I listen to a few role-playing podcasts and have sampled a few more and there is one topic that has come up in almost all of them, sometimes multiple times. Sooner or later, almost every podcast discusses ways of growing the hobby and recruiting new players. I’ve heard all manner of methods from approaching likely candidates to just getting the word out to trying to get a better representation of gamers in popular culture have been put forward and discussed numerous times.
These are all excellent ideas and, if implemented properly and vigorously would probably work. But I have entirely different questions to ask on this topic: Do we really want to grow our hobby? And Why?
Allow me to put on my curmudgeon pants. Personally, I think that we already have just about all the people who would add to our hobby, in our hobby. It takes a certain amount of desire and interest to get into role-playing games. We’re not the Stonecutters by any means, there aren’t any secret recruitment rituals that a person has to go through to become a Gamer, but there is a lot of terminology and mechanics that people have to learn and grow accustomed to. It takes work. Not a lot of work, but some work. Gamers are a self-selecting group. You have to have the right mindset and interests to be interested enough in gaming to become a gamer. The people who are gamers are the ones who actually want to be gamers. Most of those who are not gamers don’t have enough interest to really become a part of the hobby.
While I am not saying that there are no more people out there who would make good gamers, I am saying that our hobby is now popular enough that we’re starting to reach the point of diminishing returns. Let me give you an example. Recently, we have added two new people to our weekly gaming group. Both of these guys are friends that we’ve all had since college (I won’t say how long that’s been, but I assure you it’s been quite a while) and who gamed with us in college. Our group meets on a weeknight for a few hours almost every week. The five of us who’ve been playing for several years now go out of our way to make it to our game every week. A couple weeks ago, one of our players was going to come to game night on his wedding anniversary. There have been several times when I have skipped dinner and went straight from working late at my job to the game so that we wouldn’t have to miss a week or delay the game. Since allowing these two guys into the group, however, we have missed about half of our game sessions in the last two months, because they’ve been unable to show up. Are they bad people because they’re ruining my game? No. They are just not dedicated to the game like the other players are.
Because they are not gamers.
They are dabblers and no amount of coaxing or cajoling will make them gamers. It is not a hobby for them, it is simply a pastime.
Beyond that, consider what happens when any hobby becomes really popular. I’m certain that there was a point when rock climbers were saying that they had to expand their hobby. Not only does a hobby get flooded by a lot of dabblers, dabblers who start using up the resources of serious proponents of the hobby and crowding them out, but also companies who have no love for the hobby but just see a new source of cash flow are drawn to the hobby. All manner of sub-rate and useless pieces of gear and manuals and anything else a company can use to make money are pushed at the hobbyists.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the explosion of games that have come out since the turn of the millennium and the burst of new gamers that seemed to come about at the same time as the release of the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I’m a huge fan of Savage Worlds, I like the Burning Wheel rules and I really enjoyed Diaspora the time I played it. The problem is that once the hobby grows big enough, the companies who are searching for a new source of cash flow will flood the market not with things that are novel and interesting and useful, but with things that are keyed only on making the maximum amount of profit. Instead of getting a glut of new, cool games, the market would be flooded with a flood of junk. I can only compare this idea to what has happened with movies lately. While G.I. Joe and Transformers weren’t exactly niche interests, when they were adapted to movies, the basic idea was twisted and turned so much to fit the tastes of the broad general public rather than focusing on their core audience that the end product was horrible and almost unrecognizable. The best way for a company to make a profit is to cater to the lowest common denominator and the more people we add to our hobby the lower that denominator is going to get.
It would be nice to get the rest of the world to understand what we do when we game. With the rise of geek culture in recent years there’s much less stereotyping about Satan worship and wearing capes and funny hats involved in role-playing, but it can still be comedic to watch non-gamers guess at what happens our hobby. Especially with the rise of CCG’s. It seems that most outsiders cannot separate the two hobbies (not that 4E’s power cards have helped dispel this misconception.) With that being said, I wouldn’t want to simplify my hobby just so everyone else can understand it.
The problem with the Manifest Destiny of Gaming that’s risen lately, the idea that we can make everyone a gamer, that we can get everyone into the hobby if we just try hard enough or can find the magic formula is that I don’t want to game with everyone. There are a couple of people at my job (who I’ve approached) that I think would make good gamers, but I spend enough time with the vast majority of coworkers already and most of them would either not add to my games or would be interested in parts of the game that I am not. Or they would be interested in games that I wouldn’t like if I did manage to get them interested in RPG’s. My Mom is a very creative lady and she likes fantasy and sci-fi books and movies and she likes playing games. In fact, now that I think about it, she’s a geek. While it would be entertaining to play a one shot or two with her, I wouldn’t want to run a campaign with my Mom. It would just be weird. I like my in-laws, but I wouldn’t want to run a game for them, either. They assuredly would not want to explore the parts of games that I find interesting.
As a community we also have to be careful lest we end up like those crazy cat people who love cats so much that they’re constantly pushing you to get cats because owning cats will make your life way more awesome than it already is. If you don’t get the cat people analogy, you can insert rock climbing, bicycling, jogging, having kids or any of a plethora of other things that people identify with, go nuts for and have the urge to annoy you about for “cats” in that metaphor. You know, the people that make your eyes glaze over after talking to them for 30 seconds because they can’t talk about anything else. Nothing is going to drive people away from the hobby more than you constantly talking about it and leaving little gifts of four sided die and custom painted miniatures in their favorite teams colors on their desks.
In the end, I’m not saying that anyone should stop approaching likely candidates. If you meet someone you’d like to game with and you suspect that you might be able to get them involved, by all means, do so. What I am saying is that we should be satisfied with what we’ve got. We shouldn’t feel guilty about not constantly proselytizing for our hobby. Our community is larger and more accepted than it has ever been. We have reached the point of diminishing returns and if we grasp for many more, we’re going to start diluting the hobby and the community. Look around. How many people that you interact with every day can you really say would make a good gamer? If we try to pull people in willy nilly, our niche hobby that we love will burst its niche and what we love about it will be compromised.