Book Review: Play Anything by Ian Bogost


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.

*The Writing*
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.

*Overall Assessment*
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:

Terrible Writing in DC’s New 52


I’ve never been a big comic book reader, but it’s a big part of geek culture so when DC Comics did their big reboot/reset/renumbering/whatever with the New 52 I decided to look into it to see if it’s something I’d enjoy. My conclusion so far is that the writing in these books is pretty terrible. Here’s an example from Green Lantern #3: Sinestro (the red guy) is trying to enlist the aid of Hal Jordan to help solve a problem on the planet of Korugar, but Hal wants to resolve some issues in his personal life first:

Conflict! Hal wants to wait, but Sinestro believes that they can’t wait a single second. After some more character stuff, Hal eventually gives in an flies off to Korugar with Sinestro. And what is step 1 of this plan that couldn’t be delayed for a second?

Yes, that’s right: wait until sunset. It’s a good thing they got started on this “do nothing for a while” plan right away, thus averting the needless suffering that any delay would have caused! In order to manufacture conflict the writer has abandoned any pretense of continuity of motivation. At first we were led to believe Sinestro disagreed with Hal because Sinestro is the kind of guy who sacrifices anything for his greater goals. Now we see that this couldn’t possibly have been the reason, so we have to retroactively conclude that he’s just petty and obnoxious, and not a character we should take seriously. The entire comic book business model seems to be based on audience attachment to the characters, so undermining the characters in pursuit of false drama seems like a poor choice for a comic book writer to make.

This is just one example. While there are occasional fun moments in some of the other books I’ve read, most of them seem to be long periods of nothing happening punctuated by short periods where the visual storytelling is so muddled that I can’t tell what’s happening. Additionally, even though the New 52 is supposed to be a “jumping on point” for new readers, many of the storylines involve fallout from events that took place before issue 1. They’ll frequently name-drop characters for dramatic effect without laying the groundwork in the current series, guaranteeing that the drama only works for long-time fans. Several of the storylines started in medias res where the writers seemed to be using the frantic pace and unanswered questions as a way of building reader engagement, but they don’t seem to realize that this approach to storytelling is at odds with getting invested in the characters, which means that killing one of them off has little dramatic payoff. Maybe I’ve just been looking at the wrong books, but I’m hard pressed to think of any instances where the writing impressed me. My overall conclusion is that the writing in these books is bad.


Compliance Techniques and RPG Design 6


Continuing my series about the commonalities between RPG design patterns (an RPG’s system is the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play) and the ideas presented in Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (certain human behavior patterns can be leveraged to get people to agree to things), I next want to talk about scarcity. Humans have an instinct that things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, so we often subconsciously use how difficult something is to attain as a way to determine its value. Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited, and we will agree to them more readily.

The classic sales techniques for exploiting this tendency is to limit the availability of products, either in quantity (“Act now! Supplies are limited!”) or by a deadline (“Exclusive opportunity! Buy while you can!”). An example of this in RPGs is filtering actions through an initiative order. When operating in an unstructured “free play” mode, some players will be content to let their characters be relatively inactive and allow other players to determine the course of the game. When the game switches to a more structured form with turn-taking, such as D&D combat, each player will feel compelled to have their character do something on their turn rather than let the opportunity slip through their fingers.

Cialdini also points out that people are more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value, and that being prevented from doing something feels like a loss of freedom. This relates to the psychological concept of reactance: when our choices are limited or threatened, our desire to retain our choices makes us desire those things more. Basically, it’s the forbidden fruit effect. Cialdini offers an interesting illustration:

Dade County, Florida, imposed an antiphosphate ordinance prohibiting the use – and possession! – of laundry or cleaning products containing phosphastes. … Spurred by the tendency to want what they could no longer have, the majority of Miami consumers came to see phosphate cleaners as better products than before. Compared to Tampa residents, who were not affected by the Dade County ordinance, the citizens of Miami rated phosphate detergents as gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners and fresheners, more powerful on stains. After passage of the law, they had even come to believe that phosphate detergents poured more easily than did the Tampa customers.

In studies, they’ve also determined that telling students a speech on a particular topic has been banned makes them more likely to agree with the position advocated in the speech, even if they haven’t actually heard it. There are also indications that courtroom instructions by judges to disregard inadmissible evidence can paradoxically cause juries to weigh that evidence more strongly than they otherwise would. An RPG example of leveraging this effect might be exceptions-based designs: players are often eager to agree to have their characters use powers that let them do things that would otherwise be forbidden by the rules. Putting those powers into an advancement system so that you can only access them after “levelling up” can make them seem even more appealing, encouraging players to accept their use in the game.

Cialdini also describes a “commodity theory” analysis of persuasion – exclusive information is apparently more persuasive than commonly available information. When customers are told that a certain item will soon become scarce they tend to purchase more. When told that this future scarcity information isn’t well known, they’ll buy a lot more. I haven’t seen this technique used in many RPGs, but I believe that some games use secret information to encourage players to accept the idea of their characters acting in ways that they normally wouldn’t, such as with the secret agendas in Cold City.

Psychologists have also determined that something moving from abundance to scarcity seems more attractive than something that is always scarce. This explains the observation that inconsistent discipline tends to produces greater rebelliousness in children – when a rule is freshly applied when it wasn’t before it feels like a new curtailment of freedom, making the forbidden activity all the more appealing. The stat highlighting in Apocalypse World may be exploiting the way that people react to a loss of abundance: since players can expect their highlighted stat to shift from session to session they are motivated to agree to character actions that use the highlighted stat as often as they can while they have the opportunity to do so, knowing that they may not be able to get experience for using those stats in the next session. (The fact that different players will have differently highlighted stats during a session is also a pretty interesting facet of the design, since it showcases for each player things they can’t get experience for).

Experiments have demonstrated that scarcity coming from social demand is more desirable than scarcity for other reasons, such as arbitrary limits on supply. In an example from compliance professionals, realtors will often get fence-sitters to make an offer by suggesting that well-financed outsider is considering the house. RPGs that offer limited opportunities for a subset of players to take an action, such as Mouse Guard‘s “the first player to step forward makes the roll” rule, can make taking action seem more acceptable. Compliance professionals also exploit the momentum that can build up when people try to acquire scarce resources. Like fishermen chumming waters to start a feeding frenzy, department stores will seed sales with highly attractive (but limited) loss-leaders so that people will get excited about buying and also acquire the more conventionally priced items. The equipment selection phase of InSpectres works like this – people get so excited about easily acquiring gear that they forget to constrain their requests to things their character is good at, increasing the likelihood of saddling themselves with comically poor gear as a result of a low die roll.

This post covers the last substantive chapter of Cialdini’s book, but I don’t feel like I’ve fully exhausted what I have to say on the topic. Some ideas I’ve had are to create a final summary post to list the various techniques in a more abbreviated form, to go in-depth and analyze the mechanics of a game like Apocalypse World or Dogs in the Vineyard to see which techniques are used in the design, or to talk about some mechanical design ideas that this analysis has inspired for me that I haven’t seen used in games before. Some of those ideas might take quite a bit of time or effort, however.


Compliance Techniques and RPG Design 5


As another entry in my series about the commonalities between RPG design patterns (an RPG’s system is the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play) and the ideas presented in Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (certain human behavior patterns can be leveraged to get people to agree to things), I next want to talk about authority. Humans have an innate predisposition to obey authority figures. The extent to which people will set aside their own judgment in deference to authority figures can be amazing, such as in the famous Milgram experiments. It can be tempting to jump to disparaging conclusions about people’s response to authority (“Those sheeple are so weak-minded!”) but I think it’s more useful to try to understand behavior patterns without trying to saddle them with value judgments. After all, as with many human behavior patterns, deference to authority figures is often the right thing to do (people in a burning building should listen to the firefighter, people in a courtroom should listen to the judge) but it also means that clever manipulators can leverage the tendency to get people to do things. Authority is obviously a big deal in RPG design circles – many innovative games have come from examining how authority can be parceled out.

In addition to actual authority, people have a tendency to respond to the appearance of authority, which is often much easier to manipulate. Having a prestigious title, for example, can cause people to agree to what you want. For example, researchers have found an alarmingly high willingness for nurses to carry out medical orders from people who say they are doctors (even if the person is unfamiliar to the nurse, and even if the orders seem to be self-evidently inappropriate or dangerous for patients). Con artists frequently portray themselves as people with prestigious titles in order to get their marks to comply. RPGs, of course, have a long history of given certain players titles like Game Master, Storyteller, or Keeper. These players are often the ones who generate fiction that the other players might be inclined to reject (“a monster attacks you!”), so the special title helps get the rest of the players to accept their contributions.

Compliance professionals often use clothing to give themselves the appearance of authority. Con artists love things like uniforms or doctor’s coats, for example. Researchers have demonstrated the people are more likely to obey requests coming from someone dressed like a security guard than from someone in normal clothes, regardless of the type of request. They’ve also shown that people waiting on a crosswalk are more likely to follow a pedestrian crossing against the light if he’s wearing a business suit than if he’s wearing work clothes. I’m not aware of any tabletop RPGs that explicitly ask the players to dress in a particular way, but costumes are common in LARPs, and dressing in something genre-appropriate is sometimes recommended as a GMing technique for gaming conventions.

The trappings of authority can also get people to be more compliant. In an interesting experiment, researchers tested how long it would take people to honk their horns at cars in front of them that stayed stopped at a green light. The delay before honking was much longer if the stopped car was a luxury car than for an older economy model. Many games provide special GM-only accoutrements like GM screens or specialized rulebooks, which may help make the GM’s contributions more acceptable to the other players.

As a type of authority figure, people tend to defer to experts. Although it’s usually not formalized, rules expertise frequently confers increased ability to have one’s contributions accepted in RPGs. For example, many players of traditional games expect GMs (who need to have lots of their contributions accepted for many of these game to function) to also have the greatest rules expertise. Researchers have also found that a perception of impartiality increases people’s tendency to accept the word of experts. In an RPG context, that may mean that games that place players in an impartial role more likely to have their fictional contributions accepted than in actively adversarial roles. In Rob Bohl’s Misspent Youth, for example, the Authority player doesn’t make any mechanical choices at the expense of the other players (the game system dictates them), but roleplays the embodiment of the things that the actual human players hate about real-world authority. The impartiality of the role (and the title of Authority) helps the other players accept these otherwise unwelcome elements into the fiction of the game.

Although a lot of my examples have been about GMs, I think that’s simply an artifact of there being a longer history of RPGs that use GMs from which I’ve drawn the examples. Understanding the human responses to authority ought to have plenty of applications in designing many player interactions, not just across the common GM/player divide.

Compliance Techniques and RPG Design 4


Continuing my series about the commonalities between RPG design patterns (an RPG’s system is the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play) and the ideas presented in Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (certain human behavior patterns can be leveraged to get people to agree to things), I next want to talk about liking. Cialdini talks about the seemingly uncontroversial idea that we most prefer to say “yes” to the requests of someone we know and like. Most games are played with friends, so all RPGs probably rely on this general principle to some degree.

“Compliance professionals” have figured out some interesting ways to leverage this idea even when they don’t start as the target’s friends. For example, Tupperware has built an entire business model that leverages existing relationships: at a Tupperware party people buy because they know that the hostess – a friend! – gets a cut of the take. Another example is an effective sales strategy: a salesperson gets prospect X to admit to liking a product and then gets X to offer up name of a friend, Y. The salesperson says to Y, “X suggested I talk to you about this product.” Y finds it hard to turn the salesperson away, since it would feel like rejecting friend X, even though X might not care at all if Y buys the product.

Several factors contribute to liking someone. One factor, whether we like to admit it or not, is that we tend to like people who are physically attractive. Researchers have found that physical attractiveness has a halo effect: we automatically assign to good-looking individuals positive traits like talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence. Most of us aren’t aware that this is happening – even in experiments where physical attractiveness has a measurable effect most of the subjects deny that physical appearance has much impact on their decisions. RPG designers can’t generally control for the physical appearance of the participants (although it does potentially raise some interesting questions about LARP design), but I would guess that having attractive game components like miniatures can play a similar role in increasing players’ willingness to accept things into the fiction. Although the research presented in the book tends to focus on the visually appealing, I imagine that any “attractive” feature ought to have a similar effect. Good in-character acting or the “funny voices” school of GMing, for example, may have halo effects – if a player is regarded as a talented performer they may also have other positive traits unconsciously assigned to them like sound storytelling sensibilities. Games that encourage acting in character may be using this effect.

Another element that contributes to liking is similarity. For example, researchers have demonstrated that we are more likely to agree to do things for people who dress similarly to us. When examining trade-ins, car salesmen often try to find evidence of the customer’s interests or background to be able to claim similar interests or background because this makes customers more likely to agree to the salesman’s offer. RPGs that define particular character traits as choices from limited lists may be (unwittingly?) benefiting by offering easy points of similarity – players may be more inclined to accept contributions from “the other elf” or “the other lawful character”.

Cialdini points out that we tend to like people who seem to like us. Compliments, even when coming from someone who obviously has something to gain by flattering us, seem to improve our reactions to the complimenter. Although sometimes maligned, many RPGs feature “good roleplaying awards”, which are essentially mechanized compliments. One interesting peer-based “I liked that” system which is widely praised is the fan-mail system in Primetime Adventures. While most people focus on the overt “do more of that” message of fan-mail, the recipient of fan-mail almost certainly also experiences appreciation for the giver, and is therefore more likely to accept the giver’s future contributions.

Even without some other feature that makes someone especially likeable, continued contact with anybody seems to have an effect. The more frequently we encounter someone the more we like them, and the more we are likely to agree with what they want. Many RPGs stress long-term campaign play, perhaps leveraging this effect. There is a caveat, however: continued exposure to a person or object under unpleasant conditions such as frustration, conflict, or competition leads to less liking. Cooperative interactions seem to be the key. As an example from the “compliance professional” world, police officers who use the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine are relying on the seemingly cooperative relationship formed between the suspect and the Good Cop in order to get the suspect to offer the confession the Good Cop wants. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most popular long-term RPGs are strongly cooperative.

Since humans, like Pavlov’s dogs, are also subject to the principles of conditioning and association it turns out you don’t even need to like the people asking you for something as long as they can associate themselves with something you do like. For example, researchers have demonstrated that people tend to become fonder of the people, things, and ideas they experience while eating (there are a few games out there that put the idea of eating while playing directly into the rules). Licensed RPGs almost certainly leverage this effect – being attacked by a monster you remember from your favorite novel series is usually far more palatable that being attacked by a monster you’ve never heard of before. Cthulhu RPG players, for example, seem content to have all manner of horrible things afflict their characters in the process of celebrating their mythos fandom.

Cialdini also explains that feelings of association tend to be strongest when the association is with something positive. For example, when sports fans discuss the performance of their favorite teams they’ll often characterize a victory as “we won” but a defeat as “they lost”. In RPGs, this association-with-positivity effect might have an impact on Burning Wheel‘s helping dice mechanic: success is more likely when you are helped, so you are likely to build positive associations with those that help you. Researchers have also shown that the desire to “bask in reflected glory” is strongest when prestige (public and private) is low, because we feel a need to help restore our image. This might explain why players can resent “kill-stealing” when their character is doing well but will cheer with delight when another player strikes the killing blow in a hard-fought combat.


Compliance Techniques and RPG Design 3


Continuing my series about the commonalities between RPG design patterns (an RPG’s system is the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play) and the ideas presented in Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (certain human behavior patterns can be leveraged to get people to agree to things), I next want to talk about social proof.

Since humans are social animals, we often determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. This is especially true when it comes to determining what is correct behavior, which we attempt to do by observing the behavior of others or by inferring their behavior from evidence. For example, at an unfamiliar social event most of us will adopt the strategy (either consciously or unconsciously) of “do what everybody else is doing” to fit in. Leveraging this tendency, “compliance professionals” can get us to do something by showing us evidence (either real or manufactured) that other people are doing it. Bartenders will start their shift by putting some money in the tip jar so that customers will think that other customers are putting money in there and follow suit. Clubs create artificially long lines outside so that passers-by will think that “everyone” wants to get into that club. Social proof works most powerfully when observing people that seem like us, which accounts for the common advertising trope of seeing “regular people” enjoying the product in question. In the RPG context, there’s an interesting trend of including replays in rulebooks (Fiasco, for example) which are accounts of actual people (just like us!) playing the game. By giving players someone to emulate the rules can get us to behave the way the designer wants us to, and accept other players behaving that way.

Apparently we are most prone to looking to others for cues to acceptable behavior when we are unsure of ourselves, such as when the situation is unclear or ambiguous. One particular interesting manifestation of this is that people encountering ambiguity as part of a group are less likely to take action than when alone – if you see the other people in the group not acting that’s a subtle cue to you that you shouldn’t act either (and they’re picking up the cue from you because you’re not acting either). In the real world this can have the effect of crowds not helping victims of crime or accidents if it’s not clear that help is needed. In an RPG context there’s a common pattern in games where the session starts slow because no one makes the “first move” to get things rolling. In the real world, the recommended solution for getting help from a crowd is to single out individuals and ask them for help. In RPGs, a common solution is to put individual players “in the hot seat” by demanding that their character respond to a specific situation that is especially relevant to them (Sorcerer‘s kickers, for example). Even if the other players aren’t responding to the situation, they aren’t “like us” anymore because they haven’t been singled out, so we are less likely to copy their apparent inaction.

I can’t think of many RPG designs that consciously leverage the ideas from this chapter as much as the previous two. In actual play, though, I think it shows up a lot – experienced players use role-modeling all the time to introduce new players, for example, and many games require someone to “break the ice” before the game starts to hum. If I’m right that not many RPGs use these techniques to get players to accept “unwelcome content” then it may be a fruitful area to mine for design ideas. Creating asymmetry between players, for example, might help move the “center of gravity” for what the group will accept because our social proof instincts won’t account for that asymmetry.


Compliance Techniques and RPG Design 2


Building on my previous post about commonalities between RPG design patterns and the ideas presented in Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, I next want to talk about commitment and consistency.

According to Cialdini’s research, if I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand. Once a person has said something, they don’t like to go back on what they’ve said – they will instead adjust their future behavior to keep in synch with their newly committed “self image” rather than backtrack. Once a person agrees that they believe in a particular point of view, for example, they are more likely to provide time or money to support an activity consistent with that point of view than if they had simply been asked for the time or money point-blank – refusing the request would feel like a violation of the “self image” they’ve established for themselves as a believer.

A “compliance professional” example of this is a technique sometimes seen in car dealerships: A prospective customer is presented with a very attractive price as a special deal. The salesman starts working up the paperwork, financing, etc., but then before the deal is closed a “mistake” is discovered in the price and the salesman says he’s only allowed to complete the sale at a “correct” higher price. Since the customer has already committed to wanting to purchase this particular car they are unlikely to call off the deal, even if they wouldn’t have originally agreed to purchase at that price.

An excellent example of this in RPGs is the conflict mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard. Before the conflict mechanic can be engaged, the players and GM need to agree on “what’s at stake” in the conflict and the opening “arena of conflict” – talking, physical, fighting, or gunfighting. Players will often quickly agree to verbally argue with an NPC over disagreements. Once the mechanical conflict mechanism begins, the GM uses game-mechanical resources to resist the player, requiring the player to use resources of their own to push for their side. Since the resources get used up, the two sides always have the option of “escalating” (moving to a new arena of conflict) to get more resources to push for their position. Throwing a punch instead of an insult, for example, would escalate from talking to fighting. In this way, the game encourages players to have their characters perform actions that seem extreme in retrospect relative to what was at stake in the conflict. The “did we really do the right thing when we shot that woman for cheating on her husband?” feeling is a really compelling feature of the DITV experience, and it’s achieved by getting players to commit to wanting a goal when the cost is low (“just talking”) and then getting them to stay consistent with that goal rather than admit they don’t really want it as the price of staying in the conflict goes up.

A further nuance to this commitment phenomenon is that putting the commitment on paper seems to deepen the commitment. Writing things down makes them feel more “official” to us, and can also apply social pressure when we realize that others can read our words (we are all strongly averse to seeming inconsistent to our peers). One “compliance professional” method of leveraging this is that door-to-door sales organizations find that cancellations drop dramatically when the customer, rather than the salesperson, physically fills out the order form. An obvious example of this in RPGs is writing Beliefs in Burning Wheel – having written Beliefs seems to be a much stronger motivator for character action than simply keeping a nebulous “character concept” in the player’s head, even though Beliefs can be changed at virtually any time.

Another aspect of commitment is that people tend to value something extremely highly if they’ve gone through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain it. Rites of passage in cultures around the world, or even fraternity hazing, demonstrate this. Anyone who makes it through the ordeal finds it much easier to believe that being a member of the organization is very important (otherwise they wouldn’t have gone through the ordeal, right?). A potential RPG example of this might be groups who value system mastery in complex, crunchy systems but during actual play will skip using the rules in favor of freeform roleplaying – rather than being used as procedures for play, mastering the complex rules can serve as a signaling mechanism to the rest of the group that you’re the kind of “serious gamer” that they want to freeform with, someone who’s not going to flake out or introduce fiction that will “ruin” the story that they are invested in.

The way that outside pressures can impact commitments is really interesting:

“Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.”

When dealing with children, for example, it’s been shown that strong threats of punishment are less effective at achieving long-term behavioral changes than milder urging (the old “I’ll be disappointed ” approach).

This interaction between pressure and commitment may be related to the dissatisfaction that many people feel when FATE‘s compel mechanic is used to try to steer characters to make particular moral choices, or when a player feels obligated to use a suboptimal skill in a situation because “that’s what my character would do”. By connecting a too-strong mechanical reward or punishment to the choice, the player is unable to feel committed to it.

Update: One huge RPG example of written commitment that I want to revisit in the future is GM prep.



Compliance Techniques and RPG Design


A few weeks ago I read the really interesting Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. It’s a book that talks about the psychology of “compliance techniques”, mechanisms by which people are convinced to agree to things. The book identifies several reliable patterns of human behavior that can be leveraged to get people to agree to things, and illustrates the points by talking about both controlled psychology experiments and empirical observations of people who are successful at getting people to do things (salespeople, fund-raisers, recruiters, etc.). While an interesting and enjoyable read in its own right, what fascinated me were the correlations I noticed between the ideas in the book and some effective RPG design patterns. This shouldn’t be surprising – compliance techniques are about getting people to agree to things and the standard “Lumpley Principle” Forge definition of RPG system is “the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play” (emphasis added). I’m hoping that looking at some RPG mechanics through the lens of these compliance techniques might provide some useful insight into RPG design.

The first principle identified is Reciprocation: we want to repay, in kind, what another person has provided to us. The most common way that “compliance professionals” leverage this is to provide an unsolicited favor for someone and then ask for a favor in return – charities that send a sheet of free address labels along with their requests for money get a much better response rate than those that just ask for money. The most obvious RPG analog here is turn structure: I let you take a swing at my guy, now you need to let me take a swing at yours. I accept some of your fiction, now you have to accept some of mine.

A more nuanced use of the Reciprocation rule is to offer a reciprocal concession. “Do you want to buy our top-of-the-line model? No? Maybe our mid-range model is more in your price range.” Even if you weren’t originally in the market for anything at all, you are more likely to consider parting with your money after this exchange – after all, the emotional part of your brain is thinking that the salesman moved a bit on his end so it’s only fair for you to move on yours. An RPG analog is the saving throw:

GM: When you step on the floor you trigger a fire trap. Take 10 damage.
Player: No fair!


GM: When you step on the floor you trigger a fire trap. It does 20 damage, but roll your Reflex save for half.
Player: [rolls dice] Whew! Made it! Only 10 damage for me!

In the sales technique, even if the salesperson is using using a fixed “start big, then offer a concession” strategy, it feels like you have negotiated them down and you therefore feel more responsible for the final deal. In an RPG, offering the saving throw makes you feel like your character’s abilities are the deciding factor rather than an arbitrary GM decision to cause damage.

I’m sure there are more examples. I’m hoping to make this a series of blog posts laying out the basics (this was just the broad outline of ideas from a single chapter) after which I’ll be able to dive into a little more depth.


The Hero of Ages


I just finished The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson, the third book in the Mistborn series.

I really enjoyed it. It was a good conclusion to a good series. He paid off a lot of promises made throughout the series, and there was a great mix of “I knew it!” and “I didn’t see that coming!” reactions to his various reveals. Overall it was very satisfying and definitely epic.

The Well of Ascension


I just finished The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson, the second book in the Mistborn series.

I enjoyed it quite a bit. I feel the writing was a bit smoother than the first one — I didn’t have any POV issues like I did with Mistborn, for example — which makes sense as a later book in Sanderson’s writing career. I did think that some of the obstacles in the plot felt contrived and lacked weight. For example, the book opens with Elend agonizing over getting the Assembly to vote his way on some procedural issue, but there is no genuine opposition to what he’s trying to achieve so I didn’t feel any tension, and what he’s trying to achieve essentially amounts to a delaying tactic, so it doesn’t deliver action either. The main character conflict had elements of the romantic “if only they would talk to each other about how they really feel!” formula. On the one hand, I really hate that formula, but on the other can you really criticize an author for used a tried and tested technique? Overall it was pretty good. I enjoyed the development of the “magic system” and think Sanderson is doing a good job of balancing the explanations and the mystery, which is important for the kind of story I think he’s trying to tell. I’ve already started on the third book in the series, and have (dangerously?) high hopes that it will be even better.

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