Monday, March 1, 2021

Guest Post: Just Play

This guest post is graciously provided by Travis Miller over at Grumpy Wizard. A favourite spot of mine on the TTRPG / OSR blogosphere.

Just Play 

“Are we going to stand around admiring the problem or are we going to fix it?” - My wife on a video conference with her colleagues

Gamers, as a tribe, are thinkers and readers. We are readers of the humanities; literature, philosophy and history in particular. Many gamers are academics and have injected the tools of their trade into the hobby. The academy has powerful tools of inquiry. Great insights into the world have been made by trained academics. Gamers have adopted those tools in our own conversations about games. Talking/writing about games has become its own hobby. I’m certainly a game theory hobbyist if I’m honest with myself. This hobby of game theorizing and modelling doesn’t necessarily lead to making better games. 

Academics, particularly in the humanities, have a bad habit of being so far up their own asses that they A) Don’t realize their tools are domain specific and B) Humans are too complex for theories and models to tell the whole story C) They don’t actually test what they’ve learned. That’s for other people.

Domain Specificity

Tabletop role playing games are rather new. The study of them is in its earliest stages. Academics from various disciplines, who happen to be gamers, have applied the knowledge gleaned from their specific academic discipline. The problem with that is games aren’t stories. Games aren’t biological organisms. Games aren’t politics. Games are games. Games are a different domain and analysing them as if they were stories, organisms, or politics isn’t going to tell you everything about games. 

Different techniques of analysis will have to be developed and are being developed in order to understand the specific and unique properties of games. Until a rigorous game design discipline can be formed the techniques of other domains will have to be put to use. 

People are Messy

Many models about tabletop role playing games have been built and debated ad nauseum. Some of them have led in interesting directions and created somewhat popular games. These models can be helpful but they are incomplete.There are unknown variables and interactions which cannot be accounted for in a model of tabletop roleplaying games. The interaction between games and people is too complex for any model to be complete.

Games are played by real people, not models. People are unique and varied beyond the ability of even powerful computers to comprehend. You have had unique experiences. You have different parents. You have different friends. What I want from a game experience is going to be different than what you want even if we are similar. These models of game design have given some designers massive delusions about how game design actually works. 

The academization of game design has given some designers the idea that they can create a game or scenario for a game based entirely on their knowledge and models and forego play testing. This is absurd nonsense. Some of the “I don’t playtest” game designers are frequently found on Twitter and other platforms bewailing the state of the game market and how their obviously superior games can’t even get a break. There are many factors at play when it comes to success in the game business and several have nothing to do with how well the game is designed.  When it comes down to it, if the game is poorly designed, it is unlikely to be popular. There are exceptions (Monopoly) but for the most part, a poorly designed game is not going to be a popular game. 

No one has figured out how to consistently design a game from pure theory and models, put it in front of people and have it work precisely as intended on the first go around. Game design is not engineering. We don’t know enough about it to be able to draw up a game, do some calculations and accomplish what we are trying to achieve in the first iteration. Even engineers make prototypes to test their designs and they are dealing with much better understood phenomena than game designers.

You must play. 

“Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”

― William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

At some point as game designers and game masters trying to make something better, we must sit down and play. We don’t know anything real until we do. We can analyse and hypothesise all we want but until people play your game, you don’t know. The variation of reactions to a specific encounter or event at the game table is so vast that the academic approach to thinking about games is useful but it is insufficient for the task of actually designing a good game, encounter or adventure module. Let’s think about who invented the role playing game as we know it today. 

Was it someone with a doctorate degree? 

Was it a professor at a university with a lab and research assistants? 

Did Dave Arneson have a deep understanding of mathematics and probability? Philosophy? 

Dave was a smart guy and well read in military history but he wasn’t an elite intellectual. 

He was a guy who played and designed games. He was constantly iterating and tinkering with his games, trying to make them more in line with his tastes and that of his friends. As a result of his tinkering, a new kind of game was discovered.

This discovery was the most important popular culture event of the 20th century. 

In my opinion, the most efficient method of game design is to spend less time debating, analyzing, theorizing and merely play. 

"Just Play" Travis Miller © Copyright March 1, 2021 

1 comment:

  1. Nice rant. Quite correct, as well.

    Academia (outside of engineering and some of the sciences) has remarkably little to teach us, except as a negative example of what not to do and how not to be. This has changed very little over cultures and over centuries.

    There is an old Zen joke about two scholars and a Zen master walking along a path. They come upon a boulder in their way. The two scholars debate, and decide that the boulder cannot possibly exist, as it disturbs the beauty of the garden and the harmony of the path. The Zen master pats the boulder, and continues on his way.

    Reality is real. Ignore it at your peril.