Tuesday, November 20, 2018

17th Class: Understanding the Shared Experience

Thank you and welcome back.  Before the break we were speaking about three levels of meaning-making: reaching consensus, situational learning and experiential.  Psychologists call these semantic meaning, pragmatic meaning and existential meaning.  With the second half of this course, we'll try to give these meaning-making ideals structure and application, as a means of developing game worlds that are vital, creative and effective in game play.

When we approach a role-playing game, whether as first-time players of the game or in that specific campaign, we begin by requiring a clear and complete understanding of the rules. Earlier, we discussed this as reaching a game consensus, but there is much more to it. The game setting and the approach of the DM and all the other players creates a certain characteristic in that social group – and we must acclimate ourselves to that characteristic in order to be accepted. We can call this phase of play, Orientation.

Once the player adapts and sees how the game world and its inhabitants function in the DM’s eyes, the player will advance their styles of game play to match. These styles will be augmented and copied by the other players, just as we spoke about when we addressed situational learning. As the players improve their ability to play, the DM will be pushed to provide a higher standard to that play. We can call this phase of play, Innovation.

As the players continue to advance in their game play, they will begin to challenge the limitation of the DM’s version of the world. This is a relative comparison; players that are much more advanced than the DM will challenge the DM’s version more quickly; while other players who are not as advanced as the DM will come to challenge the DM’s version more slowly. Much has been written and said about the DM’s prerogative to maintain the DM’s version against Players who seek to change that version, the mainstream arguing from the position that the DM “owns” the version in question. This is non-sensical, in light of what we understand from situational learning and what we understand from the process of stability-rupture-reconstruction-stability. Changing is a rupture for the DM, but the lack of change can be just as much a rupture for the players. The healthy approach is to recognize that change is inevitable, positive and ultimately leads to a better version for ALL the participants, DM and Player alike. We can call this phase of play, Renovation.

These three phases, orientation, innovation and renovation, institute a culture that is measured by what is true about the game, what is efficient about the game, what is good about the game and what is beautiful about the game.

Truth measures the veracity of game elements: in orientation, the necessity of certain rules, whether or not we enjoy them; in innovation, the devotion and effort that is required to succeed; and in renovation, the legitimacy of wanting the game to be better, not just for one’s needs but for the sake of the game’s potential.

Efficiency measures our will and ability to put all these things into some kind of order: in orientation, to master the art of combing through a character sheet and investing oneself with the knowledge of what’s possible; in innovation, grasping all the elements of possibility at one’s disposal with enough sense to combine ideas to invoke new ideas; and in renovation, the preparedness to take a scalpel or a hammer to a problem and either cut it out or advance it towards the most healthy end product.

Good measures the robust satisfaction in playing: in orientation, the thrill of at last conceiving the game’s structure and function; in innovation, the triumph of creating means to vanquish enemies and safeguard treasures and self; and in renovation, the epiphany of seeing just how far the vistas of game play can reach, apart from the simple mechanics limited by human mastery.

Beautiful measures the awe we feel as we comprehend our roles: in orientation, seeing a player character come to life from a collection of numbers and words; in innovation, reflecting upon the challenges that have been overcome and one’s personal will in taking on things that are greater still; and in renovation, the comprehension that humans, unleashed, can be as effective as gods in realms of the imagination.

These are highly generalized ideals and some of you will find it difficult just now to see the direct material application of each.  Yet these concepts form the basis of a culturally inherited structure that has been in place since the 1970s ~ though largely distorted and misunderstood through the lack of research.  The goal of this course is to find meaning in these ideals, so that the construction of the game world and the specific manner in which players interact can be more thoroughly understood without sentiment, guesswork or the expectation of quick answers.  We're not seeking an objective cause-and-effect model that will predict and control game behaviour, but rather a steadily increasing understanding of a complex, shared experience that will influence the manner in which we practice the game.

That is why we have painstakingly spent 16 classes establishing that the principles underlying role-playing games are not based on "opinion" or "taste," but are in fact grounded in psychology and empirical research pursued by tens of thousands of thinkers and researchers seeking answers for all human experience.  Role-playing is a human experience and is not divorced from the fundamentals of social meaning-making ... but role-playing as a specific aspect of that meaning-making has been ignored, in part because outside observers may see it as "just a game" whereas inside observers are resistant against any deconstruction that might established fixed principles that could be used to dictate "good play" from "poor play."

Our goal here is not to distinguish either, but to view any participant as one whose comprehension, expertise or satisfaction from game play can be increased if said participant is willing to learn.

We can say, for example, that the specific form of any set of rules associated with role-playing is immaterial when compared with the fundamental principle that it is the duty and goal of the participants to know the rules, examine the rules closely, test the rules, establish precedents to bind parts of the game that were not formerly granted rules and ultimately to adjust, rewrite or discard rules which ~ by the consensus of the participants ~ failed to remain purposeful in providing a peak game experience.

This would mean that those RPG players who have opted to adjust the rules so that player death almost certainly never occurs are not operating outside the principles of maintaining a proper sensibility about rules.  Some ~ including this instructor ~ see that alteration as unpalatable and even destructive to the game experience, but it is not a wrong way to play.  It is up to each group of participants, working within their social group, to decide for themselves what rules should be upheld and to what degree they should be detailed.

Naturally, we should expect to see conflicts arise between groups playing wildly different adaptations of a single RPGs, or between RPG variants of the same genre ~ but conflict is positive and even informative, so long as it is understood that political or ethical ideas of "wrong" or "right" don't attach themselves to the way a single player begins orientation into a single gamespace.  No two game spaces anywhere are alike; nor is any game space today alike to the game space it will transform into at a future date.  Role-playing is not an end result.  Role-playing is a process.

That's enough said on the matter, which we need not bring up again in class.  With our next class we'll begin our discussion of orientation to the game setting.

Anything can be a game setting.


Vlad Malkav said...

Every course makes me like the whole even more, and I'm deeply curious about the next one.

During the last few days, I've perused again the whole set, and it made me take a step back from the games I'm running, trying to understand what my players need and what they like from their behaviour, looking for ways to better provide it with the framework you laid. Alas, not having a clear view of the whole is restraining me, but that got me thinking nonetheless.

Thanks for your work.

Mic B said...

Thank you Alexis (again).
This one "period" stimulates lots of thoughts. I can't formulate it, but I understand this one as an introduction for things to come, while also being a very good recap of the whole thing.

I feel your position might be changing ("the one true way" of which you've been accused, which always gets a chuckle out of me).

You might not agree, but it seems like you are saying Gygax and friends knew what they were doing quite while, but an important part of it was lost to editing/marketing and other forces, and the game drifted away from this.

since i'm late, now off to reading your next post!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Just a couple of clarifications, Mic B.

My vision for these classes is that I keep my personal opinion out of the actual content, focusing only on what I can back up with sources. It would be silly to argue, at length, that subjective information is fairly weak as evidence, and then fill the content with my subjective opinion. This has already caused several people to feel that I have "betrayed" myself, which is utterly baffling. It is very clear that for some on the internet, "evidence" is not a thing.

One fellow just went batshit in a comment about how I had basically burned every word I'd ever written in a dumpster fire, the comment appearing specifically on this post. I presume this was because I appear to be supporting concepts like the WOTC's adventurers league ... specifically because I can't provide evidence that it's a wrong way to play. Your own comment, Mic B, seems on some level to reach the same conclusion.

I think the Adventurer's League is execrable. But I can't PROVE it, so that opinion has no actual place in this format. I realize that for most people it is impossible for them to hold these two positions in their heads simultaneously without fusing neurons and ceasing all brain function irrevocably, but I assure all my readers that I know precisely when I am stating establish facts and when I am giving an opinion. I don't find these two things incompatible.

As regards Gygax and friends. These guys were going to university and they based a lot of their premises off fundamental truths about psychology role-playing that worked out rather well for everyone. I wouldn't argue they "knew what they were doing." They were onto a good thing, they were quite obviously dense about what made it good and through a combination of being very bad businessmen and excessively self-indulgent, they let that good thing slip into the hands of a number of entrepreneurs WHO DID NOT GIVE A SHIT about the good thing. This is evidence that these were not geniuses, just a bunch of middle-rate college students who stumbled on something good. Happens all the time.

Mic B said...

Thanks for the clarifications.
If you allow me:
"I realize that for most people it is impossible for them to hold these two positions in their heads simultaneously without fusing neurons and ceasing all brain function irrevocably"
I know very well when that happens. In "modern society", it happens all the time when talking politics, like when a decision would benefit a lot of people, but those same people are offended by some details of said decision.
Also, I was not about to "reach the same conclusion" regarding adventurer's league. I know full well what you think of them. I also keep away

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thanks Mic B. No accusation intended.