The Myth of the Mainstream

October 9, 2009

There’s a persistent illusion that flies about in the roleplaying hobby. It’s the idea that if roleplaying could clear “one hurdle” it would suddenly explode into a mainstream hobby.

That one hurdle usually changes depending on the person and the time (“Too much magic!”, “Too complex rules!”, “Too geek!”, etc.), but all of it depends on failing to see something fundamental about roleplaying.

Roleplaying is a hobby where you make up imaginary things for it’s own sake.*

Realize that most of the population finds their fun in ways -other- than the creative act. Even if roleplaying were to drop all the kludgy barriers to entry, from geek factor to complexity to clarity issues, at the end of the day, it’s still only going to appeal to a narrow band of people. The fixation on breaking into the mainstream needs to end- it’s a carryover of geek fallacy, of needing to prove legitimacy of the hobby to the world at large.

Instead, we should be looking at who roleplaying can really serve- people who like creating the imaginary- the fanfic writers, the freeform forum gamers, the ARG player/makers, the fictional character bloggers, and every other group out there who falls in that same category.

There’s already big circles of people who don’t need to be convinced that creating with the imagination is fun- what they need is to be shown how and why your game and system will make it easier and more fun than what they’re currently doing (or, at least, fun enough to use in conjunction).

Marketing begins with knowing who your market IS. And selling to those people and not pouring endless effort into the folks who -aren’t- your market.

* Shared Imaginary Space and Exploration are common to all tabletop roleplaying.



  1. Also- if you read the above and imagine that I’m saying that there isn’t a lot of barriers to entry, or that we shouldn’t push for folks outside of gamerdom, or that we should be more niche-y, or that everything is great the way it is and nothing should change, or that roleplaying is for elite special people…

    I’m not saying any of those things.

  2. I always thought those people were the mainstream. Is “creative” really a niche market? Don’t we all have it in us to be artists?

    • First, consider how many people enjoy creating vs. enjoy experiencing the results of a given activity (music, art, writing, knitting).

      Now consider the subsets of creators who would still do it without secondary benefits (status, money, groupies, knitted products).

      Now consider the subset who would want to do this collaboratively.

      Now consider the subset who want to deal with the imagination.

      (I could keep going, but you get the point, I hope.)

      Just because everyone -can- do something, doesn’t mean they -want- to. Reread the bold sentence and really think about what a niche that is.

      I think the only mainstream activity people regularly do that fits that bill is fantasize about sex. And they usually don’t do that collaboratively. And it’s not -quite- just to imagine things, but for a different pleasure.

      • I’m probably being a Romantic, but I’d prefer to think that, however small those subset ratios are, they can and should be increased. I want to believe the general aversion to storytelling – or the perception of it a task for special people – is socialized, acculturated, a modern adaptation to economic specialization or the corporatization of culture. There was a time (here’s where my Fredy Perlman starts to show) when what we would later call religion was an omnipresent relation to stories of primal significance, punctuated by ritual roleplay.

        I know that’s more than a bit hippy-dippy. I think my saving grace is that I don’t feel equipped to berate people into fixing this “problem.” I prefer bemoaning! 🙂

        • I want to believe the general aversion to storytelling – or the perception of it a task for special people – is socialized,

          I don’t think there IS an aversion to storytelling. Right now, technology makes it terribly, terribly easy to be a storyteller in many ways- we not only have internet means to distribute stories, we have tons of access to “how-to” guides, video and digital cameras, easy means of making music, art, or just plain writing. This has been our case for nearly a decade now, and to be certain, a LOT MORE people have been engaged in creative work- but again, we can see it’s a fraction of the whole who prefer enjoying it.

          Consider- roleplaying isn’t in competition with videogames- roleplaying is in competition with Youtube, blogging, webcomics, Deviantart, Myspace, Facebook, wikis, etc. (not counting traditional outlets- music, theater, dance, publishing fiction, etc.).

          The subset of people who enjoy being creative have a lot of options, and roleplaying also tacks on the additional requirements, which, naturally narrows its selection.

          (as far as “special people” are concerned, see comment #1 in this thread. It’s a non-issue in this discussion- a perception held by gamers rather than non-gamers…)

          • Forgive me for misunderstanding you on the public perception of “imaginating.” I think what I was failing to say was more like, “I think people imagine things all the time. Hypotheticals are necessary for all planning. Positive thinking and fantasizing extends (I think!) beyond sex. Reading a tech or science blog can spark a hundred ‘What I would do with that’ or ‘What would happen if’ ideas. To say nothing of the vivid and detailed fantasies of supersitions.”

            As far as the rest, what you’re saying is even closer to what I’ve been thinking than I thought! Yes, roleplaying does have an impulse in common with all the examples you list. I would even add the more obvious middle ground of fanfiction (and associated fantasy books and television) and roleplaying forums and chat rooms, or even just everyone who acts a bit different on line. Adults didn’t do that so much before the technology (or rather, the way of using the technology) became extant. What I keep wondering is if there is some technology (or technique) that can make something that we’d be comfortable calling an RPG, but that, say, scaled to the amount of time you felt like giving it, or could be played asynchronously.

            In short, I feel (and it may be a fantasy) that there’s a great leap forward from PBP waiting to be discovered. Not sure if my paltry attempts to make it justify my paltry attempts to advocate for it.

            But all that might be a completely different topic. As far as the root issue, what I really want is justification for trying to get everyone I know or meet to play these things.

          • As far as the root issue, what I really want is justification for trying to get everyone I know or meet to play these things.

            So… you’re making massive comments on a post that states that:

            a) (getting everyone to like what you like) is fundamentally impossible and;
            b) seeking a magic formula to do just that is a waste of time.

            in the hopes FOR such a rationalization?


          • People do strange things some times. I was more attempting to explain why I felt prompted to say so much, and get you to say more, than actually get you to dispense me a justification. I lose at communication.

            I don’t expect there’s a magic formula for everyone, but plenty of folks are paid a living to design products and advertisements that target different groups, especially ever larger-ones. Non-rhetorical: Is that entirely misled? I’ve long suspected it mostly is.

          • To participate here, you have to show good faith in digesting what is said. Thus far, you have mostly asked questions either based in misreading, or not reading what has been said, or things which you could probably answer for yourself with a little thought.

            For example- your advertising question here, would make sense if we didn’t already have a history of decades of companies doing massive advertising campaigns, with professional marketing companies. Consider that and what the market is that we currently possess.

            Take some time if you want to continue discussing this. Or, if you prefer, consider one of the many other forums where people are happy to engage in discussion without those requirements.

  3. This is true.

    I think that there’s a really odd thing that goes on with, well, I was going to say “people” but I mean Matt S, and the field of people who agree with him. There’s a toggle between “must produce games for ‘the hidden mainstream'” as if gaming would ever be accessible to a mass audience, and “must produce games for present RPG gamers only, all else is folly.” Like, I can remember four years ago Matt was yelling the *exact opposite* thing from his now defunct blog (Heads or Tales, I think).

    But neither of those things is true, or possible. You can’t make a game that’s “like D&D, but better” because D&D is the best possible D&D it can be. Likewise, there’s no way that a creatively, temporally, and logistically taxing hobby will ever be broadly popular.

    Rather, each game contains implicitly its own audience. The goal is to reach that audience, to show them why they will love the game, and how it will help them enjoy their lives more. The audience can be big or small, but it is the audience of the game. And that’s the point.


    • Is (say) A Penny for My Thoughts really that demanding, compared to other games? Compared to sports? What constitutes a mainstream activity? What makes games demanding, and how can they be made less so?

      No one is owed the answers to these questions. Or more specifically, I think it’s obviously great that people can make “the game I and maybe my friends want to play,” especially since I think the maximum quality of those games keeps getting higher. They’re great. But, I was also shocked at the Grey Ranks sales figures, and the dismay pushes me to greedily ask for more.

      • Yes. It is. Penny particularly. I find Penny to be one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done.

        I don’t think it’s an issue of “making it less demanding.” The activity is fundamentally demanding. That’s just how it is. Soccer doesn’t become popular by making it easier to play. Neither did Chess.

        I’m not shocked at the Gray Ranks numbers. I mean, yes. The game about child soldiers dying in Poland sells less than the game about space marines. This is true about novels, about movies, about everything piece of media ever.

        Heck, there are a lot of places (poetry publishers) which sell considerably *less* than that, and maintain viability.

        Welcome to small publishing.

        • All good points, and I do feel welcome. 🙂

      • Who said anything about more demanding?

        RPGs -aren’t- any more demanding than anything else. It’s that the type of enjoyment they provide is something only a smaller portion of people are into. – for whatever reason, as much as only a portion of the population is into strawberry icecream vs. other flavors.

        As I pointed out, we live in a world where it’s -stupid- easy to be engaged in creative activity, and yet, only a portion is interested in that. Looking at smaller subsets of creative activities naturally gives you smaller subsets of people interested in your activity.

        • Well, Ben was calling them “taxing,” and “demanding” seemed a fair synonym. So let’s you and him fight it out.

          • If you imagine we’re disagreeing.

  4. You’re right, I experienced a bit of mental gear-slippage there. When you spoke of making up imaginary things for it’s own sake, the games in the wargaming tradition – which, of course, are as widely known as we can reasonably hope for – didn’t occur to me. But the “story games,” which did occur to me, and which are not as widely known as all that, seem to appeal to a different group of people, only some of which have been served by the classic, popular offerings.

    That was my concern: the set of story gamers might not be a subset of the set of traditional gamers, but only intersect with it. There definitely are people who have never seen a roleplaying game that interested them, yet who find they enjoy playing some roleplaying games. My hopes spring from having encountered them in surprising numbers.

    Or: I think that nearly everyone who might like Dungeons and Dragons has heard of it. That’s a victory for marketing. I very much don’t think that everyone who might like Thousand and One Nights has heard of it. Might that be a failure of marketing?

    But as these beliefs are only based on anecdotes and enthusiasm, I could easily be wrong. If I am, I’d like to understand my error better; can you recommend any further reading that could help disabuse me?

    (For whatever it’s worth, there’s nothing I want less than to misread you. Thank you for your forbearance.)

    • To reiterate what’s in the post, and what I’ve said repeatedly now:

      1. More people are interested in passively enjoying the results of creative endeavor than in engaging in the creative act themselves.
      2. Of those people who do enjoy creative endeavor, a smaller subset would enjoy what roleplaying has to offer.
      3. Most games could reach a -wider- audience (which would still not be a majority in any way)
      4. Wasting time hoping for, struggling on, fighting for, bemoaning, etc. in the hopes of having the majority is backwards thinking- it’s wishing on the market to change to meet your wishes instead of examining the market and how to reach the subset that actually would enjoy what you have to offer. It is a waste of time.

      There are no exceptions about 1001 Nights that would make this any different.

      These questions you ask, seem to be fishing for something else.

      Since my stance is that our current culture is one in which roleplaying cannot be mainstream, due to general preferences and dispositions, you’re asking the questions of the wrong person. If you’re seeking ideas to promote roleplaying into a mainstream, you can go to the many discussion sites which have plenty of people with plenty of ideas. They will be happy to answer questions along those lines.

      Please do not take up any more comment space in my blog if you’re going to continue in this disingenuous manner. Please read, digest, and think before you comment.

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