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Discuss: Phenomenology

This five-piece video series is my raw material for the ongoing project, to generate a real text for what on earth this role-playing 'thing' might actually be. It's the abstract part, coming at it with both extensive experience but also completely without the familiar in-hobby vocabulary or investments.

It's really abstract! I know that, it's supposed to be. The eventual plan includes how to integrate it with examples of real play, or perhaps to have an accompanying or even lab text which is built of examples.

Help me out by causing trouble: say "what about" or "but why" or "no it isn't," or any kind of reflection or response. Include the time-stamp for the point in the video you're talking about.



Ron Edwards's picture

2: Making it go

3: What happens

4: Guts and garters

5: Playing on purpose

[August 2020 edit: the link in the main post now goes to the five-video playlist, starting with #1]

I notice that The Right To Dream's absent in part 5. I'm cool with it. What's your current thinking?

Ron Edwards's picture

On it.

Ron Edwards's picture

And on reflection, I realized something - that although  I am not quite ready to say, "you couldn't pay me to dive into that cesspool again," I am perfectly happy to say I'll only do it for pay. Here's my plan:

1. You and I do a dialogue about it, recorded, basically interviewing each other - asking the things interviewers never seem to manage, too, seeking to discover points of disagreement as well as more general clarity.

2. It'll include a Q&A session as well, perhaps a structured discussion, that others can do. These "others" can be the up-to-six people, so this is a paid Seminar activity. Begins with just you and me, finishes with the group panel/activity.

We could do the just-us part separately if we want, and post it here as an introductory thing, maybe so as many people see it as possible and gear up as best they can (they'd better).

Let me know what you think!

Sounds fun!

Ron Edwards's picture

Ha! Filmed! Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.

This is a topic of great personal intellectual interest to me. I'd like to try to bring what I've learned about the phenomenology of group creativity to the gaming medium. And work out a good way to describe it.

I'll make what contributions I can.

There has been qualitative research into the topic that informs my thinking about the subject and I'd like to see what bearing it has on the gaming experience.
Jazz improvisers' shared understanding: a case study
The construction of meaning within free improvising groups: A qualitative psychological investigation.
Collective intentionality and plural pre-reflective self-awareness.pdf

Again, I will see what I can to about applying this stuff rather than slinging quotations.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm looking forward to more application, for sure. At the Patreon, Santiago and I had an extensive conversation about our Cold Soldier game which I haven't brought over here yet. It seems to me to be an excellent fourth on your list. It'll be a Seminar post for sure, maybe even a paid activity for people to join a "let's extend this" discussion.

One-half of my brain sputters indignantly at putting something else on the scheduled things to post ("Don't you think you should pace it a bit? Like a lot?") and the other is already considering pedagogy for the activity.

Blather's picture
Ron Edwards's picture

Just in case this was a dropped post - let me know what text you wanted in there, and I'll paste it in.

FrancescoZ's picture

I feel like "change" is one of the themes that really need more elaboration. I like that it is included in the series and explored a bit, but I think there is so much more to say. I'm thinking, specifically, about discussions such as the meaning of games related to the change they convey in the players, dynamics and aesthetics (ie. and how to drive that change. It is an important theme also in screenwriting in which the change during a scene is pivotal to the feeling of the whole movie/series. This makes me think that change might be central in every instance in which we deal with fiction. Does someone have any opinion about this or any link/discussion about this theme? Thanks

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi! There's a lot packed in there so I will need to focus a little. I'll stay strictly with role-playing games, which is not to say they have special properties for this issue, but because movies and other mass media tend to dominate discussions and gum up the joint with their idioms.

The first topic I'd point to is my diagrams discussion. A game's diagram does not present the totality of fictional change during play, of course, but it does show the procedures which interrelate to bring about a lot of that change. Since games' diagrams can be remarkably different, that helps to show what sorts of change are especially boosted or likely during play.

The second topic is what you asked: what do I mean by change. I mean really, really basic and understandable things, like, if some guy in our fiction is threatened by the CIA, does he or doesn't he get assassinated, or his life ruined, or his goals shattered. Or if my paladin goes into the dungeon, does or doesn't he get hurt, does or doesn't he gain a level, does or doesn't he die, does or doesn't he save someone.

The best way to deal with that is an example. I ask you to present, preferably from a real game experience, the before-and-after of whatever documents are used during play. In most role-playing, that's a character, but there are plenty that use group sheets or other similar things. So whatever it is for that game - show me what it looked like at the start and what it looked like after enough play to show it on that document.

Alexander Kalinowski's picture

Let’s talk about Purposes of Play. In a recent exchange with Zak Smith on his DnD with Pornstars blog (which spilled over into my own) both me and him made the mistake to assume Purposes of Play can be used to analyze individual scenes or moments (“Fastball Special”). After some research by me in the Forge archives, I think we both realized by now that it revolves instead (according to Ron) around looking at least at mid-term gameplay (1+ sessions, reward cycle) and that it involves primarily studying the social dynamics between participants. Where I and Zak Smith adopted more of a “micro economical” perspective, Ron apparently embraces a more “macro economical” point-of-view.

The key question I am having is: why? What is the justification for such a macro perspective? To find an answer to this question, I did some more digging in the Forge archives and only found a post by Ron in the Frostfolk thread that compares individual moments or scenes of play to muscles tissue - which might have been taken from a range of animals, not just the specific one you’re looking for.

This leads me to conclude that Ron thinks that a single choice, a single course of action, does not signify a specific Purpose of Play because it might as well be an expression of a SUBORDINATE Purpose of Play. Something that exists in service to or parallel to the actual, dominant Purpose of Play (the dominance of which is what makes it exclusive in nature). Is this a correct assessment, Ron? So the apparent remedy is then to study participants over longer periods of time under the assumption that the dominant Purpose of Play will be engaged in more frequently and more vividly than the others. And that is why Purposes of Play/Creative Agendas have been defined as mid-term and social in nature.

Is this a correct observation?

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Alexander. I've prepared a video response and will post it soon, as soon as it's done exporting and uploading and processing and whatever the hell it is that these buttons I push mean.

In the meantime, and I ask you to do this before viewing the reply, I would like to know something. Why do you care? Why bother investigating any such question as a purpose of play? Why enter into this discussion with Zak, or with me, or whoever, i.e., with anybody? This is a personal question, not "why does one care," but you. Why?

Alexander Kalinowski's picture

Hey, Ron!

Why care? There are multiple aspects to the answer. First and foremost, it's because I have an analytical mind (I have a somewhat mathematical background as well) that cannot stop dissecting the things that matter to it. Even if I wanted it to. Why become more active with regards to RPG theory only now after being in the hobby since the mid-80s? Because only now I am making a serious publishing effort and I think I have some contributions (of whatever worth) to the field of RPG design to make. So… going down the rabbit hole of RPG design naturally brings deeper consideration of underlying RPG theory with it. Call it professionalism, if you will. Personally, I have found the 3 (not 2!) Purposes of Play a valuable tool to have – at the back of your mind(!).

I will not deny that there is also a self-promotional aspect to it as well. Contributing to both RPG design as well as RPG theory cannot hurt your own brand, at least if successfully so. But let me reassure you that this is not central to my above inquiry. It’s no more than a potential side-benefit. In essence, I was having some prior discussions about GNS on a game designers’ discord server and then somebody else linked to Zak Smith’s blogpost and that set me apparently on a course that eventually lead me here, asking the above questions about your methodology.

(As an aside, I also stumbled over an independent discussion of Zak’s blogpost on a German RPG theory board after commenting to it as well. All these groups are aware of my inquiry here, bringing some free attention to your website with me. So you better make the answer good, people are watching! wink)

Now, if you were aiming your question specifically at Purposes of Play, I was asking you because I am convinced of the existence of at least three of them. Simulationism being one of them. Unsurprisingly so, given that the RPG I am in the process of publishing boldly states as its goal taking simulation of the fantasy genre to a new level. But I am with you in not wanting to discuss Purposes of Play with regards to design choices at this point. It makes no sense whatsoever unless your theory is rock solid first when it comes to gameplay or what you call... Phenomenology.

That’s about as personal, open and straight-forward as anyone can get with you.

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks! I appreciate all of that.

Well, here's my response, maybe a little pointed, maybe not the way I'd reply on some other day, but today, how it turned out.

Alexander Kalinowski's picture

Alright, straight into business. First of all, thanks for the swift video, Ron, I didn't see that one coming. And I didn't take the puss comparison badly either, don't worry. I don't really see it so much directed at myself anyway but rather as an expression of general dismay at not being properly understood by people out there. In fact, your reply video makes me even feel vindicated regarding my above inquiry. You could even say that your answer has convinced me that asking you these questions was a necessity. Here's why.

I did watch your Phenomenology videos and I did take note that you expressed lack of interest in other angles on Role-Playing. But it was by no means crystal-clear that it was for personal reasons only. I cannot just presume that off the bat; I need to ask to make sure. Maybe you already did take the micro level approach and found it wanting, maybe you had already studied the aggregate of micro-level events on a macro level before and it just didn't yield the results you have been looking for? Well, turns out that it's none of that sort. Instead, you're just not interested in that approach. Which, let me be very clear, is fine. A researcher may freely select his methodology of approaching his subject of study after all. (Yes, I did take note that you’re still invoking science in your latest video with Ivan.)

But there are a few things that I find problematic about your approach and its findings.

First of all, you're openly stating that your black-boxing the internal affairs of participants. That is fine too. But then you need to acknowledge the potential implications of that, Ron: that it is possible (maybe even likely) that you're missing out on one or more Purposes of Play (as in: why do people play at all?) by doing so. And it's very easy to demonstrate that potential too. Consider your average Martian anthropologist studying a huge Tolkien fan reading the Lord of the Rings. Most likely, he will not see any detectable amount of fun displayed by the study subject for most of the time. In fact, just by looking at the subject, it will be nearly impossible to tell if they are reading a highly entertaining novel or a boring technical manual. Obviously, the enjoyment of fiction and of stories can take place almost exclusively on an internal level over looong stretches of time. Which, incidentally, might hold the answer as to why you are not seeing Simulationism as a Purpose of Play (why people play) – your approach is limited, by design. It's a very specific angle.

Alexander Kalinowski's picture

Secondly, you're stating that you're looking at why people play and that it does not reside on an atomic level. It may not "reside" there but it certainly is not disconnected from it. If you ask someone why they like movies, for example, they might describe the fun they're having in abstract terms - but in the end, they will drill it down to the atomic level in the form of examples. They might mention the magic moment in which Luke Skywalker learned about the identity of his father, stuff like that. Similarly, the fun in role-playing is not detached from singular events. People tell stories about the highlights in their games. You do just as well ("the necromancer who kept raising his dead wife"). If you are coming from an angle of "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" that is, again, fine. But the parts (and the study of the parts) as well as their aggregate are an indispensable part of painting a complete picture. If you want to be complete, you can't leave that out. No model can be Big without.

Lastly, the shocking part of your video has not been your opening analogy. It is the implications of both the above points instead. You are not studying Role-Playing. You are studying Role-Playing from a certain angle. It's as if Role-Playing was a room and you're looking at it from the outside through a certain, specific window only. And again, that is fine. But whatever you describe, it is highly unlikely to contain the full picture; it will only be a description of what you see through that one window.

Given your response video, I cannot but conclude (at least for now, pending your reply) that neither GNS nor the Big Model are theories of Role-Playing. They are theories of what can be seen through that one window. A model of only the things that can be seen from that one vantage point. And I think many people out there have been misled to believe that they were the former, a serious attempt at seeing and describing the full picture. I presume that the misleading part was not the intention, so this is not meant as a personal attack on you, Ron. But I have to observe that this has been the effect. I doubt that many people familiar with these theories are aware of them being limited by your very specific, chosen approach.

In the same vein, you're making the disclaimer in your videos that there can be any number of Purposes of Play out there but that you are seeing only two. I think that disclaimer is not strong enough to avoid misleading people (even if unintentionally so). Instead, it should go: “There may be any number of Purposes of Play out there but with my chosen, quite specific methodology I can only detect two.” Which is a much weaker claim.

The tl;dr of it all is that you can either pursue a specific methodology based on personal preference OR you can be more rigid, comprehensive,complete in aiming at a "Big Model." But you can't do both. Not without misleading people, even if unintentionally so (which, as mentioned above, I am very much presuming here).

Gordon C's picture

Hi Alexander (and Ron, obviously),

This seems like familiar ground to me - a scary, blasted-wasteland battleground that I can only imagine leaves Ron filled with weariness, and reluctant to visit due to the risk of expanding the devastation. As a veteran of that battlefield, I offer this: your marco and micro are NOT different views on the SAME thing, they are simply views on different things. Purpose of play IS disconnected (definitionally and conceptually, without preventing some non-rigorous association) from anything atomic. It's defined that way for what looked like good reasons at the time - reasons which still look good to me all these years later.

Which is NOT to say the atomic doesn’t exist, isn’t important, or even that it can’t be useful as we consider the overall purpose (though warning: here there be dragons/deceptions galore) of play. So, to my eye, your concern over that micro/atomic stuff makes sense: yes, they’re there, and yes, they’re important. And they ARE in the GNS/Big Model. They are NOT, however, *in* the Purpose-bucket. Though, like everything else, they *can* (again, non-rigorously) influence and/or be informed by that bucket.

An RPG player can say “I like xxx to happen with the dice in play”, and it’s a preference about … Techniques? (if I’m remembering my Big Model terminology right) Preferences about Techniques matter, but they’re not about the purpose of play. “Something I like” can be applied to lots of things that happen during/around an RPG session; “why I do this (this time) at all” is defined as something distinct from a sum/evaluation of things-I-like. As such, it's probably gotta be tied to some pretty big-picture human behavior, maybe explaining why we see so few of 'em.

Hmm... perhaps an example of how I think about it? Let’s look at competing, the human behavior of trying to “win.” This is something humans can pretty much ALWAYS do. If you look at some “micro” thing in RPG-play, maybe you see someone trying to win. Maybe it’s literal, in terms of the games-rules. Or not – human completion takes myriad forms. Managing all those potential micro-competitions can be a big deal, obviously. But at NO point do we cross some line and say “oh, the purpose of play must be competition!” because of all those micro-events (which probably aren't "only" any one thing anyway).

Determining if competition was the purpose of play – at this point, I’m clueless about the reasons to pick a particular term/description (Gamism, Step On Up) over another, and just have to trust that someone who’s engaging in this conversation can map a term like “competition” onto RPG play – may be partially informed by those micro-things, but it remains a thing of its own. The whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts, and is in fact defined as a thing distinct from any set of parts labeled ... well, labeled in any way, but in particular distinct from any set of parts that look like micro-competition or micro-story creation.

I hope that makes sense – there are pages and pages of discussion at the Forge trying to establish the distinction between any micro(s) and the purpose, usually trying very hard to not diss micros in the process.

Which probably brings us to the question of Simulation (here used as a poorly-defined label for “the thing that seems to be a problem”). I’m torn between desiring and dreading an in depth discussion (in no small part because on Simulation, I do NOT know a current, possibly-right answer). For now, let me duck the issue and ask: when you say your game wants to take simulation of the fantasy genre to a new level, what do you mean? How is a new level of simulation something to be desired, as opposed to just being a great game inspired by x, y, z cool fantasy-stuff? I mean, I know this isn’t how you mean to use the term, but … my reaction to “simulate the fantasy genre” is “hell no – I want to CREATE great fantasy, not simulate anything!”

Or maybe here isn’t a great place to answer those questions, so convert that last paragraph to what I’d like to see answered in the description of an Actual Play post for your game.

I know that's tl;dr, but I have no summary, so ... I'll just stop.

Ron Edwards's picture

I will respond with another video. Please be patient.

Ron Edwards's picture

Second response, and the conclusion of this particular exchange, but not a shutdown, as you'll see.

Gordon cross-posted with me, so in perhaps severe fashion, please do not reply to him here either.

I'll direct your attention as well to the Site Etiquette rules, linked at the bottom of the sidebar.

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