Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Have the Power!

One of the perks of being a father of young children is that I get an excuse to watch a lot of cartoons. I particularly enjoy sharing with my kids the cartoons I grew up watching. It is a fascinating experience full of surprises. For example, I enjoy the original series of Johnny Quest more as an adult than I did as a kid and my eldest daughter is a big fan of Thundarr the Barbarian, of all things. The is one show, however, that held no surprise for me at all — He-Man: Masters of the Universe.

My children have shown very little interest in He-Man, and I have never much liked the show myself. One of the main reasons for my dislike is that I was acutely aware that the He-Man cartoons were 30 minute commercials for actions figures.

He-Man toys first appeared in 1981. The Filmation cartoon didn't air until 1983. In other words, the He-Man cartoon was one of the first instances that I am aware of that created a TV show based on a Toy instead of the other way around. This particular arrangement bothered me quite a lot. I had never shown much interest in action figures based on movies or TV shows. Even my love for the Star Wars movies never really materialized in much of a collection of Star Wars toys. I never felt free to play with the toys as I wished to play with them. Luke Skywalker was always going to be Luke. I couldn't imagine allowing myself to do anything else.

He-Man took this to a whole new level. Making a TV show based on a toy sent a message: this is how you play with these toys. Looking back, I find it fascinating that the original back-story for He-Man, prior to the advent of the TV show, sounded like a great sandbox campaign:

He-Man is a barbarian from an Eternian tribe. The planet's inhabitants are dealing with the aftermath of the Great Wars, which devastated the civilizations that once ruled supreme over all lesser beings. The Wars left behind advanced machinery and weaponry known only to select people. — Wikipedia

By creating the detailed story lines of the TV show, this evocative description, and the endless possibilities were, for all practices purposes, destroyed. Anyone playing with the He-Man toys would expect to play the TV show, and nothing else. He-Man marks the moment in my life when I became disillusioned by marketing. It also marks a shift in the culture of RPGs.

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon came out in 1983. Dragonlance first appeared in 1984. The way that D&D was being marketed sent a message: this is the way you play the game.

In retrospect, the mid-eighties marked a time when I wandered away from D&D as my main RPG. In the heady days from 1979-1981, I bought everything I could associated with D&D. Starting in 1983/1984 I can count the number of TSR products I bought on one hand. If I couldn't be free to play the game the way I wanted, I wasn't going to play. Eventually I did fall in with a group that primarily felt the same way. We never played Greyhawk, let alone Forgotten Realms and all the other settings that came out in the coming years. Not only do I think that our game didn't suffer from it, but I think our game was better for it.

In Christianity, there is a reason why the Eucharist is bread and wine. God has given us wheat and grapes. We take these gifts, rework them, recreate them and then give them back to God. We are expected to be co-creators with God:

God formed out of the ground all the wild animals of the field and all the birds of the heaven, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. Thus whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. — Genesis 2:19

Thus, when we are given a game or a toy — something with which we are supposed to creative — and then told that there is only one way to play with it is antithetical to what it means to be human. This is why I've always made my own worlds and why I've never done anything with published game-settings other than read them to mine them for ideas to use in my own game worlds.


Matthew Slepin said...

For example, I enjoy the original series of Johnny Quest more as an adult than I did as a kid and my eldest daughter is a big fan of Thundarr the Barbarian, of all things. The is one show, however, that held no surprise for me at all — He-Man: Masters of the Universe.

Wow--are we leading parallel lives? My daughter is 5 and loves to play Thundarr.

We must be good fathers. :)

Will Mistretta said...

I thought you might be interested in a different perspective on this same issue by an "old school" player who wasn't even born when you started gaming:

FrDave said...

Matthew, I remember loving Thundarr as a kid, but even then understood it as a guy thing. When my 5 year old daughter (admittedly a bit of tomboy) loved it, I didn't know what to think. Now that I know Thundarr is somehow speaking to 5 year old girls across the country, I'm going to have to take another look and try to figure out what it is about this program that's doing this. Wow is right.

Will, I love the fact that you were able to come out of the He-Man era with the old-school mind-set that you do. It is a testament to the human creative spirit (aka the Image and Likeness of God) that you have taken what was good in He-Man, etc. to become who you are. As I said above, part of me is inspired to run an Eternian campaign based on the original concept of the toy; however, it took me this long to have the vision to do so.

Anonymous said...

I managed to find a couple of the children's books that pre-date the cartoon. They're much darker and the art is actually superior in illustration to the later "rampant use of stock animation cells" than the TV show.