Friday, September 14, 2018

7th Class: Subjectivity and Objectivity

Following up on our last class discussing the five steps of learning, we looked at Hubert and Stuart Dreyfuss' discussion of mistakes and learning from them.  As a part of that, I spoke on the need to reflect upon the decisions we make as DMs, evaluating the effectiveness and the rightness of those decisions, "without assuming our [original] judgment was correct."

Before continuing, we will need to look at what it means to reflect upon actions that we've taken, or upon anything else that we may not fully understand.  This process is called "critical thinking" and is a fundamental principle of all scholarship and knowledge.  But while it has been seen as a primary skill in learning anything, there is much doubt at present that critical thinking is something that can taught.  In Daniel T. Willingham's seminal work on Critical thinking, he asks and answers the question,
"Can critical thinking acually be taught?  Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.  People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking it not that sort of skill."

We should find this interesting.  Suppose we want to progress an individual ~ we'll call him Jim ~ from competency to proficiency as a DM. We cannot, as demonstated, teach Jim how to think critically, and then apply that critical thinking skill to role-playing games so that he becomes a more adept role-player.  Thus we are left to ask, what can we do?

We can explain to Jim that, from the time that he was a novice, that most of his "knowledge" came from things that he perceived as he experienced the game being played, as well as his emotional responses to that play, and finally to his imagination ~ the set of things that were not concretely real, but that he added personally to the game's play as an augmentation to his direct experiences.  We all do this.  It is our biological nature to take information gained from our senses and our responses, and transform that information into "common sense" axioms, even before we've ceased being a novice.

Let's take an example.  In our second class, I listed a series of things that a DM or Player might research as a means of preparing to play the game better.  One of the things on that list was (d) solving problems related to group dynamics, by asking questions of the players to determine how best to get a disparate and unique group to work together.

Suppose Jim, as a Novice, begins asking such questions.  When Jim receives answers, he naturally hears the words and reads the faces of the players, then "feels" something about what was said, and finally creates an answer from his imagination.  Because he is a Novice at the game, these are the only skills he brings himself ... and it can be seen fairly quickly how Jim is going to get himself into trouble.

Jim has little to no experience at all with the game, so when he is surrounded by Players and a DM, he is out of his element.  He will tend to make the same personal judgments about a Player's motivation in the game as he would about any person acting in any other circumstance.  Likewise, his feelings about what is said will be the same feelings that he might apply to a person's behaviour in the workplace, or at a bar, or while walking down the street.  Seeing someone get overly excited about, say, a pile of imaginary gold pieces, might cause him to have very different feelings about the experience than a long-time player would.  And when applying his imagination to what his feelings mean, or what his senses tell him, he would likely jump to conclusions that an experienced player would never entertain.

Jim might be the sort of person, with the sort of background, that enables him to "get it" instantly.  I did.  But he might just as easily not be ~ and thus we can understand why many people who first encounter a description of the game are ready to turn up their nose and move off.

Let's say, however, that whether through instinct, or through a willingness to experience more play, Jim acquires that set of conventions that lets him expand his outlook.  Yet as he progresses from Novice to Advanced Beginniner, we should understand that most decisions he will make about which conventions can be ignored, and what parts of the game need to be changed, will be based on his perceptions, his feelings and his imagination.

While very important to our make-up as human beings, we have to understand that these things are not knowledge.  They are beliefs.  They are a subjective judgment about things ~ and while these judgments have value to the individual, we further recognize that all persons have these judgments based on their own personal beliefs, which are therefore different from one another.

Reaching a consensus about subjective beliefs is far, far different from reaching a consensus about knowledge.  When Jim says, "My pencil is broken," this is a demonstrable fact that witnesses can examine and identify for themselves.  Unless the pencil is sharpened, it has no value as a pencil.  But when Jim says, "I don't like the way this pencil feels in my hand," there is no consensus on the pencil's value.  Jim is still able to write with is, as is everyone else; and each person will have their own personal take on the value of the pencil, none of which can be identified as a factual value.

When Advanced Beginners set out to alter and adjust an existing set of conventions, they appear to be doing so based on what they would describe as their experiential knowledge ... but it is, in fact, a personal set of values based on what parts of the game matter specifically to those persons.  Jim decides to change the rules surrounding, say, Alignment, because he doesn't like Alignment, not because the conventions around Alignment are necessarily ineffective.  Jim is not learning more about Alignment and how it works in the game; Jim is learning that he can change parts of the game in order to suit his whims.

This is not how Jim would describe it, however.  From Jim's perspective, these changes are "necessary."  It is "clear" that without the changes, an "improved" game wouldn't be possible.  Jim is still describing a pencil that doesn't feel right in his hand.  His explanations for the change are not grounded in demonstrable facts; others must take his word, relying solely on his subjective opinion (or coincidentally, on their own), if they are to agree with Jim.  Neither Jim nor those who agree with him can point to a set of facts that would convince everyone to plainly see that Alignment is ineffective as a game mechanic.

The alternative position to judging something subjectively is to judge it objectively.  Objective reasoning argues that something is true only if it is universally true ~ that is, everyone is subject to that truth even if they can't perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it.  Objective truths, or facts, arise from investigation that can then be proven by methods that are indisputable.  If there were something evident about Alignment that caused every person experimenting with it to observe the same reactions, experience the same responses from players, and note the same patterns of behaviour in accordance with Alignment, we would soon develop a convention that would be imposed on nearly every game: don't play with alignment.  I say "nearly every game" because even when confronted with facts, some people stubbornly persist at things.

Suppose Jim continues to play his games in a subjective manner, becoming a DM with the certain feeling that every value he has in playing the game is the "right" value.  As he becomes competent, he will rigidly close down every option of play that he finds personally in conflict with his sense of right and wrong.  This rigidity will steadily, with experience, remove all options from the manner in which he plays ... in which case, whenever he plays, there will always seem to be one clear and perfect option, no matter what has to be decided.

Because this bears a similarity to the Expert described in our last class, who does not make a decision among multiple options, as a Proficient Player would, it is probable that Jim will begin to self-describe himself as an expert.  Like an expert, he sees a problem, he understands immediately what he must do to address the problem, and he solves it.  Except that he does not solve the problem for anyone else. He only solves the problem for Jim.

Dreyfus is quite clear on this point.  Expertise is gained first by fully understanding the whole panoply of options that potentially exist: playing the game with or without alignment, and a myriad of splintering degrees to which alignment in all its possible forms might be structured in order to give the best possible repeatable result for the greatest number of persons.  That is the fundamental of social science, where absolute facts are difficult because of the complexity of human beings (as opposed to pencils).  It is only with great awareness of the various possibilities that the Expert emerges from Proficiency.

Rather than attempting to reason our way through our games with "critical thinking," we need to understand constantly that whatever we believe, whatever methods we use right now to run our games, whatever effectiveness we may have had in the past with our foregoing strategies, we are still in the wrong about something.  The fact that we can perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it, is immaterial.  We know we are in the wrong because we haven't yet shown everyone else in the world how we are right enough to be followed exactly in our behaviour.

Being in the wrong is not a bad thing.  It is a good thing.  It means constantly and vigilantly looking for the value we hold, that we are wrong about.  We don't tire of looking because, first, we know it exists, and second, because diligent searching has found wrong things about our values in the past.

We're just not always willing to accept being wrong, even when we change to account for it.

With our next class, we'll try to evaluate some of the ways that Novices can employ to adjust their games in an objective manner.


1 comment:

James said...

I think this summarizes nicely why I consider myself "competent," and not an "expert." I simply lack the experience to know if my opinions would hold for a group I was unfamiliar with.

Mostly, I want to say I enjoy this post, and the series.

I have some experience in social sciences (my advisor in college wanted me to follow in her footsteps and be a social psychologist), but I declined for multiple reasons, both good and poor. Reading this and diving in reminds me what I liked about it so much.