Setting the Scene: "Everybody's first game sucks."
The other day a good friend was giving some DMing advice as part of his "Answers to Questions" post. One tidbit that he said I found very interesting- "Everybody's first game sucks." I think that the implicit reasoning behind that statement could use some unpacking. The wisdom behind it can help us illuminate a greater perspective on the difference between talking about player effort and experience vs. player ability and talent.
In discussions of RPGs online, I often hear talk of categorizing a player is in terms of ability, intelligence, or type. On the other hand, it's also (implicitly) recognized that players might be quite fluid in their tastes and behaviors over time (hence the sandbox popular in today's circles). The former is implicitly a statement of the static nature of players (a statement of being), whereas the latter is implicitly a statement of the dynamic nature of players (a statement of behaving).
A Tale of Two Perspectives
How we view or even discuss the nature of the gamer (or the person in general) can leave repercussions for how we judge ourselves and how we judge others, especially in the face of adversity. In her book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol S. Dweck describes two perspectives on what builds success in something (p. 6-7). Following the fixed perspective reflects a belief that attributes a person's performance to his innate traits, talents, or characteristics. In other words, it's about what kind of person he is as a static state. On the other hand, the growth perspective reflects a perspective that attributes a person's performance to the effort she puts in and how she's choosing to develop and apply her skills as a process. In other words, it's about the dynamic choices made in the moment and growing skill over time.
Dweck argues that the fixed perspective can cause us problems because we must continually prove ourselves. Any personal failure represents something about the self that's relatively immutable and persistent. And to a person may often try to rationalize the failures away by blaming others or spurious external factors (p.36). With the fixed perspective, adversity is an impassable roadblock. On the other hand, the person might simply internalize the disappointment, giving up and avoiding adversity like the situation of failure in the future (p.). On the other hand, if we bring in the growth perspective, a failure reflects more of a temporary lapse of judgement or behavior, or perhaps needing to practice and develop more and then come back to the challenge later. With the growth perspective, adversity is not an impassable roadblock but rather a sign for further development. (p.33-34)
Back to the Game Table
Going back to RPG interactions, we initially began the conversations with the quote "Everybody's first game (DMing) sucks." Unpacking that, it's because DMing (or playing), like many active hobbies, reflects practice and learned effort more than natural talent. There's a lot of stumbling and fumbling around. However, if we embrace a growth perspective, then running crap game sessions or playing foolishly need not be downers because we can learn from them.
Beyond how we perceive ourselves and our behaviors, there is also a moral component here on how we perceive other people and their behaviors. If we can accept that a person's behavior reflects their state at a single moment in time, we can hold somebody accountable for their actions without needing to relate it to the totality of their character. On the other hand, if we observe a person's behavior and believe it reflects the totality of their character, then we run into a problem. We find that, despite any action they might try, it will always be viewed as some kind of subterfuge to gain a favor. If that jerk player is just a jerk player, any apparent act of good they demonstrate is a charade or at best an empty promise.
The take-home important DMing skill for me is being able to separate behavior in the short-term from the person in the long-term. One need not adopt one perspective or another (in fact, I wouldn't recommend it, but my misgivings are for a future post), but the knowledge of why "everybody's first game sucks" (and that people can still suck even when proficient at the game) can be so simplistic its profundity can easily be lost.
Some things to read and think about:
*Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
*Chenier, Kiel Answers to Questions Part 1 Dungeons and Donuts