I recently read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Here is my review. While not generally the type of book where spoilers should be an issue, you might not want my summaries of his ideas or my (somewhat negative) take to shade your impressions if you plan on reading it yourself.
What are the big ideas?
Bogost introduces the term “playground” which he asserts is a better term for the same concept as the “magic circle” of a game. The idea is that a playground creates a boundary around the space (both physical and conceptual) in which play happens. It’s a virtual membrane that separates what’s part of play from the rest of the universe.
He makes the case that “fun” isn’t a synonym for “pleasure”; that fun isn’t “the effect of enjoyment released by a system” but is the experience of operating a system, especially operating it in a novel way.
He believes that humanity is beset by the malady “ironoia” (irony + the suffix of paranoia), an estrangement from things caused by fear of things. He asserts that the commonly suggested antidotes to irony, sincerity or earnestness, are themselves merely manifestations of ironoia.
Since his conception of fun involves interacting with things on their own terms he thinks you can have fun by interacting with almost anything, and this is the way you engage in worldfulness, which he says is better than many alternative approaches to life because it doesn’t selfishly recast everything in the universe in terms of what it can or can’t do for you emotionally the way that irony, asceticism, or mindfulness do. This worldfulness is the true opposition to ironoia.
For a book where selfishness or egocentrism are the cardinal sins of other schools of thought (like Buddhism, for example, which Bogost sees as people selfishly try to avoid suffering by reducing their sense of attachment) the writing in this book came across to me as remarkably self-involved. An anecdote about walking in a mall with his daughter becomes a parable about the nature of play, his misadventures in lawn care demonstrate how profoundly he has recast interactions with things in terms of play, his trip to WalMart… I’m not entirely sure what he wanted us to take away from his WalMart experience, but what I took away is how culturally disconnected he is from people who shop at WalMart. I found some of the writing to be nearly laugh-out-loud funny in terms of how insular it seemed, e.g.:
Now I know what you’re thinking: Does he talk about David Foster Wallace? Because David Foster Wallace must be contended with. Actually you’re probably not thinking that, but I get the impression that Ian Bogost thinks you are, and he has no plans to disappoint you. A lot of the quirks of the writing, like constantly circling back to David Foster Wallace, struck me as weirdly projecting his own hangups onto the world.
And being so inside his own head and disconnected from what other people believe is a problem, because one of his projects is busting what he perceives as public misconceptions. Some of that may be deserved, such as the sense that “fun” is shallow, carefree, and disengaged (to bust that simply take a look at a strategy gamer who is fully employing their mind in a very organized and purposeful way). But some of it is bewildering, since it’s not clear to me that he has an accurate sense of what people actually believe. His focus on “things” seemed odd to me for most of the book since components of many games are purely conceptual, e.g. the rules of the game, and have no physical embodiment or material properties. Near the end he finally explains why he’s focusing on physical things so much:
When we talk about “things,” we most often mean them as concepts or abstractions in our minds, rather than as, well, things – toasters or wind or combine harvesters. As with happiness, things become things of ours. “How are things?” you ask a friend. “I dunno,” she replies, “things are weird,” or “A strange thing happened to me on the way home,” or “The thing I like most about you is that you’re so thoughtful to ask!”
He thinks that when most people hear the word “things” they’ll think of mental abstractions rather than physical objects? On what planet? I try to be humble about projecting what I think as what “everybody” thinks since that’s a common human failing, but I’d be amazed if Bogost wasn’t the one who was out of step there.
Does it deliver on substance?
I’m not sure. There are some things the book says that seem right to me and which would probably seem novel to many, but I found myself grading Bogost’s claims as “close, but not quite” relative to some of the things I’ve been thinking myself, and I wasn’t motivated to shift my views toward anything Bogost said. Some of his claims seem insufficient enough to strike me as wrong. For example, he says “Fun comes from the attention and care you bring to something, even stupid, seemingly boring activities”. As I snarkily observed on social media, wouldn’t that hypothesis predict that filling out tax forms is fun? He also vaguely observes that embracing constraints has something to do with fun, but as any game designer should be aware not just any constraints will do, some work better than others at being fun, and it’s not a simplistic “more = better” relationship. So I think he’s getting in the right ballpark with regard to fun and play, but since he doesn’t engage with what seem to me to be obvious follow-up questions it seemed inadequate to me.
He also has a larger cultural project of combating “ironoia”. I wasn’t persuaded that he had either adequately diagnosed a problem or offered a good solution. First, his contention that irony, especially internet irony culture, is motivated by a fear of things struck me as extremely dubious. It seems to me that irony is often more about social positioning – it supplies you with an all-purpose “smart seeming” take that doesn’t put you at risk of having the wrong taste or opinion because your true position (if you have one) is obscured. That it distances you from actually engaging with things is a side-effect, not the goal. And the sense that other other people are motivated by fear can so easily be a self-serving attempt to make the speaker seem brave by comparison that we ought to be skeptical of claims of that sort, and Bogost doesn’t make an especially strong case to overcome that skepticism. Since I found his foundation so shaky I had a difficult time following many of his arguments that built on it, most of them stuck me as rhetorical rather than substantive.
Second, while he lands some good shots (it is a bit egocentric to evaluate your relationship to everything through the lens of how it makes you feel) they felt haphazard to me, like they were more about posturing than making a comprehensive case for his worldview or against the ones he criticizes. Maybe this points out a flaw in his worldview – if he’s just paying with public philosophy by seeing how the joints move when he pushes on things then there’s no guarantee that he makes the machine move in a way accomplishes anything except witnessing the machine move.
I can’t recommend this book. Perhaps others would get more out of the philosophizing than I did, or be less turned off by writing that’s emanating from within a cultural bubble, but it seems to me that everything worthwhile about this book could be gotten more effectively somewhere else. Maybe “playground” is a better term than “magic circle”? But if it is it’s not so obviously better that the switching costs seem warranted. And the idea that the world should be treated as something to be engaged with rather than escaped or endured seems like a worthwhile one, but I’d rather see a more robust and compelling case made for it.
This book came to my attention via a post by Paul Czege who seems to have a more positive take than I do:
Here are some posts the chronicle some more “real time” reactions I had as I was reading:
Here is a playtest draft of Rusty From Disuse, a roleplaying game for 3 players that chronicles the saga of a legendary weapon as it goes from hand to hand, deed to deed. The previous version went by the title “The Book of Armaments” as part of the #Threeforged RPG design challenge. In addition to the title change this version has had several minor revisions and improvements.
In the run-up to the release of Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker and in post-release reaction, “fictional positioning” became a hot topic of discussion in the indie gaming scene. Even though it was a central topic there was much confusion and miscommunication, and for many people it was unclear what “fictional positioning” was. Some of this confusion was likely caused by poor terminology choices in Forge Theory, a lack of conceptual clarity, and the assumption of a need for RPG-specific concepts and jargon which can end up making things seem more complex than necessary since they implicitly bundle in the tricky question of how RPGs differ from other games.
Let’s start by looking at the definition of Positioning from The Big Model wiki, which is the most up-to-date distillation of Forge Theory (note: at the time of this posting there’s something wrong with that website, you need to click on “view source” to actually see the content).
A Character Component. Behavioral, social, and contextual statements about a character. Formerly (and confusingly) called Metagame. See also Currency
Following the instructions, let’s see also the definition of Currency:
The relationships between the things on the character sheet.
A character sheet in a rpg is a list of Resources (things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.), Effectiveness (skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.), and Positioning (who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”)
These things are related and exchanged all the time: being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness) but trying to hit someone can use up your fatigue points (Resources). Or maybe you used up a fatigue point to roll on your “climb” ability (Effectiveness) to get on a higher ground (Positioning)
All [these] relationship and exchanges represent the currency of the game.
No matter if you are playing “freeform” or without character sheets, you still have a system, you still have characters, they still are positioned in a fiction, they still can do some things and can’t do other things, and the things they can do (Effectiveness) can change their positioning, or the other way around. There is always a Currency.
Here we encounter our first element of terminological confusion. This definition of currency is focused on a process of exchanging between various elements. However, a common usage of the word currency is to refer to a token of exchange, such as a Dollar or a Euro. Since many RPGs employ spendable tokens in their rules (which would be Resources by these definitions) it is confusing to build jargon off of a word that has an alternate domain-relevant definition. “Currency” is therefore a questionable word choice for this concept.
We also encounter another element of terminological confusion. The second paragraph suggests that Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning are things on “a character sheet”, but the fifth paragraph says these things exist even in games without character sheets. This suggests that the “character sheet” mentioned in the definition is a virtual concept that contains Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning but doesn’t necessarily correspond to the concrete character sheets that exist in many games. So, for the time being, let’s recall that these three things are bundled together in a conceptual category, and defer the question of whether “character sheet” is the best term to label that container.
By looking at the parenthetical after Positioning we see that it means ‘who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”’. If we look back to the canonical definition from earlier we can see that it’s using “statements about a character” similar to the way we might refer to “statements” in propositional logic. RPGs are a verbal medium that often involve players making statements as part of play, so this specialized usage of the term “statements” is a potential source of confusion. As the parenthetical makes clear, Positioning doesn’t concern statements about relationships, rather it concerns the relationships themselves. And looking at the kinds of relationships described we can find analogs in other games: In soccer we care about the physical position of a player on the field, as well as their position on the team, e.g. “goalkeeper”. By using the slightly unusual term “positioning” it wouldn’t be surprising if a reader assumed it was RPG-specific jargon that didn’t apply to other games, and the way the word “positioning” is used in marketing and politics might give rise to connotations that it’s about manipulatively gaining advantage (you can easily imagine that “fictional positioning” might refer to wheedling an authority figure for a discretionarily-granted advantage by using the fiction as a pretext). The term “position” doesn’t have those connotations in soccer: the relative positions of players matters in terms of who is advantaged at any given time, but “position” itself is a neutral, descriptive concept. Since harmonizing with sister fields is a conceptual and terminological virtue, let’s tentatively assume that the Big Model’s “positioning” isn’t some RPG-specific jargon but is a reference to “position”.
Now let’s look at Resources:
A Character Component: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play
Or, as the Currency section more clearly explains, “things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.”. These are concrete, measurable, spendable things. But anything that can be represented numerically is, in some sense, at a position on a number line. Resources, therefore, might be better conceptualized as a special case of position — positions that have very concrete representations and a well-defined player interface (e.g. you can spend them).
Similarly, let’s look at Effectiveness:
A [[Character Component]]: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play.
As the currency section further explains, it’s “skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.” and ‘being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness)’. The concepts may be somewhat muddled here. If this transient +1 to hit is an element of Effectiveness then it seems counterintuitive to classify it as something that might exist on a virtual character sheet; in most games that actually use character sheets it wouldn’t be represented there but would be a function of the rules interacting with the current game-state. If we separate out the two parts of this concept we can have long-term stable values like skills characteristics, and abilities, which we could call another special case of position. And we also have a concept of Effectiveness which we might describe as the potential to effect change in the game-state. This Effectiveness is normally a function that takes position as an input (including long-term stable positions like skills or abilities, spendable resource positions of things like action points or limited-use special powers, and in-fiction positions like where a character is in the world with respect to other entities — either physically like “standing behind them” or metaphorically like “his estranged son”).
And if we check back with the soccer analogy this definition of Effectiveness maps very well: A player’s ability to effect a change in the game-state (for example, scoring a point or triggering a penalty) is a function of their position on the field (things like distance from the goal and the position of intervening defenders clearly affect that), their position on the team (a goalkeeper can use their hands to perform maneuvers not allowed to other players), and other factors in the current game state (the current score and time left of the clock can be a factor in whether or not a player is capable of impacting whether their team wins or loses).
Using “position” as our basic concept also fits neatly with the term “move” which has been popularized by Vincent Baker both as a general game term (e.g. “It’s your move” or “my move is knight to king’s bishop 3” in chess, “the running back pulled off some sweet moves to dodge those tackles” in American Football, or “the alliance made a big move by throwing the challenge so they could vote out a member of their own tribe” on the Reality TV game Survivor) and as a specific game-mechanical term in the game Apocalype World. “Move” already has a semantic relationship to the concept of “changing position” in plain English.
A danger when using a chess move as an example is that the simplicity of the way we represent the change in position relative to the board can hide some of the complexity. Lots of elements can have positional relationships between them. If, instead of using the chessboard coordinates as our reference frame, we chose to represent the state of the game as a set of pairwise relationships between all of the pieces we could see that making a chess move is a more complex transformation than it initially appeared. Indeed, it’s the relationship between the pieces (i.e. which piece can take which) that feeds into evaluating the Effectiveness of a chess player’s position, so this more complex sense of position in chess isn’t merely rhetorical. Another useful analogy for changes in position having complex effects would be to use a metaphor that’s used to help explain the Einsteinian conception of gravity: a rubber sheet with heavy spheres on it. The spheres not only have positions in space, their positions also affect the shape of the space around them.
And this discursion into chess, where pieces have positions but so does the “side” which is constituted by the positions of its pieces, points out that tightly coupling these concepts to “a character” is too limiting. Anything can have a positional relationship with any other thing. For example, a player with multiple characters (such as a GM) might have a single resource that is shared between them (such as a pool of points that can be spent on extra dice or other bonuses).
So now if we begin gluing these concepts back together, we can see that “Currency” is really about understanding how the current game-state (which is made up of all the positional relationships of elements in the game) transforms from one moment to the next, it’s “System in action”. From the section on System:
A good way to look at System is that without it, characters in their settings would merely sit there frozen – once you put System into action, the Shared Imagined Space acquires ”time”, and the fictional situations in play can ”change”.
And this maps nicely to the way other games work. In chess, at any given moment the current positions of all the pieces (and a “whose turn is it?” variable) define the current game-state, the System of chess defines the way that game-state is transformed, and play is a series of transformations of those positions. At any given moment in soccer the current positions of the players, ball, score, and game-clock (and a few game-state variables like whether you’re doing a penalty procedure or the regular game, etc.) determine the game-state, the System of soccer defines the way that game-state is transformed (including the laws of physics which govern things like how a ball moves when it is kicked), and play is a series of transformations of those positions.
Thus, we may not actually need a replacement term for the ambiguity-plagued Currency since the concept it’s describing is the essence of System. Similarly, we can drop “character components” since those concepts aren’t necessarily tightly coupled to characters. We can also set aside the virtual “character sheet” since we no longer need a conceptual container for Positioning, Resources, and Effectiveness because we’ve recast Resources as a special case of Position and Effectiveness as a function that takes Position as its input.
[edit 7/24/2015] The Big Model also identifies Exploration as the core activity of roleplaying. “Experiencing a space by moving through a series of positions” is semantically tied to “exploration” in plain English, so that’s another reason to believe the tweaks presented in this blog post result in a more elegant arrangement of concepts.
On social media I’ve seen some recent RPG discussions about “player empowerment” or games that “give more power to the players”. This is especially common in discussions that involve comparing the nebulous category “Story Games” to other types of RPGs. Frequently this involves something that is difficult for a player to do in Game A being easy to do in Game B. The problem with calling this “empowerment” is that it usually maintains the expectations of Game A as the basis for comparison and fails to take into account treating Game B on its own terms.
For example, if the difference between Game A and Game B is that the scope and scale of the fictional action is simply more grandiose then the difference may be largely cosmetic. Is there a huge difference between Indiana Jones dodging a rolling boulder and Superman dodging a hurtling meteor? If we’re comparing between games, couldn’t a case be made that we should be comparing the Indy-to-Boulder relationship to the Superman-to-Meteor relationship rather than just comparing meteors to boulders or Superman to Dr. Jones?
Another way that this “empowerment” question gets discussed is when players in Game B can make any of the choices they can make in Game A, plus more. A frequent example is when games include explicit “Narrative Control” mechanics, where players can simply cause events to happen in the fictional world whether or not they are directly caused by a character they control. This is often described as having more “player power” than games where players influence the world through the actions of their characters. But, again, there’s a strange oranges to apple-cores comparison happening here: this may seem “powerful” from the perspective of D&D where such things are only the province of high-level magic like the Wish spell, but if a game is designed such that this type of action is commonplace and unremarkable, is it really “powerful” to do that? Is a Monopoly player who can acquire land from the very beginning of the game more powerful than an old-school D&D player who needs to get their character to name level before pulling off a similar feat?
Because it’s so frequently unclear what a “fair” way to compare “power” between games is I’m skeptical that it’s a useful lens for gaining insight into how games work. It seems to have a lot of rhetorical weight, though, so it gets employed frequently in RPG arguments.
Aside: I think the distinction that gets blurred when games use explicit “narrative control” or “declare a fact” mechanics can be an important one. If a game “exposes the facade” of the fiction by employing a mechanic that draws attention to the arbitrariness and artificiality of the fiction it can make it harder to use it as a shared foundation of play. Similarly, when the mechanics and procedures of a game are made to seem inconstant and ephemeral by lots of fudging or on-the-fly game design they’re also less able to serve as a shared foundation. Not all games need to use those things as the shared basis of play, but all games need some shared basis to function, and many RPGs use those.
Background: This is commentary about the topic dicussed on Narrative Control episode 80 and the ensuing discussions on social media.
Breaking things down to low level concepts, what we want to know when we playtest a game is whether the result of the design is good or not, so we can figure out the next step to take, such as taking the game back to the drawing board, finalizing the game to publish it, etc.. Drawing that in simple diagram form might look like this:
But we don’t have to leave things at this black box level, let’s peek inside the “is it good?” box. Obviously this is a complex question, but we might choose to abstractly model it as some combination of several factors, such as “Did we like the experience?” (if the answer is ‘no’ it’s probably not a fun game), “Did the actual experience match the intended experience?” (if you had a very Star Wars-like experience and you were trying to design a Star Trek-like game it’s probably not a good Star Trek game), and “Did the game run smoothly, or were there unpleasant elements like rules confusion, uncomfortable interpersonal tension, difficulty figuring out what to do next, etc.?”.
If we peek inside the playtesting box, we might think about several things that contribute to an RPG session. Obviously the particular rules, procedures, background information, etc., that make up the game being tested will be a factor. But there are other factors, too. The chemistry of the people you’re playing with certainly influences play. And of course no game exists in a vacuum, every player brings things to the table with them, such as customs, habits, or expectations built by playing other games. Also, since RPGs take place in the imaginations of the participants, pre-existing knowledge of the source material matters, too: from low-level issues like vocabulary to more complex expectations like “what an orc looks like”. Recognizing that any model will be imperfect, we might choose to model the playtest like this:
And of course, we can go inside the black box of designing a game, too. All art both builds upon what has come before and makes its own contribution, so to a greater or lesser degree any given game will be using pre-existing concepts and also bringing new ideas to the table. Some games might re-use a lot of existing concepts, such as when someone heavily leverages an existing design framework, and some games might lean more toward original material, such as a blue-sky experimental game with lots of never-before-seen mechanics and techniques.
Now that we’ve got some conceptual models to work with, let’s imagine two playtest groups so we can compare and contrast. In the first group, the designer has taken a game that his group loves playing and has hacked it to support something else they all love, Harry Potter. They have all known each other a long time, enjoy hanging out with each other even when they’re not roleplaying, and they follow an “as long as you’re having fun you’re doing it right” philosophy toward gaming.
In the second group, the designer has created a weird, new experimental game to produce roleplaying experiences similar to an obscure genre of literature that she enjoys. They’re acquaintances that don’t know each other that well, but they’ve all bonded over a mutual interest in following the rules of each game as closely as possible so they can have a unique and different experience with each game they play.
If we plug our Harry Potter Hack design into our white-box conceptual models, we can see some things:
First, we can guess that they’ll probably have a good time, because these people enjoy each other’s company. Also, because the game-under-test is a hack of a game that all the players are familiar with, odds are good that they’ll be employing a lot of pre-existing habits and expectations while they play, so they’ll probably get up to speed quickly, but might forget about or gloss over some of the new design elements. Since the game re-uses a lot of the structural elements from the base game which already functions well, they’ll probably not run into any catastrophic breakdowns. And since all of the players are very familiar with the source material, their game decisions will probably be heavily influenced by “what would be the Harry Potter thing to do?” thinking, regardless of where the particular mechanics of the game would be guiding them.
If the Harry Potter group has a fun, enjoyable experience in the playtest, what can the designer conclude? Well, it’s certainly possible that their design work was the main contributor to that, but since there are so many other strong signals that would also lead to that result it’s difficult to make that conclusion: this group might have an awesome time even if they were playing a terrible Harry Potter game as long as they could say “Wingardium Leviosa” while miming a swish-and-flick motion as they rolled their favorite dice. If the session turns out all wrong that’s probably strong evidence that there are issues with the design, though, because the other influential factors are unlikely to produce that result.
What about the group playtesting the weird experimental game?
Since the game is highly, perhaps painfully original, the group is unlikely to substitute in any pre-existing expectations from other games even if they wanted to, which they don’t because they’re deeply invested in trying to play each game on its own terms. They don’t know how these types of stories are supposed to work, so the only thing they can do is attempt to follow the rules and procedures in front of them. And they don’t know each other that well, so the pleasant experience of spending time with good friends won’t really be a factor (obviously they might become friends, but they’re not yet).
If the weird, experimental group has a fun, enjoyable experience in the playtest, that’s probably good evidence that there’s good stuff in the design. If the game doesn’t use any tried-and-true techniques, merely getting to the end without the wheels falling off is a nontrivial accomplishment, since it means that many things that could have gone wrong actually didn’t. If the session gives the correct vibe for the source material, that’s probably due to the game design, too. And if it was fun, again, there’s a good chance it’s because of the game design. Obviously these things can never be known with absolute certainty: maybe these people just have awesome chemistry together through random chance, and maybe mere luck kept the game from crashing and burning. Still, it’s evidence that didn’t refute the hypothesis “this is a good game”. What if the weird, experimental playtest session sucks? Well, it’s a bit harder to draw conclusions there. Maybe these people are just incompatible in some way and shouldn’t play together. Maybe the obscure genre is an acquired taste, and the group disliked their first experience with it but would love it if they got to know it. Maybe they’re bringing in baggage and expectations from other games despite their intentions, since their self-described gaming attitude isn’t evenly distributed across all gaming subcultures. Or maybe they’re still in the “learning curve” part of the game and they’d start having fun once some system mastery kicked in after a few sessions of experience.
Different, Not Necessarily Better or Worse
These approaches are different, but whether that means better or worse depends on what you were trying to get out of it. If the goal of the playtesting is to get the maximum amount of information about the quality of the game design, the experimental “rules as written” group is probably getting closer to that goal than the Harry Potter group. If the priority is to have as high a chance as possible of having a fun session, the Harry Potter group is more likely to get that result while the other group might have to console themselves with feelings of nobility and integrity as they go down with a sinking ship of a game design that didn’t work. (Personally, I think that it makes the most sense to prioritize playtesting for the sake of getting information about the game design, because if your goal is to have fun why not just play an existing game that’s known to work well instead of taking the risk on a playtest?)
And, naturally, the two abstract examples I described don’t represent the only two ways to do things, I selected them to illustrate the point that the way you choose to design and test a game influences the information you can get from playtests and the conclusions you can draw from the process.