Defining roleplaying, part 3: “impactfully” is too a word

To recap:

  • A story game is a game which explicitly allows for players to make things up about fictional characters and events, allows whatever is made up to have a meaningful impact on the point of play, and isn’t generally intended to produce instances of play for an external audience.
  • A roleplaying game is a story game which hews more or less to the traditions that produced Dungeons and Dragons.

That story-game definition is a wordier restatement of where we left off, “a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes”; despite being longer I think the new one’s clearer. “Not for theatrical purposes” was read by some as meaning “no speaking in character,” which certainly doesn’t define story gaming; the addition “instances of play” means events of a group of people playing one game one time. (We have to distinguish that from game-as-product, as in “a game of Monopoly” versus “Monopoly is a game.” Story games as products are generally intended to be seen by someone other than their creators!)

So yeah. Miss those funny circle diagrams? Me too. Fortunately, they still have a use, not as much for defining role-playing games as for talking some more about the elephant in the room: “the point of play.”

inverted open loop50/50 open loopopen loop

There we have three roleplaying games, let’s say – that is, three different instances of play, at different tables with different groups. In the one on the right, the players spend most of their time engaging with the gamey bits – the rules – and a little bit of time inserting details that the explicit rules might suggest, but don’t codify. (The black parts of the loop represent explicit rules, and the green parts represent fictive stuff.) These diagrams are really just meant to represent that, the time spent – they aren’t meant to say that every rules interaction (every trip around a feedback loop, that is) contains some made-up stuff in it.
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Comments must die

I’ve been blogging more lately, and getting some response – not here on my own domain, but on the various social networks on which I’ve been posting notices. (That’s Twitter and, to my occasional chagrin, Google+.) Now, it’d be awesome if more people owned and relied upon their own web sites to host content, it’s true. And you can only trust the cloud so far, so I’m definitely going to strive to keep and host my own copies of any really awesome things that come out of discussions.

But I am not bothered by not having local comments on Gibberish. I don’t miss them at all.

Having comments on your domain means turning it into a nightclub that takes considerable management. Not helping matters is the inherent disembodiment of an anonymous, textual medium – imagine if the hecklers in your nightclub were ghosts. The natural inhibitors that come with being physically present aren’t there to moderate people, so the moderating tactics we’re left with are more blunt, therefore more damaging to the remaining human conversation. The worst of both worlds, fighting each other. (And again… lessons here for RPGs, where everyone’s acting in an ideaspace as a fictional self that isn’t limited by the things that happen to brains when people are physically present.)

As Neven Mrgan writes in the afore-linked, some of us just want to write. Others of us just want to pretend we live in a world without comments, and have access to the tools to make that possible by hiding them all. But is that enough? We can buy ourselves distance from each other with technical capital, just like how people with monetary capital can buy houses on far-off estates; but where’s our responsibility to each other in that picture?

Brian Eno said a while back that “a more connected world is a more vulnerable world,” and he predicted that soon our societies would start to shy away from the trend of more and more connection. I think we’re at a moment where we can and must choose – voluntarily, for a goddamn change – to pull back from a social extreme and therefore stay accessible to people who aren’t a certain flavor of social extremist (see also: grognard capture).

As web analyst Paul Ford writes, the central question of the web has become “Why wasn’t I consulted?” And sometimes that’s great. But I have come to believe that other times, this harms the larger culture. I’d like to see an online world that has a wider range of answers to that central question – not just always “oh, my bad, here’s your comments thread.” Would that online world have more elitism in it? Yes, it would. It would have more of all the things that are in the real social world. But it would also remain the online world: it would connect people who otherwise aren’t connected, and thus would retain more anti-elitism than the real world. Not every point on the web needs to be a customer-service desk for that to be true. Every domain should have a customer-service desk, probably, but not everything should be one.

For example, the web page for a New York Times article should not be conferring any kind of status on the comment of just anybody who wanders by. Whatever you think of the NYT’s ideas about its own status, it does need to have those ideas, and use them. That’s what being the Times is. Lots of newspapers, and other publishers per Ford’s piece, feel a bit put upon by web culture because they’ve reified comments rather than seeing them as an instrument that has a necessary but specific use. Someone convinced them it’s not a web site unless a thread of comments is trailing off everything, like drool; they need to snap out of the trance.

Another example is feminist and anti-racist blogs, where a measure of what might look like elitism – shutting out a voice that’s popular – would help protect voices that don’t have power in the world. (That said, I can understand someone whose blog gets them regular death threats via email wanting to provide comments as a kind of pressure valve for the hate.)

Must comments die everywhere? No – I was just trolling you (another often-harmful social fact of the world, just like elitism, that must be managed for the greater good, not abolished). But no matter where or how you put things on the web, I urge you to change your comment policy this year. You don’t have to block all comments (if your blog-host-or-whatever leaves you that as the only option, I encourage you to change hosts), nor even make your policy more restrictive – just try a new form.

Reconsidering the open loop: more on defining role-playing games

I want to expand the definition of “story game” I settled on in our last episode. (For those just joining us, my definition of “story game” underpins a definition of “role-playing game,” one of which has been missing for 35 years and would be culturally advantageo– oh, just go read the post.) I’m rather pleased with the new one; it’s weaselly in all the right ways. Here goes:

  • A story game is a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes.

Why the change? Well: when Scott McCloud put forth his definition of the medium of comics in Understanding Comics, he went to considerable trouble to, as he put it, “not be so broad as to include anything which is clearly not comics.” It may be that we’re always going to have a lot of trouble doing this with story games, because they’re simply a lot more complex than comics are. In a medium made as much (or more) out of people’s minds and interpretations than out of the artifact that’s been put down on paper, maybe there’s no such thing as “clearly” or “clearly not.” On top of that, the various ways that RPG culture has built fractiousness right in from the beginning have made it even harder to choose where to draw the line. Everyone goes with their own gut, based on their own gaming experience, when choosing what needs to be included in the definition; gamer guts tend to diverge (write your own medieval-combat joke); and taking the sum of people’s guts is as unproductive as it is unfeasible.

That said, my own gut is giving me some trouble with so-called “parlor narration games.” I’ve never been happy with the term (is there any usage left of the word “parlor” that isn’t pejorative?), but it refers to games wherein rules can insert things into made-up stuff, but not so much the other way around. The common belief amongst role-playing theorists is that a game with too many parlor-narration mechanics is not a role-playing game (or a story game, by my definitions). I find myself wondering whether this distinction is productive. It feels a bit like including a piece of historical accident into what’s supposed to be a picture of the essence; like it’s a failure to fully separate form from content.
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How Twitter is like a wiki

There are Facebook people, there are Twitter people, there are even some Google+ people. I’m a Twitter person. I use the others, mostly G+, but Twitter is where I go by default for social chattering and output. It’s home.

How can I possibly defend this choice? What about all the senseless noise, the limited interface, the awkward fumbling monetization attempts, the constant obsessions with retweets and status, Justin Bieber and Trending fucking Topics?

Here’s the thing: Twitter has one feature. Facebook has at least, like, nine or ten, just at a glance on the front page. I know this isn’t really true; Twitter has larded a bunch of features on to its famous basic 140-character core. But looking at the page, you can pretend that one core feature is the only one there is. You can’t do that with Facebook, or any of the others.

I used to say that the brilliance, and the fatal flaw, of wikis was that you could do anything with them. The fatal-flaw part is that, while you can indeed do anything with a wiki, you’ll be doing it your damn self: the software isn’t there to have your back. All it has for you is the capacity to edit the page easily. The rest is up to you. If a wiki does try to assist you in any specific way, it usually fucks it up, because that approach is at odds with a wiki’s raw, elemental core.

Twitter’s the same way: you can, with some effort, maybe some third-party tools, and some settling for less, build any social-software interactions you want, just out of tweets. The whole thing is comical and faulty, but it also has a kind of elegance that speaks to my soul.

There’s a lesson here for RPGs too, if you squint.