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Article Link - Structure and Meaning in RPG Design

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Dec. 22nd, 2005 | 03:24 am

At this link here you can find an interesting article about RPGs in a somewhat scientific vein: Rebecca Borgstrom, "Structure and Meaning in Roleplaying Game Design."

I'm not really sure what Borgstrom is trying to do here, actually. She's obviously borrowing from computational and so forth models, and it sounds like also from some kind of structural or Information Theory models. But it all seems like a prolegomenon, a setup rather than a result. That is, my reaction is something like this: "Okay, so now I see sort of what your model looks like, so... so what?"

That sounds really harsh, and I don't intend that. I mean the "so what question" some teachers inflict on students (I don't, as it happens, but I'm sympathetic). You get a paper in which the student says, "I have all this great data, and it fits really well into this model, isn't that great?" Yes, it is, but what you've just done is to set up a paper yet to be written.

Let me put it like this. Borgstrom seems to me to have taken a limited data-set for RPGs (I do think, incidentally, that she ought to be clearer about how and why she limited the data in this way, but that's a passing point), then constructed (on bases a bit unclear to me, but that seems to be more a question of what I have and have not read) a model to fit the data into. She has aligned an abstract, theoretical model with a set of (partly constructed) data.

So what's the payoff? She makes these remarks about epistemology at the end, which seem to have bothered some readers; they bother me too, because I don't know what she means by "epistemology" nor in what sense this affects it.

The whole article is so short, at least by comparison to stuff in my corner of academia, that I think she ought to expand by about double. I want to see her apply this model to actual data, not a string of hypotheticals used illustratively, and I want to find out what effect this has for the interpretation of that data. And at present, anyway, I cannot even guess what that rest of the article would look like.

I suppose I'm also tired of projects like this, constructing new models ex nihilo. That's what frp.advocacy did, and Ron Edwards, and most of the Forge material, and various others. At some point we need to see them do something. Classification is a necessary preliminary to scientific understanding, perhaps, but it is not in itself much of an achievement. That was one of my objections to the Big Model, in fact: it seemed to me that you had a lot of fascination with classification and not a lot with analytical implications. Of course, that's in part because what I mean by "analytical implications" has nothing to do with game design per se, thus the fundamental divide between me and Ron.

Borgstrom does something admirable in drawing on academic models to build her structure, and I salute that. But models are built to do things, and this kind of model is (in my experience, anyway) usually intended to do analytic work. So I'd like to know what sort of results and effects this model has for analysis.

To put it simply: what questions does this model help us to ask and answer about RPGs?

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Comments {6}

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from: victorgijsbers
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 02:37 pm (UTC)

I wish I could help you in answering this question, but the paper is a mystery to me. The section called 'model' is very unclear - I'm not even sure what it is supposed to be a model OF, let alone that I understand what she means with "This paper views gaming as a computational process." (What is the input of the computational process? Certainly not, as she seems to claim, the space of possible worlds. Gaming could not possibly be something that human beings cannot do.) Also, I am very confused by what she means with the core concept of "story", which is not clearly separated from "narrative" and at one point is even defined as a "resolution" and at another as an "answer".

Then, I don't really see how the model is applied to Exalted: TFF? Is it applied? Where is the description of the computational process that is 'playing Exalted: TFF'?

So my somewhat disappointing answer to your question is: I think the model is unclear, and as yet cannot ask or answer anything.

That being said, I am not bothered by her use of 'epistemology' - the possibility of knowledge of fictional worlds seems like a perfect question for what is called 'epistemology' in analytical philosophy.

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from: chadu
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 02:59 pm (UTC)

I read part of that paper earlier this year, I think? (An earlier draft that was posted?) And felt much the same way.

Indeed, nearly everything I've ever read on RPGs theory/practice seems "off" to me to a greater or lesser degree, from Gary Alan Fine's work through Threefold through Real Men/Real Roleplayers/Real Munchkins/Real Loonies through Michelle Nephew's recent thesis through the Forge GNS/Big Model through RObin's Laws up to this one. Heck, bits of the ritual discourse paper seem off to me. . . and I've heard the same from others.

There is some sort of Papua New Guinea-esque proliferation of gaming "dialects" of play and experience that may share a lot of elements often have a lot of variation and unitelligible bits.

What I'd really love to see in a theory is something like:
"Given that the NPC opponents in this genre/setting are like X, a designer should provide some form of Y to the PCs in the rules -- this could be Z, AA, or BB. Let's look at the different effects of each. . ."

Or a game-theory statistical breakdown of ways to incorporate randomness:
"A roll-low, multi-die resolution system has X qualities...
A roll-high multi-die pool system has Y qualities...
A draw 4 card system has Z qualities..."


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from: darklordforhire
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 03:57 pm (UTC)


The sort of thing you seem to be looking for is innately dynamical. Indeed, I suspect a deep analysis in that type of theory requires setting up computational simulations and running over a large range of variables, possibly even using Monte Carlo methods. But that's not to say that such a thing isn't possible, it demands first a structure to define the dynamics of the different components you are describing.

A minor problem, for example, becomes defining what a "NPC opponent" is, not intuitively, or in such a way to fit the majority of perspectives, but in order to suit the ontology of your simulation. On another hand, the main problem is developing a precise, and sufficiently descriptive ontology for your application.

What people seem to want in the sense of a property list are underlying regularities in these dynamics. While some of those can be picked out during play, to actually demonstrate what the context dependency of a regularity may be you need the underlying dynamical structure.

Without that, the failure of a technical theory of the sort you mention comes not from our inability to answer the questions, but our inability to ask them sufficiently clearly.

- Mendel

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Jonathan Walton

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from: foreign_devilry
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)

I really got a lot out of the article, so let me try to explain why:

If the Lumpley Principle says that "system" is just the means by which the players agree on what happens, I see Rebecca's article as an effort to describe how "system" actually works, how this agreement is reached.

Thomas Robertson (lordsmerf) and I have been having these discussions about "contraint," which he was originally planning to write a Push article about. The term "constraint," in communications theory, refers to the physical and social limitations that surround a communication act which provide guidelines by which communication is possible and understandable. They are both restrictions and enablers, much like the rules in roleplaying. And this is exactly what Rebecca is talking about here.
    Each datum provided by a roleplaying game is a tradeoff between lost possibility---the stories you can no longer tell---and structure, which helps tell the stories that remain.

Actually, my paper on "Roleplaying in Practice" takes up this banner too. My purpose, in the paper, was to talk about how a disparate group of players with very different roleplaying backgrounds manage to come together and create a semi-functional experience of play. And it's all about contraint. You pick texts to base your play off of, you talk about past experiences, you talk about what you like and don't like, you share anecdotes that demonstrate your personality and tastes, and eventually you create a unique community of practice, all by adding more and more contraints to the situation until it has a general sense of focus and purpose. If the result of Rebecca's computation (i.e. play) is players being able to answer the question "what has happened?" then forming a functional roleplaying group (i.e. the overall social situation) is about the group members being able to answer the question "what are we doing?"

In any case, I think the real weakness of Rebecca's argument is here:
    ...we assume that players receive maximum fun and satisfaction when the amount of time and work spent on any given part of the story is close to some optimum defined by the players' interests.
I think there are many indications that time and pacing are important, but I don't think it's AT ALL clear that these are the main qualifications for ensuring maximum enjoyment. However, it is interesting that Rebecca has chosen to completely put aside the issue of "what happens" and claim that "how it happens" is much more important.

As for this article not really doing much yet, it's true, but Rebecca was working under a word and content limit. The article is already longer than it was supposed to be and so she wasn't really able to apply her model to anything besides Exalted, and only then in a limited way.

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from: jimhenley
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 08:56 pm (UTC)

My hazy recollection was that the earlier version of the paper gave me a better understanding of just what E:TFF itself did within her model, but I may misremember.

And I think you're strictly wrong when you complain about the centrality and pacing part of the paper, but only because the quoted sentence leaves practically everything to be answered. By which I mean: "time and work . . . close to some optimum defined by the players' interests" probably does cover everything, at the cost of leaving "work", "story", "optimum" and "interests" to be named later.

Still, I think her method has promise. Specifically, I think it could get us toward meeting Clinton's complaint that a good theory needs to answer the questions of just why the Big Games are so popular: the "time and work" of Drifting a big game to meet local goals probably makes, in many cases, for a more "efficient" experience than finding, learning or making, de novo, system and play group optimized for whatever specific skewer floats your boat.

I think if you go back to Ron's "System Does Matter" essay and ENLARGE the concepts of Search and Handling time past the resolution system specifically to the play process as a whole (collaboratively creating meaning from structure), you arrive in a surprisingly similar place.

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from: victorgijsbers
date: Dec. 23rd, 2005 11:33 am (UTC)

Each datum provided by a roleplaying game is a tradeoff between lost possibility---the stories you can no longer tell---and structure, which helps tell the stories that remain.

This may be true from a logical point of view - although then I wonder whether 'lost possibility' and 'structure' aren't simply two different names for the same thing - but surely it is not an accurate phenomenological description of gaming? I submit that it is very common that the adding of a new datum to the story (or, better, a new sentence to the narrative) opens up a space of new and unforeseen possibilities. We never have the space of all possible stories in our minds; rather, new possibilities for the story become apparent as it is told.

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