Thursday, 17 November 2011

What Astrology and Werewolf: The Apocalypse have to say about the human condition

Human beings like organising themselves into groups and fooling themselves into thinking that the particular group they belong to is in some way distinct, having different (superior) characteristics to all the others. This is an element of in-group - out-group bias, a psychological phenomenon in human beings that seems one of our most fundamental social characteristics. We decide that we belong to a certain group, with its own special and brilliant flavour, and begin disparaging and agitating against all other groups with almost embarrassing ease.

This tendency seems to extend beyond the family, the clan, the tribe, the gang, the team, or the nation, even into the relatively abstract realm of bogus pseudo-science and role playing games. 

Let me explain. I have no scientific evidence for this - I'm just a humble lawyer - but it seems relatively clear that one of the reasons why astrology is so popular is that it gives you a sense of belonging to a certain group with certain characteristics, which become desirable and superior to the characteristics of other groups simply by dint of the fact that you have them. So, being a Leo, I read in wikipedia that Leos are:

[A] natural star and leader. They are outgoing, warm-hearted, and wish to excel in all they do. Leo personalities are known to love those they are close too and they wish to protect and defend all those that need it. Leos enjoy flattery and attention from others, they are also sensitive to any form of criticism. People born under the Leo star are invariably materialistic they set a great value to material boons and strive to financial success. Leo individuals need love and recognization from others to boost their ego and they demand it like something for granted. They are known to have plenty of worshippers but also many hidden enemies.

And I immediately begin to kid myself that these are the best characteristics that any person could have, much better than those of those stinky Taurans, Sagittarians and Pisceans, not to mention those hideous fucking Virgos, and I lie back satisfied with the world and my place in it, as a proud, outgoing, warm-hearted Leo. Never mind that I don't actually know any other Leos; I still feel as if I am part of this supranational, supracultural in-group, and that we are the best of the star signs.

In the same way, people who play role playing games like to organise themselves into abstract groupings. I was reminded about this when reading this thread on recently. It's about Werewolf: The Apocalypse, a ridiculous game in which all of the world's werewolves belonged to one of a number of 'tribes', each with its own unique special talents, power levels, characteristics, and abilities. Just like with astrology, the notion that you can divide all the world's population into a dozen or so groups with similar characteristics is utter nonsense, yet people (including myself) love this element of the game: we like thinking of ourselves as part of the in-group, with special characteristics better than the others. And again, just like with astrology, it doesn't matter that you do not know anybody else whose werewolf is a Bone Gnawer; still it gives you a bogus sense of belonging to a group of a kind, which is known for being highly adaptable, tough, intelligent and resourceful, and this gives you warm fuzzy feelings of a most basic and instinctive kind. For the short time in which you inhabit this character, you are thinking to yourself, Bone Gnawers are just plain better than the other tribes - although undoubtedly it happens on a mostly subconscious level.

Of course, the difference between astrology and Werewolf: The Apocalypse is that when your Bone Gnawer character dies you can choose to be a werewolf of another tribe (whereupon you'll likely start to think that, actually, this new character is a bit better and his tribe is kewler, because you're a human being and that's what you do), whereas you can't choose a new star sign: you'll be a Leo for life. Not a bad thing, because Leos are the greatest and if you don't agree with me it's probably because you're some idiotic Cancerian or Fire Horse.


  1. As a hideous fucking Virgo who has spent entirely too much of my life involved in relationships with Leo women, I must say your analysis is spot-on. But really, only Leos worry about these kind of things.

  2. Nice shout-out to Chinese astrology at then end there.

    I think some people just get attached to certain tribes, or classes, or races, because they see a little bit (or a lot a bit) of themselves in what that archetype stands for. Because they see themselves as part of the archetype and feel the need to defend it when its awesomeness is questioned. I think it's a little bit deeper than in-group-out-group dynamics, because they are defending themselves and their own awesomeness against others' slights and accusations.

    The idea of in-group-out-group is also pretty prevalent among gamers who play World of Warcraft. There are players who blindly support the Alliance or Horde simply because of the aesthetic qualities of the races that belong to each group.

  3. While I’ve never quite been a fan of this aspect of White Wolf games, it always seemed pretty clever to me. Such allegiances set the stage for dilemmas and conflicts, which can liven up the game. They also give some “local color” to the background.

    In any game, it can be good to give the PCs allegiances. To crown, country, guild, race, clan, cult, secret society, zodiac sign, and more.

  4. It seems pretty smart to me, too: character classes, guilds and alignments, all tied up in a neat little elective package with pre-gen flavour text that you can agree or disagree with, which just means you're a happy or dissident Philosopher Acrobat or whatever. It's like somebody looked at the PC behaviour-defining rules in D&D and said, "how can we rework this to eliminate out-of-game arguments, promote buy-in, and sell a ton of splatbooks?"

    Have you seen the rules on chauvinism in GURPS Goblins? It's one of my favourite moments in any game book - as you get farther away from home you lose status, abilities and respectability (this last really being the coin of the game - the equivalent of xp in the setting). It's a fun mechanic and a snarky bit of anthropology, masquerading as a game rule.

  5. The Myers-Briggs personality test seems to be popular for similar reasons.

  6. Magic users are way better than fighters!

  7. you've read Ben Anderson's Imagined Communities, haven't you?

    It seems to me there must be a great book to be written somewhere in here, between nationalism and related kinds of identity-formation, the sociology of group behaviour, game theory and the kinds of gamer tribalism you get with WoW guilds and all that - dealing with the goods people get from identity, their choices of groups or self-presentation, and what they think belonging is.

    I'd like to write the chapter on gamer heritage in all that - including both physical and imaginary artifacts as "material culture."

  8. I've not read that, Richard, but I'll give it a look, I think.

  9. Greetings.

    Group dynamics is an interesting theoretical framework to work off of, particularly since it breaks down so very quickly. Zodiac signs certainly posit positive personality characteristics (and cross-affinities with other signs), but also presumably negative ones (and antagonisms). However, these attributes (and connections) are themselves fluidly defined and beholden to subjective assessments of their value and utility... some put great stock in the superiority of other signs and inferiority of their own. Put those together with the ambiguity of the cusps, the planetary chartings, etc... and almost anything is possible.

    Likewise, being that Bone Gnawer with their own generalized characteristics (mostly socially/ritually defined in the game) may engender feelings of awesomeness... but then again, they're involved in a larger domain of tribes AND human cultures whose own values and conventions intrude, inform, overlap, challenge, etc (not to mention what happens if you were born to a wolf instead of a human, or are metis). And then there are other Garou character traits... the moon phase you were born into adds more possibilities (positive and negative) as well as cross-connections with similar 'signs' from other tribes. And then you could be a rebel from these heritages, as per your nature/demeanor... which is also subjectively defined by:

    ::The Player::, who always thinks their character is cool because THEY created him/her... a group of one, so-to-speak; but then again, what's good for their goose may be a duck to another. 'Better' is a complicated thing, and not merely the relativized thing I've probably partially articulately rendered here.

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