Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Caillois and Creative Agenda

In the rather fraught Internet-mediated discussion of role-playing, few things are more controversial than the Forge-derived typology of the creative agendas of play--the collective orientation of players to the game, in other words--called GNS for its categories of Gamism (or "Step on Up"), Narrativism ("Story Now"), and Simulationism ("Right to Dream"). In a recent discussion, I wondered if perhaps Roger Caillois's four-fold of typology of play could be used to "reconstruct" the typology of creative agendas in a different way. The resulting discussion prompted me to write this post, in which I try to take my own advice.

Part One: Why Bother With Alternatives to GNS?

Posted By: Eero Tuovinen on Story-GamesI especially agree that while challenging the existence of CA [Creative Agenda, i.e.] seems ludicrous to me, I could well imagine alternative or even more useful descriptions of of the entire field than GNS. . . . because Creative Agenda has many parts that can be tickled better or worse by different approaches -- different techniques. I'd like to say that the best thing I get out of GNS is that once I'm able to clearly verbalize that I want to do premise-ful play or whatever, that allows me to set aside all the other vistas and focus better on the smaller nuances that were never available to me when I spent all my time trying to negotiate the big basics.

Yes, exactly. The notion that descriptions of CA like GNS should be at root pragmatic game design tools strikes me as dead on. The further implication is that, because of the multiplicity of possible agendas for play, any particular description of "why people play" or "what people get out of playing" serves a normative function as well, helping to create the culture of play it purports to describe--at least insofar as people subscribe to it as a guide to design and play. This is as clear a case of the reflexivity of knowledge as one could ever hope to encounter.

In the case of GNS, one thing that it does very well--as Eero rather astutely points out--is call attention to a mode of play that it calls "narrativism." When you think about it, you realize that this mode is actually rather obscure, a kind of play that works by having one stand in a kind of alienation or distance from the character one plays in order to more strongly appreciate the moral weight of the decisions the character makes--this in contrast to the strong identification with character that is the desideratum of immersive play and the elision of character that is the hallmark of competitive play.

One side effect of this way of slicing up the phenomenon, as people use it to explore the design space that results, is that purely gamist designs become interesting as a way of examining the negative space of narrativism--in other words, of challenging the basic assumption of narrativist play and saying, hey, what if there's no character, not really, it's all just a contest between us here at the table, via the medium of a set of rather elaborately detailed pawns. It recapitulates the hoary old narratology versus ludology debate in a new form.

But another side-effect is to make "simulationism" inexplicable, or even pathological. I remember seeing a post on Vincent Baker's blog to the effect that while he understood gamism and he understood narrativism, simulationism struck him as puerile wish fulfillment power fantasy at best. I seem to recall the subordination of simulationism in some other context having driven David Berg to distraction, given his efforts to make sense of and reclaim the term. And I think the reason for that is that once you make yourself aware of the distance between player and character, and use that as a tool in your designs, then you have a tough time with a mode of play in which minimizing or hiding that distance is a sine qua non.

So in devising an alternate set of CAs, the answer to the "why bother" question (i.e., "why bother coming up with an alternative to GNS?") has to be in order to reveal a different space for play, or to open up new possible avenues for design, or minimally to render us more sensitive to the alternatives that may exist.

Part Two: Reconstructing Creative Agendas

What follows should be read with an eye on Eero's remark that the absence of narrativism from Callois's scheme has to be attributed to the paucity of "premise-ful" modes of play in the instances of play he examined, and that were he around today he'd surely incorporate that into his scheme. In other words, our theories should be constructed in light of the empirical evidence available. On the other hand, I always assumed that the reason that Caillois identified four categories--rather than three or five, say--had something to do with the linguistic structuralism associated with the Paris School of Semiotics, in which a huge semantic space is produced by the conceptual entanglement of opposites. So a "positive" term implies (the existence of) a corresponding negative, like yes implies no. But those terms can be "entangled" as both yes and no (i.e., "maybe") and as neither yes nor no (i.e., "I don't know"). Similarly, agon (skill) implies its opposite alea (not-skill: luck or chance). And those opposites can be entangled such that "both agon and alea" can be understood to mean mimicry, as successful mimicry is at once a skillful (albeit not wholly competitive) performance as well as a willingness to subject oneself to the dictates of fortune. By the same token, ilinx is clearly "neither agon nor alea" in that the dislocations or dissociations one experiences in ilingic play obviate both skill and luck.

Now, in this post-structuralist era, we don't believe that our categories are in any way essential or fundamental; they are analytic conveniences only.

So what happens if we imagine agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx as the corners of a semiotic square? First of all, we notice that the underlying distinction in both the agon-alea and mimicry-ilinx pairs has something to do with the activity of the player; in the former, the player is active while in the latter the player is passive, in the sense that he or she is the object of the forces acting in the game, whether that’s the turn of the wheel of fortune or the elasticity of the bungee rope.

Secondly, we notice that the underlying distinction in both the agon-mimicry and the alea-ilinx pairs seems to be that the former in both instances presume the unalloyed agency of the player whereas the latter see the player as part of the field of play. In other words, whereas in both agon and alea you play the game, in both mimicry and ilinx the game plays you. You adopt a new persona, take on a new role, feel scared or excited, or otherwise lose control of yourself.

But these dualities are capable of being entangled, and we can use those entanglements to rebuild the CAs. We’ll follow Eero in suggesting that the combination of agon and alea is the Contest, in which players are interested in victory as the outcome of play. Conversely, the combination of mimicry and ilinx is Drama; players are interested in experiencing thematically resonant moments as the outcome of play. So far we’ve reconstructed the Gamism/Narrativism dichotomy in slightly different terms.

Looking at the orthogonal dimension, starting with the combination of agon and mimicry, I’d suggest that the appropriate metaphor or model is the Pageant, where players are interested in the skillful performance or faithful recreation of alternate roles. Its converse, the combination of alea and ilinx, is the Thrill Ride, in which players are willing to subject themselves to external control in return for the promise of a powerful or pleasant emotional experience. The effect of this, I’d say, is to reconstruct Simulationism as a kind of “agonistic mimicry” that stands in the same relationship to “Immersionism” as Narrativism does to Gamism.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Castle Bravo

The adventure I pitched to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press after Gencon last year is finally available as a PDF! I'm very pleased with how it turned out, and I hope people run it and tell me how it went, for good or ill.

Here's the premise: It's 1954, and you're a sailor or scientist aboard the USS Bairoko, an "escort carrier" detailed to support secret nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands. The bomb goes off in the Bikini atoll, the ship gets a light dusting of radioactive fallout, and now the crew is acting crazy, distress calls are coming in from monitoring stations around the blast site, and strange blips are showing up on the radar screens. What do you do?

The art is by Jerome Huguenin and is creepy and evocative, as I hope the example at left shows. Jerome also did the layout of the PDF, and it looks great.

I give Pelgrane Press high marks for its playtesting process; I got a huge number of detailed reports from GMs and players telling me what they liked and disliked about the adventure, and I was able to use many of their suggestions to make running it easier for the Keeper, and to improve the storyline. I revised the playtest draft extensively after running it at Dreamation in February 2010. If you played a previous version, you will not recognize the adventure; it's much more coherent as a narrative, more tightly focused as a design, and creepier as an experience while still preserving the central Lovecraftian conceit.

I think of Castle Bravo as Lovecraft meets atomic horror. I forget where I saw this--maybe the Illuminatus trilogy--but somewhere it's been pointed out that some of Lovecraft's monsters can be read as prefiguring horrors of modernity. When Azathoth is described as a "seething nuclear chaos," in other words, what else can we picture but a roiling mushroom cloud rising over ground zero? One of Castle Bravo's playtesters, a fellow named Sam Zeitlin, made a similar point. "Maybe," he said, "the real horror is the atomic bomb."

The adventure in its final form takes advantage of that insight, and I think the adventure is satisfying as a result, albeit dense. I'll run Castle Bravo at Dexcon 2010 so that anyone who is thinking about running it can see how to manage all of its moving parts; I'll record the game and make the audio available on-line as well.

Simon says he's looking for other adventures set outside the typical 1930s Trail of Cthulhu setting, so I'm working on another 1950s adventure, putting a Mythos spin on the 1952 death of occultist rocket scientist Jack Parsons. I think Cthulhu gaming is crying out for this adventure; the story is just too bizarre. A first draft should be ready for Dexcon as well, and I'm scheduled to run it at Gencon.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Civilization and the New World

Simon Rogers, the impresario behind Pelgrane Press, has challenged me to write a colonization game. The basic framework of the challenge is this:

  • It's a role-playing game, not a god game. You play a character.
  • The fate of the colony is intertwined with your actions as a character in that colony.

So I've been doing my homework. I'm not done yet, but it's been instructive. I've taken another look at Jared Diamond's Collapse, and read popular accounts of recent scholarship in pre-Columbian history, as well as some of the ethnohistory upon which those accounts draw. I'm also reading a textbook on cultural ecology. But I've also been looking at criticism of the computer game Civilization, and I’ve begun to think of my colonization game as the anti-Civilization, a post-colonial game. I want to talk a little bit about what that means, because it directly informs the game I want to write.

McKenzie Wark's Gam3r 7h3ory (later published as Gamer Theory) includes a chapter on Civilization III. Wark sees the game as exemplifying an artistry that marks a movement from the novelistic and topical (e.g., James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans) through the cinematic and topographical (e.g., John Ford's Stagecoach) to the strategic and topological. I read Wark as saying that the topical organizes itself by categories of idea and experience (i.e., the historical: these things took place) whereas the topographical emphasizes spatial configurations: this butte, that arroyo, these things took place here (i.e., the geographical). The novel is topical; the movie, topographical—more or less.

But the strategy game, according to Wark, is topological, more or less. Recall that topology is that branch of mathematics in which a coffee cup is equivalent to a doughnut because they are both toroidal (i.e., have a hole in them). Wark goes on:

Any and every space is a network of lines, pulsing with digital data, on which players act and react. In work and play, it is not the novel, not cinema, not television that offers the line within which to grasp the form of everyday life, it is the game.

So the point he's trying to make, or so I gather, is that as a genre the strategy game obviates the specificity of history and geography, extracting from them a general system of causal relations that is available for manipulation and experimentation, like a puzzle or a machine. Idea gives way to place gives way in turn to network. In Civilization, “the frontier” is simply the boundary of the system, which a la Nicholas Luhmann, seeks to extend itself to the edge of the visible environment.

Gamespace turns descriptions into a database, and storyline into navigation—an interface to line upon line of data. Sid Meier, known as a voracious reader, turns history and anthropology books into strategy game. Civilization III even comes with its own ‘Cyclopedia’, a one-eyed reference work for to a parallel world. But this is more than the remediation of old forms into new. Rather, the algorithm consumes the topographic and turns it into the topological. In the database, all description is numerical, equivalent in form. Everything within it can be related to or transformed into everything else. A new kind of symmetry operates. The navigation of the database replaces a narration via description.

The teleology of Civilization is thus one of constant expansion, incorporation, development, and progress; a panoptical cybernetics concerned with information and control. But besides being a metaphor for and instance of what Wark calls “gamespace,” the game also incorporates the ideology of American exceptionalism, an “allegorithm” of manifest destiny. As Christopher Douglas observes in the journal Postmodern Culture:

Civilization III and its predecessors posit the land as both inhabited and not inhabited by populations that seem to be on the land yet somehow, paradoxically, don't occupy it . . . Here one meets the first paradox of the American national symbolic staged by the game. American mythology has it that the Americas were essentially empty of inhabitants prior to colonization by European powers. What the Civilization series stages is the contradiction between this comforting “national fantasy” of the virgin land and the reality of the complex aboriginal societies all over the Americas.

Douglas reads the algorithms of Civilization and finds it “infused with an American ideology that is comforting insofar as it justifies genocidal practices and the stealing of land by positing an empty virgin continent that is paradoxically populated by what the game manual calls ‘minor tribes’ that can't improve the land and tame the wilderness.”

The irony is that this new genre—so postmodern, so sophisticated—exactly replicates the hoariest Victorian notions of civilizing the savages and taking up the white man’s burden. It’s not even funny, especially in the context of recent findings about pre-Columbian and early post-contact history in the Americas.

These new histories underscore the agency of native peoples in shaping the landscape in the centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans and in responding to their incursion from over the seas, as well as expanding our understanding of the diversity and complexity of the social, political, and cultural responses to the upheavals brought about by disease and dispossession. They also remind us that, at least in the earliest post-contact period, many colonies failed, by virtue of the indolence or ignorance of the colonists, the hostility of natives or other colonial powers, the indifference of backers, and similar causes.

So the game I want to write stands the ethos of Civilization on its head. Rather than seeing the New World as a virgin territory, untouched by human hands, and destined to exalted by the civilizing imperative, I want to imagine it as a site of contact between two Old Worlds, one European (and African) and the other American, a crucible without aim or end. I want it to contest rather than reinforce the myths of the American frontier, allowing us to re-imagine the New World in which we live. That would be a powerful and satisfying game.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Any Publicity Is Good Publicity

I was interested to receive this e-mail message today, reproduced below:

Hi Bill,

You may already know this, but there's a review of Ganakagok in last month's Knights of the Dinner Table (the gaming magazine/comic). The review is a good one, although the reviewer doesn't seem to have played the game. But tons of people read that comic, so good for you.

However ... the game is credited to John Harper. As if that dude didn't get enough props.

Anyway, in case you weren't aware of the review or the mis-crediting, there you go.


About Me

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.