then a tiny bit further. It makes my games memorable, and adds a hint of the fantastic to the worlds we play in.


Anonymous said...

If you're the catcher, do you lose hit points?

trollsmyth said...

Did you suffer stat loss making such a silly post? Better check your INT score. ;)