On Memetic Weight

Last time, we talked about races from the perspective of dissociative and associative mechanics.

Those terms, as a reminder, were made by The Alexandrian. Check out his blog! It’s well worth a quick jaunt.

This week I want to introduce two concepts I’ve come up with myself, two new lenses by which we can evaluate racial design, though we’ll cover them in two separate posts, this one and the next:

Memetic weight and memetic stability.

We’ll focus on memetic weight, first.

To begin to understand both of these, I’m going to need to link you to a Richard Dawkins video, as he is the man who first defined the idea:

Memetic weight describes how strongly a meme, a culturally propagated thought, permeates the audience of an idea. As an example, we’ve got this guy:

Legolas
(New Line Cinema)

It is impossible to dismiss Tolkien when we talk about cultural impacts within the realm of fantasy worlds. One of his creations, Legolas, is single-handedly responsible for the well-worn association between elves and rangers. There is no doubt in my mind that the ranger is the most chosen class for the elven race in games, and that the elf is the most-chosen race for the ranger in games. Polls from the D&D Beyond player pool show that at least online, this expectation of mine holds true: elven rangers are indeed a local peak as a player choice (FiveThirtyEight).

538

Memetic weight is very important for any designer of a playable race precisely because in games, races must be played. It is a human piloting whatever racial construct you’ve crafted for them as a designer, and thus the human must have some intuitive understanding of what it is that they are piloting.

Given the choice between a Bas-Lag Khepri from China Mieville’s works and a Tolkien Elf, most people will agree that the Khepri seems more interesting, but will nonetheless elect to play the elf. Why is that?

khepri.jpg
(Oaksford)

This question is a pretty critical one for any designer to answer, particularly someone who wants to break new ground with the races that they make. It’s possible that you may come up with a different answer than I did; my answer is that the elf has more memetic weight than the khepri does. We have stronger cultural ties to the elf through our consumption of movies like the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, a wide array of elven characters we can emulate from D&D novels, light novels, and fantasy novels if we’re not comfortable with our ability to role-play the race properly. Even if we aren’t interested in properly role-playing the elf at all, it still feels like a safer choice before we look at their racial abilities, simply because it is more familiar to us.

The khepri, unlike the elf, only exists within the novels of China Miéville. His world, the world of Bas Lag, is interesting and is hardly made “worse” by the inclusion of the scarab-headed, crimson-skinned women. The fact that khepri males are lobster-sized and barely sentient makes their entire psychological viewpoint a rather fascinating one, especially in a steampunk world filled with other strange races. Rather than “worse”, they are “less accessible” – they have less memetic weight for your average player to latch onto.

Memetic weight is something which media inundates us with, but it’s also something which games can provide for us – artwork has long been way to provide us with immersion and inspiration. You can find many examples in gaming of how art provides intentional and thematic information for players. It is particularly gratifying when you find examples of artists who explain the thought put into their work, expanding on how that art facilitates a player’s understanding of a game’s theme. As a race is much simpler than an entire game, you can definitely use art to provide some of the memetic weight you’re looking for. My own entoma race is an unfamiliar beetle race, so I asked my artist to provide a little clumsiness (which we’re all familiar with) to bring it closer to home, to make it something a player might be more willing to come to terms with.

Getting a race to feel more grounded and approachable can be as simple as getting the right artwork commissioned. Many players, especially more visually-oriented ones, may even pick a race to play entirely based on the artwork.

In the absence of art, you can also opt for storytelling within your core rules. The World of Darkness games understand that their premise is hard for the average gamer to immediately pick up and play, so they provide these small in-world snippets at the start of nearly every single book to help key you in to the fiction.

vampire
(Rein-Hagen 4)

With the text here, for example, the designers assist the player in understanding what a vampire looks and feels like in their setting. This was released in 1991, by the way, before you claim that vampires have a lot of memetic weight – the vampires from the World of Darkness frankly didn’t have as much material to work with back then. You can understand that the vampire is a monster, but having this in-setting scene described here provides you some important context should you need it. It is a great example of developers noting a potential weakness to their race – the vampire – and augmenting its memetic weight with storytelling.

If you as a designer or GM want to create a race that is comfortable for players to explore, one of the simplest ways to achieve this is to use something which is familiar to a player, or at least familiar enough that your audience is willing to try it.

This can come with its own complications, of course. To name just a few:

  1. It is possible that familiarity impedes your idea of what a race should be. For example, you may want to evoke a whole new kind of elf, one which isn’t from fairy tales or from Tolkien. In that case, memetic weight actually works against you. It may be easier to name a new race altogether, with its own bit of flavor-text.
  2. Memetic weight comes with things which are familiar to us, but this means that it often covers things which are also generic to us. Using solely dwarves, elves, and humans, for example, will make for a very un-memorable game, even though your races are all strongly represented in fantasy.
  3. You may frankly not prioritize memetic weight if you’re creating a race that has other purposes – a non-playable race for example might be designed explicitly to freak players out, or a hard-to-play race may exist to make a point. Awareness of this metric is good, but you may end up not finding it useful.

I’ll discuss these weaknesses further in the next post. For now, my emphasis is on getting familiar with this new concept.

Besides using my concept as a tool, we can also use it as a lens by which to examine existing races in both gaming and fiction. When a race is described as being “horse-like” or “bearing a head like an elephant”, you may find the description to be disappointing if you wanted something more alien, more wondrous. However, these descriptions are also an acknowledgement of memetic weight – races which can be framed in terms of the familiar are simpler for the reader to understand than truly alien races.

I think it’s evident how memetic weight can be a useful thing to consider, but the conclusion of this post may feel unsatisfactory, because focusing purely on this one aspect of a race can yield very limiting results, even if it remains a good thing to be aware of.

Next week I’ll talk more about how to circumvent these boring results, as well as touch on what I mean by my other concept, memetic stability.


Works Cited:

Featured Image is a color-adjusted image from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Dawkins, Business Insider Science, 28 Oct. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iHZi-z7H4o.

Oaksford, Justin. “Lin, the Khepri.” DeviantArt, DeviantArt, 30 Oct. 2011, justinoaksford.deviantart.com/art/Lin-the-Khepri-266048750.

New Line Cinema presents a Wingnut Films production; producers, Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson ; screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson ; directed by Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers. [California] : Montréal :New Line Home Entertainment ; Distributed by Alliance films, 2011.

Rein-Hagen, Mark, et al. Vampire: The Masquerade. 2nd ed., White Wolf Publishing, 1998.

Wezerek, Gus. “Is Your D&D Character Rare?” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 12 Oct. 2017, fivethirtyeight.com/features/is-your-dd-character-rare/?ex_cid=538twitter.

3 thoughts on “On Memetic Weight

  1. As an extension of your ideas, I see some themes that have high memetic weight being harmful when trying to promote or widen the reach of D&D/general tabletops. In general, I’m talking about harmful stereotypes – but using a different term (like this), I think one can provide a novel or fresh view on certain topics.

    For example, a Victorian, steampunk city where labourers are overworked and underpaid has heigh memetic weight. But if that same city has clear gender roles and suffers from xenophobia (which could be as easy as not putting women in positions of power and/or relegating them to background objects or rewards), that same weight makes for a possibly forgettable experience and potentially a very “problematic” setting.

    So then back to your original point, I think being cognizant of how much you are relying on well trodden tropes and memes not only runs the risk of a boring table, it also runs the risk of ingraining certain harmful stereotypes into your game that you didn’t intend.

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    1. I think the extension of tropes from problematic viewpoints plays into this, too, right?

      For example, there is a non-trivial argument that tribal orcs as portrayed in 5th edition have semiotics which signal “black African” or “Native American”. There is a non-trivial argument that Vistani as portrayed in 5th edition have semiotics which signal “gypsy” or more properly “the Romani people”.

      Both Vistani and orcs exist because of their strong memetic weight – the idea of some gypsy-esque caravan in a Gothic setting is very familiar to many of us as consumers of fantasy or of gaming culture, yet simultaneously, as recently as just 3 years ago, the image of the Romani people as child abductors was still in use within mainstream media: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/breaking-news-no-more-life-roma-greece-year-after-maria

      Do I think that this absolutely renders Vistani non-viable as an element of Ravenloft? Do I think orcs somehow should be excised from D&D? Do I think barbarians should be removed because the term comes from a history of “othering” populations you don’t understand?

      Not quite. I recognize each of those has problematic implications, but I also recognize the argument that those semiotics don’t hit the same for all people, nor should tabletop RPG semiotics be expected to meaningfully impact racism in the real world, especially for the more nebulous connections like when minority groups claim that the tiefling makes them feel ostracized.

      It’s a simple problem but with a diverse set of solutions insofar as gamers’ backgrounds go – which is always the case for semiotics.

      All of this is definitely something for gamers to keep in mind.

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