World of Darkness Blog
Created 208 days ago
Jeff Crowl is an MBA graduate and long-time gamer living in Seattle. His more-or-less weekly posts discuss game theory, gamification, and player behavior of all kinds, using the pending World of Darkness MMO as a backdrop, a and an excuse to blog about this stuff. Check us out this week and next!
Merit: 2 Flaw: 1
"So, great," you say, "Introducing drugs to my game/story/script brings with it all these benefits, then. It's as simple as that, then, right?"
Ummm... No. If it was, more Oscars would go to movies about drug addiction than love stories. The sad truth is that stories about drug abuse and addiction jump the tracks in some pretty predictable ways. Call it meta-abuse, or what have you, but there are some significant pitfalls in store for anyone who wants to introduce drugs to his or her narrative.
Pitfall One: Drugs obey their own rules
One of the most oft-abused elements of drugs I've seen at work in stories is that drugs can have unpredictable effects on any given individual. For every person who's gotten hooked on heroine or meth their first time, there's probably someone who tried it once, didn't care for it, and never tried it again. For every person who can drink a dock-hand under the table, there's a "cheap date," who gets silly on a beer and a half. Given such unpredictable effects, it's very tempting to have the effects of the substance in question suddenly go away whenever it best suits the narrative. Drugs become their own Deus Ex Machina, doing the writer's dirty work when it's convenient, and politely "wearing off" when they're no longer needed.
Anyone who's ever dealt with an addiction (theirs or someone else's) knows it doesn't work that way. Just as the drug doesn't supplant someone's personality (see below), they also don't discretely "turn off" at some pre-ordained point in time. AA tells its members that sobriety is a commitment they have to make anew every day, and anyone who's quit smoking can tell you how hard it is to turn down that smoke when they're stressed or someone is smoking around him or her. However, outside of being an unrealistic depiction of drug behavior, it's simply lazy. The plot is moved forward by an arbitrary decision by the writer or ST, rather than character decisions. That defeats the purpose of having drugs show up in the first place: to offer a chance to explore characters' motivations in a very different light from what they're used to inhabiting. At yet, it still happens.
Pitfall Two: Drugs Supplant Characters' Actions, Rather than Refocusing them
Please recall what we discussed last time about what drugs do to characterization: They give characters new motivations, new fears, and new desires. They offer a new lens through which to look at the character and what she's willing to do to get what she wants and avoid what she doesn't.
They do not make people do things.
This comes from the time I spent working in addiction counseling, and might rub some people the wrong way, but it's the truth. Yes, your body may go into withdrawal if you don't get your next hit, and your brain may build up structures and behaviors to make sure that doesn't happen, some of which can play out completely unconsciously. However, at the end of the day, the drug never takes the driver's seat. It sits in the back, yelling, screaming, promising, and bargaining, but it can't take over. It's a subtle difference, but one that bears noting.
Your character may be addicted to crack (or its supernatural equivalent). That doesn't mean her previous characterization goes away, to be replaced by a template called "Crack-head." Nor does it mean, however, that her addiction has no impact on her choices. It means that all things being equal, if she's got any quantity of Rock, the easy choice will be to smoke it when the cravings get bad, and if she doesn't have any there's going to be a very real part of her that can't focus on anything other than when she's going to get more of it. Your character may be on LSD (or its supernatural equivalent). That doesn't mean that her actions become random and nonsensical. It means that the reality with which she's interacting differs radically from the one that everyone else is, which can be remarkably scary and frustrating, to be sure. What it doesn't do, however, is invade the character's motivational neurons and direct your character to do whatever's most entertaining, until it becomes more interesting for your character to return to "normal."
In short, addicts are people, too. No matter how strong the cravings or how bizarre their perceptions, the things they do still make sense to to them, on some level. Erasing their existing characterization to be replaced with a stereotype you may have of what people under the influence of that drug do isn't just insensitive to real addicts, it obliterates the work you've put into building that character as well.
Pitfall Three: Addiction involves choices. So does Recovery
You can hold someone down and give them drugs. You can hold someone down and keep them from drugs. At the end of the day, though, just "having it out of your system" is not the same thing as "everything's back to normal." The character has seen things and done things, and that means something. They have to live with the harm they've done. Also, odds are, not all of it was unpleasant. Some part of the character might have liked the experience. Some part may want to go back, and given the chance maybe would. Consider the Jasmine story-arc on Angel. Those under the demigod's sway felt a sense of peace, love and purpose unlike any other. When that went away, it left an empty pit where that bliss once was. Even though they knew it was a lie, that didn't change how they felt, nor was it a certainty that, given a choice, would any given character turn down a chance to return to their blissful walking dream. (Good job, Joss Wheaton!)
Consider as well the character of Cypher from The Matrix. He knew full-well that the Matrix was a horrid lie. Knowing it, however, wasn't a strong enough reason to turn it away. In the end, he was willing to betray the people who cared the most about him just to forget everything he'd seen and return to the delusion. As a counter-example, look back to the second season of True Blood, in which most of a town fell under a spell that caused their deepest, most animal desires to surface and run amock. For the writers to remove the characters' memories of what they'd done, and how it felt, was sloppy. Though it would have been challenging to give each of those characters a chance to process what had happened to them, and what it meant for the rest of their lives, denying them than chance clearly demonstrates a lack of consideration for their development as characters. There were no real consequences, and action without consequence has no place in a narrative.
Video Game Heroes Don't Use Drugs
Here's where my notes talk about use of drugs in video games and the like, but his article's getting a bit long as it is. Let's table this for next time for now, but let me open the conversation to all of you. When have you seen drug-like effects work in games, movies, or shows, and when has it fallen flat? Have their been examples you've seen of anything I've written here or last time that worked better or worse than I've suggested? Thanks again for reading. Until next time!
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207 days ago
I've noticed that in a lot of "cures" for addictions - both in media and in real life - the "solution" seems to be simply to repalce one addiction with another, perhaps healthier, addiction. Examples such as getting a pet to take care of and becoming very attached to that pet; or taking up a sport and "working off" the previous addiction; or simply weaning the person off one drug but gradually replacing it with another (hopefully less-harmful) drug or placebo. Is this a common practice in drug rehabilitation/therapy? And if so, what does it say about humanity's need for SOMETHING to occupy ourselves? Can't we just exist without being addicted to SOMETHING?
207 days ago
Interesting question, Rick. From a clinical standpoint, there're addictions and compulsions. Addictions are physical in nature and only relate to chemical substances.If unmet, they result in withdrawal symptoms. Compulsions, on the other hand, are behavioral and often go hand-in-hand with addictions, but don't need to. Gaming compulsion, for instance, to burrow another theme from Extra Credits, for instance. Yes, a number of recovery programs seek to fill a hole since, frankly, it's just easier that way. Do a drug routinely and it becomes a part of your routine. Remove the drug, and there's a psychological gap left behind that could shrink with time, sure, but much more likely will get replaced with something else.Consider the last time you lost a job (assuming, in this economy, everyone's lost a job at some point or other). In addition to the angst of needing money and all that, there's also the sudden confusion of "what do I do with eight hours of my day now?"