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What is it like to read LitRPG?
Quick break from estimation, because I felt like writing something different, so today we’re going to talk about LitRPG, do some philosophy to it, and armchair psychologise its readers.
What is LitRPG?
LitRPG is a genre of, usually quite trashy, fantasy fiction (or very occasionally sci-fi). The basic defining feature of it is that the protagonist (and often other characters) experiences the world through a game like interface as if they were playing an RPG. Sometimes they’re literally in a game, more often they’re in a world with game-like elements. They have experience points, gain levels, and generally do a lot of murdering things and/or people for points. But heroically.
LitRPG is extremely popular on the internet. The website Royal Road seems to have nearly 60,000 stories on it, most of which are in some way LitRPG.
Usually but far from always LitRPG is also Isekai, a form of portal fantasy, in which someone from our world is transported into a fantasy realm. Sometimes this is because they’re the chosen one, sometimes they’re just some guy1, who happened to be in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time.
I read quite a lot of LitRPG. It’s rarely particularly good, but there’s a lot of it and it’s very relaxing to read.
LitRPG as a form of idfic
Idfic is a term from fandom. It means:
Usually "idfic" refers to the author's relationship to the story, but it may refer to the reader's.
A story direct from the id may (but does not have to) be of low writing quality, but because it satisfies kinks, either sexual or emotional, it remains compelling.
Further elaborated as:
The idea is that Id Fic panders to the Id, or that part of us that likes things that aren’t always moral or ‘correct’ and bypasses a lot of our moral constraints and strictures. So they might just have like a lot of rape in them, or non-con, or ‘dub-con where the character eventually enjoys it.’ They might have things that we *know* are wrong in real life, but really dig in fiction: like captive/captor, or magical healing cock, or really dangerous powerplay, whump that is just extreme, or even just really unsafe kinks (like no signs of safewording ever). Id Fics used to be considered a ‘guilty’ pleasure, but there’s been a lot of work to reclaim them.... The Id is the Loki of our minds, and nothing’s gonna change that. *g* And indulging it in fantasy and fiction is both normal, healthy, and fun. :)
LitRPG rarely2 has much sex in it, and when it does it tends to be really badly written, but I do think the fact that a genre this bad has captured quite as much mindshare as it does, suggests there's some sort of emotional kink it's satisfying.
Certainly this is what it feels like from the inside. As I said, LitRPG is very relaxing. It’s clear that it’s doing something for me emotionally, and it’s interesting to poke at what that something is.
Sadly, Harry Potter
There’s a paragraph from Scott Alexander’s review of the book “Sadly, Porn” that I think about quite often:
I can’t remember if it was Teach or an imitator who applied this analysis to Harry Potter. Harry isn’t the smartest or hardest-working person in the school - that’s Hermione. He’s not the most ambitious/decisive/strategic/active person - that’s Lord Voldemort, which automatically codes him as a villain. So why is Harry the main character and the hero? Because a prophecy placed the burden of specialness on him, without him asking; it was forced upon him by an omnipotent entity, no action required. Harry Potter is wish-fulfillment; the modern person wants to be special not because they accomplished great stuff but because special-ness is just who they are. Brands tell them that this is true, and in exchange they buy the brands. [Brand]: Because You Deserve It.
I think this is a good analysis, but misses something key: It’s not just that you want to be special for who you are, it’s that you don’t want to have to take responsibility for your specialness. Some choose greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them, and isn’t it nice to be in the second category because then it isn’t your fault that you’re special.
This is the core of the chosen one fantasy: Choice is taken away from you, and therefore anything bad you do isn’t your fault. In particular, the authority for your specialness rests not in you, but in those who have handed it to you - whether that’s prophecy, Gandalf, or some man in a bar who approaches your adventuring party, the hero is primarily reactive to events that force them to take action, rather than proactively deciding to improve the world in some way.3
Games as a refuge from the world
My favourite book about the nature of games is “Games: Agency as Art”, by C Thi Nguyen.
One of the interesting themes of the book that I hadn’t really picked up on but found when I started browsing for a related point in the book and realised that Nguyen had basically already written this newsletter issue for me is the idea that games act as a sort of existential balm.
The world is confusing and we fit into it badly, and relaxing into a game where you have a singular focus and the ability to pursue it is a salve against that.
Here are the relevant passages on existential balm.
In games, we are given the right kinds of abilities, but just barely enough of them— which creates drama and interest. And not only do the abilities fit, but their exercise is often pleasurable and interesting and exciting, at least when we’ve found the right game for our tastes.
How unlike our own dreary world this is! Our abilities sometimes fit our goals in the world, but so often they do not. We want to invent a cure for cancer, but lack the capacities to do it. We wish to help students learn to write better, but the process is boring and mind- numbing and provokes occasional thoughts of suicide— or at least of throwing it all in and becoming a lawyer instead. We do not fit this world comfortably. The obstacles in our path are often intractable, exhausting, or miserable. Games can be an existential balm for our practical unease with the world. In games, the problems can be right- sized for our capacities; our in- game selves can be right- sized for the problems; and the arrangement of self and world can make solving the problems pleasurable, satisfying, interesting, and beautiful.
When games work, they can sometimes present us with the world as we wish it could be. The worlds of games are harmonious and interesting worlds, where even our worst impulses are transformed into the pleasure of others. In ordinary life, we must build practical activities and relationships from gears that were never made to fit. But in games, we can machine all the gears to fit from the start.
And this, I suspect, is both the great promise and the great threat of games. Games can offer us a clarifying balm against the vast, complicated, ever- shifting social world of pluralistic values, and an existential balm against our internal sense that our values are slippery and unclear. In games, values are clear, well- delineated, and typically uniform among all agents.
One of the greatest pleasures games offer is a certain existential balm— a momentary shelter from the existential complexities of ordinary life. In a game, for once in my life, I know exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be doing.
This is also expressed well earlier on page 19 in which he describes games as a refuge from everyday life:
[Games] can function as a refuge from the inhospitality of ordinary life. In practical life, the world is mostly fixed, and our values, relatively inflexible. Most of us cannot help but desire company, food, success. The recalcitrant world and our inflexible values generate certain obstacles. These are not the obstacles we wanted to struggle against, but they are the ones we must overcome in order to get what we want. So we must try to sculpt ourselves and our abilities to fit the needs of the world. The world tells us we must eat, so we must find a job and pretend to ourselves that we enjoy it. The world tells us that we must find romantic partners, so we learn to be witty, or at least to make to make a decent online dating profile.
The world tells us that if we wish to be professional philosophers, we must grade an endless sea of student papers, no matter how mind- numbing we find the task. So we put nose to grindstone and force our way through. In games, on the other hand, we sculpt for ourselves exactly the kind of practical activity we wish to engage in. We pick the goals, abilities, and the world.
Games as clarity porn
Another relevant work by Nguyen is his paper with Bekka Williams, Moral Outrage Porn. The primary, err, thrust of the paper isn’t relevant here, but what is relevant is their notion of “generic porn”, which tries to figure out in what sense “food porn,” “closet porn,” and “real estate porn”, for example, can all be considered forms of porn despite (for most people) not being a sexual experience.
I’ll present the definition in just a second, but one point I think stands out:
Pornography has purely instrumental value. It is there to provoke a response, and once this has been achieved, we discard it. Art, on the other hand, is intrinsically valuable. This is why, suggests Maes, we speak of consuming pornography and of appreciating art.
This, I think, captures fairly well the experience of reading anything idficcy. It’s not necessarily good, but you feel the desire to consume it. When you encounter a new compelling web serial it’s very easy to lose an entire weekend to, where you hit the end of the archive wall and emerge bleary eyed and wondering where the last 48 hours went. It is not an experience you linger over in appreciation, but instead you just start at the beginning and chew your way to the end.
Anyway, the following is their “portable” (that is, somewhat less precise but pithier) definition of generic porn:
Ω-porn is representations of Ω used for immediate gratification, while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of actually engaging with Ω.
So for example food porn is representations of food used for immediate gratification, while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of actually engage with food. You don’t have to worry about cost, effort, prep time, calories, dietary triggers4, etc. You can just appreciate the food in representation form.
However, it will be helpful to have their slightly less portable version:
Treating a representation as Ω-porn is using the content of a representation of Ω primarily for the purpose of generating one’s own gratifying reactions, freed from the typically attendant consequences and effort of engaging with Ω.
x is Ω-porn =if x is a representation where it is reasonable to believe that x will primarily be used (or treated) as Ω-porn by most of the audience for which it was produced or transmitted.
In particular this allows us to talk more about whether one of the functions of a work is porn, separately from whether it is “just” porn. I’m about to argue that games are used as a form of porn, but I’m also literally citing a book about how games are art.
But, well, a lot of “actual” art consists of pictures of attractive naked people, and while this may be a controversial opinion, I think it’s reasonably clear that you can use pictures of attractive naked people as porn.
As I may have mentioned a time or seventy, I play a lot of the game Slay the Spire. In Slay the Spire you ascend a tower of rooms, fighting combats and growing in strength, in your quest to ultimately slay the corrupt heart of the spire. Usually you die first, and then you start again from the beginning. Sometimes you win, and then you start again from the beginning.
Slay the Spire is actually reasonably hard work and takes a lot of time, intelligence, and energy.5 It is a game about making choices and trade-offs under risk6, and many of those choices are incredibly hard. You can sink a good ten minutes into a single decision in Slay the Spire and not be even close to having run out of things to think about. Most normal plays of a slay the spire run take an hour or two, but the most careful players will sometimes take up to ten hours on a run and that care is rewarded with better results. Literally the key skill of Slay the Spire is being able to make good choices.
And yet… I think Slay the Spire is clearly used as a form of choice porn.
Slay the Spire is about making decisions, but those decisions are all of a very particular form. You’re making choices about what cards to add to your deck, what moves to make in a fight, which path to choose up the spire. On the basis of those choices, you will win or lose. These are hard, difficult, choices which benefit from significant care, but they are are all fundamentally clear cut in their ultimate goal.
Because what you’re not doing is making choices about whether you should really be slaying the spire in the first place or whether perhaps you’re just invading a city of people who would just rather be left alone to practice their religion7 in peace. You don't ask how you can escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth trapping you in eternal suffering8. All you ask is how you can most effectively achieve your goal of slaying the spire.
In “teaching smart people how to learn”, Chris Argyris introduces the idea of single vs double loop learning:
First, most people define learning too narrowly as mere “problem solving,” so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.
I have coined the terms “single loop” and “double loop” learning to capture this crucial distinction. To give a simple analogy: a thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, “Why am I set at 68 degrees?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double-loop learning.
A game like Slay the Spire, or most others, never invites you to step out of the single loop and ask “Why am I here? What am I doing? Why is this the thing that we have decided to accomplish?”. You never have to question whether you are part of the problem, you never have to choose what actually matters to you because what matters to you has been chosen for you. You never have to deal with any real consequences of failure, because ultimately you are just playing a game. Every decision you make, every problem you solve, is directed towards that clear end.
As a result, you are able to pour yourself wholly into the experience of clarity, free from the usual costs and consequences of actually experiencing clarity in your life.
LitRPG’s core fantasy
LitRPG takes this core fantasy of games and basically asks “Wouldn’t be it great if life were like that?”
When it really wears its colours proudly, LitRPG is very explicitly a retreat from real life. Someone with an unhappy dead end life where they’re miserable and don’t know where they’re going gets transported into a fantasy world where suddenly they actually matter and their life has purpose.
Another commonish feature of LitRPG and related stories are time loops - you are literally protected from the consequences of your actions because every time you fail you just restart from the beginning.
The most LitRPG LitRPG of all time is “An Infinite Recursion of Time”, a story I am reliably informed isn’t actually intended to be a parody, but I think probably most people who enjoy it enjoy it as such. Certainly I find it hilarious, admittedly in a slightly called out “Yeah the thing I enjoy is ridiculous, isn’t it?”.
I want to be clear: I laugh, but I am not above this. Other than the bad porn bits (which are really bad), this is just stuff I actually like dialled up to 11. It’s over the top and in poor taste, but I still read the whole thing and enjoyed it.
This is idfic at work: We’re not here to appreciate the art, we’re here to consume the content that satisfies some emotional needs.
Those needs aren’t particularly subtle, they’re just a bunch of what ifs: What if I knew what to do with my life? What if my actions actually mattered? What if there was a clear path laid out in front of me and I could just follow it and be rewarded for that? What if someone else had laid all of this out for me so I get to avoid all responsibility for the downsides? What if I never had to make the first hard choice because it was made for me?
Ultimately it is a response to the world being overwhelming, messy, and confusing. LitRPG asks: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could ignore all that and still feel good about myself?
Hard not to see the appeal, really.
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Or, very occasionally, girl. LitRPG protagonists are overwhelmingly male, to an even larger degree than LitRPG authors are.
Oddly one very specific counter-example of that is that the subgenre of LitRPG called “dungeon core”, in which the protagonist is the disembodied controller of a “dungeon” in the “& dragons” sense - a place filled with monsters that people adventure in to gain treasure. For no reason I can discern except the path dependence of genre conventions, dungeon core is weirdly horny for a genre that specifically centres on the protagonist not having a body. I choose not to psychoanalyse this. But yes, they do have a lot of rape and dubcon in them.
That is, after all, the villains’ job.
For example I watch a lot of YouTube food videos and it is notable how many of the ones I watch are “Here take this wheat and dairy and put them together. Delicious, no?”. It’s partly because there are a lot of good ones, but also partly living vicariously.
Except when, as many people do, you watch other people play it on the internet, at which point it becomes even more porn like.
This sentence reads much better as “choices and trade-offs under uncertainty” but my shoulder version of Vaughn Tan hit me with a stick until I changed it.
Their religion involves worshipping birds and murder, so it’s not obviously true that peace is involved.
This isn’t a Buddhism thing. You’re literally trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, your life a constant battle in which you incur grievous injury with every step.