This is about the ISIS crisis. Might take a minute to get there.
When I was a kid of 10 and 11 and 12, I was a nerd, I mean a real geek. And there weren’t any cool websites where I could feel part of an in-the-know international community. Nor did we have World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto or any other game where one could connect with like-minded game-players in other parts of the globe. My community consisted of my fellow nerds (“gumps” in then-local parlance) getting together and playing role-playing games (RPGs) the hard way, with dice and paper. However, even by role-players’ standards, we were geekier than most: we didn’t typically play Dungeons and Dragons, the football of RPGs, because we weren’t all that into medieval swords and sorcery.
We wanted something that more closely matched our real enthusiasm, which was for comic book superheroes. That might have been somewhat forgivable, but you see, there were two main superhero RPGs: Champions was for real gamers, where your character had weaknesses to match strengths and played a complicated combat system, while Villains & Vigilantes was a simplified version, without too much worrying about counter-balancing weaknesses or difficult die-rolling/scenario procedures. Plus, V&V had Jeff Dee art all over it, which looked cool. I realize how ridiculous this sounds in retrospect, but our group of gumps actually split ranks on this issue – the harder “gamer” nerds wound up making a break-off club to play D&D and Champions, while us softer geeks played V&V.
Wait, it gets worse, if you dare to keep reading. Not only did some of us gumps insist on the relatively bubble-gum V&V, but we repeatedly played the same beginner’s scenario, which was called “Crisis at Crusader Citadel.” Partly this was because whenever we got a new player, it was the easiest way to introduce them to V&V. Partly this was because newer modules cost money and we were all cheap. Sadly, it was also because C@CC was really easy to administer and play – it was a kind of guaranteed release of tension. I can recall a few times where the gumps got together at one of our houses, and we started to do something harder, and then someone said – “ahhhh, let’s just play Crisis at Crusader Citadel.” And a couple of us groaned, but we got on with it.
Let me tell you a little about this scenario. First, you create your role-playing character (or avatar, in more current parlance) – you know, you might be someone who turns invisible, or a flier, or a telepath, or a strongman, or what-have-you. Then, in this scenario, you decide to do what any self-respecting superhero would do – apply to join The Crusaders, who are the local version of The Avengers. You arrive at Crusader Citadel (like the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building) and find some other players/heroes who also want to join the team. You might fight (in Marvel tradition), or not. Then after your pre-Seinfeldian Feats of Strength and Airing of Grievances, you guys ring the bell, only to learn that the computer that runs the Citadel (called Teacher, kinda like I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. in Team America) seems to be acting oddly, not really functioning. Then a reporter shows up and tells you that The Crusaders are missing at the worst possible time, as the city is in the grip of a crime wave caused by The Crushers! The reporter leads you to the police, and the police, after realizing your super-abilities, tell you that The Crushers are apparently about to attack Manning Enterprises (think Tony Stark Enterprises). You guys head over there and get in a big fight with some of The Crushers. Maybe a Crusher gets away, maybe s/he doesn’t. But in the aftermath, it becomes clear what The Crushers have been stealing all over town…parts to reprogram Teacher. Which means the rest of them are probably hiding at Crusader Citadel! So now you have to lay siege to the Citadel. Eventually you learn that sure enough, The Crushers are holding The Crusaders near-unconscious in gassed plexiglass tubes, but they’re in no shape to help. You and your friends have to beat The Crushers all by yourself, and…assuming no one has to go home to mommy before the end, you win.
Hearing the latest round of outrage about ISIS (supposedly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) made me think back not only on the Crusader Citadel scenario, but on the way us losers would play it again and again. I should preface the rest by saying that of course the beheading of two American journalists is absolutely monstrous and diabolical, and it merits some kind of official reprisal. But there’s something so very familiar about our rhetorical outrage. It’s not that we want to relive 2003, exactly; it’s more like we want to stand for something, to fight for a good cause instead of just sitting around sucking our thumbs. You know, it’s like we want to be heroes. You can’t really have heroes without villains, and ISIS is only too happy to be our Crushers. They’re violent, hypocritical assholes to the point of rape and murder. (You see that in a lot of comic-book supervillains.) They’re taking back property that we thought wasn’t being disputed anymore. They’re developing mastery over technology that we created and they shouldn’t be using (US army weapons, YouTube). The media and regular police think they’re helping; they’re useless. The Crushers literally anesthetized the usual heroes, and in real life, many of our older heroes (Democrats, reformed Iraq hawks like David Frum) act anesthetized. So we – Americans, Fox News viewers, newly formed superheroes, whoever – can feel good by stepping in and saving the day, saving the Fortress.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t attack ISIS; nor did I ever tell my friends we shouldn’t play “Crisis.” But it would be nice to change up the game a little more often. Going to war should include fewer groans and fewer regressive tendencies. Eventually, my friends and I got tired of Crisis, V&V, and role-playing games in general. Playing out the same scenario again and again often leads to diminishing returns.