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Speculative Physics

Patterns and Play

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Mar 18,2005


Patterns and Play

Last month, I talked about the relationship between play and learning. I put forward the thesis that the central purpose of playing RPGs is to learn. This month I am discussing how the patterns of content that occur during play can give rise to learning, and even give an insight into what is being learned.

Learning from Complexity

One of the intrinsic features of any kind of pattern is complexity. Some patterns are very simple, and can be easily reduced into a procedure to generate the entire thing. Usually these kinds of patterns appear ordered and structured, but after a short while will become boring and uninteresting. Once you see the procedure there is no mystery, no curiosity, the pattern is solved. On the other hand, some patterns are very complex. At the theoretical extent of that complexity is a random sequence. This can never be reduced to any procedure which determines the sequence. However the very incomprehensibility of that procedure makes it useless for interpreting and learning.

Another way to look at this sort of complexity is to look at a procedure, but in this case allow the use of randomizers. In this case, both the random and simple patterns produce very easy and uninteresting procedures. In order for us to learn and delve into a pattern is must be between these two extremes, neither random nor simple. Rather the pattern should have some guiding principles, some randomness, and be difficult to reduce to some mechanical procedure. These patterns provide healthy content for us to learn. This is why play involves the interplay of choice and either more choice or chance. Without the guiding principles, even if they come from the players themselves, the play is not interesting and doesn't facilitate learning. In essence, this intermediate complexity is what makes play fun.

How then is there play which fails, even with choices and chance? The answer comes from the fact that not everyone sees the content of play in the same way.

Views of a Point

Learning is facilitates by certain patterns in play. The interactive nature of RPGs allows these patterns to be catalyzed by player choices. If this is the case, then all players have the same goal, the intermediate complexity of play content. But difficulty comes from the fact that each player, and indeed any observers of the game, only see a portion of this content. Each has a limited amount of attention, and this is easily exceeded by depth of play. Instead of attempting to focus on everything, and finding one's self in a random sea of connections, players instead focus on types of patterns, types of content, or more esoteric slices of the full content of play.

Each player has a view, which reduces the enormous space of content into a much more manageable one. These views come in many kinds, and can be seen in effects both subtle and overt. Whether it is players paying more attention to others in their direct vision or a focus on tactical results, rather than details. These cab all be parts of a player's view. In more mathematical terms, a view is a projection of the play content into the subspace of the player's perceptions and biases.

While views can change during play, and this is in fact a very interesting and useful property, it is useful to think of them as static at the start of things. Doing so lets us describe the intent of play for each player as the establishment and maintenance intermediate of complexity within their view.

Learning from Patterns

A view is a players way to approach and enjoy play. Classifying views can be very useful, both because it is a point of similarity with several existing theories of RPG play, and because it helps foster the kinds of play people often wish to have. One way to do this, is to look at what sorts of knowledge people acquire during play.

There are several types of knowledge to consider. Some such as episodic memory and knowledge of your current situation are gained by simply being conscious. More apt is declarative knowledge is that of facts and ideas, it is in essence knowledge that pertains first to the mind, and must be applied consciously to become action. In addition, procedural knowledge is that of skills and action. Where declarative knowledge is recalled, procedure knowledge is performed.

Looking at declarative and procedural knowledge it becomes clear that one major purpose of play lies outside both of these. That is the social aspect of play, as it teaches us about our relationships with others, as well as our cultural at large. I refer to this kind of knowledge as cultural knowledge.

Declarative Knowledge: Mapping the World

Declarative knowledge lends itself well to unending sequential patterns. This is because of declarative knowledge is a knowledge of pieces, assembled like a puzzle. This process works best when each piece is introduced near other pieces of related structure or meaning. This helps to build associations. In practice this often looks like a journey through some larger space. However, the space is less important than the fact of the journey.

A declarative view is perhaps easiest to understand of the three major categories. It fits very well in the idea of valuing exploration and consistency. These are the two intermediate complexity boundaries. First, something new to prevent to low complexity requiring exploration. And second, the association between the new and the old prevents to high complexity requiring consistency. This category includes much play that is labeled as simulationist or explorative.

Procedural Knowledge: Until You Do It Right

Procedural knowledge tends towards cycles. Procedural learning usually follows a pattern of attempt followed by feedback, and once again followed by attempt. This approach focuses on a single procedure, or a group of very similar procedures. By focusing on attempts and results, strategies can be tested and approaches can be vetted. This cycle need not always be initiated by the player, the observation of a task can also helpful. What is important is the linking of the feedback, so that each attempt may be placed in context.

The procedural view is usually more focused than a declarative one. Rather than seeking broad patterns, the procedural view lends itself to changes in time. These changes can be either task attempts or task evaluations. In both cases this view latches onto the separations between each part of the cycle, switching between action and evaluation. This ensures that complexity is not too high, the difficulty of the task and the depth of the feedback provide the assurance that complexity does not drop too low. This category includes both most types of Gamism and Three-fold Dramatism, as both of these attempt a procedure, difficult in-game tasks and story creation, and seek feedback on it.

Cultural Knowledge: Who We Are

The third category is possibly the most esoteric. Cultural knowledge is also in some sense knowledge which incorporates yourself. The patterns of cultural knowledge are networks of relationships, including relationships with yourself and society at large. What distinguishes cultural networks from declarative maps is that self-referencing. This makes the cultural maps are able to evaluate normative questions (such as, "what does love mean?" and "am I cool?"), because there is always a personal reference frame within them.

The cultural view is then focused on finding these networks, and placing the player within them. In this manner everything is seen by it's relation to the player. The network may be explored, but the journey is always meant to return to a grounding with the player once again. The changes of the network, especially by exploring it, are what ensure that complexity does not go too low, while the self-reference in the network keeps the complexity from going to high. This category includes Three-way Immersionism, GNS Narrativism, and "Munchkinism".

Mix and Match

Each of these views is an archetype. Many variants exist, from a declarative view focused on life in the middle ages to a cultural point of view centering on social dominance of the group. In addition views can merge, allowing anything in either view to be enjoyed, or they may be intersected, which only allows that which satisfied both to be found. This is the difference between being interested in social dominance or historical accuracy, or wanting to have both.

Where play becomes interesting is the fact that often each player has different view of the play content. Each one is attempting to maintain that intermediate complexity, for the enjoyment of play. Each player also relies on the dynamic nature of the content, to keep things from stagnating. This dynamism comes from each player attempting to maintain intermediate complexity within a view. On the other hand the content is shared and so are the patterns.

To help everyone have fun, there are two major strategies. First, play only where every player's view shares a common ground, and keep the patterns of play mostly confined to that common ground. Second, make the patterns of play larger than any one view, and make sure that each view of the pattern considers it tolerable. The first is likely to be more reliably enjoyable, as well as easier. The second is more universal, although more difficult to achieve.

But how do we confine the patterns that appear in play? I'll discuss that next.

Next Month: Constrained by One Another

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