Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Play, Flow & Blow

Okay, let's move to a subject that readers will comment upon.

Ryan Wright [a different Wright from Will Wright that I wrote about a week ago] is a game narratologist producing talks on youtube, one of which I was directed to see by Ryan Wright.  Braid is a 2008 platform and puzzle videogame, which Wright discusses in detail through the video.  I've never played the game and so I don't venture to have an opinion about it, though the premise seems a very clever one to me and I can certainly how it was a move forward for designer Jonathan Blow.  I'll be looking at Blow's work, so I may come back with something about his ideas later.

Near the beginning of his lecture (6:30), Wright talks about interpretive systems and heuristics.  I talked about heuristics in a post last year, followed by another post and another.  At the time, I concentrated on decision-making and rationalizing the motivation of players as a means to revisioning momentary gut instinct as "story-telling," but the effort did not make much of an impact.

Wright's lecture is to discuss the points of view of two philosophers, Johan Huizinga and Hans-Georg Gadamer as relating to play; I won't recount the bones of the lecture: suffice to say that Gadamer ends up laying the groundwork for the opinions of Bogost that I deconstructed at length earlier.

However, I'll quote from Gadamer just as Wright does in the lecture:
"The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itsetl in constant repetition.  The movement backward and forward is obviously so central to the definition of play, that it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.
"Play clearly represents an order in which the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself. It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose, but also without effort.  It happens, as it were, by itself.
 "... all playing is a being-played.  The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players ... The real subject of the game ... is not the player, but instead the game itself.  What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself ... [as such] play is really limited to presenting itself."

Wright then goes on to make an excellent point about the relationship between the re-presentation of play (representation) is the manner in which art is created ~ but I'll go in a different direction, specifically in reference to RPGs (Wright is, remember, lecturing about a video game).

This condition of being lost in a game is the same as any circumstance in which our own conception of time is suspended because we are entirely focused on what we're doing.  I get this sense every time that I set myself to write, whether it is a book or a blog post; I am focused completely on the task and to a large extent I "tunnel" with regards to my attention; people around me speak to one another or at me, and I fail to respond for long periods because I have to be roused out of this state.

In psychology, this is termed to be "flow", a concept which, according to Wikipedia and Mihaly Csitszentmihalyi, has been widely referenced in a variety of fields ~ so it isn't surprising that it comes up in games and in art, such as playing RPGs and having five hours go up in smoke in what seems like a subjective forty minutes, or my writing this blog post for eighty-five minutes and it feeling like ten.  I want to take a moment and list the seven flow conditions that Owen Schaffer proposed on the subject; things that cause flow: knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing how well you're doing, knowing where to go (if navigation is involved), high-perceived challenges, high-perceived skills and freedom from distraction.

Now, apply those to the game you're playing.  Do you know what you're doing as a DM?  Do you know how to do it?  Are you mindful during the game of how well you're doing?  Are you aware of how high the challenge is that you're overcoming?  Are you aware of what skills you're applying as you run?  Are you free from distraction as your game progresses?

This blog has as its mandate the desire to give you tools so you know what to do as a DM, in the sense that you have a concept of what makes a good game and what the players want ~ in effect, the function of your game.  I struggle to tell you how to do it ~ how to build the game's structure.  I tell you to be conscious of your players and of yourself, to measure yourself, in effect to develop situational awareness, which I spoke at length about in my book How to Run.  I've spoken about controlling the space where the game is played, both to give a sense of place and atmosphere, but also to create a zone that is free from distractions.  I've encouraged DMs to boot players that are distractions because it limits the capacity of the game to be good.

From those points, I hope that the individual reading the blog and the book will come to recognize the high-level of challenge and skill necessary to play this game well ~ and to recognize that one RPG campaign CAN be measured against other campaigns because there does exist such a thing as skill and difficulty involved in the playing process.

Gadamer's position that 'play' is 'flow' is fairly self-evident ~ but it deserves examination, particularly since many of us fail to get that sense of flow often in our games when we play.  We're angry with ourselves and distracted by our sense of mental clumsiness and neuroses about what the players are thinking as we're trying to sound interesting and encouraging of their involvement.  We're not able to express in clear terms what we're doing or how we're doing it.  The game's construct itself seems hopelessly confused and people are reaching for readily applicable solutions like "less rules" or "more role-play" because these things are at least comprehensible.  The actual requirement of making the game ring like a bell, or rather flow, seems impossible at times.  That is, until we experience it.

That is the key measure.  We've all played enough games, particularly of the video nature, that have induced flow, going back to when we were very tiny children.  We know what flow is, which means we know what "right" is . . . all we lack is the skill to put right into words.  We reach for non-descriptives like "fun" or "serious" because we're conveniently forgetting that there are technical, scientific terms for what are brains are doing and why.  Hell, I'm only on this track now because Wright told me to watch this video.

Okay, let's put flow and Gadamer's definition of play on the back-burner for the moment.  There's another point I want to make that comes out of Ryan Wright's lecture.

Starting at (20:00),
"Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, gave a talk titled Truth in Game Design at GDC Europe in 2011, where he discusses his design process and he makes the claim in that talk that much of Braid's design wasn't something he believed he invented, but rather was something he discovered.
" '... it was very clearly the case that more ideas came out of the design process, and ended up in the final game, than I put into it as a designer. The process of designing the gameplay for this game was more like discovering things that already exist than it was like creating something new and arbitrary.  And another way to say that is that there is an extent to which this game designed itself.'
"What we can take from this is that in a Gadamerian sense, the designer that works like this is actually creating the game by playing with its rules in his mind.  Blow approached the game less with rabid inventiveness and more with the mind of a tinkerer.  He played with a set of premises and selected ideas from that set of premises that manifested in its possibility space."

This was a terrific Archimedian moment for me ~ but just in case the gentle reader does not see what I see in the above, let me point out the more obvious first and then go where this took me.

Blow is finding, simply, that the material structure of the video game he's making is similar in function to any RPG (as it was traditionally played, without the role-playing narratology).  I give you a world, the world has a set of premises and you tinker with the world to determine what your possibilities are.  Okay, simple enough, any good RPGer will see that immediately.

But look at Blow's basic problem, not stated by Wright in this video, as he's going to other places.  Once Blow has this tinkerer's mentality, once he sees the possibilities manifesting themselves, he then has to sit down and code for hundreds of hours before anyone else can enjoy that experience.  Now, I grant that there's a lot of flow going on there, that Blow is probably happy with the time needed, though he wonders about his capacity to make his art real, as any creator does.  Yet there is this reality:

The video game code, for all its benefits, is an obstacle that has to be climbed between Blow's comprehension of the universe he's stumbled upon and the manifestation of that universe. Whereas I, playing a game of D&D, can stumble upon the idea and manifest it in the time it takes for me to explain it.

My limitation is my capacity for explaining what I think; can I explain it?  Do I know how?  Am I self-aware enough to recognize my limitations, or the limitations of my listeners?  This is a high-skill problem, a high-challenge problem.  I can think of the concept, but can I make it a part of my player's experience once I have thought of it?

But let's be real.  Blow's process of coding the video game is a diminishing necessity through the steady development of technology. After all, that's all coding is: technology.  It is the method by which we communicate our thoughts into virtual reality right now.  Coding is only important as a skill-set because this happens to be the point in history where it matters; at some future point, having the ability to code will be meaningless.

So Blow's importance as a game designer ~ and my importance, and for the reader YOUR importance ~ is in what you think, not in how you make your thoughts manifest.  Of course, you have a window in time, in which you'll have to use the tools that can be provided for you.  Game designers in the 1920s did not have your present options. You will not have the options that game designers in the 2120s have.  That's a reality you'll have to consider.

Still, there's no point in learning any of these skills if you can't get it clear in your head what your goals are, what makes a good game and how you can achieve it.  I'll keep working at my end of it, here, but you have to keep reading and watching and being mindful of what others are doing . . . else there's no hope for you.


  1. I'm glad that your conversation with Ryan bore fruit! I had a feeling you guys would connect.

    You say that the difference between RPG design and Blow's videogame design is that Blow has to implement his thinking, his logic, in the medium of code, whereas once you conceive of something and can explain it, it is ready to be part of your RPG.

    But what about all the rules which you write down, so that they are concrete, objective, and publicly visible? Is it not part of the natural life cycle of RPG content to be plucked from the DM's brain and codified?

  2. I see a different relationship between the VG designer's problem and my problem as a DM. The rules and structure for the RPG are equivalent to the rules and structure for how code works ~ not for the manner in which the rules and structure are applied. In order for Jonathan Blow to allow his "characters" to go back in time, he has to functionally encode that option into a software technological framework over a period of time, then troubleshoot the lines of code until it works out.

    As a DM, I merely have to create a supposition out of my head [say, a magic item or a sage ability] that enables the player to say, "I go back a round in time" ~ or ten rounds, whatever I feel won't challenge my game's function. Then the player can go back in time. Immediate gratification.

    In the process, like the one Blow describes, we can tinker with the effect in real time, while playing the campaign, establishing the precedent and THEN writing it down for the sake of our lacking memories [computers have us beat on memory].

  3. I don't have anything to add beyond the fact that I really enjoy these deconstruction and analysis articles almost as much as your rules tinkering ones. You make me think, which is why this and The Angry GM are the only D&D related sites I frequent.


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