Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's Made of People

I can't shake the idea that I had some other topic to write about in mind that I've totally forgotten. It's a niggling certainty that I've forgotten something, and it's maddening. But it's inspiration of a sort.

I've a great fondness for the genre of books that owe their existence to the success of books like "The Tipping Point" and "Freakonomics", books that look into the study of human behavior in the lab and in real world environments, then apply some particular sort of English to the results (math, sales, storytelling, whatever) and present it as insight. There are a lot of these books, and after you've read a few of them, you start noticing the same stories and anecdotes showing up. It gives the sense that there's this general body of knowledge that they're all strip mining with varying degrees of insight. One of the nice benefits of this is that if one of the books is particularly crappily written (*cough*Black Swan*cough*) then you can discard it and feel confident the insights will show up somewhere else, ideally in a good, insightful book (Like, say, anything written by Dan & Chip Heath).

One issue that comes up a lot is how we make decisions, and the simple fact that we're much better at making decisions at a remove than we are in the moment. Anyone who's struggled with a vice knows this well - from a safe remove, we are sure we won't eat, drink, smoke or sleep with something inappropriate, but when the time comes, we make the bad decision. This is a pain in the ass, but it's a very human thing, and that's what bring sit back to gaming. Gaming, by and large, involves making decisions at a remove. Combat might be a dark, confusing chaos, but the player remains cool as a cucumber, making calls from his position of certainty. They may not be the right decisions - he can make mistakes - but they won't be bad decisions, the way that snap judgments and in-the-moment thinking might be.

For a lot of players, this is desirable - it allows us to play characters who make the decisions we would like to think we would make rather than ones we might actually make. It's the same satisfaction that comes from seeing someone screw up and proudly declaring how we would do it differently. Gaming lets us be right in a way that life rarely allows.

And this is good, because it's hard to do otherwise. While some players may consciously have their characters make bad decisions, it's a lot of work to get a player so swept up in the game that the sense of remove is, for lack of a better term, removed. This sense of immediacy is something I find highly desirable if I can get into it, and a lot of players are on the lookout of ways to capture it. On some level, I think this is one of the great benefits of games that are less about objectives or characters and more about situations[1], they can capture this sense more easily. Hoeever, for me, those have their own tradeoffs.

I dwell on this because while I think rules can help with this issue, I don't think they can resolve it. Rules engagement strips immediacy, so rules can only take you so far before they get in the way. Aspects occasionally have this problem, when people are playing their aspects hard and abruptly stop and think "Oh, wait, shouldn't that be a compel?" It totally sucks when that happens, but the only real solution to that is to keep the players engaged enough that it doesn't come up, and that is all about GM skill.

But that snark is a bojum. GM skill is a dangerous topic, even if you can come to some agreement about what it means, and I certainly won't try here, since that's not the point. The point is more this: this is an imperfect, human kind of hobby, and as much as it's well constructed on a foundation of ideas, there are places you can walk to and find the ground falls away, leaving you staring into an abyss that can only be filled by people.

And that's pretty neat.

1 - That is to say, games whose improv roots are clearly visible

PS - I have a multi-hour car ride coming up next week en route to origins. What specific podcast episodes should I have with me for the ride?


  1. You should grab "The Million Dollar Millisecond" from planet money. Mind you, that is somewhat self serving as they basically do an entire podcast on my job for the first year here in NYC, but it also brings up some of the same issues I have with my industry (with equal success at resolution).

  2. I like immersion. The best games are invariably ones where the players are immersed in their character and the situation. Where they take the appropriate action, not the right one. This is one of the great advantages of most freeforms and LARPS - the players are much more actors than puppetmasters.

    I find the best way to do this is to have a rather detailed character creation that allows the player to work out what their character is capable of, coupled with a simple (no more than one or two step that doesn't involve complex decisions involving game mechanics). Nothing breaks the mood faster than having to have a player think about rules.*

    [Coupling the players physical activity to character activity is a good idea too. If you get people moving around they are less likely to distance themselves from the action.]

    The problem is that this is often antithetic to game design. The designer has a natural tendency to want to write rules to cover a situation (it is, after all, his task), rather than letting it be played loose and fast.

    And, as with most social interactions, it relies fundamentally on trust.

    As always, YMMV.

    [* I was amazed to discover, a lot later, that there were groups of players who played in the same manner as the examples of play given in the rule books. Even to specifically enumerating the game mechanics as they play. It is a very alien style of play for me (I always took them as being specifically enumerated example of how the game mechanics should be applied, rather than as "actual" examples of play).]

  3. I don't know if you have any interest in comedy, but Marc Maron's WTFs on Robin Williams and his two-parter on Carlos Mencia are great examinations of the two men.

  4. You shouldn't be listening to podcasts on your drive, Rob. You should be talking to the witty and scintillating individuals with whom you're traveling.

    Not that I'm biased or anything.


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