With a little less than a month before Atlanta by Night, at which CCP-White Wolf will make a much-antipated announcement about their much-anticipated MMO that will inevitably underwhelm us in terms of content, but will udoubtably send me and the other blog-o-nerds back to our laptops to completely rethink each and every one of our carefully-conceived-of mental models and hypotheses about what the game will or should look like, I thought I'd take a small break from the wanton speculations I've been making and talk this week about a very different element of Game Theory.
In this summer's season of a certain show that shall remain nameless, a newly-introduce group of power-players is struggling with the effects of what amounts to a drug being used by some of its members. While I'm not going to come out and say the plot is thin, or the characterization is corroding (that's for the TV review blogs), it did get me thinking about the use of drugs of various sorts as a plot device for stories of all kinds, and their effects on the behavior of characters of all sorts.
Hey, Crowl. Isn't this supposed to be a blog about Games and Stuff?
It is. Mostly. Here's the thing. Game Theory and Gamification revolve around giving people reasons to do things. Most of us would never actively seek to bankrupt our friends into financial ruin, but put a Monopoly board in front of us, and it's a completely different story. Whether they're in your local game of Paranoia, or, say, on a hit cable show in its fifth season, fictional characters of all sorts need reasons to do things. The best characters are usually the ones with the most compelling, interesting, and relatable goals and motivators. Characters in games without interesting motivations or goals are just boring. Characters in shows, books and movies without interesting motivations feel flat and hollow. This is how Reality TV works: take real people (like in a game) and place them in a ridiculous environment full of contrieved and artificial motivators (like on TV) and let them make their own plot.
I don't like the drugs, but the drugs like me - One last disclaimer
By the way, this article isn't taking a stand on the political dimensions of the War on Drugs, nor claiming an expert knowledge about drug culture. Further, we're focusing here primarily on drug addiction as a plot device, rather than so-called "casual use." A drug that a character casually uses now and then can tell us things about that character (risk-taking, decadence, indulgence, nonconformity), but until it crosses the line into being a motivating force (e.g. addiction), it's not a plot device. Given, there's a lot of grey area here, and having a character toe that line can be an interesting side-plot, but again, for the discussion here, "Drug use" and "Drug addiction" are going to pretty much be the same thing. That's not to offend anyone out there who uses whatever substance with whatever degree of responsibility. Interesting characters in shows and games tend not to make responsible choices. Interesting human beings in real life tend to make responsible decisions, however. Funny how that works out.
Three Good reasons Why Drugs make a Good Plot Device
First and fore-most, drugs are fun.
Taking a drug gives you an altered perception of the world and yourself, and watching or playing a character on a drug lets you take a peek at that skewed perspective without having to face all the social, psychological, physical and legal consequences. They're also taboo, so there's an extra delight to be had sampling the forbidden experience, even vicariously through fictional characters. We get to have our walk on the wild side, and still wake up and make it in to work the next day.
Next, drugs make character think differently than they would have otherwise. Fictional characters aren't real people. They only do the things and want the things we tell them to. The stronger a given character's core of development, often-times, the harder it is to get them to reasonably do something novel to take the story in a fresh new direction, and explore something different. Sometimes the narrator has to introduce an element into the story that makes the characters do odd things just to stir things up. Joss Wheaton used this frequently in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which any given week might have one or more regular characters of the cast fall under whatever sort of spell to change their behavior radically. However, the actions taken had real consequences, and also often gave us a peek at a side of the character we hadn't seen before, giving those characters further depth and complexity.
Drugs are also relatable. Fantasy and Sci-Fi works always have to find ways for the audience to "buy in" to the cosmology of their story. As I've pointed out before, it's probably part of why The Golden Compass did so poorly while audiences never bat an eye when presented with another take on the vampire mythology. Give people something to which they can relate, or at least comprehend, and you have to work a lot less hard making it make sense, giving you more room to focus on other parts of the story. Drugs are a part of our world, from DARE education to movies and media, young people learn about drugs and, love 'em to hate'em, quickly accept them into their understanding of the world in which they live. Heck, if you're reading this, demographically-speaking, you've probably known (or been) someone who's had to deal with addiction of some kind. When you see a character going through something you've seen first hand, it's somehow comforting, like watching Michael J. Fox get roughed up by bullies in Teen Wolf, or relating to the social isolation of the little dot in Loneliness (Thanks again, Extra Credits!). The point here is that drugs exist in our world, and touch everyone's life at some point or other, so when things happen in stories that work like a drug, the creator doesn't have to work over-time to explain it to you.
And now the most Important Reason (and potentially least-surprising one)
Drugs make characters want things, which makes them do things.
Clinically speaking, drug addiction is physical, but walks hand-in-hand with psychological compulsions the mind builds up to avoid dealing with the consequences of not taking the drug, like withdrawal. Once a character is firmly hooked on something, she's faced with a choice every day: do what(ever) she has to do to stay on the drug (potentially creating plot) or do what(ever) she has to do to stay off the drug (also potentially creating plot). Further, it's not an either-or choice. Working on the Quit-line, I told people nearly every call "Relapse is part of recovery," and making either choice (successfully or otherwise) never means she can't choose the other the next day. Watching a character who's been built up as having tremendous strength of any kind humbled, even momentarily, by something that hits a vulnerable place is as gripping as watching a different character, who's never seen herself as powerful, muster the will to conquer an enemy within herself.
Drugs also offer characters a new motivation: Drugs. For some characters, at least for a while, just getting the next score can be enough for whole story-arcs. For other characters it presents the challenge of getting off the drug and staying clean. There's also all the pain and pathos of switching from one camp to the other, something real people suffering from real addictions go through. Either way, addiction offers the cast/writers/players a chance to explore just what the character is willing to do. Even admitting that there's a problem can be its own challenge, as (again, demographically-speaking) everyone here understands, for sure.
Let's clarify that there's a world of difference between saying "drugs do good things for stories and games, sometimes," and making light of the real pain and struggle of addiction in the real world. Playing someone going through hardships can be fun. Do you really think your World of Warcraft character is always enjoying herself, getting pelted with arrows and digging up every scrap of Copper she can mine? Nope. On the other hand, just because you introduce addiction into a story doesn't mean it's going to add the depth I've talked about here. With that in mind, my next installment will be about the down-side of drugs in story media, how it goes wrong, and what happens when the people involved don't handle it maturely. Drug-abuse, if you will. Thanks again for reading.
259 days ago
Drugs could also be an interesting component in an economy. If your trying to mimic the real world, I guess they would be a necessary evil part of the economy.
261 days ago
There are many parallels to be drawn between drug use and ghouldom or the Blood Bond - only usually when you throw in vampires, it's an addiction to a person, not a substance. (Though the line is blurred with vampire blood - there are rogue ghouls addicted to the stuff itself.) It's very interesting - if not scary and creepy - to see how far people will go to make themselves feel good, but I think it's a lot harder to portray a character going through that properly. On the one hand, unless the player feels the same way about the person or substance, it lacks truth; on the other, if they do feel that way, they probably don't want to look and act like that in front of other people, even in a "safe" environment like roleplaying. My Forsaken Mage in World of WarCraft struck out in grief and anger once, but I made sure to apologize to the good players of the Alliance for kicking their asses with rage-induced magical power afterwards. ---- Also - Joss Whedon.