Role, Play, and Gameby Mendel Schmiedekamp
Role, Play, and Gameby Mendel Schmiedekamp
Role, Play, and Game
For the past few columns I have been presenting different lenses to view role-playing games. Most of these have been fairly technical. This month I wish to present one more, which is less technical, but far more implicit to what we do when we play role-playing games. To motivate this, however, we first need to look at what a role-playing game is.
Changing of Perception
A role-playing game is not just the sum of its parts. And the term itself has been argued for and against for a long time. But it has persisted, even grown far from its origin. Perhaps this means there is some truth in it, for all its frailties. To start with, lets look at the pieces.
First, a role-playing game is a game. This is not to say that it is always a mathematical game. Rather in the looser sense of the word, a game is a structure. It constrains what is possible. But it does not prescribe what can happen.
We then take these constraints and then require them to be viable, to be played. And from here we get to the roles, the actual fictional content of the game, all derived from the constraints of setting and system given us by the game.
Unfortunately this approach doesn't give us one important things. It doesn't tell us anything about why we play, because it doesn't really tell us anything about play. Play is just something we skip through to get from game to roles. But play is what we are doing, while the roles and the games are just how we do it. But to see it that way we need to look at it a bit differently.
Roles: Content of Play
First, we start with the roles. This is the content of a role-playing game, both before, during, and after play. In essence this is the thing of role-playing, the stories, strategies, and discoveries. Content itself has an inherent dynamic, players add and remove content all the time but the pieces are attached to each other, one leads to the next. Each player can bring in new content from the past or from books, or just references that the other players know in their popular culture.
Content is the meat of the game, and as players (and by this I include the GM, or what have you) we spend most of our time adding to this mix. But content is very broad, it has many different interpretations. A player can add a piece of content, for example a beggar, for a variety of reasons. It could be a because she thinks a beggar makes sense in a crowded city. It could be because she wants to spark some activity in the other players. It could be because the beggar is a clue to some mystery. It could be because the beggar is someone in disguise. Content changes based on these reasons.
In this way content even includes some things we leave behind in our recollections. Things like facial expressions, and hinting, to help the other players realize that the beggar is important and not just window dressing. It includes agreements not to play elves, or only to play them. It is both social and imagined, and mixes the two with abandon. But regardless of the pieces of content, what is most important is the dynamics of it. A beggar who becomes a king means far more than a beggar and a king. But how do we assign that meaning, and why do we choose it? To answer this we must take a closer look at play.
Play: Why We Do It
People play. We play all the time, and we do so instinctively. Anthropologists tell us that the major reasons we play are to learn and to build social connections. I would even argue that building social connections is a form of learning in its own right. The purpose of play, while it may not be apparent to us as we do it, is then about learning.
The question then is not, do we learn in role-playing games, but rather what are we trying to learn when we play a role-playing game? There are many possible answers. The way that content changes is the guide to it however. Play involves reinforcement, those dynamics that persist are those that we strive to learn.
Often the danger of analyzing role-playing games is that everything comes down to "fun". This is a useless term, because it is essentially saying that you wish to maximize your pleasure. And that which maximizes your pleasure, which causes fun is precisely that which causes fun, and cannot be broken down any further. But if the purpose of play is to learn, even at an unconscious level, then we can break down role-playing games, and start to understand why they work and why we play the way we do.
Game: Rules of Play
The dynamics of play are not simply random things, they follow patterns, reliable structures. These structures are driven by two things: the goals of play and the maintenance of the game. The former is focused on learning, reinforcing the patterns we wish to understand and acquire. The later is based on the requirements of a social structure, helping to maintain the structure of play, so that learning can continue.
Because of these dynamics, constraints are build, defining what can and what cannot happen. Sometimes these are constraints taken from content, such as a book or a past solution to a disagreement. Other times they are subtle, present only in the change of social structures and credibility. Either way these are the rules of the game, not because they are definite or known, but because they are followed.
Understanding these constraints is the goal of design. We should strive to not only produce rules, but to understand which ones work, which ones don't but cause things to work out anyway, and which ones simply cause problems. It is humbling as a designer to know that ultimately the true rules of the game aren't found in our book, but rather as an ever-changing consensus among the players.
Stringing It Together
What I've presented here is a very different way to look at role-playing games. There is more. This is just a loose development of a dynamic view of role-playing. Content is added to the communal pot, it is driven by each player's goals of play, and finally from this interaction arise constraints, which become the game, not as written, but as played. Next time we'll go even deeper.Next Month: Patterns and Play