Forests, Trees, and RPGs
I recently read a psychology paper and was deeply struck by the implications it might have for a wide variety of tabletop roleplaying game and RPG design issues. If I’m right, it speaks to issues of immersion, a difference between RPGs and so-called “storytelling games”, the social power dynamics between players and GMs, the reason that many of the techniques used in Apocalypse World work well for many people, and more. The paper is Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance by Trope and Liberman, and it summarizes and consolidates findings from many individual experiments into a unified theoretical framework. I’m going to give a brief overview of the theory, and then talk about some of the lower-level details and experimental findings, and then talk about some of the links to RPGs that I find so exciting.
Summarizing the Theory
The basic idea of Construal-Level Theory (CLT) is that we humans are generally capable of interpreting the same thing through different “construals”, either at a low, concrete level which includes lots of contextual and peripheral details, or at a high, abstract level, which will be schematic, decontextualized, and focused on central, prototypical features. For example, we might think of a baseball bat at a concrete level as “a Louisville Slugger”, while we might think of it as “sports equipment” at a high level. Naturally, the same thing can be abstracted in different ways based on which features are considered central for the way the brain is trying to use it, so another abstract construal of a baseball bat might be “a bludgeoning weapon”. Generally speaking you can nearly always get even more abstract (weapon, hand-held object, thing) or more concrete (an autographed Louisville Slugger, the bat used to hit the game-winning run at the World Series last year). CLT suggests that operating at a high or low level of construal is a mindset, vaguely analogous to shifting gears in a car: the way we process one thing tends to be sticky and influence the way we process the next thing.
It’s important to note that CLT doesn’t frame this in terms of laziness or quality of representation, since high- and low-level construals are better suited to different kinds of cognition, neither one is “better” than the other. For example, high-level construals lose the peripheral details but they add meaning and the ability to put things into systems: no amount of zooming-in on the bat’s woodgrain will give you insight into how it’s used in a baseball game. It’s beneficial to be able to see both forests and trees, but often hard to do both at once.
CLT further proposes that human brains have an association where we tend to use high-level construals for things that are far away and low-level construals for things that are close. If you think about this in terms of visual perception and physical distance you can see why this association makes intuitive sense: When something is far away we may not be able to make out all of the details, and the contextual ones may change if and when we actually interact with it, so in general it makes sense to use high-level construals for distant objects. And when something is close we have access to all of the details and may not have strong reasons for abstracting it in a particular way so we tend to use a low-level construal. But since this association is somewhat automatic we do it even when those justifying factors aren’t true: even if we could access all of the contextual details of a distant target we still tend to use a high-level construal, and even if it might be beneficial to think of something close in an abstract way we’ll tend toward the more concrete construal. So, for example, we’re likely to think of a distant car in an abstract way even if we’re familiar with the minute details of that particular make and model.
CLT notes that this phenomenon seems to be consistent across multiple dimensions of psychological distance. So, for example, we tend to abstract to the same degree when thinking about something that happened long ago as we do when we think about things that are far away. In addition to temporal and spatial distance, CLT also says that hypotheticality (e.g. a near certainty vs. a remote possibility) and social distance (a close friend vs. a distant stranger) work the same way.
The final piece of the CLT puzzle is that the association is bidirectional: we use psychological distance as a guide for what construals to use, and we use the construal mindset we’re using as a guide to what sort of distance something has. Something construed more abstractly will tend to feel more distant, something construed more concretely will tend to feel closer. This struck me as highly relevant to roleplaying games, where we often seek to feel close identification with characters and want a sense of here-and-now experiencing of fictional events unfolding rather than merely knowing that they happened. The research tends to be much coarser-grained than this, such as comparing next week to next year or this city to a city on the other side of the country, so extending the ideas to the fine-grained world of RPG experience requires some speculation, but I think that speculation is warranted. As I’ll explain below, I think there are several successful RPG design features and common RPG breakdown modes that map to predictions from CLT, which make me think this could be a very useful tool for understanding RPGs.
Differences Between High- and Low-Level Construals
The experiments have noted several differences between operating with high- and low-level construals. Since the relationship between construal level and distance is bidirectional, sometimes the high- or low-level construal condition is used as the input to the experiment and sometimes it’s used as the measured output. Here are some of the things that the research associates with the different levels of construal:
Seeing forests or trees: In several experiments, working with big-picture “gestalts” tends to be associated with distance, and nearness lends itself to working with constituent details. For example, in images where there’s an overall gestalt effect made up of smaller individual elements (such as title image for this blog post, where there’s a big RPG made up of little CLTs), people in the distant condition tend to more quickly and reliably detect the large gestalt image, while people in the near condition tend to more quickly and reliably notice constituent details.
Broad or narrow categories: High-level construals tend to be associated with fewer, broader categories while low-level construals tend to be associated with more, narrower categories. In experiments where subjects were asked to categorize a list of items into as many groups as they felt appropriate, subjects in distant (high-level) conditions tended to create fewer groups with more members in each while subjects in near (low-level) conditions tended to create more groups with fewer elements in each group. For example, when asked to break a video sequence into “meaningful actions”, subjects that believed the video was shot nearby tended to break it up into more, shorter snippets than those in the distant condition.
How vs. Why: When examining actions, focusing on “why” or the consequences of the actions tends to be associated with high-level construal while a focus on “how” or the feasibility of the action tends to be associated with low-level construal.
Situation vs. Traits: Low-level construals tend to include consideration of situational factors while high-level construals tend to be associated with things that look like stable properties, e.g. your friend didn’t respond to your e-mail because she has many demands on her time, a stranger didn’t respond to your e-mail because she is inconsiderate.
Weighting of attributes: When operating at a high level of construal people tend to put much more weight on some attributes of choice than others, while operating at a lower level tends to lead to attributes being more evenly weighted.
Alignable vs. Nonalignable attributes: When people are comparing things in low-level conditions, traits that are easily compared between items tend to heavily influence preferences (e.g. this meal has less calories than that one) while high-level construals more easily allow preference formation between nonalignable attributes (e.g. this meal is from Italian cuisine, that one is from Vietnamese cuisine).
Generating exemplars of a category vs. naming a category for an example: In a very direct manipulation, having subjects generate subordinate members of a category (e.g. “A type of soda is ________”) tends to put them in low-level construal mindset and finding superordinate categories for objects (e.g. “Soda is a type of ____________”) tends to put them in a high-level construal mindset.
Values: Things like values and morals tend to be abstract ideas, and seem to show the same associations with distance, e.g. people tend to make harsher moral evaluations in distant conditions than in near conditions.
Types of Near and Far
Spatial Distance: Different experiments have manipulated distance in physical space in multiple ways, both by linking events to real geographical distance by telling people where events are taking place, or even by getting them to plot two points on a Cartesian plane that were close together or far away from each other.
Temporal Distance: Remembering the past and predicting the future seem to be roughly equivalent in terms of greater distance being associated with greater abstraction, i.e. next week and last week are about the same, and they’re closer than the distant past or far future.
Hypotheticality: Several experiments have shown similar construal-level effects to other distance dimensions by interpreting low probabilities as far (a remote chance) and high probabilities as close (a near certainty).
Social Distance: The amount of “social distance” seems to have similar effects, e.g. self vs. others, people in similar organizations compared to different ones, etc. Social power seems to have an effect as well, since priming people to think about high levels of social power tends to be associated with abstract construal and priming people to think about having low social power tends to be associated with concrete construal.
Putting it Together with Some RPG Examples
In Dogs in the Vineyard, when players are engrossed in a blow-by-blow conflict they’ll tend to escalate violence or use weapons because the rules make those options seem like “easy” ways to get extra dice. After the conflict ends and players are encouraged to look back at what happened in order to add new traits to their characters they often become uncomfortable when they realize how their in-character actions diverge from their contemporary morals. The short action snippets encouraged by the mechanics and the need to produce examples of “how” you are using your traits tends to lead toward a low-level mindset, so the feasibility of using violent escalation matters more than the desirability of using violence (and in the heat of the moment the “why” of what’s at stake in the conflict overall becomes less and less relevant). By contrast, in the post-conflict Fallout procedure, looking backwards at the gestalt entirety of the conflict makes it easier to process the events thematically, morally, or in terms of overall character, often leading people to morally disapprove of actions they themselves decided the character should take.
Sometimes players choose to play Dogs in the Vineyard in a way that focuses on stable traits of personality, such as violent tendencies, religious zealotry, etc., instead of engaging in-the-moment with the situations before them and the psychological pushes and pulls cooked into the design of the game. These two approaches seem to hew closely to different levels of construal, and people tend to report different subjective experiences of play from the two approaches (the people in the second group are sometimes described as playing caricatures rather than characters in order to keep their emotional distance).
Apocalypse World seems to have multiple techniques the lead people to operate largely with concrete construals. Rather than tying actions solely to a few global attributes, AW gives each play an abundance of “moves” through which they can affect the world (more, narrower categories). Focusing on “how” a character is making a particular move, or what particular thing they’re doing that’s in the category of the move, also tends to push toward a low-level construal. The GM is encouraged to dynamically scale the pace of resolution, breaking things up into a zoomed-in action-by-action level when they want especially strong connection with the fiction or characters. The relatively high probability of succeeding with any given move may also lead to low-level construals. Like DITV, AW also has several mechanics that sometimes ask players to step outside of their concrete interactions and interpret things in a more abstract way, such as with the Read a Person questions like “what does your character wish I’d do?”. While this is good for gaining insight into characters, it can sometimes be difficult for players to get back into a flowing interaction after answering them, perhaps due to different mindsets being conducive to the different types of processing.
Choosing Continuous Coverage Instead of Scene Framing: Some games give players the choice to set up their own scenes, but many people use this power to simply continue what was happening in the previous scene, sometimes seemingly getting bogged down in “logistical details” like how characters get from one place to another rather than jumping forward to get to “important” scenes. A focus on “how” is what CLT predicts for people operating in a concrete mindset, while figuring out what the most thematically appropriate or interesting-for-the-story next scene should be is something that involves relationships between abstract ideas and is therefore the kind of thing that’s easier to do in a high-level mindset. If people are having a very here-and-now experience with a scene and feeling very low distance between themselves and their characters then they’re probably going to see things through the concrete mindset and probably have a harder time shifting gears to do good “scene framing”.
“Storyboarding”: An experience that people sometimes report in games with explicit-stake-setting conflict-resolution mechanics is that they’ll elaborately negotiate out the possible consequences of a conflict, roll to determine which outcome happens, and then move forward with the game knowing which outcome occurred without ever having the here-and-now feeling of experiencing the scene. CLT suggests that focusing on the “why” of conflict stakes will shift people toward abstract construals and therefore increase their associated sense of temporal distance, i.e. move them away from “now”.
GM/Player Social Dynamics: Some games or playstyles explicitly vest the GM with special social authority (e.g. the ability/responsibility to determine who is “playing well”), sometimes this happens as a byproduct even in games that desire egalitarianism despite the asymmetry in roles. If being “a player” in a game involves mostly being in the concrete-construal mindset and being “a GM” involves more abstract interpretation and categorization then the perception that a GM has more social power than a player may reinforce that (or be a byproduct of it).
Some Questions That Arise
Since several of the experiments show distance-related effects merely from telling the subjects that they’re dealing with near or distant places I think it raises some interesting questions for RPG settings, since we often set our games in times or places that aren’t here-and-now. Do “modern” games tend to feel more immersive? Do games set in exotic locales make it harder to feel a strong sense of here-and-now? Although I don’t have much personal experience, it may not be a coincidence that players of urban fantasy games like White Wolf’s Vampire seem to prioritize immersion and strong character connection and also tend to pretend that the fictional events of the game are secretly happening in their own city right now. What about the fantastical element? Most RPGs have some “genre” element of fantasy or science fiction, and most “medieval fantasy” games are set in other universes rather than historical earth. Is that conducive to low-level construals, or a distraction? In the paper, Trope and Liberman say:
We argued that because high-level construals are broad, they bring to mind more distant instantiations of objects, and because low-level construals are narrow, they bring to mind more proximal instantiations of objects. It is also possible for construal level to affect the psychological distance of objects through metacognitive inferences (N. Schwartz & Clore, 1996). People may interpret their low-level construal of an object as indicating that the object is close and their high-level construal of an object as indicating that the object is distant. This metacognitive inference of distance from construal level might involve a more complex attributional calculus when one or more other distances are known. Specifically, the construal-based inference that an object is distant on any given dimension will be discounted when the object is known to be distant on another dimension. Correspondingly, the construal-based inference that an object is distant on any given dimension will be augmented when the object is known to be proximal on another dimension. For example, one would attribute a detailed construal of a meeting with a friend to a relatively close relationship with that friend when the meeting is known to take place in the distant future rather than the near future. Thus, direct implicit associations among different distance dimensions generally result in positive relationships among those dimensions. However, when inferring distance from construal, adjusting the inference of distance on one dimension for distance on other dimensions may result in a negative relationship among those distances.
Could fantastical elements create a plausible place for players to shunt unwanted perceptions of psychological distance, thus facilitating feelings of closer distance on other dimensions?
Also, it seems like the experiments that used Cartesian coordinate-plotting to prime distance might have implications for games that make extensive use of physical maps, from the maps-and-minis tactical combat games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, to map-focused games like The Quiet Year or Chronicles of Skin, to games that use relationship maps to represent character relationships. The physical distance priming involved in working with these maps could be having an interesting and perhaps previously-unrealized impact on play.
Some Areas For Further Exploration
Several of the distinctions and manipulations associated with the different construal levels seem like useful guides for some common design decisions. For example, the differences between few/broad categories and many/narrow categories in these experiments might help a designer choose between a large skill list or a short pool of attributes to achieve different effects. The research might also suggest different effects for different types of player-authored traits, e.g. broad dispositional traits like “clever” or “rigid” would be expected to guide players toward abstract construals while traits that are more likely to interface with the situation like “well-armed” or “quick” might guide players toward more concrete construals.
There are also intriguing structural possibilities to explore. For example, Apocalypse World, like many other RPGs, uses character attributes to modify the probability that moves will succeed or fail, with the results of those actions generally fixed on a per-move. However, it could be interesting to create an AW hack in which we switch things around so that different moves (i.e. different types of character action) have identical high likelihoods of success but different levels of impact based on character stats. This change might make a player’s choice of move more revelatory-of-character by making that decision more intuitive and in-the-moment if the effect of different stats is “hidden” in the consequences (which people are more prone to discount when they’re operating with a concrete mindset) rather than putting a thumb on the scales of feasibility.
Hopefully I’ve done a good job of summarizing the research, but obviously that involves employing some editorial judgment in my choice of what to say and how to say it, so wherever possible I’ve provided links to the source material (with citations in the alt-tags). As I said earlier, my linkage of some of these RPG design issues to this theoretical framework involves some speculation, so we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the inferences I draw are rock solid. Furthermore, much of the social psychology research that feeds into this theory involves somewhat coarse-grained between-subjects statistical effects, and the effects measured in the experiments are not always strong night-and-day differences, and not all of the experiments have been widely and reliably replicated. And, like any scientific theory, it’s a model that attempts to account for the observed data, not necessarily anything that can be directly confirmed. Additionally, the experiments rarely speak at all to issues of individual variation (e.g. even assuming the theory is roughly correct, are some people able to switch back and forth more easily than others?). And, since most of the experiments are about merely establishing a difference between near and far, abstract and concrete, the research doesn’t give us anything like nicely parametrized curves which we can plug directly into some kind of game design formula.
Those caveats aside, though, I think it is intriguing research that suggests relationships and general patterns of human thought and behavior that we may be able to leverage to make better games.