[Meta Gaming] M. John Harrison on worldbuilding, writing, reading and play

Long long ago, in the before-time, I wrote a post that quite badly misapplied, misunderstood, or perhaps merely under-utilised M John Harrison on the matter of worldbuilding.

I stand by what I said – that the nerdist approach to games and literature and cinema is based on an obsessive and pedantic hoarding of facts that’s ultimately misguided, dull and ever so slightly dangerous – but I didn’t go all the way down and I regret that.

What Harrison actually talks about is the claim that an imagined world really exists, and is a thing that can be interacted with at all. It’s all just words – words written by an author or authors – and what you’re really engaging with is an exchange between author and reader in which you complete the process of creating fiction. It’s not real when the author writes it, and it’s not really real even after you’ve read it, and pretending that there is something real and “canonical” behind/underneath the author’s writing of it is a fundamental failure to apprehend how the real universe works.

Yes, to discuss a book relies on familiarity with what’s actually in it and what you’re bringing to it, and claiming that your headcanon is what the author wrote is factually incorrect, but that’s not a disservice to some external true-reality of what the author wrote about. The real object is the book. Paper and ink, forming words, with meanings, that express concepts. (Or the film, or the code, whatever medium you’re on about, I talk about books because they’re the most physical media objects, the easiest with which to make this point about what’s real and what’s not.)

That fundamentally transformative process is what interests me the most about roleplaying games in particular; if I ever go back to the PhD, I’d want to shift my focus into that, into drawing parallels between the RPG rulebook and the playscript as drama-texts that are very obviously only realised when the play’s afoot. Harrison is correct in that all reading works like that, but it’s a lot more obvious when you have a performative element at the readerly end of the process. It happens again, as another act of reception and re-creation in the universe of the Actual Play, which is something I wish I was more into so I could document it more thoroughly. (Those things are long, brother, and I work for a living.)

What doesn’t interest me is any sort of in-universe “explanation” (read “excuse”) for the failings of a text, be they narrative or ideological or technical craft-manifestations that just aren’t very good. These amuse me sometimes, but they’re not praxis, they’re not engaged with the material world on a level which matters, there’s a reason we used to call this sort of thing “wank” for pity’s sake. Pleasurable, but doesn’t get anything done.

This post is brought to you by my occasional frustrations with Vampire: the Masquerade fans online, and their lack of engagement with the production side of the game and text. I say “fans” because a lot of these people are media-fandom people, they’ve played the CRPGs or watched the actual plays but the game text itself is mostly of interest to them as a reference book. A map to a territory that does not exist. An act of world-building.

Under the cut you’ll find versions of Harrison’s original posts, synthesised into a rough and ready essay. I do this because they’re only available through the Internet Archive, and if that should ever fail they’ll be gone-gone, and I don’t want that. I understand the desire to delete and purge one’s online snail-trail, I’ve done it myself enough times, but I also understand that some things have an impact and a worth to posterity that warrants their preservation, just so long as the person who wrote them isn’t still getting their menchies blown up by people missing the point.

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