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Donovan and Carter Don't Know Jack About Jace
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In his third Start the World podcast, Jack Donovan and Paul Carter discuss a whole range of topics loosely tied to the concept(s) of masculinity in the contemporary Western world*. Summarizing very generally, the conclusions are mostly of the variety the manosphere is known for arriving at–the modern world, especially WEIRD societies, are not conducive to the mental (or physical) health of men. The more masculine the man, the worse the situation. Donovan’s message resonates with me, though when I detect an eagerness for the shit to hit the fan, as the expression goes, I immediately hear Hobbes whispering in my other ear and begin thinking one should be careful what he wishes for.

Anyway, my point isn’t to offer novel insight into the ongoing debate since I have none to offer. Instead, it is to lay a couple of critiques on Carter.

First, on the question of living an adventurous life, Carter points to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) as a self-evident illustration of modern men wasting away, vicariously trying to do what they should be doing in first person. The intention is to call to mind something akin to this–nerds spending a Friday night giggling and snorting as they move little pieces around a board while imagining they’re partaking in a life-or-death adventure. As a polemical device, that’s fine. But then, apparently to make his argument more contemporarily relevant since D&D hearkens back a generation or two, Carter then swaps Magic: The Gathering (MTG) as a stand-in for D&D and proceeds to refer to it for the duration of the conversation (the two talk about it enough to merit the inclusion of “magic the gathering” as one of the six tags to a nearly 90-minute podcast).

It’s clear that neither guy is anything more than superficially aware of at least MTG. The point is to allude to an archetype of an under-achieving, aspergery, high IQ waste-away. I get that. But Donovan is too serious a thinker to be so intellectually lazy (in fairness to him, Carter is the one who drives the discussion towards the games and their presumed connotations). D&D is low-tech fantasy role-playing. The reason it dates Carter and Donovan is because it has largely been supplanted by MMOs like World of Warcraft, which meet the same demands, albeit on a much larger, more aesthetically-engrossing scale.

MTG is a conducted exclusively through the use of playing cards^. It is a rigidly structured, competitive game, no more or less arbitrary than any iteration of poker. In fact, a useful analogy for understanding what MTG is: Chess is to checkers as MTG is to poker. Jon Finkel and David Williams aren’t aberrations–a large contingent of top flight poker players are also professional MTG players. Playing both makes it obvious why this is the case. There is no dungeon master coming up with obstacles and interpreting how those are dealt with in MTG. The Tolkienesque themes (or, in the most recent set, Greco-Roman themes) in MTG are entirely flavorful; they have no bearing on actual game play.

That something like MTG attracts competitive people who are both good at and enjoy thinking statistically–like poker, at its most essential, MTG is about managing probabilities–means it is going to disproportionately bring in Ice men who tend to lack a similar comparative advantage in more physically-oriented activities (though there are plenty who enjoy both), but that’s a process of identifying a demographic profile, not creating one.

What makes Carter’s pummeling of MTG the more grating is that he launches into it right after talking about his time in the IT field. In summary: “IT guys are existential wastrels. They’re the same guys who play MTG, and MTG players are wastrels.” However, Carter was in IT but he isn’t a wastrel today, nor was he a wastrel when he worked in IT. But if you play MTG, well, he doesn’t need to hear anything from the likes of you, wastrel! Uh huh.

Parenthetically, players of the relatively new EDH-variant of MTG probably better approximate the D&D stereotype of thirty years ago.

The other critique of Carter (and Donovan) comes in their prescribing that men find something they enjoy doing and make a living out of doing it. They proffer this relatively conventional advice through the prism of masculinity, and as such, it’s unobjectionable as an aspiration–getting paid to do something you’d gladly do for free is a heck of a gig. The problem comes in the insinuation that this is an experience that has somehow been lost over time, and that in modern society men are forced to spend all their time running on the consumerist treadmill unlike our ancestors did.

This might be conceivable if the putative golden age occurred prior to the onset of agriculture, but over the last 10,000 years or so, there is probably no time like the present–or at least no time like the last half-century, though it may have peaked a couple of decades ago–in which people are able to (and are doing) just that. For the vast majority of human history, most men barely had the capacity to travel to the next town over or ever do much of anything beyond attaining mere subsistence provisions and mundane household upkeep. Over the course of history, very few men have had the possibility of living the life of a Henry Bolingbroke. Today, if they so choose to do so, all people in the developed world who aren’t stuck in underclass can craft such an existence for themselves. Most elect not to (although some do)–and that’s really what Donovan and Carter are getting at.

* Donovan distills the definition down to four essential qualities: Strength, courage, honor, and competency (or skill, as in maintaining and developing one’s own skill set). When I first heard him speak, I instantly became better able to articulate why Gladiator is my favorite movie. Strength and honor, strength and honor.

^ With the exception of the use of a random number generator to determine who goes first, and, very rarely, in certain game state conditions.

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Sure.


  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I'm not entirely interested in man(cave)-osphere, yet… so MTG is more like League of Legends, Starcraft or Street Fighter than D&D. So what? Is the point that the Starcraft champs are less like "modern men wasting away, vicariously trying to do what they should be doing in first person" than D&D players?

    If so, how so? Spending your life playing League of Legends or Call of Duty doesn't seem less of an essentially existentially wastrel act than playing D&D, like comparing spending your time playing competitive chess to reading. One of these is a pointless act of memorising and exploring rules and competing in ways that are mostly valueless, while the other at least gets you slightly closer to human experience (even reading really bad novels does).

    You could say the LoL guys are more "masculine", in a certain kind of asp-y I suppose. They certainly value strength and skill, but… valuing strength and skill when your "strength" is just doing a lot of reps in isolation and your "skill" is memorising some arbitrary rules…. Leadership, family, power and experience seem inherently more for a man to shoot for, than the less interpersonal and generally more internal blend of strength, courage, honor and skill (which are all about cultivating or maintaining internal virtues and capabilities). A man should seek position in the world and enjoy life fully, not to cultivate his arete.

  3. Anon,

    The point is more of a technical one since I hear the two things used almost interchangeably. But MTG does have more of a social aspect to it than D&D or MMOs do. The problem, of course, is that it involves meeting, almost exclusively, other men.

  4. Some impartial commentator will be attending a prerelease this weekend no?

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    A very popular hiking/running/cycling trail opened up recently not far from me. I've been there a few times. One thing I've noticed, in fact it would be difficult not to notice, is that among runners women outnumber men by 3:1 or even more. Among hikers it's more evenly matched by still with a clear female predominance. Only among cyclists is it close to an even split, but as the number of cyclists is a lot lower it's hard to ascribe much meaning to this.

    If this one dataset means anything, it's that women are much more into physical activity than men.


  6. Peter,

    I really wish the GSS had a battery of questions on physical activity/weightlifting/exercise/aerobics, etc. Unfortunately, it doesn't have anything along those lines at all.

  7. Anon,

    No, a 6 month old precludes it. Did go undefeated this week playing junk standard, though!

  8. Anonymous [AKA "Doggerland"] says:

    Good post. I've always tried to be non-judgmental when it comes to peoples' hobbies. I can remember when I was growing up, video games were for "nerds", yet that didn't stop me from enjoying them. Now everyone plays them. People look down on you for something like MTG or D&D, and then spend three hours plopped in front of a television watching people throwing a ball across a field and tackling each other. Call me what you will, but I think the former is a much more valuable and stimulating experience.

  9. D&D involves socializing in person, like getting together for poker night with buddies, and is interactive, unlike TV/movie watching for instance. So as far as the list of things you can do to "waste away," D&D and other similar activities are lesser offenses. Watching TV and playing video games are worse.

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