Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cargo Cults

"In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land."
- from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman

I want to talk a moment about Ron Edwards' non-nonsensical GNS theory.  I don't intend to talk about the theory itself - that would be a waste of time.  Rather, I'd like to express how you, the reader, can identify it as junk.  In a larger sense, to explain how junk theory can be recognized almost immediately.

We have all been in forums where GNS theory was discussed.  What was the overriding result?  None at all.  It is great flame war fodder, for every element of the theory creates at least two sides who have differing interpretations of the theory, who must both rely upon argument, anecdotal evidence and metaphor in order to explain their positions.  Because it is a 'theory,' it lacks practical analysis or established facts to back up its premise - and because fundamental to the theory is the introduction of semantic terms to describe 'ideas' rather than facts, it becomes very easy to graft one's own personal experience upon the ideology being presented.

To support this evaluation, I must rely upon Slavoj Zizek's principal theme in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology - this being that the more empty of substance the depiction of an idea offers, the easier it becomes to substitute one's on personal bias into the ready-made symbols the artwork provides.  Here is a piece of the film, where Zizek discusses Jaws, Triumph of the Will and the frame into which we insert our ideology.

In making GNS theory so deeply unclear, Ron Edwards was able to provide a crutch to tens of thousands of comments based on muddy thinking, fundamentally based upon what we wanted to believe about RPGs personally.  By providing a set of words without precise definition, Edwards empowered us to create our own definitions.  The result was dissension, bickering, debate without resolution and - ultimately, these many years later - a complete lack of development upon the initial theory.

It is this last that is the telling point.  Like the Cargo Cult, no airplanes have landed.  Edwards' own re-interpretation of his own work as 'The Big Model' failed to offer any new insight on the original premise.  He did not produce new thinking or facts to support his theory, or indeed offer any indication at all that he was searching to develop the original premise.  All he really did was add a few graphics and rewrite the theory into similar and yet less clear precepts.

This is a sign of junk thinking.  It does not provide development.  Being in possession of the theory does not, in turn, promote further investigation, as there is nothing to investigate.  Asking individuals what sort of game they run fails to produce any meaningful result.  As no reconciliation can be made between participants based on the theory, it remains nothing but an hypothesis.  "If we build a space that looks like an airport, planes will land and give us things."

We can recognize this in other examples of junk thinking.  Astrology, for instance, although very old, offers no improvement in its ability to predict by means of further research and development.  Religion must depend upon adherence to faith and tradition because any addition must be viewed as heresy - while heresy, in turn, only turns out to be more junk theory.  I can live my life upon the principles of religion, but I can't expand those principles except in my personal approach to faith.  That personal approach doesn't help YOU in your approach.  At best, you can be induced to follow the same traditions . . . but you won't follow them in the same way I do, because you are you.

This is why in tackling the subject, How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, I did NOT simply argue my own ideas.  I set out to research principles of legitimacy, pattern-recognition, presentation, human reaction to stimuli, FBS design, situational awareness and many more subjects, then I put the source material for those subjects in my bibliography.  So that the reader can check me by digging into the source material and discovering insights that I failed to recognize or that I did not have space to include.

Because opinion is shit.  It means nothing.  Dressing it up with neat words and clever idiograms looks very scientific and compelling, but in reality it what junk thinking does to side-step real thinking.

Don't be deluded by it.


William Jones said...

I had never heard of this theory before the previous post, mostly because I am very fussy about what websites I visit.

Anyway, after reading what you wrote, I decided to look it up, and from what I can tell, it boils down to "Games are different to each other. Here are three completely arbitrary categories I have decided adequately describe all games".

It doesn't matter what those categories are, I could equally replace them with "Solo games", "Multiplayer Games where the players all meet" and "multiplayer games where the players are communicating via the internet", which sounds equally as conclusive on a cursory glance yet is equally as useless to any kind of designer or player interested in improving their game. Indeed, the categories "Flibble", "Games with red in them" and "Only Me" have just as profound an influence on the subject, which tells you everything really.

People on the internet seem to love to argue, and people love any old nonsense that reinforces their beliefs, thus how, I believe, this useless theory has gained any traction.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

While I'm familiar with the term "junk science," "junk thinking" is a new one to me.

I don't think GNS is/was supposed to be a scientific theory, just a theory: "a contemplative and rational type of abstract of generalized thinking." Edwards was trying to begin a conversation on RPG design and GNS was a starting point for the conversation. Originally it led to discussion...if it was later used as a point of argument and flame wars, well shit, that seems to be what happens with everything on the internet.

In reading his writings, I've never got the impression he was trying to preach a gospel of design, and he's acknowledged the shortcomings of the theory, which led to the more abstract Big Model theory...still nothing more than a starting point for discussion of RPG design with a shared language of abstract terms. Perhaps it's pretentious to create one's own semantics for discussion on a hobby that's so near and dear to so many participants' hearts. For myself, it never bothered me much.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You're awful forgiving of crap for crap's sake, JB.

Putting a nice dinner jacket on it doesn't make it smell any less.

The GNS theory has greatly undermined thinking rationally or realistically about role-playing. Neither you nor I have any real idea of what Edward's purpose was - because you and I are not Edwards. It is ridiculous to argue that some imagined intent or motivation you have created for him out of your own ass in any way justifies an example of POOR THINKING.

Do you really think a 'discussion' wouldn't have happened once the internet became popular? How does bullshit and misinformation at the beginning of that 'discussion' start us off on the right foot? Isn't it the height of idiocy that 16 years later you're still trying to justify his contribution NOT ON THE BASIS OF IT'S VALIDITY, but entirely upon it's moment in time. Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

Edwards would have done MORE for the 'discussion' if he had kept his fucking mouth shut.