RPG Theory: Is Real vs. Fictional the most important distinction?
This will probably seem silly, but let’s compare two hypothetical games, game R and game F:
Game R is a guessing game where one player picks a real thing they can see and another player asks a series of up to twenty yes-or-no questions in an effort to guess what thing the first player picked. In game R, when the guesser asks a question the answerer uses their senses on the physical thing they picked, processes that information via the mental act of interpretation and judgment to evaluate what the answer is, and then says that answer.
Game F is a guessing game where one player imagines a kind of thing that exists in the world and another player asks a series of up to twenty yes-or-no questions in an effort to guess what thing the first player imagined. In game F, when the guesser asks a question the answerer takes the information stored in their imagination, processes that information via the mental act of interpretation and judgment to evaluate what the answer is, and then says that answer.
In both games, it’s possible to give bad answers if the answerer is bad at mentally comparing things. If they have an unrealistic estimate of the size of breadboxes, maybe they’ll give an answer to the question “is it bigger than a breadbox?” that unintentionally misleads the guesser.
In game F, it’s possible to cheat! Maybe the answerer will claim to imagine an object but then answer the guesser’s questions arbitrarily and then imagine their thing to retroactively conform to their answers. Maybe they’ll even imagine something and then change the thing they’re imagining to conform with the answer they want to give rather than answer the question based on the thing they’ve been consistently imagining.
In game R, it’s also possible to cheat! Maybe the answerer will claim to pick a real object but then answer the guesser’s questions arbitrarily and then pick their real thing to retroactively conform to their answers. Maybe they’ll even pick something and then change the thing they’ve picked to conform with the answer they want to give rather than answer the question based on the thing they’ve consistently been using as a basis.
Both games expect that the answering player will use a reliable, consistent, predictable, understandable process when evaluating the answers to the questions. If the answering player cheats and uses a different method to answer the questions then the game doesn’t work. Since the choice of possible target objects in game R is limited to things that the answerer can see, their ability to cheat in this way is more tightly constrained than the answerer in game F. Solving a highly constrained problem frequently takes more effort than solving a loosely constrained problem, so we can assume that it generally takes more effort to cheat in game R than in game F. There is natural variation among humans, and some may perform a cost/benefit analysis and be more likely to cheat in low-effort-cheating situations. In game R it is extremely unlikely for the real object to spontaneously transform itself mid-game into a different real object. In game F, the likelihood of the imagined object transforming into a different imagined object is based on the likelihood that the answerer will cheat.
In game F, it’s possible for the answerer to give bad answers because they’re bad at imagining things. Maybe they think elephants are smaller than they really are, so they end up giving answers that are accurate with respect to their small imagined elephant but are inaccurate with respect to real elephants, which would unintentionally mislead the guesser. In game R, it’s possible for the answerer to give bad answers because they’re bad at perceiving things. Maybe they misjudge the distance to the object and believe that the object is smaller than it really is due to the size-distorting effects of perspective. It’s probably reasonable to guess that “bad imagination” problems are more likely among humans than “bad perception” problems.
Is it valuable to say that game R and game F are categorically different games, where game F is a game with fiction and game R is a game with real stuff? For example, the increased likelihood of cheating in game F and the higher odds of incorrect imagination may mean there are important “reliability” differences between the games. Or are game R and game F largely similar, and the real-vs-fictional divide between them is a nuance rather than a meaningful distinction? When discussing games, sometimes that real-vs-fictional distinction can be central and important, and sometimes it’s a useful proxy for discussing consequences of the distinction, but it can also be an obscuring distraction in some contexts (e.g. the most interesting distinctions between RPGs and chess is not always that chess uses real-world playing pieces).