Games, at least games that involve multiple players, are interesting to me for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that they change the structures that people use to interact with one another, and in so doing change the ways in which people interact with one another.He doesn't give much detail; it is a preparatory entry for future discussions on the topic. I'm not even sure if he plans on talking about social structure within an RPG world or in the real world around the game table.
But it triggered some thoughts of mine. So forgive me, Thomas, if I co-opt anything about which you were planning to write.
The Myth of Equality around the Table
Certain rules of life inescapably apply to all people, such as existentialism and death. Other rules are seemingly unfairly applied, such as as taxes, access to clean water, and love. Still others are equally applied, but we each have unique starting positions that affect our ability to succeed - such as taxes, access to clean water, and love.
One apparent aspect of a game is that it provides a clean slate with a new set of rules. However, not all games provide equal rules for all players. You may be playing the dark versus the light in Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation. Or you may simply be seated second in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, not all game provide equal opportunities for all players. You may roll well or poorly, or you may draw the wrong or the right cards.
Beyond the explicit rules of the game, each of us comes to the table with our unique abilities, which play a strong factor in determining our success or failure in the game. These can include prior experience with the game, or simply a better "brain" for this type of game, be it area control, math skills, or negotiation.
From what looks like a fair start, it seems that we have a whole lot of inequality and predetermination in store for us.
The Social Leveling
The defining aspect of equality around the game board is our voluntary mutual acceptance of the rules before play, regardless of the fact that some people are going to be playing with advantages or disadvantages. When we first sit down at the table, we are of one mind.
I've sat down with eight year old boys, seventy-five year old grandparents, PhD mathematicians, world experts in national borders, policy makers, secretaries, housewives, househusbands, teachers, lawyers, you name it. Each one lives a life of carefully ordered social dynamics.
Whether at work, at home, or eating out, we rarely experience true equality. Any two people adjust themselves around lines of power within a relationship - parent versus child, expert versus layman, host versus guest. Our understanding of equality is expressed through a hope for mutual respect and through the lens of our common humanity. But the rules are set before each encounter, and we carry them with us as expectations. We have built them up throughout our lives.
Take any group of friends, and you will find complex layers of social inequality even among seemingly equal members of the group. Some will suggest ideas more than others, some nix ideas more than others. One always hosts, another always pays, another decides if the night is over. The specifics change, but I've never seen a group that doesn't exist within some subtle balance of power and control. The lines of power are long term and return during each encounter.
Sit down for a game, however, and the standard lines of power are temporarily set aside. Not entirely; my skill at Go is going to trump your skill at Go, if I've played it a lot more than you have. However, even if foregone, the new game represents a point of re-creation, like a Garden of Eden. Maybe all year long I respect you as the greater Go player. But when we sit down to play, you are no better than I am until the first move is made. You must be retested. And we mutually accept this.
Our sitting down to play a game is a voluntary dissolution of social hierarchy. What a world it could be if people could do this outside of the game framework. If political leaders could start from scratch before negotiating. If spouses could communicate from an Original Position with no fear of power loss or need to establish long term control.
Unfortunately, in games, as in life, someone wins and someone loses, whether due to luck or skill. Games, and life, without competition are generally uninteresting and unproductive. When the games are over, the prevailing social dynamics return. And no one gets a break from the social dynamics of life.