Friday, June 10, 2011

Superman vs. Clark Kent

On Twitter today (I am writing this on Thursday 6/9), Rob Donoghue asked the following question. "If you were playing in the DC universe, how quickly would your character realize that Superman is Clark Kent?" He quickly was flooded with a whole host of answers that, non-surprisingly, basically ranged from "rather quickly" to "never". Now, he was asking the question as a way of gauging who would hold onto, and self-enforce, the tropes of a universe on their own, as opposed to who needed incentive. However, I'm taking something else from it. Namely, audience knowledge versus character perspective.

Superman is Clark Kent. It's F#*@ing Obvious!
This is the general view held by most of the populace, and honestly it is quite easy to see when you are watching as an observer from outside. I mean, c'mon, all the guy does is pull off his glasses, slick his hair back, and change into a pair of long-johns and a cape and he is a super hero. That is pretty freaking obvious right?

Well, honestly, no it's not. Now, to get them out of the way, I'm going to point out the comic reasons why no one notices. These may be a bit off, as I'm going off memory from conversations with my DC fanboy housemate. Anyhow, when posing as Clark Kent, Superman does the following to hide his identity. He wears glasses and does his hair differently, we all know that. However, he also slouches, acts with a totally different personality, changes his tone of voice and pitch, and otherwise acts like a different person.

We can easily see through these things for a few reasons. One, we already know that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, so we see the connections easier. Two, we are reading a story and so have an outside perspective. One that focuses on the key characters, and let's face it, if Clark isn't Superman then there is no need for Clark to have as big a role as he does. Three, comic books are not drawn in a way where we can easily tell the differences in these key details. Fourth, and finally, we are trained when watching movies/tv shows to know that - unless otherwise and specifically advertised - one actor does not generally play multiple characters, no matter how similar they look.

The Point
The point of this is to show that we, as readers and consumers of media, have a different perspective that allows us to more easily see that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. However, it only seems that obvious because of our outside perspective. In universe, unless we are very close to both Clark and Superman, there are a number of other factors that we have to deal with, and all of these are assuming that Superman is just putting on glasses and un-slicking his hair to become clark. So, let's take a look at some obstacles our PCs would have to surmount to make the connection.

Why Wear A Mask
First off, why do Superheroes wear masks? They wear them to protect their secret identity. We know that Batman, Spider-Man, and even Captain America (at least at one point) had a secret identity. Otherwise, they wouldn't need the mask. Superman on the other hand doesn't wear a mask. Nor does he have (that we know about) shape changing powers. Add that to the fact that he is always (almost always anyhow) there for big disasters, all over the world, and the logical conclusion is that Superman doesn't wear a mask because he does not have a secret identity.

This is the first hurdle you have to overcome in universe. You need to know, or at least suspect, that Superman has a secret identity, and is not just flying around saving the day 24/7 and chilling with his fellow super heroes up in the Justice League's satellite when not punching evil in the face. And before you use Super-Speed as an excuse for why he doesn't need to wear a mask, remember, the Flash (all but one of them in fact) wears a mask. If the fastest man alive feels the need to protect his identity, wouldn't the man of steel also need to?

Needle In A Haystack
Ok, so you know the Man of Steel has a mild-mannered alter ego somewhere. Next problem, where is it? The world is a big place, and Superman can get anywhere on the globe in seconds. Think about that for a second. Superman could be easily living the life of a Chinese Farmer (granted as a white guy), and still be able to watch the New Years ball drop in Times Square if he left five seconds before midnight. This means that you have to factor in every city in the world to find him.

But that's not fair, let's give you some help. Superman recently relinquished his U.S. citizenship, so it is fair to assume that he lives in the U.S. That is still a big place. Over a million people live in Manhattan alone, and you are looking for one specific guy. You can't even safely default to Metropolis either, since Superman's speed means he could get there from anywhere, and he shows up wherever he is needed. Metropolis just needs him more than other places. Still, even if you are certain that he is in Metropolis and nowhere else, you still have to sift through millions of people to find him. Even if just going off white males, there is still likely tens of thousands, if not 100k+ white males in Metropolis.  Talk about a needle in a haystack, huh?

Meet Clark On the Street
Ok, so let's just say that you've pinned down Superman. You know he has a secret identity, and you know that he lives in Metropolis. Heck, you're walking down the street and then Clark Kent comes down the other way. Bam, instant recognition right? Well, no, not so fast. See, people don't really take in all the details when we meet on the street. We, at best, take in generalities and make assumptions. Here, watch this video. it will explain it better than I can.

Then watch this:

It's called selective attention, and if you watched the video the whole way through you'll see only one person notice something funny, and one person not notice anything despite a change in race of whom they're talking to. Now, this is with the person calling attention to himself, and doing a swap behind a giant picture of himself. What chance do you have with Clark just walking down the street? Especially with other people all around.

Why Say All This?
the point I'm trying to make here is that a lot of times we make assumptions based on our own points of view, and don't stop to consider that we have a different perspective from what our characters see. For one thing, we - as players - know that we are playing a game and that that means there are certain expectations. Our characters are just living their lives out.

The other point was to show just how easy it is to make accidental metagame blunders, and how - when you actually put some effort into looking at the world from your character's perspective - things can look so much different when you are involved in things.

Can you figure out Superman's secret identity? Yes, yes you can. For all he does, he doesn't defend it all that well. He is clearly close to Lois Lane, so follow her and you can narrow it down. From there, it's not hard  to notice that Clark is never around when Superman is, even if that means Clark has to vanish for Supes to appear. From there you can go further and put it together.

However, it isn't an automatic thing.

Oh, I also just wanted to rant about Superman.

But, anyhow, as this is supposed to be Discussion Friday, what other areas do you commonly see "outsider knowledge" informing a characters actions? Does it bother you? Is it basically a small nothing? Do you have any ideas on how you can stop it or at least make it less of an issue? Sound off in the comments.


  1. \o/ I think Metagaming is something that actually deserves more attention than it's currently getting on blogs. Coincidentally, I had an issue with this in my group this week. And I realized metagaming is a pretty big issue for me.

    I often give my players certain kinds of information I think they should have because from a character's perspective this should be common knowledge, and it isn't for a player. That's the other side of the metagaming-story, your character knows things you as a player probably don't.

    But last time I did this, I kind of ran into a problem. One of my players took a piece of information and turned it into something she reacted to. Not a big issue so I ignored it. Later in the session, the same thing happened. This time I commented on it, something like: "Watch out with metagaming *name*" and she was completely confused. Because for her, it didn't look like she was metagaming, even though it was glaringly obvious for the other players and me. We kept playing but after the session we talked a bit more about metagaming and what kind of effect it can have on the players and the session. And then I realized; I don't really know what metagaming is.

    Your blogpost clears up a bit what it's like for the PC itself in the gaming world and how the player can easily make connections the PC itself can't. You can see a bit of that in the first video, at some point the guy asks directions and the girl he's asking has someone else with her. This woman isn't involved in the conversation so she does see that the guy swapped with someone else. She points it out to the girl who had been talking and we see the girl denying this first, then looking around. You can almost hear her say "No, you're kidding! WHAT?" Actually quite similar to the player in my group, just the other way around. But the woman next to her would then be the one with the 'outsider information'. To her it's obvious it's a different guy but it's not to the person currently involved in the conversation. I think players should learn to realize that they're actually the second person looking over the shoulder of the first person (the PC), and are not the first person themselves.
    But then I have a question.... How can you teach someone to do so?

  2. I only really worry about overt outsider knowledge impacting a game. Things like the players being separated by miles and not being able to communicate with each other but their plan changes based on what happens to one or the other. Spooky action at a distance. There are a few other situations where I'll veto outsider knowledge but I've never had anyone really flaunt outsider knowledge by saying "I'm going to take some iron and copper and make an electric generator." in a low tech setting.

    There are quite a few cultural biases we've overcome while playing alien cultures and others that my players are tripping over right now. I usually address them slowly instead of bashing the players over the head with "you wouldn't think that way". I'll give them NPCs that show the proper way the culture would effect thinking and they usually pick up on it. Other times I'll inadvertently insert cultural bias myself. In that case I'll just say "Hey, I know that this is how I've been doing it but I thought about it and it really wouldn't be that way."

  3. The problem with metagaming is that there are so many various levels of it, and some of it a lot of groups are ok with.

    One area of metagaming is PC recognition. Players will often act differently when they know the person is a PC than if it is an NPC. Sometimes this can be drastically obvious. The PC lights someone on fire for lying to him, but when it is a PC he just yells and storms off, for example.

    There are also other smaller things. Math is sometimes a problem. Such as when, in an L5R game, I had someone trying to make a stone canoe. Now yeah, you CAN make stone float...but the math behind that is so out of context with the setting of Rokugan that it is just ridiculous to consider. You'll also get smaller areas of metagaming in areas where the player is an expert, but the character may not. Such as a Japanese major acting with knowledge in regards to Japanese culture that their player just wouldn't know. Is it a huge deal? No, not really. But it is still technically metagaming.

    Anyhow, this is getting long. I guess I should throw it on the list of things to actually blog about.