Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Infamous Five

AKA Social Context post #0

There is a famous set of Five Threads (+22 daughter threads) at the Forge by Ron Edwards, dubbed by Matt Snyder The Infamous Five. These are excellent threads, and they are intimately tied into something I've just started to think about, that I think is drastically overlooked in modern game design, even by us swine-headed theorist types (in fact, especially by us swine-headed theorist types). The issue is one of social context, by which I mean all of:

  1. The relationship between gaming and the rest of socialization, for a player.
    • Also, the relationship between your play and the rest of your life, like school or work.

  2. The way that you relate your play to gaming as a hobby and as a subculture.
  3. The way that you relate your play to your culture as a whole, and how your culture percieves your play.

And possible more.

I am deeply convinced that a lot of game designers (myself included, Polaris totally ignores this to its detriment) have their heads in the sand about these issues, thinking that they can design in a vacuum of art and that the social context will just work itself out. This is deeply untrue. And, furthermore, social context ought to have a direct impact on our rules -- we can design rules that take it into account and make better games for it.

More later. For now, go read all those threads. That's what I'm doing.

10 Comments:

Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I've tried to attack this myself, and it's very difficult unless you want to really dictate life around the table. The social milleux of roleplaying games across the world are so varied that it is exceedingly difficult to accurately describe, let alone advise, any of it. On the one hand you have your high school misfits playing in a basement, on the other hand you have your thirty-year-old professionals playing over dinner, on the third hand you have the beer-and-pretzels gamers who see it as mindless diversion. Unless you want to target one segment of the audience directly (which is the option I took in the end), there is very little you can do that will apply to everyone. I'd be interested to see what tack you take on the subject.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

I shall read. I shall understand.

I shall still probably not know what the hell I'm talking about, but at least I'll be trying.

1:42 PM  
Blogger JasonP said...

"And, furthermore, social context ought to have a direct impact on our rules -- we can design rules that take it into account and make better games for it"

To this I say "How?"
I feel like that should be true, but don't envision a method to employ or a theme to use as a designer that does just that. *thinks*

9:51 PM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

JasonP,

I'm going to be dealing with this on Yud's dice in the next week or so, as I restart my look at solo games for non-gamers. In large part this restart is thanks to Ben, who pointed out the flaw in my method, and I hope it will have some positive results.

2:44 AM  
Blogger James said...

I think a certain amount of correctly approaching social context with the game is, in fact, by ignoring it.

To abuse Polaris as an example, it riffs heavily on the theme of ethereal knights and is strongly ephemeral in its colour. Reading the game very much gives the sense of "but that was long ago and there are none now who remember it.", which is a beautiful example of colour supporting design.

A friend of mine ain't never gonna play it. No ifs ands or buts. He hates that faerie nambie pamby crap, and only weirdos dig that stuff. He's invested heavily into that image. Totally social context: "it's not cool, so I won't play it."

There is no way (or, arguably, reason) to pull this guy into Polaris, sort of changing the social context to make it a kind of cool that is on par with drinking the beer brand with the best commercials. And trying to either use Polaris to shift the social context or shift Polaris into the social context would mangle it beyond recognition.

So you ignore it. The social context you desire for your game is just one more knife you have to juggle through the writing process. Use Ron's advice for writing games: visualize what you want play to look like, and only use rules that support that. Except in this case: Visualize who you want to play your game, and only use rules to appeal to that set of people.

From one perspective, this was one of the design failures* of Vampire: they wrote their text to appeal to one social context, and their rules to appeal to a different one.

James

*If anything so wildly popular and successful can be termed a failure, that is.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Guys --

If you think that I'm going to be writing an article about how to make a game appeal in all ways to all people, you're wrong.

yrs--
--Ben

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Emily Care said...

James wrote:
Use Ron's advice for writing games: visualize what you want play to look like, and only use rules that support that. Except in this case: Visualize who you want to play your game, and only use rules to appeal to that set of people.

To wit, gauging how socially acceptable the themes of your game may be and marketing to people who will like it, is one way to take the social context into account.

Some other aspects of the social context that one can address in your writing/publishing are issues of gender & race etc. We do this by use of inclusive pronouns, having examples & illustrations of people of diverse ethnicities, body types & so on. Not doing these things also addresses the social context & has, perhaps, a very different effect.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Hey Ben:

I'm not sure what you're getting at with the following:

The relationship between gaming and the rest of socialization, for a player.
Also, the relationship between your play and the rest of your life, like school or work.
The way that you relate your play to gaming as a hobby and as a subculture.
The way that you relate your play to your culture as a whole, and how your culture percieves your play.


Okay, so do you think (e.g.) Tennis takes these things into account? Or Scrabble?

If you do think so, please tell me what they are, because in that case I'm not following what you mean.

If you don't think so, why do you think RPGs need what other successful games don't need?

7:43 PM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Matt,

I won't speak to a design level, but tennis and scrabble in the modern world both very much take social context into account when it comes to marketing and cultural distribution. Tennis managed to make a big turn around not so long ago, going from an old persons' game to the hot young realm of sexy sports-stars. Ditto golf.

Scrabble is very specifically marketed and distributed as well, targeting its demographic with laser like precision that keeps it around with new editions year after year, despite not exactly being the hottest sexiest game that has ever come down the pipe.

Plus, both games were designed with some social context in hand. (I lied, earlier.) Even if it wasn't deliberate, tennis came about and gained popularity at times when there was a specific push, at first the need for a court game for French nobles that spread to England, only to be gradually killed by the English Civil War and the French Revolution, and then later to be reborn as a sport for the late Victorian bourgeois who wanted to take on the trappings of the old nobility as they came to their own wealth and power. Scrabble, likewise, came out of the journalistic and economic rise of newspapers and “correct spelling, correct grammar” drives of the 1930s from which America is just now starting to recover. Butts valued the letters by counting the number of uses they got in the New York Times, drawing on the centralizing focus of language at the time to make a game that tied people to encyclopedias as the drive to correct English heated up in the US. The guy that bought it from him also managed to get it mainstreamed by having it sold at Macy’s just as Macy’s was going through one of it’s big periods of expansion, knowing that he wanted the market and they needed product with national appeal that would also fit into the growing dinner party culture of the late 40’s and early 50’s.

So while neither game may have initially been designed with the social context specifically in mind, it is their social context that has resulted in them being mass-market popular and long-term successful while many other sports and games have died painful deaths by the side of the road.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hey, Matt. The first post is up right now. Does that help answer your questions?

yrs--
--Ben

1:31 PM  

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