Thoughts on Ohlander’s Law

I have the good fortune to know Larry Dixon, a crazy prolific and crazier talented artist who has tons of work in books and novels anyone even vaguely interested in table-top role-playing games would be familiar with.  We got to talking about something called “Ohlander’s Law”.

It was named after one Ben Ohlander, a brilliant lifetime player of role-playing games, science fiction novelist and career military man who has survived many “Very Interesting Foreign Places” and gained many insights about human nature.  The law is simple: Gamers play games because they need to, because it fulfills some intrinsic need.

I have to say—I disagree with that.  I’m sure it’s true for some gamers—but not all.  Like any culture, our own is just as diverse.  Sure, you have gamers who load up a game like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction because the idea of terrorizing people half your size by planting buses into their faces satisfies some deep, dark urge to release anger.  Might also be that you got into the comic book—or movie—because some relative shared it with you and you want to relive some memories.  Or maybe it was a gift and you’re killing time before dinner.

All of those are likely scenarios.  We—as another global community—run the gamut of personalities and mentalities.  Sure, we have those individuals who enjoy our hobby because we have no control and want to fantasize about becoming a mafia don—but we also have individuals who want a fun story, or, again, just to kill a little time.

I think it’s understandable, to at least some degree, why such an idea is attractive.  To think we “have” to, we are utterly compelled to, it helps paint us in broad strokes, and thus make us more easily understood.

Why that’s relevant is because, as mentioned yesterday, we are still an incredibly young culture.  We don’t even know what’s going on, so it’s not really necessarily a bad thing for any gamer—whether a video game player or a table-top game player—to try and make some sense out of all of this.  Even television—a phenomenon that swelled also at an incredible pace—had an easier time of things.  The very interactive nature of video games, on top of being a “global community”, they both make things a little bit harder, not as easily quantifiable.

You don’t have this sort of thing with, say, readers.  Or model train enthusiasts.  Or other hobbies that have been around forever.  They went through this, if they were even susceptible to it in the first place.  We haven’t.  Our culture is still in that toddler stage, trying to find its feet and just what this whole big world-thing around us is all about.

I don’t think trying to make any one ideology fit every gamer is really going to work.  I mean, heck—I’ve said plenty of times that games are, number one, about fun.  That doesn’t mean every gamer comes into their game looking for that fun.  Some do, sure, but some want that catharsis.  Some only like video games as an excuse to hang out with friends.  There are nearly as many reasons for why we gamers play our games as there are gamers in the first place.

And all of the above, every word—it doesn’t take into account one fundamental aspect of our species: We are not the same day-to-day.  The same gamer that, today, loads up a racing game to kill an hour or two, tomorrow loads up a squad-tactics game because they feel lonely and want to feel a “part” of something.  Our tastes change to reflect our differing moods—and that’s not even when we come to the same game for completely different reasons.

It’s tempting to try and come up with all-encompassing philosophies on why we play our games.  We do it because, again, we’re still trying to figure ourselves out, culturally-speaking.  However, such generalities won’t really be applicable for some time, if even ever.  When a “classic” is younger than many of the people that enjoy it, the culture is too young to really easily quantify.


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