I’ve been thinking a lot about theory. All kinds of theory: literary theory, music theory, soup theory, game theory, education theory, social theory, scientific theories…etc. etc. etc.. It occurred to me that I might not at all be thinking about theory, depending on what you mean by theory versus what I mean by theory. So I’ll break it down a bit: I’ve been thinking about the way I think about these things, and the way other people think about these things. I’ve been thinking about the way these things are explained, and the methods by which these things are done or get done…I’ve been thinking about ruling or guiding principles evident in these things. So I really mean theory not in terms of a theorem, nor in terms of something which needs to be proved or disproved, but rather in terms of methods and principles. If you will.
Maybe this is just a thinkin’ time for me; I’m not sure. But seriously; I’ll read something, and I’ll think, “what led the author to say this in this way, and what are the implications saying this in this way has on the reader…and could it have been said differently, and if it had been said differently, I wonder what the implications might have been in that circumstance on the reader. I wonder what these symbols actually *mean*, or whether they have meaning at all.” I’ve been thinking about little tiny particles, and how there’s no way at all we can know what exactly it is that they do; I’ve been thinking about particles vibrating and twisting around and folding back in on themselves through time and space. Then I start thinking about all the numbers and mathematics involved in this, and I go a bit boggle-eyed and move on to music.
So what I’ve really been thinking an awful lot about, it occurs to me now that I put this down on pape…um…screen, is game theory. Now I’ve never studied game theory (I have studied aspects of most of those other kinds of theory), but I’ve done an awful lot of gaming. I also don’t mean ‘game theory’ as in the branch of mathematics and economics which tries to define behaviour in strategic situations. I mean ‘game theory’ in terms of ‘theory about games, and gaming in particular’. But that being said, there are some similarities. There’s talk of a ‘zero sum game’, where one player or group of players succeeds at the expense of another player or group of players…and that does come in to what I’ve been thinking about. As does the idea of equilibrium.
I’ve put in a fair share of time and effort and emotional investment. I prefer, when given the choice, to participate in LARP (Live Action Role Playing, in case you’ve forgotten, which I know you haven’t). So I’ve been wondering why that is. I’ve been wondering why it is that I like a certain style of gaming, and why other people like different styles.
I was about to say ‘feel free to wander away at this point and then come back near the end’, but I’ve decided against saying that because it might give the impression that what I’m going on about isn’t important, and I think it is, because it has deeper …erm… thingies.
First. In Game Theory (big letters = the mathematical/social/biological terminology I said up there I wasn’t necessarily going to discuss), there is a distinction drawn between ‘one-player games’, which basically means a single person making decisions that, in theory, only affect their own self. And I haven’t really thought much about that, so I’m not going to talk much about it except to say that what I’ve been thinking about has much more to do with the other sort of game; the two-plus sort of game.
Infused in traditional Game Theory (which may or may not actually have to do with “games”) is this insistence that there must be a binary win-lose outcome. I find that ridiculous. Correction: I find that supposition ridiculous in terms of the games I play. Now you know that I’m a competitive person (something which I only just discovered about myself within the last few years. Duh.), and sure, when I’m playing cribbage or Sorry! or any of the multitude of board games or card games or darts games out there, or some competitive sports, I understand the basic win-lose tenet. It’s simplistic, and, in my opinion, for the most part it’s boring. The fun of those games is not in the outcome, but in the process.
Moving along to RPGs:
The win-lose outcome is now stretched…it is no longer so clear who is the winner, if there is a winner. If you get a TPK (Total Party Kill…different from a Total Buzz Kill), have you ‘lost’ the game? OR have you encountered an insurmountable force working against you that necessitates your making new characters? Is the need for making a new character a sign of ‘loss’ or ‘failure’? Or is it a new opportunity to solve the mystery/mysteries proposed by the GM (Games Master, in case you’d forgotten)? Or does it have to be one or the other? RPGs are terribly interesting because they become, if done well, a collaborative storytelling process, and if you have the right people sitting around the table (people with whom you feel comfortable enough), it does become a somewhat immersive experience.
Which is to say, when you play a game of chess, you’re not really *immersed* in the game. You might be intensely concentrating on it; you might have an intent of focus that blocks out other stimuli. But you’re not *becoming* a part of the game. You’re analysing strategy. To me, strategy analysis in RPGs is, to put it bluntly, boring. And unnecessary. There is no real ‘winning’ in RPGs, unless you’re playing in a contest or tournament. Which is why I don’t play in contests or tournaments. For me, an enjoyable gaming experience is one where I can immerse myself in the story. I do not believe that the mechanics of a game are paramount*.
Let me be clear about something: I don’t mind competition. I don’t even mind competitive storytelling, or competitive acting, or competitive improv. But competition is not what drives RPGs, in my opinion. A friend of mine once described TT (Table Top) gaming as a ‘direct competition with the GM’. I don’t think of it that way. And I think I’m paraphrasing when I say that same friend described LARP as a ‘competition against the story itself’. And this conversation included discussions of mechanics and rules and guidelines. My friend said that the rules (again, I’m paraphrasing, so I might not have the point exactly right, but I think I have the gist of it) are there to provide a framework by which players can compete in a relatively “equalised” or “normalised” environment – if everyone understands the same rules, they then understand the paramaters within which they can play the game.
To me, that’s a game’s setting. If elves can fly in my world, that’s kind of important information to know when planning a strategic retreat from a battle. If the supernatural being you’re playing in a LARP can regenerate, but only by taking the life of another human being, that’s important information to have before you play a character who’s lost his arms, legs, and buttocks seven times a year since he turned eight. Setting does not equal rules or mechanics. That’s pretty straightforward.
…but I go on, don’t I? Maybe tomorrow’s installment of ‘cenobyte’s gaming theory’ will have to do with rules and mechanics specifically.