Семёнов Алексей Игоревич
—Live role-playing games started in Russia in 1990 when the first Hobbit Game, i.e. a game based on the Tolkien epos was held near Krasnoyarsk. This does not mean that before that there were not any role playing games at all. They actually occurred from time to time, though the gamers did not see themselves as "role-players", members of a community, the role-play movement. However that self-identification happened in summer of 1990, so the first Hobbit Games are now considered to be the initial point of the role-play movement in Russia (USSR then).
Who were the players in the first games and what was the origin of this movement? The cohort of the first members (between 1990–1993, though in different cities these boundaries differ) mostly came from the Science Fiction Fans Club, hippie movement and teachers who stuck to the non-formal approach in their studies with teenagers. This non-formal approach was known under the title of Communar movement. What was it in practice? Communar movement which germinated in 1960 was based on some clear principles, such as developing the personality in a romantic way, following the principles of humanity, building up close relationships between the people who share and defend the same noble values.18 19
This approach for the upbringing of the youth, and, most of all, the actual methods of it, contrasted dramatically from the ones approved by the state structures, but due to bureaucratic rigidness on one hand and the absence of a clear concept on the other, this new approach failed to win its proper place in the state’s educational structures. Communars considered a role-play to be the ideal space for application of their ideas, the space which is informal and friendly while being independent from the state’s influence. Also some of the kids already brought up in this tradition entered this movement as well. All the three parts intersect with each other.
The specific features of the set mentioned here are important because division into periods in Russian role-play movement and all the significant changes in it originate from changes in the initial set of the participants. We have to outline the fact, that this movement in our country acquired the unique social status unlike ordinary pastimes such as tourism, paintball, stamps collection, being a fan of some music style or a football team. This was the status of the specific community of people praising, openly or implicitly, some of the social values, which differed from the characteristics of the so-called square members of society. After some time, the said attitude to the status of the movement and especially to the image of it as the bearer of these principles, have changed, even within the movement itself.
The first games were mostly based on fantasy novels. Speaking about the style and methods of those, we confess that the enthusiasm of the first path-breakers prevailed. Participants of role-play games were few, practically all of them knew each other, so each project was unique and collectively created, without extra theoretical generalization or deriving basic principles. This was the initial spontaneous stage of developing and experience building. One of the most important factors was the fact that a certain specific system of basic values had formed itself among the cohort of first role-players. This was caused by the content of the participants.
It is very important to underline, that a certain specific system of the basic values formed itself among the cohort of first players, and this fact was caused by the specific features, characterizing the first participants. This system of values, these morals were determined by romanticism, humanity, informality, understanding that every personality is unique, the spirit of friendship, even brotherhood, altruism as a basis.
Role-plays in Russia, due to the open-minded and active way of players’ life, spread fast. Already in 1991 the first Games in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Kazan were held, 1992 brought in Saratov (Volga region), Kharkov (the Ukraine), Novosibirsk (Siberia), Yekaterinburg (the Ural) and then other cities. But the first mentioned became the centers of game development, that is, cradles of new ideas and methods, and some of them still are. The quantity of players in first games was rather low – from 50 to 200 people.
First games, like most of them now, were held outdoors, when it was warm outside, in the woods. According to Russian legislation on land usage most of the forests territories belong to the state, while not being wild-life reservations. That is why pastimes in the woods are free for everybody and does not require special permission. So the woods have become the most convenient place for performing such informal mass meetings as the role-plays are.
THE SECOND STAGE
The beginning of the second stage of role playing dated back to 1992–1995. The external cause for it was mass publication of works by Tolkien in Russia, and, later, other famous fantasy writers. This gave the readers a strong desire to express their feelings and impressions of the books in communication and even in real acts. But the internal cause was the overwhelming crisis of Russian society, disintegrating of moral values in the youth strata of society, then the turn to the principles of bare pragmatics which replaced the moral code created by soviet propaganda. This internal cause was also the search for the unique ecological niche for those who were not contented with existing informal youth movements.
This inflow of participants became more intense: some of the games mounted up to 500–600 people, although in general did not exceed 200. The number of games increased rapidly, the area of them spread fast (games then were held all over the country: from Kaliningrad and Byelorussia to the Far East). However, the second stage could not be characterized by some certain content of its participants. The only characteristic feature we can point out was the fact, that most of the players were high schools and university students. On one hand, as a result of this inflow, the contemporary system of values for role-players community began to lose its integrity. One of the reasons was the fact that the representatives of the first wave did not build up the tradition of introducing those values to the new-comers, and, which is worse, did not manage to present the system of those clearly and explicitly. On the other hand this stage shows us the fast increase in number of players, integrating of the mutual experience, and the appearance of specific, sometimes even clearly presented schools and methods of role playing.
The range of themes became wider. Together with the games based on fantasy new games emerged. They were inspired by the historical or epic events, mostly medieval, such as the War of Roses, Viking raids, Irish heroic epos, the Hundred Years War, Albigensis Wars, Crusades etc. This resulted in increasing requirements for the participants’ equipment, game constructions (fortresses, most of all), establishing of the tradition to write the set of game rules for each game separately, especially the rules concerning the martial play together with armory and costume modelling, economy simulation, magic simulation, demographic principles and medicine. The social structure and ethical system used to be stipulated by some general text, sometimes even belle-lettre style ones, without clear inner structure.
This stage was marked by the considerable number of historical reconstruction amateurs, who joined the role play movement. Some of them lost their interest for role-playing rather quickly, disappointed by its approach to history. According to them this approach lacked veracity and therefore was not worth paying respect and attention, also the play participants were much more poorly equipped. Although some of them still combine their passion for historic reconstruction and role-playing.
The technogenic games deserve separate reference. They turned up after the second wave in role-play movement. The peculiarity of this approach was, from the very beginning, its close attention to the technical side of the game at the expense of the plot-making aspect and the almost total absence of an idea message. Though, we should point out that recently they have changed towards the more interesting plot-making.
Simultaneously, while the management side of the games was being developed, certain clear principles of the attitude to the playing process and working over the play image were formed.
In 1992–1997 three different schools of role playing were born. They declare different approaches to the creating of games and gamers’ behavior, although they do not grossly contradict each other.
The so-called Model School (or Stimulus School) was the first to be noticed. Its main principle was modelling the reality (historical or fantasy) which presented some interesting goals (political, economic, plot lining) before a player and some tactical tasks which required tricky solutions. The machine of the game, described in the rules, should provide the player with the tools to achieve those goals. Thus the contest principle of the game prevailed, as the main purpose of the player was getting to some determined targets. According to this approach a specific form of pre-game master player workout was created. This included creating some pre-game personal history, making ties with the other players ("quenta") and setting out the game targets, the main and optional ("quest").
We should acknowledge the well-developed game-rules and game tools as the strong feature of this Model approach, but should also mention the lack of attention to the psychological and social laws of the presented epoch or the fantasy world as the weak side of it. The disappointment in this model was caused by the failure to plunge oneself in the other, non-real world; prevailing of the combat and political sides of a game over all the other aspects; team-play (coming to the game in close-tied teams) where teams gained their goals sometimes just by bare force of armor. The wide spreading of team-play diminished the personal value of each player for the game and, for most of the players, narrowed the scale of the acting to scarcely worked-through episodical parts.
Another approach identified itself as a Theatrical School. Its main principle was the research in the psychology of every character in the play, reconstructing of the social and behavioral patterns, cultural and habitat realities of the depicted world (the background). Accordingly, there came interest for the role of "an ordinary man", the working-through of the historical and literature context improved radically, the role of acting skills, costume, scenery became more important and better realized. The detailed description of the game-world became the important part of the game-rules. Then came the small-scale pre-play games, held indoors, in the cold season, at first as a part of pre-play preparation and then, as an independent genre. They were mostly games held at private apartments, where all the combat play was impossible.
The strong side of the Theatrical School is the feeling of the reality of the other worlds, the so-called "plunge-in". The weak side is the absence of motivation to be active and insufficient plot lining.
At last came the Symbol School, revolutionary new against the previous two, though it inherited the best from both. Its novelty lied in the so-called "metaphysical aspect" which emerged in the play. This aspect could be found in the games before, but mostly incidentally. The Symbol School made it the essential and recognizable stem of the game, which was to be determined by pre-game description and rules. The main idea was the following: some "hooks" should be placed in the game structure, in the plots and models. These "hooks" were meant to enable the player, through the personality of his character, to discover some idea or philosophical principle, for example "God is Love", or intercultural communication, or categorical imperative.
According to their content, the metaphysical games can be divided into three types: games where religious or philosophical idea is interspersed into the content, games based on the purity of style of a genre (a detective story, a Victorian novel, a romanticism novel, a modern novel) and, the third, games based on the traditional cultures and their ethical systems (pagan Scandinavia, medieval Japan or China).
The strong side of the Symbol School is its raising of the role-playing to the level of interactive art, the depth of the depicted world, mighty emotional impact on the players through their characters and the follow-up interpretation of the emotional effect in the cultural context.
It is rather significant that the Symbol School has introduced the term "catharsis" in the role-play thesaurus. This term is treated in the same way as by Aristotle, that is "the deepest emotional trial with realization of it". The weak side of the Symbol School lies in the difficulty of game formalization, high requirements for the players’ competence, the over-sophisticated process of explaining the masters’ ideas to the players within the format of game rules. Also there is the danger of inadequate performing of the initial ideas in game plots modelling, general underestimation of this approach by the most players and even game masters, the necessity of individual work with every player, erratic terms, and, rather often, inability of masters to set up clearly the game idea concept.
On the second stage of the role-play movement the value of such specific gatherings as convents increased. They actually started at the first stage, the Zilantkon (Kazan) which grew from the science-fiction fan club was the first to be held. Convents became one of the most important means of communication for the role-players during the autumn-spring period when games are rarely held. Convents served as a medium where role-players communicated out of play context, the terms were mutually worked out, the discussions of the game methods took place. This is the main function of the convents nowadays too.
The number of them has increased, as well as the number of their participants. (The main Russian convent Zilantkon nowadays gathers up to 3 000 people). The covered geographic area is wide, and the thematic content has widened as well, and it includes nowadays not only discussion of role-play questions, but also presenting of role-play subculture art works.
THE THIRD WAVE
The third wave of the role-play movement brought in people whose childhood was in the nineties, and therefore, they carried lots of mass media culture stereotypes. Many of them, who came into role playing at the end of 1990s viewed the games as another kind of entertainment business, part of show-business and took a game for an entertainment project. As a result of it, a new widening in the range of themes happened: there appeared movie-based games, especially western-based ones, anime-serials and computer games, "gothic" games with vampires and vampire-hunters, Harry Potter games and cyber-punk games. The requirements for the technical support, comfort, game gear (armor, costumes, stage set, scenery) increased. Often this desire to meet these requirements first and the consumtionist approach to the games led to the considerable loss of meaningful content. The games started to become a rather dull pastime, limited to demonstration of posh fancy costumes.
Many of the representatives of the second wave and some of the people from the first wave did not accept this transformation of role-playing, standing for the priority of the unique system of basic values, which was born in the role-play society, as well as the priority of the meaningful content, idea and plot richness of the games. As a result of the intercommunicating of those three schools, which, in fact ceased to be clear-cut schools about the year 2000, some completely new formulations were spotted. These projects were based on application of the methods used in movie-making, drama, and theories of sthetics. Series of bright games based on classic conceptual works of literature and filmmaking showed up. As for the theoretical research we can mention several master-groups, each of them having its own style and concept of the game-making. All those groups communicate closely.
Nowadays the role-play movement in Russia is coming to a new level, because role-play games cross the bounds of the role-play community. Last year in Moscow a new project using role-play games in the interdisciplinary projects in higher-education schools was launched. The experiment proved to be successful and now this project is expanding. At the same time, the discussion about the question if the role-play games is a specific kind of interactive art, or if their role is limited to being one of the mass entertainment brands is far from its conclusion. The followers of both opinions are quite numerous.
The range of the approaches and themes in the Russian role-play games is fairly wide and rich, and therefore it is quite difficult to give a complete view of them in a few words, and say which kinds of games and which styles of game-making prevail or play the main role.
Sticking to the western terms, we can claim that in Russia role-playing is the fruit of successful crossing between "role game" and "role-play". And the simplest way of explaining our situation was this excursus into their history.