From fandoms to Dungeons & Dragons, our media choices reveal more than we realize

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Contributor Nick Diaz discusses the relationship between how people interact with media and their socioeconomic status.

Nick Diaz

Humans are apt to seek out the path of least resistance: taking the same route to school every day, eating the same foods each week, working the same job year after year. Individuals who buck routine are considered “adventurous” or “wild.” In any case, they are certainly not “standard.” Changing one’s routines requires energy and the belief that doing so is worth the payoff, and most people probably don’t believe that mixing up the roads they take to work on the daily is worth very much.

This idea, which I will refer to as the Rule of Least Resistance, is best encapsulated in the ways that people consume media, though it applies to nearly any sphere of activity from books, to video games to tabletop roleplaying games and even to life itself. To start, books offer a perfect illustration. Any given book is most easily understood in terms of the pages that exist between its two covers; the literal text on the literal page. As a matter of course, then, books are largely read for the enjoyment of the stories laid out explicitly by their authors. This is the natural, unresisting process of reading, with which most readers will engage because it entails the lowest energy cost. Further exploration of a text requires further effort. Analysis of themes, images and symbols; engagement with multimedia content; fan-theorizing and fan-content production—all these activities require more knowledge, commitment, or skill than most readers are inclined to dedicate, as the energy cost does not seem equitable compared to the returns.

In this way, novels have loose “standard experiences” baked into them. What is available on the surface is what is most frequently taken away by readers. These “standard experiences” are operations of the Rule of Least Resistance in that they are the lowest-cost avenues for interacting with content. To observe a novel’s “standard experience” one need only examine the discourse that surrounds a text. Take the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, for example, and its accompanying Game of Thrones television series. The general dialogue around the series revolves, mainly, around two subjects: 1.) sex and 2.) violence. This is an obvious result of the abundance of sex and violence within the series. However, sex and violence are not the extent of what can be taken from A Song of Ice and Fire.

If one goes to r/ASoIaF (the Reddit community dedicated to the series), one might find threads discussing the politics of Westeros, calls for content that includes more screen-time for the Braavos region or fan theories about characters’ lineages and loyalties. The denizens of r/ASoIaF are a subset of fans distinct from the general audience, and they dedicate more time to the series than the broader fanbase.

Another level beneath r/ASoIaF might include blogs arguing that A Song of Ice and Fire is a subconscious expression of the West’s preoccupation with sex and violence. This stratum of fans includes those who apply critical theory (in this example, post-structuralism) to literature that is not often considered “literature,” and these individuals are few: a true niche.

The farther one strays from surface content, the more commitment that is required to engage in the discussion. And the more commitment that is required to engage in a discussion, the fewer people who will engage. r/ASoIaF is a smaller subset of fans than the total of those who read the books and watch the show. Blogs discussing the psychology of the series are even fewer in number. This embodiment of the Rule of Least Resistance—wherein individuals generally do things in the easiest manner available—can be applied to any type of media or activity, including tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs).

There is a (sometimes feverish) discussion around whether rules or intention dictate the nature of play in a tabletop RPG. By virtue of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition being the most popular product in this hobby, this debate often manifests in the following two camps: 1.) Those who argue that DnD is a blank slate upon which any style of game can be played. 2.) Those who argue that the fundamental structure of a system like DnD limits the type of game that can be effectively played. (“Style of game,” here, refers to combat-, roleplay-, and narrative-focused, among other playstyles.) Specifically, the latter camp argues that DnD is a combat-focused system, and, as such, is not as suited to roleplaying (i.e. acting as one’s character) or storytelling as other systems. Examples include Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark and Fate Core.

The way that the Rule of Least Resistance makes an appearance in this debate can be demonstrated in how two different RPG systems work, starting with Dungeons & Dragons. DnD’s central mechanic is rolling a twenty-sided die to accomplish a task. A character improves at this mechanic by gaining experience points and levelling up. The main avenue for gaining experience points, as supported by the system without modification, is by killing monsters. Most of the character advancements that result from this gameplay loop are related to combat or are somehow applicable to combat situations. Thus, the tools available to DnD characters are specced for combat, and they are gained by participating in combat. It follows that, in DnD, combat will occur.

This preponderance of combat-based mechanics can be juxtaposed against the Fate Core RPG system. Fate’s central mechanic is the Fate Point—a token that can be used in combination with a character’s Aspects (i.e. colorful descriptors) to gain bonuses on dice rolls or to otherwise direct the flow of the game. A character earns Fate Points by playing into the negative sides of their Aspects. For example, if my character has the Aspect “Life of the Party”, then I might spend a Fate Point to gain a bonus on a roll of the dice when I’m trying to carouse at a local bar. To earn that Fate Point back, I might get severely drunk at the party and open my character to exploitation by an enemy. Unlike DnD, which is dominated by abilities that empower the players to kill things more effectively, Fate asks players to describe their characters, and then to play into those descriptions as the main conceit of play.

Neither of these RPG systems is better or worse than the other. However, the focus of a DnD game will differ from that of a Fate game because of the underlying structures that are at work. DnD players can play into their characters’ faults for the fun of roleplaying, but the system itself does not incentivize this playstyle to the extent that Fate does. Moreover, Fate players might game the system to more efficiently defeat their foes, but the system itself does not reinforce that as the main motivation for playing in the way that DnD does.

Of course, systems can be modified to better incentivize different types of play. For example, experience points might be gained from social encounters in a DnD game. This can encourage players to engage in roleplaying equally as much as combat. However, there is still the fact that most of the upgrades that will result from those points are rooted in combat. So, more modification must be done to truly level the playing field. In the end, however, most DnD game masters are not master-craft game designers, so there is much room for error or ineffective design. It is far less difficult to simply play DnD as packaged. As a result, however, DnD’s combat bias will seep into the game; to varying degrees, depending on the group playing. Here, the Rule of Least Resistance drives players toward a “standard experience.”

This investment drop-off applies, also, to life. Imagine if someone grew up playing DnD as written and was never exposed to any type of play beyond what is laid out in the rules of DnD. They would play the game predominantly as a combat simulation. Roleplaying might not feature heavily into their play, and learning to incorporate roleplaying into their game would be difficult—it would take time and investment beyond that of someone who is playing a roleplay-focused game, or someone who is at least aware of how roleplaying is best done within DnD.

Imagine, also, if someone had only played Fate, and then played DnD. How would they understand a game where they do not necessarily get rewarded for playing into their faults, or have points at their disposal that could be used to alter the course of play? Of course, either system can support some portion of the other’s playstyle, but what is being considered here is a more “essential” view of each system.

Next, imagine if someone grew up in a typical suburb, where the expectations were clear: get primary education, go to college, get a job, work. Then, imagine someone who grew up in the inner city, where the expectations were different: survive, protect yourself and yours, try not to get arrested, go to school if you can. (As someone whose experiences align with the former, I am drawing upon the ideas presented by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me regarding the latter.)

Decision-making will undoubtedly differ between the suburb kid and the city kid. They are playing different games that have different fundamental assumptions. Arthur Morrison deals with similar subject matter in his short stories “Tales of Mean Streets” and “Lizerunt”, which depict poor individuals not as fetishistic caricatures—destitute yet wholesome—but rather as people driven to desperate action by their circumstances. He depicts them as people who are operating in an entirely different world from that of the middle and upper classes, as people that cannot be judged by the same metrics as those classes.

This is the broadest extrapolation of the Rule of Least Resistance: People’s values, attitudes and actions are deeply influenced by their socioeconomic contexts. To assume that every person is playing the exact same game with the exact same rules and the exact same assumptions is to disregard the fractal complexity of the human experience. Not everyone is playing DnD, some people are playing Fate or Blades or Apocalypse World or Fiasco. Moreover, not everyone can be expected to adapt different playstyles into their system, just like not everyone can be expected to delve into the Star Wars Extended Universe, or to theorize about A Song of Ice and Fire. These modes of being require both energy and the assumption that they are even worthwhile pursuits (or an option at all).

People have differences that go as deep as fundamental assumptions about reality. However, every person, by virtue of being human, has the capacity to comprehend other people’s situations. Indeed, understanding the constraints conferred by context—whether those be ways of engaging with a book series, the influences of a tabletop RPG system on playstyle, or the gulf that spans between people’s perspectives on life—is essential to being truly aware of the world.

When someone does something that is difficult to understand, it is important to consider their framework. There are root causes for people’s actions, such as the person who repeatedly gets fired from their job because of tardiness. Their car might be unreliable, and they can’t afford a new one; their child might have a chronic illness for which they cannot afford care; or they might lack confidence and investment in their work.

Knowledge of this sort is gained by speaking with people. Really speaking with them. Hearing their answers, considering those answers and understanding one’s own responses to those answers. As Sage Latorra and Adam Koebel advise when running the RPG Dungeon World, “Ask questions and use the answers.” By asking questions, one can recognize the ways that other people see the world, and using the recognition gained by internalizing their answers is essential to helping others in their times of need. Because nobody can help anybody else if they do not endeavor to understand the frameworks in which those other people operate. And it is faulty for any person to assume that they are ever done endeavoring to understand others.